Remembrance of a Paper’s Past

Existential questions bubble up during this pandemic for me, and I’ve had to dig deep to keep them at arm’s length. I’ve plucked obscure things from my past to reassure myself that this too shall pass and incorporated a Zen mindset, my Catholic faith and the prayers I would say in the car before heading off to the bus stop with my siblings for school to settle any spiritual anxiety and disturbances. This crisis, after all, calls for all hands on deck and every ounce of resilience I could muster.

The grotto I frequent to stretch, wind down and find solace after walks around my neighborhood

There was also a sixth grade paper, I alluded previously, in which I wrote about the HIV/AIDS epidemic. My mom was a pathologist, and as common for doctors she had these thick medical books on our shelves. My main source material was “Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine,” which I pored over religiously during the process, however, a Newsweek article was a secondary reference that introduced a public health professional who would figure prominently in the disease’s evolution to this very day. That professional is Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. He is the reason I stick by the guidelines he is advocating with the CDC and the science and data behind it to slow the progress of the coronavirus. When he is being questioned over the government’s response by the U.S. Senate, he responds in the same compassionate, respectful demeanor when challenged by HIV/AIDS activists at the epidemic’s height. Dr. Fauci is an old warrior who has been at this game longer than most of these senators have been in office.
I suppose too this is like writing an open letter to my 11-year-old self who wrote that paper for Ms. Mary Cavanaugh’s English class, to say this is my playbook for surviving a pandemic, HIV/AIDS, COVID-19 or otherwise: We will eventually reach a point of equilibrium, and we will adapt to a different yet manageable norm. While I have no idea where the paper is now, I hope whence next I return to my family home, I will find it and marvel over how a sliver of my younger past could comprise my North Star for my near half-century present.

East Coast Revival

Of all my vacations, I had to work myself into this one, as though bigger girl panties were required emotionally. I wasn’t feeling particularly strong for various reasons, but I eventually found my footing due to familiarity like my family home and quite frankly my second family, as it were, of friends. I had intentionally focused my time with them on this trip—so much life has happened since I was last there in 2016.

Even on the first leg of my journey, there was a tinge of sadness. New York City, while still electric, seemed quite frankly deserted due perhaps not only to the stifling heat and humidity in July, but also the steep cost of living residing there. My consolation, though, is I had more of the city to myself. On my last evening, I happened to go into a local Target in Gramercy Park and mixed with ordinary Saturday shoppers and neighbors, some strutting shirtless on the sidewalk, absorbing the early evening sun before nightfall. It was like any other urban neighborhood I had known, and it felt like home. Only fitting, raindrops fell on the morning of my departure.

But my hometown beckoned, and I was on an Amtrak train heading for the Burgh as I had done on previous trips before. However, as I do more traveling solo, it’s more and more about me and how I evolved since 2016, ergo the mandatory bigger girl panties. I am a lot more at home in the world than not, and being more in charge of my destiny is my constant wish.

It has occurred to me that coming home this year, my friends and I are facing challenging situations, like ill parents, struggling marriages, death of a spouse. After all these years, we are still connected as adults as we were in our younger days. As if by design, the states of our unions remain strong. In other words, we are in this lifeboat together until it no longer exists.

To be sure, it was a short homecoming, and I left Pittsburgh well-fed and entertained. It is always personal with opportunities of going deeper. But I somehow prevent myself from diving too deeply for fear of never resurfacing. However, as years go by and I grow older, there’s no avoiding it.

Lengua Franca


Deneng Deng (left), the Ilocano pinakbet (simmered vegetables in fermented shrimp paste), and lumpiang Shanghai (top right; mini meat egg rolls), fresh tomatoes and atsara (pickled papaya)

I will be visiting this summer my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA after three years. Trips there have been few and far between, so like anywhere else, I try to do and see as many things as possible.

It’s amazing how my folks put down roots in a place like the Burgh, so foreign to them in the beginning, but they eventually grew to love. After all, they raised a family and own a home. I would consider it my family home but not necessarily mine. As years pass, I realize home to me is somewhere else. Yet, there’s no denying my palpable sense memory, especially around food.

