Aswang as a Second Language

By

I’ve always felt this conflict in my cells, that I don’t feel, can’t be, will never get to be fully landed here, in America. My almond eyes, full lips, and dark brown skin. Benevolent colonialists and missionary father figures took pity, force-fed us patriarchy and church to save our heathen souls: these epigenetics guaranteed a second-class spirit.

Tikbalang are half-man, half-horse demons in the Philippines. They can be “playful,” causing people to hallucinate and lose their minds. Supposedly, we can ward them off by turning our shirts inside-out or by keeping quiet. Shhh. They are known to rape Filipinas—women and girls—who then give birth to more tikbalang.

Interestingly, Filipinos had never seen horses as symbols of conquest until Spain imported them to the islands. Tikbalang are colonial beasts, seeding millions of Filipinos inevitably en route to other shores. One of the largest exports from the Philippine archipelago is just that: people. At airports, there are separate lines for OFWs: Overseas Filipino Workers. Nannies, cruise ship workers, domestic laborers. Or, like my parents, medical students and US military recruits. Some of these immigrants leave the islands already pregnant with the American Dream.

This makes me a descendant of tikbalang. Maybe I am a confused hybrid, a colonial freak.

Imperialists brought horses, sure (and spaghetti noodles). They also brought Christianity to the Philippines by scaring the hell out of superstitious Filipinos, one “good and faithful” act at a time. All my life, to this day, Mama singsongs prayers with her ESL accent. “May the Lord find me worthy when He comes,” she over-enunciates through tears as she remembers to, “keep the Sabbath.”

Paul Virilio, the cultural theorist and philosopher, says, “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution…”

When empires invented colonialism, they also invented colonial mentality. When colonies invented liberation, we also invented desperate diaspora—illiterate bodies unmoored, unmapped, unversed in new language.

Colonial mentality, the perpetual exile of being neither here nor there, being fed a shame-based religion, never sitting comfortable in my own skin—all of this came to mind when my ancestral skin disease erupted. These twisted empire byproducts pressed me toward a path for decades, until I was exhausted enough to experience faith as a portal.

 

 

2002 

It started out as “good stress”: moving to San Diego for grad school, meeting my future husband, Chris, planning (and having) a Big Fat Filipinx wedding.

A newlywed in our Ocean Beach apartment, I was one year into a skin flare-up that consumed my upper body. I became a canvas of perforated gashes, hundreds of tiny, oozing rips in my inflexible, rashed-over skin. Eczema came over me like stigmata. Itching, hurting, stinging, peeling, crusting, infecting, but never numbing. Weeping is the medical term for when skin slicks with released cellular water. Poetic-sounding. Mixed with ointments, lotion, Aquaphor, steroids, aloe, and sweat: a many-splendored weeping.

On our honeymoon, my new husband could barely touch me. I cried on our wedding night, filled with joy and dread. I closed my eyes and chose to feel nothing on my failed skin so we could have sex.

Secondary chronic afflictions caved me under the bedsheets, sometimes flayed me on the office futon when I skipped work. Insomnia spawned clinical depression and eye-bulging, sideways-glancing panic and anxiety. My new husband worked for two. I dropped out of grad school, quit work. I swallowed all the atarax, trazodone, prozac. Added melatonin for natural remedy points.

I was wide awake in bed every night, skin wet and on fire, crying soundless sobs. I faced the wall in case my husband checked on me, concerned. My lungs faux-slumbered. When the sticky stuff dried and delirium autopiloted, my fingers scratched.

Can’t seem to peel off, settle on a “right” shade of brown.

 

In grade school, I was chased by kids at recess. Older girls pointed, pulled the ends of their eyes up. Why are you so dark if you’re a ching chong chinky? I asked my parents and was told Papa’s side is from Cavite, a province of fishermen. I inherited that dark tone.

“Good thing Mama’s side has lighter skin.” Spanish blood. “At least you’re not as itim as those Ilocano,” they sighed relief. Turned out, my skin was too sensitive to scrub with cosmetic bleaching soap. I learned colorism young.

I began wearing sunscreen daily in high school, hyperconscious of getting too dark. I even pressed foundation in a lighter brown onto my face. In college, I became “exotic” at parties. Women praised how easily I could “tan.” White men, Black men, Navy men—on dance floors, at fraternity BBQs, in bars, watching baseball games, they asked, “Where are you from” and marveled at “how good” my English was, reminiscing about their WESTPAC deployments to the Philippines. More than one has wondered aloud, “How do you taste?”

