This afternoon, while riding a jeep from Padre Faura to Espana under an afternoon temperature of 35 degrees Centigrade, something ordinary occurred that reminded me of a beyond-the-ordinary event that occurred around twelve years ago. That event gave me a sneak preview of what to expect as I entered the series of rites of passage a Filipino boy has to go through before becoming a real man.
A family of four rode the jeep when it passed by a government health clinic along Taft Avenue. The family was composed of a father sporting a proud, almost airy, expression; a mother with the undeniable know-it-all character most mothers have; and their two sons who are roughly ten to thirteen years old walking carefully and wearing over-sized shorts while holding the front portion of their shorts in an odd manner. In rural Philippines as well as in some poor areas of Manila, this sight of young boys wearing baggy shorts is common during the months of April and May when school closes therefore giving young boys enough time to recover from this simple surgery called circumcision but almost universally called in the Philippines as ‘tuli’.
I had mine when I was twelve years old; it was the summer of 1997. A week before the operation, my father advised me to clean myself, and if possible, spend time taking a bath by soaking myself in lukewarm water for half an hour everyday until the day. That day, my father brought me to a government clinic in the poblacion, around four kilometers from where we live. We were greeted by a market-like atmosphere of young boys with their father, sometimes also with their mothers, waiting in line for their turn to undergo an operation that will ultimately make real men out of them.
In the Philippines the operation is almost a routine in the general male population. While it is related with religion for Jews and some Christians, in the Philippines circumcision is a social activity that signifies the first step in the long process of becoming a man. Boys are made to feel the pressure by their friends and male relatives to undergo the operation. Although the benefits of the surgery have not been very convincing, a lot of myths have been made up to support the conduct of the surgery. It is said that boys will grow faster when they are circumcised; an uncircumcised man will not be able to impregnate a woman; circumcised men are more virile; etc.
The methods of the operation range from those conducted in private clinics in urban areas to the cruder and more dangerous ‘paltak’ where a village healer cuts the foreskin using a very sharp knife with just one blow, relying so much on a hit or miss.
It was an unforgettable day for me, and so was for my father. I am his eldest son, the first one he accompanied in this very important part of growing up for Filipino men. I tried as hard as I could not to show fear because I did not want to disappoint my father. But I knew I disappointed him when I went out of the clinic after my operation was done looking like I was about to pass out; I sensed it in the way he looked at me. He never talked to me during the entire time we were riding a tricycle back home. I eventually realized that it was my natural reaction whenever I lose an amount of blood. And whenever he told the story about that day he never failed to mention how I looked like I was about to faint.
I followed his advice on how to clean wound. He taught me how to gather young leaves of guava tree, boil them, and wash the wound using the water from boiled guava leaves. But I did not allow him to see my wound. I feigned independence in order to prove him that I was already a real man who could do things without his help. My wound got infected a week after, but I did not call his attention, instead I read the medical self-help book my mother bought on how to properly clean the area and how to use tincture of iodine as antiseptic. After a month and a half, I was completely recovered and healed.
It was an experience that caused a rift between my father and me. It took me a time to forget that look on his face that day when I almost passed out.
All those years, I was haunted by my father’s disappointed look that made me forget how proud he was that day bringing his first-born son to that small government health center in Polomolok, South Cotabato for his entrance to manhood and, most especially, adulthood.
I know I need not prove to him my manhood, nor to anyone else.
I smiled when I saw the two boys carefully avoiding the shorts they wore to touch their wounds from the circumcision; and their parents, with pride in their voice and saying it loudly for all the passengers to hear, advising them what do.
I smiled because I also experienced the same hard and painful process of becoming a man in the Philippines, and along the way understanding my own father.