Lumpia (egg rolls) and Q BBQ Recipe are delicious staples in my family’s food culture.

My parents are often at their best when they are in the kitchen. In 2012, I wrote this unpublished essay for a food magazine, and since I’m feeling rather nostalgic, I will fit it in here as well as the recipe:

Having beef tongue for the first time one weekend when I was a teen was such an addictive experience that I went into a kind of all-day grazing mode, consuming it and playing into my parents’ hands to stay out of trouble. I recall it had the texture of my own tongue, with its subtle bumps and ridges. Obviously, I got past all that and discovered it had this nice mouth feel (no pun intended), as tender as any piece of meat should possibly be.
The real kicker, however, was the divine tomato sauce in which it was swathed. Lengua obviously wasn’t carried by the regular supermarket, so my Filipino parents would often drive to a butcher shop in Lawrenceville, a neighborhood minutes from downtown Pittsburgh. Our trips into the city felt like an adventure away from the suburbs where we lived. I learned Foster’s Meats and later Butcher on Butler are now defunct, but there, in a nondescript brick-red building and hurricane-glass block windows, they found rare meat products and “nasty bits” for such native fare as karé-karé (braised oxtail in peanut butter sauce) and the Ilocano version of dinuguan (pork parts stewed in pig’s blood). My siblings and I would wait in our boat-size hunter green Mercury Marquis, as one of my parents or both would go shopping for those delicacies.
You could say beef tongue as it was prepared by my dad that weekend not only made me a really good girl, but also kept me from completely assimilating, lest I would lose my delectable and soulful food culture. From my standpoint, I am more than sated by it.
Filipino Dad’s Beef Tongue in tomato sauce
Beef tongue from the butcher’s

Vegetable or canola oil (1 to 2 tablespoons)
Tomato sauce/puree and/or fresh diced tomatoes
Garlic (2 cloves, sliced)
Onion (1 medium, sliced)
Soy sauce and pepper to taste
Sugar (optional)
To prepare the beef tongue, cover it in water and boil for 3 to 5 hours (1 lb./50 minutes is the conventional wisdom). You may also use a pressure cooker to shorten the cooking time (follow its recommendations).  When done, cool and remove outer skin or covering and any gristle or sinew.  Cut quarter- to half-inch slices.
Tomato Sauce:
Sauté garlic and onion slices in oil until soft. Add 2 cups of tomato sauce/puree and/or diced tomatoes and simmer till thickens. You may also add a little water to thin out the consistency if it’s too dense for your liking. Season with soy sauce and pepper to desired taste; cook for two minutes. Add beef tongue slices to sauce and let them meld together, basting the gravy over the beef to help heat it through. Once done and the meat is tender, serve and enjoy over rice or by itself. Green olives (or pimento stuffed ones) for some briny flavor would also take this dish to another level.


Hometown Revisited


Pittsburgh, PA from East Ohio Street

Every time I go back to my hometown whether physically there or in my mind’s eye, I increasingly see what it is, maybe a little more graceful and forgiving and focusing less about the humdrum routine of family life. It’s a feeling of home, a history that is a part of me because I made it my own. Wherever I land, it is right here with me. I think of my parents and what had become of them–older, even crotchety with some glimpses of youth. Then I think of me and how I’ve grown and the space I now inhabit. I don’t have many questions anymore.

The cul de sac where my siblings and I used to play is so much smaller, and it is now more the street where I would pull into or out of when driving to another destination. I only dreamed of a life beyond this comfortable bubble, one not exactly what I expected but nevertheless it is on my own terms.

It turns out June is ending rather bumpy with unanticipated changes, and I have to pivot toward another position. But that is part of my journey. To be alive is not to be static and stuck but to move with the flow the train will take me.


A Letter to My Younger Self

Lil Rachelle in Ilocos Sur, Philippines

In a few years, you would fly on a TWA airliner to join your parents in the United States, rather sad, dare I say even upset, that you would be leaving your beloved great-grandmother, Lucia, who took care of you in your mother’s absence.  But when you were on the plane, you somehow had this idea that you were embarking on a great adventure, and later, you learn there is even a moniker for it–citizen of the world–one that you would feel aptly describes the role you were supposed to step into when you left the Philippines for good.