I had to be the acceptable shade of brown for my people to accept me. I had to be born and raised American for everyone else to do so.

 

2002 

I stopped going out of the house unless carried. Doctors ran allergy tests. Diagnosis: Try to avoid everything fun. Most foods, sun, water… I’m paraphrasing. They said keep smearing, keep lotioning, keep moisturizing. They said to avoid long showers because hard water dried out my skin.

I coped, spackled with defeat, creamed over with invalidation.

One day, belligerent, I started a military shower, and I stayed longer than the sanctioned three minutes. I turned the cold water to hot. It soothed for once. I stayed, gently rubbing my skin. First on my left shoulder, a square inch test patch. It felt okay. Not the usual pain. I moved my hand to my sternum, softly massaging in small circles. Good, good. Adrenaline—or was it hope—twinkled in my ribs, stomach, behind my eyes. A personal light show dawned from the inside out.

My hands touched opposite arms, from shoulders to elbows. Down and up again, back across my chest, circling pectorals, pausing on my breasts. Blood warmed through my skin and muscle down through fascia, straight into my bones.

My fingers were experts in this braille, translating bumps and dashes into language that made sense in the pitch black. The dead cells sloughed off. My brain translated this as progress. Keep going, slow and steady.

After my torso, eventually my face. Across my forehead my pointer, middle, and ring fingers circled together, then each hand synchronized on either side of my face. Temples, cheeks, under my eyes, above my lips. I lifted my chin to the hot water, steaming my newly emancipated pores. For months, turning my neck in the slightest shot pain through my torn skin. My body learned to focus straight ahead, a dumb mannequin holding form.

I smiled, remembering the Noxzema commercials, the American model refreshed after rinsing off the miracle cream. I imagined Mama’s cobalt blue jar on her “mom’s bathroom” counter, smelled the camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus. Noxzema is short for, “no eczema.” Except nobody bought it for that.

I felt picture perfect in that shower. Nothing hurt.

Twenty minutes later, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror waiting for the steam to clear.

It didn’t hurt.

It didn’t hurt.

When I saw my face—or the face looking back at me—I, or it, shrieked. I had rubbed off too many layers of my skin. Blistered lesions peered back from every centimeter of my face. I looked down, there too: chest, shoulders, arms. It was as if I’d slid from heaven to hell on a gravel road, my arms flailing as I skidded and burned.

The numb evaporated. All at once, my nerve endings woke up from their analgesic dream.

Pounding, wrenching, searing.

My dripping, shivering body clamped shut like a fist. I collapsed on the carpet, face smashed into my knees, long black tangled hair convulsing, serpentine, arms and hands splayed.

I roared and wailed. I hiccupped and choked. I wanted to die. My body had nothing left in it to hope or hate.

I gave up. 

May the Lord find me worthy, like Mama used to pray in religious surrender.

 

Eczema is in the “atopic dermatitis” category. Atopy is Greek for “strange, different.” All of us Filipinos, all of this “strange,” inflamed skin. The seven thousand-plus islands bubbling in the Pacific, colonized, recolonized, occupied by Spain, the United States, Japan. A “bastard” people mixed with too many bloodlines to see our natural shade of brown.

So many others made us “Other.“

The United States freed us from three hundred years of Spain’s Catholic chokehold only to bend us over from behind. They replaced Spanish with English, swapping one imperial tongue with another. Though we were called America’s “little brown brothers and sisters” (translation: “exotic,” “strange,” “from elsewhere”) at least we could assimilate by speaking the right way.

 

2002

Back on my bathroom floor. From the middle of my chest, a quiet voice said, “Praise me.”

I knew I heard it. My gut, at first, rejected this command. It brimmed with what I learned at home: that I am only a subject worshipping the master. That Jesus died for my sins for I am a sinner saved by grace. Yet somehow, I had to earn my way to heaven. In Mama’s religion, grace is never free. It was commerce, a quid pro quo, legalism for my soul. I must have done something wrong to become sick. If I wanted reprieve, I should pay in praise.

This felt wrong. I didn’t believe in trading points with God. But, no matter how much Mama’s religion rankled me, as an adult, I distanced myself enough to consider faith as transformational, not transactional. I kept faith.

I had no idea how or desire to speak anything “right,” nor how to offer praise. I had no directive to follow, not even a clue.

I was hunched, uncovered and wet, my body shuddering in quiet aftershocks. Minutes passed. Nothing.

I had nothing to lose.

I opened my jaw to mimic the words, “praise you.” Totally unconvinced, I barely attempted a gesture. Here again, religion. Empty words from an empty vessel.

