The COVID-19 risk has resulted in fewer people at birthday parties these days, and those brave enough to attend will likely practice physical distancing and wear face masks. Those who really care about themselves and those around them will only shed their masks during the meal, and promptly put them back on while chatting afterwards. “Happy Birthday” has lost its meaning, because it is now sung twice over each time a compliant person washes his or her hands obsessively with soap and water. Guests also politely refuse slices of birthday cake if the celebrator blows out the candles, so the new way is for the celebrator to wave the candles out with properly sanitized hands. If that doesn’t work, the celebrator can pick the candles off the cake and blow them out gently away from others, to minimize the transmission of disease from breath or droplets.
Watching these awkward rituals recently made me realize that an abanico would be perfect for a birthday party. Unfortunately, women don’t carry hand fans these days; a handheld electric model in the summer maybe, but the expensive Spanish fans of silk and scented wood are as extinct as Rizal’s Maria Clara. In Madrid souvenir shops today, cheap, plastic, made-in-China abanicos outsell the hand-painted Spanish abanico in wood or ivory. In the Philippines, the heart-shaped pamaypay is not a lola’s church accessory anymore; it is often used in roadside stalls to fan embers that make for good pork, banana, or camote barbeque.
To get a sense of changing times, browse Pascual H. Poblete’s 1922 book “Patnubay ng Pagsinta” (Guide to Courtship), which details nonverbal communication by means of the fan, the handkerchief, and even flowers. How a woman used or held a fan and handkerchief signaled many things to the men circling around her like hunters to their prey. If a woman carried the fan hanging on her right hand (Dalhing nacabitin sa camay na canan), it meant she wanted a boyfriend (Ibig cong magcanovio). If the fan hung on her left, it meant she was already taken or “I have a boyfriend.” The same message was carried if she played with the horlas that attached her fan to her belt; it meant “I love someone else, and he loves me” (Umiibig aco sa iba at iniibig naman aco). If she was not interested in a guy, she would put the fan in her pocket or leave it, meaning Ayao cong maquipagligauan.
If she looked bored and started counting the ribs of her fan, it meant: I want to talk with you (Ibig cong magsalita sa iyo). Dropping a fan was not always accidental; when done on purpose it meant: “I want to be honest with you” (Aco’i tapat ang loob sa iyo). If she covered half of her face with a fan, she was not being coy, it actually meant: “Follow me” (Sumunod ca sa aquin). To fan herself briskly meant: “I have great love for you” (Malaqui ang pag-ibig co sa iyo). To fan herself slowly, on the other hand, indicated that “You mean nothing to me” (Ualang halaga ca sa aquin). And woe to the man if she folded the fan abruptly, for it meant: “I hate you!” (Quinapopootan quita).
There are more signals for handkerchiefs: To caress her lips with a hanky meant “I want to enter into correspondence with you” (Ibig cong maquipagsulatan). To caress one eye: “I am lonely” (Lubhang naluluncot aco). To caress both eyes: “You have no mercy” (Lubha cang ualang aua). To lay the hanky on the right cheek meant yes, and no if placed on the left cheek. To fold it meant “I want to talk” (Ibig cong maquipagusap sa iyo). Folding the corners of the hanky meant “Wait for me” (Hintain mo aco). To tie a knot on the ring finger meant “I’m married,” and on the index finger meant “I have a boyfriend.” To tie a knot on the whole hand: “I am all yours” (Aco ay sa iyo). To play with a hanky meant “You don’t mean anything to me” (Pinauaualan quitang halaga). To caress both cheeks with the hanky: “I love you.” To caress the left hand with it: “I hate you” (Icao ay quinapopootan co).
Too long to detail here the language of flowers (Salitaan sa Manga Bulaklak), with each flower part and each type of flower meaning something, such that a love letter to the uninitiated would read like a botanist’s field notes. For example, “your words break me down” will be rendered as: “Dalawang dahon ng Nintea blanca at Verbena.”
The past is truly a foreign country in the pages of “Patnubay ng Pagsinta.” Browsing through it me made me grateful to live and love in the age of texting, voice mail, email, and video calls.
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