You would hit the books most of your life in your hometown of Pittsburgh, PA until your twenties, when you would spend most of the years after college having roommates and misadventures and working in your dream job in a city you weren’t completely sold on, even taking it for granted, until it’s 20 years later, and you’re still here. Many times you would want to quit San Francisco, but you just couldn’t quite pull the trigger.

You would fall in love before you turn 30 and lose your job and man in one year.  But you would travel to Paris at the end of the year with a ragtag band of your two sisters and two of your friends from high school and college, so that you would return to San Francisco, not only tinged with sorrow,  but also the joie de vivre of that magical city.  You would clean up after the party you had in your twenties and start figuring out in your thirties how you would want the rest of your life to look like.  Your Paris gave you the spirit, and you would try to recapture and infuse it.  You would tell people what you don’t want.  The things you would love most–music, writing and your family and friends–are your saviors.

You prepare for your forties so that you become the entire package.  You tell people what you do want and who you are for someone to meet you at that similar place–one who will love, recognize and accept you for who you’ve become at this point in time.  You learn to love and take care of yourself more passionately.  You’re less selfish, kinder and more forgiving.  You see the difference between falling in love, being in love and love itself, which means sacrifice, stretching and enlarging one’s heart for someone else, putting their needs before yours, compromise and attention (qualities that by and large characterize your parents’ own marriage of currently 44 years that while for years you promised yourself you would never want, is essentially a verity you’ve come to accept and maybe even embrace).

You believe true love will find you because you have a better understanding of what it is, not simply the romantic notions that spring from pop songs and Hollywood movies, but also the changing faces of the moon in shadows and light, shades of gray, cyclical endings and beginnings that test one’s faith in whether it could ever be sustained.  For all the experience and wisdom you’ve gained, you haven’t really cracked most of life’s mysteries.  And that’s okay because your life still remains an unfinished work.

Birthday Hopes and Dreams

After celebrating another birthday in May and experiencing a period of loss and change, I think of Thomas Pastorius, who passed away last year.  Considered the first microbrewer in Pennsylvania, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he also marked the coda of my high school journalism career when I interviewed him for one of my last articles in North Catholic’s Trojan News.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, he would open Penn Brewery at the bottom of Troy Hill Road by the Fall, while I was starting college.

Although my meeting with him was brief, he was a gracious and generous man who fed my fledgling ambition by basically giving me something grown-up to write about.  I am now in rather awe the prescience of standing and speaking with him in the dank and dark interior of the old Eberhardt and Ober brewery below my high school before its grand transformation.

But as life would have it, his dream of an on-site brewery and restaurant proved to be a high-maintenance job.  One’s passion could also produce much anxiety and frustrations–that much I too do understand.  Throughout my career, I’ve gone in and out of the thing I love to do most.

Another birthday does give me pause, and a refocusing of sorts is in order, for starters, infusing more positive energy and a healthier balance during work weeks.  And if I’m lucky, I may even capture a little of the thrill “Mr. Beer” once had of crafting brews–often times the hard but, in his mind, the right way.

Nostalgia for an Indian Summer

I was talking recently to Carmen, one of my closest friends, and I began wondering what it might be like living full time once again in the Burgh.  Judging from my visit last year in October, it would, no doubt, be great fun.

Right off the bat after she picked me up at the airport, we headed to Shadyside for a late supper and nightcap.  It was a Friday night, so the bars were heavily populated by young patrons, the majority of which came from nearby universities like Pitt and Carnegie Mellon.  At one bar, every square inch was virtually occupied that wherever I turned I could easily have found myself on someone’s lap.  Actually, the closest thing to anything of the like was being personally treated to an impromptu Vegas-style dance of the Seven Veils from a girl who obviously was too plastered to know any better.