My vocal chords vibrated a noiseless note. What came out was not English. It was a quiet but steady “tongue” I had never spoken nor heard before.

Glossolalia.

I sat up. The song was pouring out of my chest. My tongue thrummed against my teeth. I stood, raised the volume, daring to hear it with my own ears. It kept coming and coming. An indistinguishable language—babble speak—coming from where?—and I could not stop speaking it. As long as my mouth was open, it flowed. I thought I’d lost my mind. I started to laugh, still “speaking.”

Inside, I sensed that I had known this language. That it was my own.

More than that, it was a message from Somewhere Else, to my unbelieving mind: It’s all here, in you, Ella. It’s not “either, or.” It’s “both, and.”

I unhinged everything, speaking, laughing, singing in this language for an hour. I called Chris at work. When he picked up the phone, I tried to say, “I found my prayer language,” but all that came out was more of the same gibberish-not-at-all-gibberish. (Charismatic Christians joke that it sometimes sounds like, ”shoulda boughta Honda but I boughta Mitsubishi.” Bingo.)

I felt glee through my sobs, a swollen, bare-naked creature bumbling at her computer. I emailed my husband the news. My fingers, thankfully, still typed in English.

I wept in a new way that afternoon. Skinned alive, the missing barrier allowed my body and spirit to intersect—to give my mind a break, to be with and in my broken body.

 

After so many years of this reported phenomenon, neuroscientists began to study glossolalia in the brain. In 2006, American neuroscientists measured brain activities of African American Pentecostal women as they swayed to gospel music, singing in tongues.

The neuroscientific difference between singing in English and glossolalia is that the frontal lobe takes a back seat. It stops trying to problem solve, to control. And the parietal region, the part of our brain that uses sensory information to create a “self” in relation to the rest of the world, increases. The speaker gives up self-control in one way to receive an expanded sense of how they fit in to the big, bigger, biggest picture.

 

If Mama knew I could do this, she’d be scared. Many of my cousins, too. It’s too close to witchcraft, possession, embodied Otherness.

She’s unpredictable, always changing, they’d say, Walang hiya—shameless! Sobra naman yung babae, too much, that girl.

When I speak in glossolalia, I leave my small, boxed-up, colonial mind. I give up trying to be the right shade of brown. I diffuse outward, past skin, past sin, past shame. I’m flesh and spirit, both/and, bigger than, more of.

The voice may be atrocious. Even so, it speaks towards fullness.

 

As kids, we were warned of this all-encompassing she-beast.

“Be careful when you go out at night. Don’t talk to strangers. They might be aswang and eat you!”

Aswang are more than typical ungo, or ghosts, to Filipinos. They are impressive shapeshifters, known to materialize as vampires, witches, werewolves, and more. Aswang can appear as long-haired beauties one moment and an arresting heartbeat a moment later, dynamic ghouls echoing as they feast on viscera.

My bolder girl cousins wanted to meet one, or at least see such a monstress fully inhabit her identity. They were the ones who turned off bathroom lights and chanted Bloody Mary over and over, desperate for Mary’s apparition.

Me? Too timid. I was born swallowing words, an eyes-to-the-ground, straight-A student. Small brown thing. I wrapped myself in the myth of the American model minority.

Mostly, aswang were female, and their superpowers were shameful, sinful, degenerate. If I encountered an aswang back then, I thought I’d die of fear. As I became more fluent in my prayer-other tongue, I grew more curious.

 

 

2004

A couple of years after my new language acquisition, I went to a mountain cabin retreat. People from my faith community intentionally tried to create what they called “thin spaces” between heaven and earth, atmospheres so porous that the supernatural could swirl terrestrial. They were removing a barrier, peeling a skin.

Someone with a steel string guitar or piano lead the room to sing worship songs. Standing, dancing, sitting, kneeling, we surrendered. Some of us sank into the wooded cabin’s couches and floor. We closed our eyes in chorus, arms up and out, ready, curious.

Our words, now ashes, follow other unseen molecules. I imagine dust-sized spirit guides dancing in the ashes, hand in hand, up to the ceiling, spinning faster and faster, overcome by the glory clouds of our prayers.

I lean back into the sturdy plaid seat, readjust my body. People glide to one another, lay hands on shoulders, begin praying quietly, earnestly. I don’t hear coherent words. My eyes are watching, but things are going dark.

I start squinting but there is less and less ambient light, not even a shadow to track. I can’t hear the singing or praying anymore. I’m in my seat but am no longer sure I am in the same room. Every sound is muffled or echoing. My brain cannot locate my limbs to tell them to move. Where am I?

