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MIT blogger CJ Q. '23

dear kuya by CJ Q. '23

i promise this post is mostly in english

Dear kuya, kumusta ka na diyan?
Anong balita, malamig ba diyan?
Dito mainit, ngunit kung bumagyo
Para bang lahat ng tubig sa mundo ay nandito

[Dear kuya, how are things there?
What’s up, is it cold there?
It’s hot here, but when it rains
It’s as if all the world’s water is here]

kuya is the tagalog word for “older brother”. tagalog does not have a lot of gendered language, but this is an exception; the counterpart of kuya is ate, for older sister. kuya can also refer to any older male person. back in high school, for example, i called people in higher years “kuya”, like “kuya reggie” or “kuya john dave”. and people in lower years called me kuya, as in “kuya cj”.

malamig ba diyan? is it cold there? the philippines is in the tropics, so it’s hot. the coldest it gets in my city is 20 degrees (celsius), with the daily mean being 28 degrees. in the summers, daily highs are 35 degrees. during the rainy season, from june to october, there are more rainy days than sunny ones.

Matagal na rin mula nang ika’y
Magpasyang subukan ang swerte
At abutin ang ‘yong mga pangarap
Sa ibang bansa kung saan
Ikaw ay laging mag-isa
Kami tuloy dito nag-aalala

[It’s been a while since you’ve
Decided to test your chances
And reach for your goals
In a different country, where
You’re always alone
And so we’re worried]

the song “dear kuya” is about overseas filipino workers, or ofws. in elementary school, through high school, we talked about ofws in class. we talked about statistics and policies and government support. for example, in sixth grade, i remember discussing policies specifically aimed at balikbayans, coined from balik “return” and bayan “town”. balikbayans had eased customs fees. in eighth grade, for filipino class, we discussed the song “walang natira”, a lament about how the economic circumstances pressure so many to work abroad. the title, walang natira, means “nothing left”.

in tenth grade my family received a so-called balikbayan box from my uncle, who worked in hong kong at the time. a balikbayan box is quite literally a huge box that people fill with snacks, toys, electronics, whatever, that an ofw sends back to their family and friends. it’s a cultural thing, to give gifts from places you’ve visited. we call it pasalubong, an “item for welcoming”. you can imagine that souvenir shops and gift shops are popular in tourism locations back home.

growing up, i’d hear stories of parents, and ates, and kuyas, of classmates and friends, becoming nurses, or seafarers, or caretakers. these were the stereotypical jobs ofws had, and it’s a stereotype for a reason. there were lots of more harmful stereotypes, like filipino women being mail-order brides. coupled with discrimination and being laging mag-isa, “always alone”, we get a real, systemic issue of so many ofws experiencing worsening mental health. (and no, not the boston drama kind of loneliness, which is more romantic. also, we have so many songs about ofws.)

a lot of these feelings are ones that i’ve thought about. i’ve talked a lot about feeling lonely, and a lack of belonging. but there’s also guilt. guilt like in the song “walang natira”. why did i choose to study abroad, when i could’ve studied in the philippines instead? where’s that sense of nationalism, of the want to enrich my own country? did i think that studying at mit was the best decision i could’ve made? all questions i’ve asked myself, and been asked, and ones that i don’t want to think about the answer.

Oo nga pala, kung na sa’yo pa ang
Checkered na polo ko, sa’yo na ‘yan
Hanap ka na rin ng maraming mapapaglibangan
Dahil balita ko mahal daw ang sine diyan
Dambuhala raw mga pinapakain diyan
Tataba ka malamang

[Oh, also, if you still have
My checkered polo, it’s yours
Also, look for other hobbies
As I’ve heard that
The movies are expensive there
They say they feed you whales
You’ll definitely grow fat]

mahal daw ang sine diyan. purchasing power strikes hard, as i talked about before. i mean, just look at data from quezon city and compare it to data from boston. i’m trying to think of the times i’ve ever went to the movies, and back at home i think i went maybe a dozen or so times, and here i’ve went… zero times?

dambuhala. i don’t actually know what this word means. google translate claims that it’s any of “giant”, “monster”, or “whale”. but the typical translations for these words are higante, halimaw, and balyena. certainly i haven’t eaten any actual whales. body image is another pervasive part of filipino culture. and yes, i’ve definitely become fatter since i came to mit.

Miss mo bang magtagalog?
Kuya, ‘pag may kumausap sa’yo
Galingan mo mag-ingles
Galingan mo kuya

[Do you miss speaking Tagalog?
Kuya, if someone talks to you
Do your best to speak English
Do your best, kuya]

miss ko nga bang magtagalog? parang ang tagal-tagal na mula noong huli akong talagang nagsalita ng tagalog. it doesn’t help that code-switching is so prevalent in tagalog, so i can half-ass my way through speaking tagalog.

halimbawa, we’ve heard “checkered na polo” earlier in the song. even our word for missing someone or something is “miss”, as in “miss ka namin”. so yeah, lots of english words. kahit na magmukhang konyo, at least nagtatagalog pa rin, diba? at least naiintidihan ng ibang nagtatagalog din.

the other day i was messaging someone in tagalog, at talagang naramdaman ko kung gaano kahirap na para sakin magtagalog. hindi na second-nature. parang every other message either pinipilit ko sarili kong magtagalog o straight na nagsusulat ako ng ingles. it’s not as if i don’t understand tagalog—that i can still do fine. but it’s the case that reading and writing a language are different skills.

natatakot ako na baka isang araw pagkagising ko ay hindi ko na kayang magtagalog. takot akong bumalik sa pilipinas, at may kakausap sakin na nagtatagalog, at hindi ko kayang mag-reply ng tagalog. language attrition, it’s called. i’m not well-read on the research, but i’m at least somewhat optimistic that it’s not a “use it or lose it” scenario. i hope so. it feels like one of the few things that tethers me to my culture.

so, miss ko bang magtagalog? yeah. miss kong magtagalog.

Nasaan ka man ngayon
Anumang oras na ika’y may kailangan
Tawag ka lang sa amin
At parang nandito ka na rin

[Wherever you are now
Whenever you need help
Just call us
And it’s as if you’re here]

tawag ka lang. “dear kuya” was released in 2006 by sugarfree). great band by the way, i might do a post about their song “burnout”. but back in 2006, you couldn’t just facetime with someone on the other side of the globe. i remember having to buy special overseas credit so you can call people, with those old-style cellphones. and even when the internet came around, i remember having to cope with skype for so long before better choices came.

anumang oras, which here i translated as “whenever”, literally means “any time”. the philippines is twelve hours offset from boston during daylight savings and thirteen hours offset otherwise (or the other way around, i don’t know). this makes converting times easy, but it also makes calling people back at home hard to schedule. i have memories of early-morning and late-night messages, but what’d be surprising is someone taking time out of their day or staying up to talk to me. that’s anumang oras.

Dear kuya, hinahanap ka ni mama at daddy
Sulat ka palagi
Miss ka namin
Pati mga kapitbahay nagtatanong
Saan ka raw nagpunta? Saan ka raw nagpunta?
Nasaan ka na, kuya?

[Dear kuya, mom and dad are looking for you
Write to us, always
We miss you
Even our neighbors are asking
Where did you go? Where did you go?
Where are you, kuya?]

it’s this bit of the song that hits me the hardest. because “dear kuya” isn’t a song about kuya, it’s a song about the singer, and how they’re coping with kuya not being around. all these questions are directed at kuya, but we never hear kuya’s reply. and it hurts me, because i am kuya, to many people, and sometimes it feels like i’ve just left everyone hanging.

i don’t know how to cope with that feeling, so i leave it hanging too.