Raunchy entertainment aside, Carmen and I finally ended the night in the quiet of Pangea, a fusion cuisine restaurant off Walnut Street with a decent wine bar, where she bumped into an old high school friend she hadn’t seen since, well, high school.  During the course of my stay, we went to places “dahntahn” and “uptahn,” starting at Paris 66 for French bistro food, to Bossa Nova, where we crashed an Indian family’s hen party, sewing up the night at the Brillobox for Yuengling beer, DJ music and dancing in Lawrenceville.

The Brillobox in Lawrenceville

It also turned out to be a wondrous Indian summer, with the temperatures in the 80s against the backdrop of falling gold, burnish brown, orange and Rainier cherry-color leaves –I couldn’t have asked for a better, dare I say magical, time to visit.  It goes without saying  Steeler games on Sundays are occasions for parties, and Carmen followed suit, throwing ribs on the barbie in her backyard.

This fall, Carmen and I were planning a trip to New York City so we could celebrate turning 40, but I told her I most likely I won’t be able to make it back to the East Coast, although I am still keeping the door slightly open.  I’m a little bummed, of course, but talking with her and Channa, the woman who does my hair and nails, has eased the disappointment.  No one should underestimate the power of a good haircut, plain old-fashion pampering and the support and affection of an old friendship.

©photos by Rachelle Ayuyang

Back to the Hollywood Classics

I  grew up on a steady diet of Hollywood classics and musicals, but getting older and wiser, I jettisoned the heavy portions of  happily-ever-after, love conquers all and pipe dreams.  I became more inclined toward pragmatic, no-nonsense entertainment–with the exception of the last two months.  I was willingly and pleasantly drawn into those same old guilty pleasurable moments of sweetness and light as I followed the 12th season of “Dancing with the Stars.”

I am also a diehard Pittsburgh Steelers fan who was raised in the former Steel City, obviously rooting for Hines Ward and his professional dance partner Kym Johnson to win it all.  But it became more than a dance contest after this week’s show because of Kym’s terrifying injury.  It put competition in greater perspective and thus pushed the show to another level.  They went on to dance the Argentine tango of a DWTS lifetime.

Watching this show turned a minor diversion into an almost obsession.  I signed on to the Hines Ward & Kym Johnson Dancing with the Stars Facebook fan page, and I couldn’t believe how deep the enthusiasm ran–wall-to-wall postings of photos, footage, interviews and even dance analyses by some rather clever observers.  It took my mind away from worrying about paying for dental work,  imagining once again the magic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers once created on Hollywood sets and soundstages.  With such ease and flow that belie endless hours of practice and rehearsals, they expressed the story of their romantic coupling in dance.  The fourth wall is torn down; in my opinion, it has the intimacy of a play.

While folks try to figure out Kym and Hines’ chemistry–will they or won’t they–I like to compare them to Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in “Roman Holiday.”  They were two appealing actors who had immense respect and admiration for one another, with the latter, who was a bigger star at the time, even admitting without hesitation that the then-starlet stole the 1953 movie from him, and she deserved top billing as much as he.  They embodied my ideal couple–reserved, smart, attractive and simply lovely together–just like Hines and Kym who are so complimentary toward one other it’s not clear who the star is.  The final dances almost seem moot.  Next week with them, though, there’s no shame in riding off into the sunset.

Reflection of 9/11 in 2001

I moved to San Francisco in the summer of 1993 during the floods that were devastating the Midwest. I came by plane. It was hovering over the Mississippi River, when the pilot told passengers to look outside their windows. A thick, dark rain-cloud virtually beside the plane appeared to be traveling alongside us. It was like a black furnace whose belly stoked flames of immense danger and beauty. Could it have been a portent of the ensuing years to come?

After nine crazy years in the City by the Bay and having turned 30 last year in 2001, I can say it continues to be a satisfying experience. But I still think about my hometown in Pennsylvania. My parents are still in Pittsburgh and so are most of my closest friends. The moment I heard about the terrible news from the East Coast, I called my parents. It was after noon in Pittsburgh. They had just arrived home, after the entire city was evacuated. My mom told me both she and my dad were okay. With the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh a not-so-distant memory, they were a little edgy because they both work in the federal building downtown. Later, I spent time exchanging e-mails with my high school friends in Pittsburgh. Renee, was a bit hawkish, advocating retaliation, while Cindy, was more of the dove, saying prayers were needed for those who wish Americans ill.

