The seats are all coated with an unknown substance, some polyurethane coat that gives these plastic booths more sheen than what they have on their own. I bet that under normal fluorescent lights, these seats are an unforgiving white, revealing the transgressions of past clientele: coffee spills, food stains, and the dye from colored jeans rubbing off on the curvatures. But thankfully, the soft glow of incandescent lights filtering through overhead resin fittings bathes our seats in a mollifying yellow.
I have grown accustomed to the caked makeup of Ronald McDonald, greeting me at every door of the fast-food joint on practically every corner of every street in Manila, where I would have most of my dinners for the five years I have spent in university. I greet him with equal fondness although I never grasp his outstretched hand, but I do send him a telepathic nod every now and then and thank him for giving me easily accessible food most nights.
I did not grow up with clowns back where I grew up. Digos City was more of a bee place, but even then, before I had packed my bags to be a small fish in a big pond, my favorite fast-food mascot was my mother because she was live-action, her joints weren’t stiff with plastic, and she wasn’t hollow. Food came in bowls and casseroles that you had to pass around, and she never did single servings except when you were sick and you needed that special bowl of soup. My father specialized in especially fatty food: Everyone needed to suck the marrow from the bone, everything grilled was amazingly luscious and tender, and some nights there would be a bowl of diced raw fish (kinilaw, if you prefer) soaking in a carefully measured soup of vinegar, sili, ginger and onion.
Most nights I am here in this fast-food chain that has probably seen its 1,000,000th customer, who was greeted with confetti and the loud ding of registers. There were 999,999 people before him who had ordered the same thing, but he was special, wasn’t he? I don’t think so. It’s the same chicken recipe and it’s the same sequence of condiments that went into his burger. Everything is made for everyone. Nothing is ever made just for you in McDonalds or any other fast-food chain, and sometimes I sit here and wonder if Ronald McDonald really meant the vacant smile he wore when he was first cast in the mold and sent in a box to every store in town. Was the smile really meant for you (singular), or for you (plural)?
In Manila, aside from my empty friendship with Ronald, I thought I was living large, living independently, like all children who decided that they have grown into responsible adults and leave town for l’etrange. Here I was making decisions on my own. Should I have dinner at McDonalds, or at a restaurant where you don’t have to look for your own seat? Should I study tonight, or should I have a drink with my buddies? Should I buy this brand of notebook or that, and what pen would I like to use for this month? The decisions I make in school and in the hospital have far more weight, but sometimes the place where I will have dinner concerns me to an equal extent. And in these times when no one would make the decision for me, loneliness would creep in like fog in early Manila mornings from the slopes of Antipolo.
I thought myself within the ranks of my friends who were independent enough to survive in the city sans family. We are the strong, who braved unfamiliar territory with its unfriendly natives, unwelcoming back streets and inhospitable June climate. We persist despite leaving behind most of what we knew well, only to realize their worth now. Moral support held so little weight in high school because it was only a joke proffered to the group leader with the bulk of the tasks. Getting rides to school with my siblings was stressful because there was a lot of yelling involved. Home-cooked meals were spurned in favor of take-out from restaurants.
My decisions finally had weight, but more important were the decisions I would make every weekend: if I would go to Makati or not. I did find my family in Manila. I have a cousin living in Makati with her lovely family. I would excitedly bid goodbye to my clown-friend (a friend of habit) on weekends. After the grueling work-hours of medicine, I would pack a bag full of clothes, and a book if I had an exam the following week.
I usually don’t mind the long rides in a taxi on weekends, when like me everyone would flock to their families in the outskirts of Manila, and the avenues and boulevards stretch forward for this exodus. I don’t mind the utter disrespect for personal space and personal hygiene on the trains or the inhuman compression of human flesh into rows in jeepneys. In fact, I don’t mind at all how woozy I would feel after traveling and how I would love to collapse in a heap of bones on the bed in apartment 5B. All that mattered was that I was back there with my family.
Ate would make pasta and she would always offer me a whole loaf of rum cake despite the alcohol content. Kuya would send me back with games and movies on my hard drive—and he grills a mean liempo, too. My niece would greet me on Friday afternoons, roused from sleep by my arrival, and she would drag me to her room to play on the Wii. I would be her jester most days, bending to all of her whims. And although I would have an exam on that week, I would still gladly volunteer to be her pretend-patient, her art project, or her oversized, age-inappropriate playmate. I was never a part of the legion of children conquering foreign shores; this place was still home.
Today, my cousin left the Philippines because her company assigned her overseas. I bet the blinking lights that hover in the skies outside make up her flight. Her husband and my nieces will be in that airplane in a month, too, and then ringing the doorbell to 5B will be met with silence. I will then really be one of the strong and brave, fending off the feeling of alienation with the flip of a textbook page and the occasional swig. I still may siphon my parents’ bank accounts, but yeah, it feels weird to be eating here in a plastic booth at McDonalds on a Saturday night.
Joseph Oraño, 19, is a third-year student at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine.