portrait of a woman with two navels


to be filipino-american means that i am a woman with two navels. i have two holes on my stomach where my umbilical cords used to be, one like the overhead electrical wires hovering over the streets of manila like long spider legs, and the other like a loose telephone cord crawling across the pacific ocean and all the way back to a one-bedroom flat in manhattan. ask me where i’m from and i’ll tell you i was born in palo alto where some doctors at stanford saved me from becoming an angel. my mother always said that when i was born, her soul was carried to a white room where she saw god and asked him to let her live and fly back to manila to take care of me. my sister was born two years later and named after audrey hepburn and st. therese. we moved back to manila where, for the first ten years, everything was corgis and gated subdivisions and kalachuchi flowers. in high school i was surrounded by mountains and fields and white buildings where i got financial dysmorphia wondering if it was normal for kids my age to fly to private islands on private aeroplanes. one morning i flew to new york city on a plane surrounded by countless pinoys crossing the long blue border between one homeland and the next. now i pass day after day at morningside heights where i long for all the words and all the stories and all the prayers i have ever lost, searching for fragments of home amongst the shrapnel of my strange american song.

to be filipino-american means that i must endure endless baptisms and renew my vows on a daily basis. do you renounce the names of your colonizers? believe in god? go to mass on sundays? marunong ka ba mag-tagalog? are you filipino or are you american? are you? i do, i do, i do, opo, yes, i do. one day i will marry my pain and hide from the world under a veil of white lace and offer one novena for every time i say “i do.” my tongues have been sliced clean with a butterfly knife and when i speak there is blood that drips from my mouth like wine. in my mother’s tongue, “jesus died for somebody’s sins” means “ama namin, sumasalangit ka, sambahin ang ngalan mo.” ang ngalan ko ay emma noelle buhain. it means “god is with us / to give us life.” god is with us to give us life.

to be filipino-american means that in order to ensure the survival of my interior world, i must imagine myself as an anchored angel who left manila with a head full of poems and no inner compass to point my way home. now i am 20 years old and i am lost lost lost. on some days, the closest i can get to home is to commune with jose garcia villa’s ghost at the white horse tavern, right at the corner of 11th and hudson street near the apartment complex where someone i loved once lived. now manila feels like a lost relic and a cluster of memories that appear only in scattered bits and pieces, like single frames spliced from rolls and rolls of photographic negatives. when i hold the frames up to the light of my recollection, i see silhouettes of my parents praying in the morning and my grandfather adjusting his romeo and juliet suspenders. i open my eyes and my vision adjusts to the dark. the frames are empty. blank pages float under cold chemical baths and i am elsewhere.

suddenly i jump forward in time and i see two flags draped over my coffin. the first has only red stripes and a blue patch robbed of its myriad states and stars. history falls from my memory and i wonder if all fifty stars have been swallowed alive by the beating sun that parts the second flag’s sea of red and blue. awakening from my long dream of decolonization, i stand up from my casket, peel time off my skin, and shake death off my nightgown. i swallow the sun whole and lick all fifty states off my fingers. i adorn my skin with stripes like western borderlines until all that’s left are two faceless flags waving for holy lands lost in holy space and holy time.

fear not, for this dual citizenship makes me a prophet. the soul reveals itself to me as a holy land neither stolen nor lost, transcendent on earth as it is in heaven, a nebulous being that lives and breathes amidst the turbulence of this ancestral madness.

this essay contains references to nick joaquin’s novel “the woman who had two navels,” jose garcia villa’s poem “the anchored angel,” and the lord’s prayer in tagalog and english.

on view at Relay exhibition at Louise McCagg Gallery, Barnard College, New York, NY