Once all the facts were gathered and a grave picture of calamity and death unfolded before the nation, the emotions floated to the top. I felt as though I needed to tell loved ones things that normally went without saying. I called up, Carla, my first roommate at Penn State University. I told her before moving away to college, living at home with my family for 18 years made me so decidedly Filipino, never wanting to be anything else, least of all American.

But over the years, I have become less militant. The tragic event pressed me to play Bruce Springsteen as she used to do in our dorm room. Everything she listened to, I told her, is now part of my character. It also made me decidedly East Coast, and I am grateful for her unique Americanization of me. In return, I was her unexpected writing coach, which was ironic since English wasn’t my first language.

Going for my journalism degree at Penn State University was often a challenge in a small college town. Journalism students had to venture to the media hubs in the Eastern Seaboard for career opportunities. I went to Washington, DC with my parents last summer. It was the first time I was a tourist in the nation’s capital, taking tour rides to Arlington National Cemetery, Georgetown and various other sites. I was seeing this historical city through a different set of eyes.

At the Wall of the Vietnam Memorial, I felt for the anguished families looking for a loved one’s name. Once found, relatives transcribed it onto a scratch sheet of paper, somehow accepting that a life given in service of one’s country is one of the noblest of causes. Just a stone’s throw from the Wall is Lincoln Memorial. His administration knew no rest from upheaval, producing some of history’s most stirring speeches. They were rarely superfluous. Lincoln lost very little time in getting to the point: The country was engaged in a bitter civil war. Whatever the outcome, there really were no winners in a house divided and torn to shreds.

My mother once told me one of her grandmother’s greatest hopes for her was that she would never know war. This current war is definitely nothing my grandfathers fought during World War II. My paternal grandfather was a soldier in the Philippine Army, and my maternal grandfather fought as a Filipino-American with his Filipino counterparts. While the latter passed away three years ago in the Philippines, my dad’s father died during the Japanese Occupation from 1941 to 1945. I recall both of them, when I visited the memorial immortalizing the flag-raising in Iwa Jima. I now understand that being Filipino and American means having pride in being both.

These thoughts cross my mind during an unexpected rainstorm in San Francisco that turned into hail. Lightning cracked the sky and broke through the fog, providing a breathtaking light show overhead. I engage in conversation a woman sitting next to me in a bus shelter. She was upbeat, trying to hide her uneasiness over the heavy downpour, thunder and lightning, which, she feared, might strike her. I wasn’t as fatalistic. I always looked forward to the thunderstorms, growing up in Pittsburgh, because they briefly interrupted the tranquility that pervades the suburbs during nighttime. It was often the anticipation of the rolling, crashing thunder that put me to sleep.

After September 11, San Francisco has turned into Anytown, U.S.A. Entering any street in the city with Old Glory draped in windows or hanging outside homes feels like walking into a typical neighborhood in Middle America. San Francisco is generally known for its independent, carefree spirit, not easily swayed by the general national consensus. I realize, however, San Francisco in some ways is not much different from Pittsburgh. Perhaps that’s what I learned here. Apart from moving out of my comfort zone, I have gained perspective and an understanding that regardless where you are, problems and anxieties persist.

So now I am appreciating things that I had previously taken for granted, even the struggles that bog me down. The balancing act of being both Filipino and American, West Coast and East Coast and an independent single woman has become less of an albatross. I have come to accept all these identities as the person I am. As an amalgamation of my family and friends from Lapog, San Juan in the Philippines to San Francisco, California, Pittsburgh and State College, Pennsylvania and back to the West Coast, I am almost whole.

When I sing “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” as I did a few nights after September 11 in a Japanese restaurant offering karaoke entertainment, it is with another layer of meaning. The heroic acts of passengers on Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco, which crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, (incidentally 80 miles from Pittsburgh) are not far from the song’s sentiments. Perhaps the connections aren’t so random, after all. For me they are coming full circle.