Our mother never forced us to finish our food. After all, you can’t be choosy if you don’t have any. My first memories of childhood would be strong typhoons, scavenging garbage, or hunger. It is safe to say that as early as five, I knew that our family didn’t have money, and more often than not, we didn’t have much food for a family of 14.
As soon as I can swim, our mother will tag us along at sea to gather oysters, clams, or anything that can be sold. My brothers, sisters, and I go alternately so that we won’t miss classes. Our routine is to wake up early in the morning to work so that we have food for the entire day.
On a typical sunny day, we have an ample amount of oysters to cook as congee. Not that our mother is a chef, but it is a way to ensure that the half kilo of rice will be enough for all of us for lunch and dinner. The entire family earns a dollar (P46) for a day, and my mother will creatively spend it so that we don’t die of hunger. When we get too tired of having congee, our sumptuous meal will be rice with shrimp paste or, if there is no other available resource, rice, water, and salt.
When August came, I saw my father listening to the radio. He will then tie the roof and walls of our house to a nearby tree. I don’t understand why he’s doing that. When evening came, water started entering our house. On the floor and from the roof. We don’t know which one we are going to save. Our roof, our walls, our clothes, or ourselves We evacuated to the nearby school building, which is more sturdy. It served as our refuge for several days.
When no one among us was able to gather clams and catch fish, we ran out of money. My mother instructed me and my older brother, Romar, to gather swamp cabbage. I was 11 years old then, and my brother was 13. While I always obey my mother, a part of me is hesitant to oblige. The place where we will harvest swamp cabbage is the place where the school dumps its garbage. I am not actually hesitant about cleanliness; after all, I learned in Science that you don’t get to eat the “shit” that fish and vegetables get from the soil or the sea. I am bothered that my classmates and friends get to see me getting swamp cabbage in a place where we put our dirt.
I thought that it was hard to swallow one’s pride. But what’s harder is having an empty stomach. While gathering swamp cabbage with my Kuya, I can see some of my classmates giggling and uttering yuck about what we do. I wish to be swallowed by the dump because of humiliation. But we need to eat. So I and my brother tried to swiftly gather swamp cabbage before the school bell rang.
Years had passed. The garbage dump is already made of concrete. Today, maybe I and my siblings are the only people who remember what poverty tastes like. It was hard to be hungry, but it is harder when you can’t put anything in your stomach.
Now I understand why some people opt to choose not-so ordinary ways to fill their stomachs. Because when you are hungry, the humiliation of the people around you doesn’t matter. What matters is that you survive.
I never pitied myself, though. For opting to eat something that came out of the garbage. The swamp cabbage was able to sustain us and has propelled us to be a better version of ourselves. Kung Fu Panda’s father is right: “It doesn’t matter where you came from; what matters is what you become!”
*The author is now working in the Metro, and his older brother is a school Principal in Mindanao.