Last weekend, I hopped home to attend a joyous reunion of sorts: Two high school friends got married, and my dear cousin got engaged to an upperclassman. There’s the usual banter, of course, the all-too-familiar buzz of how their love stories unfolded: how girl met boy, or vice versa, the courtship, the proposal, preparations for the big day. The Filipino-Chinese community in Iloilo is quite small, so to speak, and in a city where everybody knows practically everybody else, one would be hard-pressed to find a huge surprise (True enough, there were no real surprises – both couples had been going at it for several years already.) The only surprise arrived way before the wedding ceremony began, in the middle of a somewhat sweltering June afternoon, with someone sidling up to me on the pew and blurting out, quite matter-of-factly: “So, when’s yours?”
Stuck in the roaring years of the turbulent twenties, it’s not as if this were the first time I found myself facing the music of the magic question, one best handed out to old, graying maids and fat, balding bachelors. As one of my erstwhile Chinese teachers remarked, “When people reach the right age, what do they do? They get married!”
Ah, if only it were that easy.
Growing up, I never considered myself really ripe enough for the romance arena, at least one to be taken seriously. My childhood and teenage years were chock-full doing academics and career stuff at school, while hobbies and family took priority at home. It didn’t help that I grew up in a society of 100 million inhabitants, propelled at a furious pace by the highest birth rate in Southeast Asia, and marred by daily news of gruesome abortions, unwanted teenage pregnancies, and broken families (Add a staunchly anti-Rh bill church and years of rotating in congested obstetric labor rooms.) It didn’t occur as a surprise therefore, that romance has always been out of the question. A personality test I took years back required me to rank the following in terms of priority: family, career, health, personal development, and romance – to which I immediately ranked romance at the very bottom, with a smug expression on my face.
Through all seven years of medical school – plus another three for residency training, I have seen how it takes an especially gargantuan degree of patience, dedication and selflessness to establish a solid relationship and make it work, or to keep an existing one going strong. For the less fortunate ones like me who had to contend with the phenomenon of single blessedness in the meantime, it's a fact of life we've grown to accept – the numerous February 14 solo dates where you pitifully got your own cake and ate it, the parties where you had no one else but your best friend or block mate to drag to, the myriad high school reunions where everyone else had husbands and babies and you still had your boring exams and textbooks. In the latter case, typical conversations included snippets of "So, have you found her yet?" to be followed after by my subtle attempt to digress. Only time will tell, I always retorted.
But time is also ticking, and my medical colleagues know it best.
I once had a conversation with a medical school classmate who’s right smack in her thirties. When I asked her about residency plans after graduation, she became pensive and shook her head. “Oh dear, I don’t think I can do residency anymore. My ovaries’ days are numbered.” I nodded slowly, smothered with a lot of understanding. Another classmate, currently in her last year of residency, bemoaned the fact that her own mother threatened her with so much as a trip to the local matchmaker should she fail to, ahem, comply with due requirements in the romance department. The urgency seemed appalling. As one family friend who got married in the nick of time narrated: “Getting married has its own rules: When you’re young, it’s all about the heart. When you’re old, it’s all about the head.” (In other words, kailangan mautak na.) When one beholds the fact that she came from a family of three consecutive old maids, such words are bound to be perfectly understandable.
Having grown up in a typical Filipino-Chinese family, you eventually get the gist of everyone else’s expectations: take a wife, bear a child (preferably a boy), and carry the family name for generations hence. In this regard, Charles Tan has an interesting and very informative take on the Filipino-Chinese wedding custom (http://charles-tan.blogspot.com/2008/06/essay-filipino-chinese-marriage.html) But just as the tides wax and wane and cutting-edge trends evolve, the once elaborate rules and traditions governing Filipino-Chinese marriages have changed as well. No, we don’t do arranged marriages anymore, sacred tea ceremonies are not an absolute necessity, and last I heard, getting kicked out of the family inheritance for failing to marry a “purebred” Chinese is about as passé as the ancient ritual of foot-binding.
So, in this crazy, postmodern 21st century era, what exactly are the rules of romance?
I can best sum it up in perhaps three words: Follow your heart.
May you all have a lifetime of love and romance!