For October, we have original fiction by Amanda L. Andrei, about a young Filipino American man whose temporary studies in the Philippines lead to an encounter with foreign tourists searching for "exotic" foods in other countries.
-- Karissa Chen, Senior Literature Editor
I was getting drunk at Cantina with Kams the first time I witnessed the Balut Challenge. She was polishing off her fourth Red Horse while I was still halfway through my third beer, bitching about our history professor.
“Alcantara’s gonna fail me. Oral exams aren’t a thing in America, but he’s made it a huge part of the final! I’m boned.”
“It’s not so hard.” Kams put down her cigarette and popped a greasy peanut into her mouth. “You remember stuff in our tutoring sessions.”
“Yeah, ‘cause you don’t stare me down like Alcantara. When he looks at me during an exam I can’t remember shit.”
Kams smirked. “Maybe you’d remember more if you didn’t skip class to travel every weekend.”
“Helloooo, I’m a foreign student!” I threw up my hands and nearly knocked over our pulutan. Kams managed to keep the hot peanuts from flying over the table and dusted some of the scattered garlic chips into our ashtray. “You don’t foreign exchange because you want to go to class!”
“You’re the cutest, drunkest mestizo I’ve ever seen,” she mocked. “Take me back to the States with you.”
“Maybe if you stopped studying.”
She stuck her tongue out at me and stubbed out her cigarette. “Chorva! Books before boys.”
“Ay nakuuu,” I said, making her laugh. She always laughed when I spoke in Tagalog, though I think it was more because of my pronunciation. She said if I ever wanted to learn about my family’s history—my dad’s side, anyway—then I needed to learn the native language. Language first, then history.
Not that my burger-eating ass wanted to be in the Philippines anyway. I never even felt Filipino—I barely looked it with my white skin and brown hair, looks which seemed to make me royalty in these islands. But when choosing study abroad programs, my cheapskate dad’s head nearly exploded at the prices for England and Australia. Jesus, after years of switching majors, I finally just wanted to have some fun. But he figured I could stay with my Tita Emilie to save on the cost of a dorm and finally learn some of “my” culture in the meantime. Joke was on him, though. Flights were cheap enough to visit a different country every weekend—four-day vacations when I skipped Alcantara’s class.
“Baluuuuuuuuuut!” The cry of the vendor cut through the thick night air and whizz of jeepneys swerving through Manila traffic. “Baluuuuuuuuut!”
Kams uncapped her fifth Red Horse. “What do you think, Adrian? Balut time?”
“You wish.” I took a swig. “I need another beer before that.”
“I think it’s Kuya Bong,” she said. “He always has the freshest ones.”
The vendor approached our patio, his beer belly held in by the strap running from his shoulder to the large basket at his hip. Clear plastic bags of salted pork skins dangled from his brown arms. He smiled like the metropolitan skyline, uneven turrets below and nothing above, and he tenderly removed the dingy white towel covering his prize possessions, those infamous midnight snacks.
“Hoy, Kuya Bong!” Kams shouted above the traffic. “Meron po balut?”
Before Kuya Bong could reach us, a group of foreigners near us hooted at him. In English so accented it might have well been his native German, a towering Teutonic knight of a guy ordered twelve eggs total—triple for each person in the group. He divvied them up among his cohort—a cute and tiny Japanese girl with a cigarette in hand, an Italian guy in a green mesh soccer jersey, and a black guy with rainbow dreads.
Kams waved Kuya Bong over. He held his hands up. “Wala na, maganda.”
“Maganda?” I laughed. “He calls you ‘beautiful’?”
“It’s cool, Adrian,” Kams said. “No mas?” she sighed to him. “Sige, pwede mamaya. Salamat po, Kuya.” Kams gave Kuya Bong a cigarette anyway, and he walked back into the night, pleased with such a lucky bulk sale. I watched the orange stub float through the crowd, lingering on the light until he disappeared. I shook my head. Must be the Red Horse buzz, making me feel weird. Whatever, I didn’t need to talk to the vendor anyway. Not as long as Kams or one of my aunts or cousins was around.
“Dunno if I’m ready for this,” I heard Dreads say. “Fried grasshoppers in Thailand is one thing, but fetuses?”
