“Most American” by Cynthia Vasallo
Kuya and I used to love playing this game called Most American. We started playing when we first came to the US—my brother was almost nine that year and I was six. Because we were the only players, we made up all the rules as we went along. There was never really a prize for the winner, just bragging rights and applause from our parents.
One of my earliest memories of the game was of Kuya walking around the house with his thumbs and forefingers pressed against his eyelids in order to stretch them–opening his eyes wider–as if he could reshape them by force. After a while, he convinced me it was working, and maybe to humor him my parents had agreed. I couldn’t really see any difference but because I believed everything they told me, he easily won that round of the game.
Not too long after this, we begged Nani and Tati to shop at Sears, for clothes we couldn’t wait to wear so that we’d look just like everyone else. If we couldn’t exactly look like our classmates, at least we could dress the part. That’s when Kuya started to wear blue jeans and t-shirts; I wore plaid jumpers over frilly blouses with chunky black Mary-Janes. It didn’t matter that the old faldas and pantalones we brought with us from Manila resembled the new ones we had on. Those clothes came from there, these were from here–that’s what mattered. Nani and Tati said because we both looked equally American in our new outfits, that round of the game ended in a tie.
Then for my birthday a couple of years later, they let me join the Brownies. I never let on that I didn’t really like the tan colored vest–it was always stiff and scratchy. But I wore the uniform anyway. Not only because I threw such a huge tantrum in order to have it (something I would never have been able to get away with back home, under the eyes and sharp tongue of my lola) but mainly because of the merit badges. Those badges were something I could put my hand on during the Pledge of Allegiance and be proud of. I still have a Polaroid that my parents took of me in that outfit, one of the many they sent to the relatives back home. It has a caption that reads: 8 year-old Lena. New Brownie. Pic in front of apartment. Calif, USA. For a couple of months that year I was Most American. Until Kuya, just dying to have a uniform of his own, joined the Boy Scouts. Then we were tied once again.
As time passed, we found other ways to claim our victories. Like the year I started dating white boys. Too American, my parents had said frowning and shaking their heads. With that, I thought Kuya might concede. But then on his twenty-first birthday he enlisted in the Navy and that put a huge win in his column. My parents were so thrilled they pretty much left me alone—so in a way, I guess I won, too.
Now it’s a half-dozen years later and we’ve stopped playing altogether. Our tongues have been so tightly wrapped by blue, red, and white, they’ve become clumsy, tripping and tumbling over Tagalog. We no longer call each other by our old names. Kuya is now big brother, I am Elaine, and Nani and Tati are Mom and Dad. My parents have become sentimental. They’ve carefully put away our old clothes–even our Brownie and Boy Scout uniforms–saving them as hand-me-downs for grandkids that they hope will someday come along.
Today I’m clothed head-to-toe in black. Instead of my brother’s favorite Levis and t-shirt he is shrouded in dress-blues, a suit as dark as midnight with six gold buttons marching in formation down the front, a medal for each year of his service. It’s the uniform he was wearing when Mom and Dad used their new video camera to shoot footage of his academy graduation, the one he wore when he pledged his allegiance. It’s the suit my parents have chosen for this occasion.
Mom and Dad are seated on either side of me, front and center in the midst of a tearful but silent crowd. We watch as members of my brother’s division fold a flag into a perfect tri-corner before one of them salutes, then hands the bulky packet to my mother. Her shaky outstretched arms don’t quite know what to do with it; she hugs it tightly to her breast before finally passing it to my father. He underestimates the weight of it and I catch it before it falls, claiming my brother’s final prize.