I feel the weight of someone’s body pressing me to the chair. My body presses back, resisting. Why are we fighting? What am I fighting? I feel a second person wrestling me, both trying to hold me down. I arch my back and slide out of the chair onto the floor. My tight jaw, pressed lips, spits out groans. I realize that people are holding me down because I am convulsing violently.

Then, a detonation of hurtling screams come one after the other from deep down. The sounds are coming from my body. My chest. My vocal chords.

I screech and bellow. My throat is shredding. I have a fleeting awareness that I can “tone it down” a bit, but I reject that impulse. I am screaming as loud as I can. And yet, all the thundering is not enough. I beat my fists, claw anything near. Something in me is trying to break out. My legs and stomach ache with sustained rage. Bloody-veined neck and face.

My other senses observe this. I am inside my body but disengaged. I can see inside. It is vast, pitch-black, and in the corner of my imagination, there is a small girl in a white and pastel floral dress squatting, hiding her face.

“It’s okay,” says a voice inside me that is not mine.

“You’re safe.”

That little girl inside me crouches, her forehead on drawn up knees. She asks, “What is this about?”

You know this story. Several years earlier, an after-work happy hour, local music, dancing. Too drunk to drive home, I crashed at a co-worker’s apartment. I woke with him inside of me. I mouthed “No.” I shook my head, No. He preened and penetrated, proud as a peacock, puffed up like a colonial master.

The next Monday at work, he brought me a rose.

Confused, angry, ashamed, I shook my head and walked away.

My cast-off no got picked up, glued in front of different moments. No report to our boss. No way I could tell my Christian friends or pastor. No pressed charges. No one speaks of it.

 

Now, in the cabin, tearing open that thin space between spirit and body, the little girl looks up, her eyes wet, her breath measured. This, I recognize. All the outrage comes from this source. This body’s righteous fury emanates here: from the girl, expansive, centrifugal.

In debrief, our pastor believed I was delivered from a demonic spirit of rage. I felt it differently: Rage delivered me into freedom. It was holy.

It moved everything, guts and gore, from inside to out, finally.

She, I, we, are aswang.

 

There are creatures in the Philippine waters that pre-date the leviathan of colonialism. Buwaya are lethargic, mottled-skin crocodiles that hide in deep sea caves. On their backs are coffins to carry victims. Whoever they catch, buwaya keep them close as they swim through spirit worlds.

When my skin disease flares, it can persist for years. I become a cave-ridden reptile, poisoned by stress, by too much sun and water.

The silver lining of this isolation? I can babble in tongues shamelessly.

It helps, but I’m still lonely.

I’m today’s leper. I’m touch-starved. I want my husband to ignore the deforming rashes and enfold me. I long for strangers to hold my face warmly and say: “I’m not afraid of your skin.”

Filipinos, however, don’t speak this love language very well.

We are wary of getting too close. Filipinos are known to suffer from “crab mentality.” Think of crabs in a bucket. When one tries to crawl up and out, the rest pull it back down. Even in diaspora, we learn to keep at arm’s length, so as not to be dragged under. So that we can make it out; so that we stay afloat.

After centuries of being Othered, we are prone to forget we’re capable of deep dives, into the darkest caves. That we are never alone. The coffin on our backs carries our ancestors, hidden, immune from colonial clutches and religious rape.

My youngest daughter nursed till she was four. Eight years old now, she sleepwalks to my bedside at night and spoons me. She’s a whole-body hugger, like those koala souvenirs clipped on rearview mirrors.

I wake to feel her carrying me—her mottled dead—through the ocean’s skin layers: past trenches up through the abyss, midnight then twilight, at last level with sunlight. I hum, loosen my spirit tongue, emancipate my brown, scarred limbs. I wag, rage and swell to her strokes. She kicks, she glides. She holds me. We hold each other.

An archipelago of dormant nerve endings rumbles to the surface.

This is reparations for lost language.

***

Rumpus original art by Richelle the King.


Ella deCastro Baron is a second generation Filipina American who lives with her family in southern California. Ella is a professor, hula dancer, and writer whose work has appeared in Last Exit, Fiction International, CityWorks Literary Journal, and various anthologies. Her memoir, Itchy Brown Girl Seeks Employment—a collective text of creative nonfiction—and her current work are ways Ella bears witness to her ethnic upbringing, inherited faith, and chronic illness, her mixed race family, and how it may or may not fit together. More from this author →