Soccer Jersey piped up. “You joking? This is the ultimate exotica. If you’re not ready for this, you’re not ready for any more trips with us.”
“Yeah,” squeaked Cute and Tiny, her voice syrupy sweet. “Man the fuck up, Kevin.”
Teutonic Knight mumbled something to Dreads—Kevin—who sighed and got a saltshaker from another table. Kams and I both watched as Teutonic Knight deftly cracked each egg, drank the liquid, placed each slimy duck embryo in his hand, and then tipped the contents into his mouth as if taking a shot of tequila.
Impressed, I nudged Kams. “Did you see that? Siiiiick!” She rolled her eyes and looked away.
Cute and Tiny cheered between the German’s crunches. Kevin turned slightly green, but cracked open one of his three eggs, sipped the liquid, and then ate the remaining contents one by one, his face distorting with each chewy mouthful.
“Balut Challenge!” shouted Soccer Jersey, until this became a chant between the other two. Kams made a disgusted noise. Kevin sprinkled some salt on his next egg, but made the fatal mistake of looking into the eggshell. I knew the feeling. The first time I looked into the balut shell, I swore I would become a vegetarian. Tita Emilie’s chicken adobo the next day convinced me to recant.
Poor Kevin ran to the bathroom, the rest of his friends cracking up. However, when it came time for Soccer Jersey and Cute and Tiny to finish their share of eggs, they couldn’t do it. Having seen Kevin’s face as he looked into the shell must have reminded them of what they were really eating. Something about a little partially developed baby bird, gray and veiny in its hardened ovum, smiling up at you with its soft pre-natal beak and oily dead eyes, and knowing that it’s going to take a salty trip down your esophagus and swim around in your insides—yeah, something about that can make you lose your shit.
“I can’t wait to try beaten up chicken,” said Cute and Tiny, burning her cigarette on the shell of one of the uneaten eggs. “The one you bruise before you kill it. Did you know it’s illegal to make?”
“They serve it in the mountains,” Soccer Jersey said authoritatively. “Where the tribes still worship tree spirits.”
Teutonic Knight laughed. “Filipinos. How did they come up with this shit?”
“When did Cantina stop being a locals’ bar?” Kams said loudly.
They looked over at us.
I tried to shush her. “What, Adrian?” she said, volume increasing. “This is such a freak show.”
“Did you say something?” snarled Teutonic Knight.
“Yeah.” Kams put down her empty bottle. “Sabi ko, this is a freak show!”
The wet tropical air, when mixed with city pollution and spicy street food smells, can cause strange behavior. Teutonic Knight stood up the same time I did. He looked like he was ready to hit Kams in the face, an action unbecoming of a knight in any country. And the way Kams held the bottle in her hand, I could tell she was ready for anything.
“Hold up.” I was starting to feel dizzy. “Let’s—”
“Your little girlfriend has a problem with us,” Teutonic Knight barked.
With the Red Horse buzzing through my veins, I felt… brave. I walked to their table and tapped an egg on the table. “Maybe—“ (I downed an egg) “—you should all—” (another egg) “—stop being—” (third egg) “—such assholes.” Final egg. I clenched my fists on the edge of the table, praying I wouldn’t puke.
“Whoa,” exhaled Soccer Jersey. Teutonic Knight and Cute and Tiny stared at me, mouths wide enough that one of the cockroaches in the bar could fly into them. Though her face was blurry, Kams looked angry—and something else. Disapproval?
“Halika na, Adrian.” Kams was at my side, grabbing my hand still dribbling with duck fetus juice. “Let’s go.” She stuck her middle finger out at them.
As soon as we walked out of Cantina, I gagged, but didn’t throw up. I leaned on Kams as we walked back to her dorm, mumbling that my aunt would throw a fit if I showed up drunk at her doorstep.
“You can stay in my room,” she replied. “No boys allowed, but Melissa owes me one anyway.”
When we got there, Kams held my head and rubbed my back. Her roommate Melissa woke up when we got in, and held a heated conversation in a corner with Kams that was definitely not in English or Tagalog. When they finished, Melissa handed my drunk ass a spoon. “You know what to do,” she said. She popped earbuds in and lay back down, a pillow over her head.
