TRISTAN made loud slurping sounds as he ate the spaghetti in front of him. “Slow down, anak. Isn’t angkong buying you stuff like this at home?” He looked up to his mom and, still with a string or two in his mouth, answered, “Not that he does not, Má. It’s just that your spaghetti’s always different.” He then twisted a cluster of spagos with his fork and devoured a third of the serving he was given in a matter of seconds. “Way better than what they give me. It’s sweet.”

“It’s five, already. You told me to notify you when it’s time,” Tristan toured his eyes around the room at the sound of her mom’s reminder and quickly searched for the clock. “Well, I better be off now, Má,” he said with slight frustration. He forked in what’s left of his meal and drank a glass of water. “Ever since you went to college, your schedule’s been never that stable and certain,” his mother remarked as he started packing his bag. Tristan grimaced, “Don’t worry, Má. Angkong already knows that I come to see you every now and then; they actually don’t care anymore. They can’t keep me away from you forever, you know.”

Elena kissed her son’s forehead and hugged him tight, “When you take the rite, above all things, remember that you are my son.”

Tristan guffawed. “Yeah, Má. As if angkong’s got a womb! Look, they may have taken me away since Papa died, but I’ve always found my way back. You’ve always found a way in. I’ll always be your son.”

Tristan got in his car, and waved his mom goodbye as the chauffeur drove away.

Pasay, a city to the south of Binondo, might be a bit far when you were clogged in traffic, but to Tristan, it was blissfully so near. Every meter away from his angkong’s house at the heart of Manila was a comfort to his own.

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“Until when are you going to hide that we’re visiting Ma’am Elena, sir?” Tristan was dumbfounded by his driver’s question. Indeed, he lied to angkong about his visits. “Sir, a slip may lead you to a school in Hong Kong.” Tristan remained silent. He looked at his reflection in the rearview mirror. “I don’t understand, Manong. Look! I’m not chinito. I’m not fair-skinned. I’m as brown as you are. I even speak Fukien badly.” He looked to the setting sun at the bayside of Roxas Boulevard. “Why must I be fully angkong’s grandson and only partly my mother’s son?”

As their vehicle descended Jones Bridge, down to busy Santa Cruz, Tristan watched what was happening outside the car. It was the eve of Chinese New Year.

“Manong, why did we go here? Aren’t we supposed to take the avenue that goes down directly to Binondo?” asked Tristan. “Oh, sorry, sir. Your angkong made it a point that we get the tikoys at Mang Stanley’s before we head home,” his driver said. With a smile, Tristan assured him, “I see. Not to worry then, Manong. Take your time with the traffic, I’m not in a hurry.”

Dancing life-size dragons roamed the streets. Firecrackers boomed from all directions. Escolta Street, only meters from where they were stuck in traffic, was filled with people buying and selling all sorts of gift items and lucky charms ready to explode at the strike of twelve.

Chinese New Year had always fascinated Tristan. It particularly interested him how, through the years, more and more Filipinos were embracing the occasion. He had observed that as time went, more and more non-Chinese were taking to the Chinese celebration.

His fascination, however, ceased at home. The first new years he had with angkong since he transferred to his house when he was eight still left him with awe and excitement, but it didn’t last long; the new year celebrations he had with his parents in Pasay still had the best impact on him–not with dimsum and tikoy and pansit; the hotdogs, fried eggs and “tasty bread” still were the best dishes he loved to savor, and yes, his mother’s spaghetti.

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“Manong, angkong may become upset if we get really jammed. How about if I get the tikoy myself? It’s just a few blocks along Escolta, anyway,” Tristan said. The driver hesitantly agreed. It was obvious how Tristan just wanted to get more of the festival than merely watching it from inside the car. “Let’s meet at the square by Santa Cruz 30 minutes from now, okay?” Tristan agreed. In a minute he was out of the vehicle and his driver’s sight.

Red lanterns that danced in the evening breeze by the windows, jade bracelets spread over sheets on streets, Santo Niños with coins and fat Buddhas with greens, the salty smell of cooked ham, the odor of firecrackers. Everything from what Tristan could hear, to what he could see, feel, and smell, had the Chinese New Year vibe in it. The festivities distracted him that he didn’t feel the 15-minute walk it took him to reach Mang Stanley’s to fetch the tikoy.

It had been tradition for the Ang’s that whenever a man turns 18, he must take the first bite of the tikoy to be prepared by the eldest man in the family. It is believed to be a gesture of blessing and a passage of authority, responsibility, and well being to younger generations of men.

They arrived 30 minutes before nine o’ clock. As was expected, Tristan came home with an already distressed angkong by the door. “I know that today is your birthday, but please, do not begin the year by making me upset. Where’s the tikoy?” Tristan handed it over. The old man then proceeded to the kitchen without even taking a second look at him.

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A quarter past nine and dinner was set. Seated at the corner was angkong, to his right was a-má and his uncle–his father’s brother–with his wife; to his left was another uncle, younger and still unmarried, and the children of his older sibling. Tristan sat opposite his grandfather. Angkong, after the prayers, took a portion of the tikoy and had it passed to Tristan on the other side of the table by way of a-má. Angkong took another portion and sent it by way of his youngest son.

As Tristan received both portions and placed it on his plate, he realized that staring at him were people he had lived with for so long but with whom he had little association. Since the day his father died, he was forcibly taken from his mother to live in the house of a man who stressed that he must forget he was a son of a Filipina–a Chinese in a foreign land; a merchant alone and not a friend to anyone. He looked to his left and saw his cousin, a girl¬–the innocence of her eyes, the suspense and excitement it possesses in anticipation of his rite of passage before them. He then looked at angkong who stared blankly at him. They were all waiting.

He seemed to have heard his mother speak again, “Remember that you are my son.”

He took the two slices of tikoy, forked them as one, and ate. Alpine Christopher P. Moldez

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