27 June 2015


Locus Focus: Take Hundert Zweiundzwanzig!

Until today, I hadn't realised how heavy this year's "Foreign Shores" settings have been. But yeah, a US state capital major American metropolis full of lonely Filipino expats, a Japanese city full of Filipino illegals, and a UNESCO World Heritage site where Filipino tourists stick out like sore thumbs aren't exactly light. The pendulum has been swinging since the last featured novel, however, and today we get to look at a foreign place that is just a foreign place.

"Celebrating Lechon"
(or how our son survived his birthday in Germany without it)
by Jack Catarata

"I want a lechon for my birthday," our son Martin told me and my wife one day. He was turning six in December that year and we asked him what he wished for his birthday. We arrived in Germany some months back from the Philippines and life was then a painstaking period of adjustment: establishing a home, building a new support system, and above all, looking for work.

For me and Martin there was this added burden of learning new ways of doing things. And what better way there is, to start acquainting ourselves with the new
Kultur, than to know how we could celebrate his first birthday in our adopted country?

. . . my wife and I went back again to the drawing board. The problem was where on earth could we find
lechon in the land known for sausages and sauerkraut . . . ?

Despite all the Filipinos who swear that their foreign friends and in-laws can't get enough of adobo and sinigang, I think Filipino food manages to be only marginally more popular on the international smorgasboard than German cuisine. As for whether they have anything else in common . . . well, when I was choosing which local German restaurant to celebrate a past birthday in, pretty much all the reviews of the one I picked compared the Bavarian Schweinshaxn to the Filipino crispy pata--the main difference being that the former is baked and the latter is deep fried. (Oh, so typical . . .) Had little Martin Cataratas asked his parents for a crispy pata birthday treat, this essay would have been a bit shorter. Not a lot shorter, though, because there is more to culture shock than just food.

I liked reading about the differences between children's birthday parties in the Philippines and those in Germany. Lots of sweeping generalisations, I'm sure--but even the most atypical celebration in one country would never be mistaken for a cultural expression of the other. The most unexpected snag, which dismayed even the open-minded Cataratas, was that if your son's birthday falls on 6 December, his celebration will have to take a back seat to the national tradition of Nikolausabend.

Just when the December babies were thinking, "Jedenfalls, wurde ich am Weihnachsten geboren!" (All the December babies, whether they Deutsch sprachen or not, know exactly what that means . . . And those who do understand German are welcome to correct all my grammar mistakes in the combox!)

After having the first six birthdays of your life observed by the entire town as a minor fiesta, having to share the spotlight with St. Nicholas (who is undoubtedly cooler than you) can be quite the letdown. Even if every loss comes with a gain, it takes time to pass from mourning to a more sober sort of rejoicing. And the heart longs for something familiar to ease the transition. In at least one case of a Filipino abroad, that something has been a suckling pig roasted over open coals. Ah, who are we to turn our pretentiously gourmet noses up at this?

To find out whether the Cataratas found a "German lechon" in time for their son's birthday, please consider entering my June Philippine Literature giveaway through the Rafflecopter below.

Question of the Week: Have you ever experienced celebrating a familiar holiday or special occasion in another country?

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Image Source: A Taste of Home, edited by Edgar B. Maranan and Len S. Maranan-Goldstein


Sheila said...

Chicago is not a state capital! (Other big cities that aren't include New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.) Don't feel bad, lots of Americans assume it is too. The real capital of Illinois is Springfield, a comparatively small and forgettable town.

I always love your prompts. This time I'm reminded of the time I celebrated Thanksgiving in Rome. Some people were happy to go all-in and just have pasta, but holidays make me homesick and I insist on doing things properly. Turkey was not to be had for love or money, but I thought maybe I could make my family's traditional apple-cranberry casserole. But cranberries were not to be had either, so I went to the import store and bought a teeny little jar of cranberry sauce at extortion prices. Brown sugar was also unavailable, so I used demarara sugar, which was gritty and didn't work well. And then I "baked" it in the toaster. It was .... not the same. But I ate it anyway because, well, you can't have Christmas without it!

If I had it to do over, though, I think I would have gone with stuffing. You can't mess up stuffing, can you? But at the time I didn't even know what it was made of, just that it was a big bowl of mysterious yum which my grandma apparently produced by magic.

Enbrethiliel said...


I knew I should have double checked Chicago! I'm not sure why I didn't when I took pains to make sure of Miyajima's World Heritage Site status. Oh, well. I can always edit the post . . .

When I went off to live abroad, I didn't take any family recipes with me. Although I didn't feel homesick for Philippine food, I did feel like an uncultured fraud when my new Kiwi, Indian, and Korean friends asked me to prepare something authentically Filipino for them. =/ Heck, when I first got there, I didn't even know how to cook! (For the record, I'm much better--and much more Filipino--in the kitchen now.)

My interactions with Americans unlucky enough to be out of the US during Thanksgiving has convinced me of the emotional importance of this holiday. An American girl I used to know insisted on celebrating it each year . . . but the Philippine calendar being what it is, she had to compromise by having it on a Saturday. Thanks to her, I had my first taste of stuffing. And yes, "a big bowl of mysterious yum" is totally what it was!