Kams knelt next to me by the toilet as I pushed the spoon in my mouth and tried to expel some of the alcohol.
“You’re the ang best ka,” I mumbled.
She laughed. “I guess you’re getting there.”
God, she had such a pretty round face. I tried to kiss her, but she let out a short laugh and smacked my head away. “Concentrate,” she instructed.
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
“Remember our talk?” she said firmly. “You’re going back to America in a few months.”
“Yeah,” I coughed. “Few months. Gotta pass history.”
Nothing came out that night—the Red Horse and balut had settled in too deeply—but I managed to make it to the floor and the pillow Kams had placed under me. After that I fell into a shallow sleep, fitful with dreams of yellow bird embryos that looked like my dad and chickens that had my face. At some point in the night Tita Emilie texted me and asked where I was, freaking out because I had missed a Skype call with my dad. I think Kams’ roommate Melissa picked up my phone because she was tired of the beeping and texted my aunt that I had food poisoning and was staying on a dorm on campus. Tita Emilie’s last text read, “0K anak u jst rest, well pck u up n d am & i will mke u tinola.” In the morning, Melissa was gone, her bed made and her headphones curled on the desk. Kams was sitting on her bed, studying. She gave me a half-smile when I looked up, and I closed my eyes again.
Thank God for Kams. She let me stay on her dorm room floor as long as I needed.
A week later I told Kams I would treat her for helping me pass the written portion of our history final, so we walked to the fish ball stand near campus. To our surprise, Teutonic Knight was there with his entire round table.
“Ah, the American,” he said. “The balut king. I’m Ralf.”
He didn’t apologize for anything, but commended me on my “daring gastronomic feat.” I admit, it felt pretty good to be recognized, even for something as stupid as eating a bunch of boiled baby ducks. Ralf explained that he and his friends had met in Beijing while doing the standard foreigner thing—Ralf was in a study abroad program, Kevin was teaching English, Kaori was studying it, and Franco was bumming around. They met at a Couchsurfing meet-up for “Culinary Exotica” on Wangfujing Street and shared grilled lamb testicles, seahorse on a stick, and skewered scorpion.
“It’s like a French fry,” Franco explained, shoving a bunch of fish balls in his mouth and wiping the grease on his jersey. “Crunchy on the outside, mealy on the inside. And no nasty little wings, like other bugs.”
Since then, they were traveling around Southeast Asia to find the weirdest foods possible. They had already hit up Thailand, sampling deep-fried grasshoppers and sautéed crickets, as well as uncooked silkworm larvae with wood ear mushrooms and basil. They were supposed to go to Japan and try shirako (fish sperm) with sushi and pungent shiokara (fermented fish guts), but Kaori said it was too expensive and her family would think poorly of her for traveling around with three men. Instead, she suggested the Philippines, since it was cheap, easier to navigate in an English-speaking country, and the fact that “the food is bizarre, so bizarre!”
Kams snorted at that, pouring neon red banana ketchup and sweet gravy onto her amber-colored fish balls. The sauces soaked into the greasy paper container, and I sopped one of the fried balls in the sugary-sour mess before popping it into my mouth.
“So… want to join us?” Ralf asked. “We’re busing through the Cordillera to eat dog and beaten up chicken.”
“Our oral exam is in a week and a half,” Kams reminded me. “And you said your Tita Emilie is having a birthday party for your cousin.”
“You can translate for us,” Ralf interjected. I was flattered that he thought my Tagalog was so good, even though he only heard me order from the fish ball vendor. Usually everyone gave me funny looks when I tried to order food or give taxi directions. He tilted his head towards Kams. “She can come too, I guess.” Kams snorted again.
I chewed thoughtfully. It wasn’t the first time I had been invited to trips with other travelers, but rarely trips within the Philippines. But I could feel Kams’ glare. Either she really cared about me passing my history final, or she was still pissed at these guys from the other night and I wouldn’t hear the end of it if I went with them.
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
“Hmph. Isn’t it dangerous?” Tita Emilie said, when I asked her that evening about traveling to the Cordillera.
“It’s fine,” I said, texting Kams a goofy photoshopped picture of her favorite Filipino popstar. “It’s a cultural excursion.”
She paused while chopping up a long wrinkled green vegetable. “Delia will miss you at her birthday.”
“She still loves her Kuya Adrian.”
“Yeah, I know.”
She threw some eggplant into a bubbling pot. “Your Tagalog isn’t very good…”
“It’s making my Tagalog better. Tagalog ko ay ang magaling.”
She smiled. “Talaga, Tagalog mo para mas magaling…” she mused.
“Oo, mas magaling,” I repeated.
She frowned. “O po,” she corrected. “Remember to be respectful. Ay naku, what did my brother teach you…”
“I’ll probably be leaving around six AM,” I said, ignoring her comments about my dad. “I’ll just buy breakfast at McDo.”
“Ikaw,” she sighed, returning to the chopping board. “You’re just like your father.”
Several days later, Kams and I and the gang squeezed our backpacks onto a ratchety bus that had no air conditioning but several colored TVs playing a Filipino fantasy soap opera about fairies. I had pleaded with Kams up until last night, citing that I hadn’t had a chance to visit the mountains yet, and I needed a back-up translator in case I got stuck helping Ralf and his round table, and it was all in the name of adventure, anyway. At midnight she finally texted back, saying she’d go as long as she could study in peace on the bus.
“Di ko alam kung bakit gusto mo ang bobos. Sila chorva.” she said, queuing up a playlist on her phone.
“You don’t know what?” I asked. “Bobos?”
“Hey, sila ay… cool,” I stumbled. I switched to English. “They’re cool. They’re trying out different cultural stuff. You said I should learn more about the Philippines anyway, didn’t you?”
She pulled out her history book and studied her notes. “Ikaw.”
“Oh, none of that ‘up to you’ stuff,” I replied. “Let’s have a good time. Stop studying for once in your life.”
“What’s up Kammy-cakes?” Franco peered over the top of his seat. “You gonna translate for us? What’s that fairy saying on TV, I’m a little lady-boy with no tits?”
She jammed her headphones in and stared at her book. I shrugged, embarrassed. Franco turned around and murmured something to Kevin.
Four hours and several five-player card games into the trip, we stopped for a bathroom break. A scrawny balut vendor boarded the bus, but without the characteristic cry of normal street vendors. His shoulders were slumped, and his mesh cap was pulled low over his eyes. Many of the other Filipinos on the bus wouldn’t even look at him. Ralf nudged Kevin across the aisle. “Balut Challenge?”
“Balut Challenge!” Franco yelped. “Adrian, you with?”
Kams made eye contact with the vendor and shook her head. He shrugged. Kaori was already purchasing twenty eggs—I had upped the ante ever since I downed four of them at once. I realized they weren’t buying any for Kams.
“Don’t do it,” Kams hissed. “Bus balut is the worst.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Just don’t.” she retorted. I waited to hear more, but all she did was turn a page.
“Just trust me.” Another page turned.
Jesus, she always pissed me off when she got like this, but it was worse in front of my friends. “Trust you? You’ve barely talked to me this whole ride, and now—”
She put her book down. “Seriously, Adrian—”
Too late. Franco handed me four toasty eggs. They felt heavier than normal, dense with the weight of the unborn chicks. The vendor had already disembarked when Ralf started on the first egg.
Determined not to let him beat me, I cracked mine open in one swipe and was surprised by the dry texture inside. I peeled away the shell, closed my eyes, and pushed the whole thing in my mouth.
I started feeling sick. The duck fetus was older than normal, so its tiny bones had calcified substantially and its feathers were papery instead of slick. They had boiled it only a few days before its baby beak would pierce the shell from the inside, before the duckling would poke its head out into a brand new world.
I didn’t look at the others as I ate the second, the third. Tears were forming in my eyes from the sulfurous taste. I was about to start on the fourth when I paused for breath and saw that the rest of them had stopped and were staring at me in awe. At the first crunch, they had gagged and thrown the eggs out the window. Only I had continued.
To hell with it, I figured. I’m the king. I slipped the last egg in my mouth. As soon as I swallowed the last bit, they erupted into cheering and chanting, “Balut Challenge! Balut Challenge!”
The other Filipinos on the bus stared at us. One older woman clicked her tongue and shook her head. “Walang hiya,” she said to another woman next to her, holding a baby. “Talaga,” the other woman responded. “Walang hiya.” Kams flinched when she heard them.
“Hail the balut king!” Ralf yelled. He high-fived me.
Kams turned up the volume on her phone.
Feeling queasy but proud, I managed to peep, “Just wait for that beaten up chicken!” before sliding down next to Kams and avoiding the looks of the other passengers. The bus seemed unnaturally silent.
I touched her arm, remembering how she had taken care of my drunken mess two weeks ago. She pulled out one earbud long enough to whisper fiercely, “You should know better.”
“You might only be half, but you’re still one of us.”
“What are you talking about?” I was getting riled. She sounded like my dad when he insisted I be up to date on politics, especially in his homeland. Recently, I started calling him out on it—if he cared so much about his motherland, why didn’t he move there?
“I’m talking about you trying to impress a bunch of foreign gagos!” She slammed her book shut.
“What, by eating balut?” My face felt hot.
“You really don’t get it, do you?” she snapped.
“Why you care so much about what I do?”
“Adrian. If they don’t respect our food, they don’t respect us.” She started putting her earbuds back in.
“Jesus. Chill the fuck out, Kamilla.”
I had never spoken that way to her before. She looked like she was either going to hit me or cry. Maybe both. The old woman behind us clicked her tongue again. I could feel the young mother and her baby staring at me.
“I would’ve never gone on this trip with you if I knew you were going to be such a jerk.” She closed her eyes then, and I knew from her trembling round face that the rest of the ride would be in silence.
Kams still wouldn’t talk to me, even after breakfast and a jeepney transfer. I tried everything I could—talking in Tagalog, reciting American trivia, celebrity imitations—but her mood remained as overcast as the mountain weather. At one point we ran into some translation trouble and she seemed almost pleased to see me struggle through asking for directions, especially when Ralf yelled at me that this was the second time I had gotten them lost.
At that point, I took Kams aside. “Please, Kams,” I whispered. “I know you’re pissed at me, but we could get seriously lost here without you.”
She replied in rapid Tagalog that I had difficulty understanding. The jeepney driver laughed. I glared at him and he lit a cigarette, puffing between smiles.
“Kams. Jesus. Please… look. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry for whatever I said on the bus. Or how I said it. I’m an idiot, okay? I’m an idiot and I know no amount of fish balls will make up for it but I am telling you—the sooner we find this place, the sooner this trip can end, okay? Then we can go back to school and you can ignore me forever. Let’s just get out of here first.”
She held her breath the entire time I spoke. When I reached out and touched her shoulder, she sighed long and low. She said something under her breath that I didn’t quite catch—something about “American” and “mestizo” and “never understand.” She went to the jeepney driver. “Hoy, Kuya…”
“What’s ‘kuya’ anyway?” Dreads asked.
“It’s respectful,” I replied. “It means ‘older brother.’”
“Everyone’s related in this country,” Ralf laughed. “Just like yours, Franco.”
“Shut up, frocio,” Franco laughed. “We don’t have millions of babies like here.”
The jeepney driver looked at us skeptically, but after a few minutes, we were back on the road. During the drive, Kams wouldn’t speak to anyone else but him.
We stopped at a lodge on the side of the road where they were serving dog. Ralf was about to order five servings, when I shook my head and opted for the chicken adobo instead.
“Sticking to the birds, huh?” Kevin joked.
“Yeah,” I said, slipping some pesos to the cashier for Kams’s lunch too. “You know me. Bird king.”
Kaori took two dozen pictures of her food before taking a bite, throwing it in the garbage, and taking a smoke break outside. Ralf and Franco finished off both of their bowls before splitting Kevin’s half-eaten one between them. Kams had silently accepted my payment for her lunch—which I took as a step towards forgiveness. I ate my dish slowly. It wasn’t as good as Tita Emilie’s, but then again, this was traveler’s food.
Kaori rushed back inside. “I found a place!” she crowed.
“For beaten up chicken?” Ralf asked.
“Yeah! A few miles down the road! We can make out own pin—pina—pik—piniknik—”
“Pinakpikan.” Kams stated, scraping out the last grains of rice from her bowl.
“Yeah. That one. Come on, let’s go!”
Forty minutes later, we had walked through the curving Cordillera roads to the backyard of a rickety canteen. A small coop of squawking chickens made enough noise to fill the entire yard, their screams echoing among the banana tree groves edging the dirt plot. A stout dark man—Benito, as he introduced himself, but Kams respectfully called him Tito Benito and his very pregnant wife Tita JenJen—allowed us to choose a chicken from the huddle.
JenJen helped Ralf choose a plump bird, a healthy brown creature with shiny white spots along her breast and wings. She stroked the hen on the head softly and murmured something to it in a Cordillera dialect. The hen clucked rapidly as Benito caught her around the neck and brought her to a wooden table near the porch. He tried to hand the bird to Ralf, who shook his head and pointed to me.
“You’re the balut king,” he explained. “It’s only fair you get to be pinakpikan king, too.”
Kams had retreated inside the canteen, making small talk with JenJen and helping her chop vegetables for the soup the chicken was supposed to go into when we were finished. Kams glanced back at me every now and then. I had apologized several more times during our walk over, finally reaching over to squeeze her hand and crack a joke in Tagalog. She pulled her hand away. I wished she were outside with me.
Benito tied the chicken’s feet and held it upside down on a hook above a grill, where it seemed to slip into a trance. The pupils in its yellow eyes expanded, and its clucking was so soft it was almost a purr.
“What do I do?” I asked.
He handed me a wooden paddle.
“Don’t you—don’t you need to, uh, kill it first?” I stammered.
“Adrian,” Kaori scolded. “You can’t bruise it when it’s dead.”
I looked at each of them. Ralf’s eyes glittered. Kevin was staring at the banana groves. Franco was already looking at another chicken to prepare. Kaori was twirling her black hair, almost jumping with excitement. I peeked back at the canteen. JenJen was softly singing to her belly. Kams was watching us, her face twisted, although I couldn’t tell why.
“Not too hard,” Benito instructed. “And not too soft. The blood needs to thicken. Don’t break her wings.”
They were all watching me. I considered handing the paddle back to Benito.
“Come on, balut king,” Ralf taunted. “Show us how the locals do it.”
I closed my eyes. I opened them. I took the paddle in my hand, held down her head and legs with the other, and clubbed her from the inside of her wing to the tip, then back. Then again. I struck her on the other wing. Then again. Then her neck. Her chest puffed up and heaved, trying to catch air in her tiny lungs. Benito untied her feet and placed her on the grill. She tried to crawl away, but her brown wings were too numb. There was no blood, only the swelling of her flesh and harsh cries. They faded to faint chirps.
My stomach clenched.
“To the head.” Benito made a curt motion with his hand.
I made one more swipe at the back of her head. She fell completely silent. Her legs twitched. The blood drained from my face. I could feel it pooling in my gut.
“Burn the feathers now.” He started preparing a torch.
I shook my head. I dropped the paddle and started walking back to the canteen. I overheard Benito asking them how they wanted their chicken cooked, stewed or roasted, and Kevin responded that he had lost his appetite. Franco muttered something that sounded like a curse word in Italian. Ralf and Kaori were silent.
“Hmmm,” Benito said. “Stew, then. This one will be good tinola.”
I was halfway across the yard, but Kams had already opened the screen door and seen my face. She caught my arm and started walking me towards the banana groves. We were barely out of the yard when I collapsed on a pile of leaves, vomiting. It all came out—lunch, breakfast, last night’s bus balut; ego, shame, loneliness.
“She was so little,” I choked, the sourness rising from my throat and nostrils. “And they just wanted to watch.”
I puked again. I pulled myself away from the mess on the ground, clutching the base of a banana tree, my head spinning with squawks and slaps. Kams held my hand and rubbed my back. I closed my eyes. Even though she said nothing, I knew she had forgiven me. I knew I could stay on the jungle floor as long as I needed.
Illustrations by Mori Walts.
Mori Walts is a queer Nikkei multimedia artist based out of Santa Rosa CA who is currently focusing their art on processing the imaginary Japan within the western imagination. They hope to pursue a career in animation.