05 July 2007

to debut or not to debut...

Here I am, coming out of hiding and writing my debut post on Filipina Moms. Usually, I have an opinion and/or thought about some random filipino-ness, but I'm finding my creative process is blocked. I think the reality of blogging alongside such talented, accomplished and illustrious pinay/pinay-lovin' sisters has left me a little humbled... and kinda panicked...

So, I start shuffling thru the latest issue of Audrey magazine hoping to find something to write about. I find an interview with Melissa Reyes, a filipino american teenager who auditioned to become the next Pussycat Doll in the reality television show, Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll.

I should also mention that I live in a deep, dark hole underneath my kids' large pet boulder. I really have no idea who Melissa Reyes is or who the Pussycat Dolls are. All I know is they do perform a cover of the song, Sway, that I really like a lot. And that the lead singer, Nicole Scherzinger is mixed race (with some filipino in the mix). I read through the whole interview and Melissa seems like a very lovely, very driven singer and dancer and will most likely go very far despite her loss to another singer, dancer, mixed race filipina, Asia Nitollano, for the next "Doll" role.

But it's the very first paragraph in the article* that struck a chord with me:

"The spotlight beam shines on an elated Melissa Reyes perched on top of a 6-foot tall gargantuan plastic tiered birthday cake in the Disneyland Hotel's grand ballroom in Anaheim, Calif. The heads of nearly 400 friends and family are craning toward her. It's Melissa's 18th birthday party and debutante ball, or "debut", a tradition in Filipino culture much like a quinceanera for Latina girls. Following the path already set motion by Melissa's older sister Michelle and their cousins before them, all of whom hosted debuts for their own 18th birthdays complete with ball gowns, waltzes and ceremonial customs, Melissa had staged a gala for herself."

Still with me? Or are you (like me) choking on your rice and longanissa at the FOUR HUNDRED guests? Maybe the 6 foot tall, tiered, plastic, birthday cake? Then it hit me - what am I going to do if/and/or/when the Paloma asks to have a debut?

I vaguely remember when my sister had her debut when she turned 18 in the winter of 1986. I didn't attend (long story) the festivities in Manila. I remember her writing to me about it later and sending pictures to illustrate her letter. It was very traditional. The first pictures were of her at home getting ready for her debut. She wore a beautiful ballet length gown that was made and tailored exclusively for her. Shortly after arriving at the ballroom, she and her "court" were introduced. There were 36 people in her entourage - 18 candles (young women, representing guidance to adulthood) and 18 roses (young men, representing courtship).

There was a toast to her and then some prayers followed by dinner. My father danced a special dance with her. Then, my sister and her friends waltzed (they had taken special dance lessons too) around the room. Then, my sister danced with all the young men (one of whom is now my brother in law and father to my most edible of nieces).

Presented to my sister, one by one, the 18 candles were lit. Everyone sang "Happy Birthday". And then, she blew them all out. The MASSIVE, multi-tiered, 3 sectioned/bridged cake was cut. My sister said a few final words and then, they danced all night long. Guests went home with tiny porcelain favors (I think they were baskets) carrying tiny pastel candies inside and wrapped with a flourish of ribbon and tulle.

When I turned 18, in the winter of 1990, I was in my second year of art school. My mom asked me if I wanted to have a debut. I said no. I think my mom was relieved (even though I know if I had said yes, she would have yoga posed the wheel to host the best debut for me). The biggest reason I said no was the sheer expense of it. I just didn't want my mom to go into further debt than she already was. I couldn't imagine paying for dance lessons for 36 people, getting fitted for an original dress, picking out party favors. And I have to admit, I just didn't "get it". Intellectually, I understood that it was a very special filipino (from the spanish?) tradition for young filipino women. Emotionally, I knew it would've made me feel more "unfilipino" than I already did.

I am a lot like my mom. I turned out very "non-traditional". I wasn't a traditional "filipina beauty". I didn't play piano or guitar. I didn't dance traditional dances. I didn't speak tagalog, bisaya or ilocano - i would always cringe when i could hear them explain, "maintindihan ay hindi nagsasalita". Then, I'd disappointed both of my parents by accepting a partial scholarship for poetry and attending a local art school instead of pursuing a BA at a larger, more prestigious university where I'd also been accepted. Looking back, it took a long time for me (and my family) to realize that even though I wasn't very traditional, it didn't make me (or my fellow non-traditional filipino friends) any less filipino.

So back to the article and the bazillion dollar question - what will we do if/and/or/when the Paloma asks if she can have a debut? Honestly, I really don't know. I really don't know who she'll be, 14 years from now. I know I'll still be her parent. I'll still feel that it's my responsibility to help her make informed choices and still be true to her sense of self. But it's disconcerting to know that I'm more certain I would allow her to get a tattoo at 18 than I am about throwing her a debut - elaborate or practical. I'm not very comfortable with how loaded it is with symbol and interpretation about what it means to be a woman - at 18 . What ideas and/or which friends/family will really be guiding my daughter and her decision making at 18? I don't understand the relevance of the special rose dance with the 18 men. How will we celebrate the Pork Chop's 18th birthday? When is he considered a man? Frankly, I'd rather spend that amount of money on a college education, a trip abroad to the Philippines, seed money for a business investment, even a big tag wedding or nursery item.

I find that with hitting certain milestones in life - marriage and motherhood, the passing of my lola, I'm eager to learn more about filipino traditions, their meanings and how they inform, transform and resonate in my life and my kids' lives. I did not hesitate incorporating some kasalan traditions into our wedding - the meaning behind the symbols of the coins, cord and veil really stated in a visual form what we were pledging to each other, what we hoped for our future and how connected I felt to this specific tradition.

Well, regardless of whether or not she has/wants/gets a debut, we'll still celebrate the very special day of her birth for the 18th time with presents, cake, pansit and friends. Though filipino tradition may consider her a woman at 18, she'll always be the loudest baby my midwife has ever heard, the fast talker, the slow walker, dinosaur afficionado, princess wannabe, physical comedienne and cicada whisperer to me.

* "All the World's Her Stage" written by Rhea Cortado in the June/July 2007 issue of Audrey.


Irene said...

I declined the 18 debut as well. It just wasn't for me. Check out the MTV series Sweet 16 and you will see not only 16 year olds but Latina 15 year olds celebrating their "Quinceanera". It's crazy - they get expensive cars that they're not old enough to drive.

la dra said...

We didn't have debuts as part of our family traditions. I'm sure this is because my family is quite poor in the Philippines. Like you, we did incorporate the Filipino traditions in our wedding, but I wouldn't know where to begin when it comes to planning a debut.

xiaolin momma said...

Ugh! I didn't do the debut, but a few of my girls friends did. I have to admit there were moments I wished our family could affordit, I was pretty happy not to have to be in the middle of the drama. Being in the court was plenty enough pressure! Watching teenage boys learn to waltz and cha cha was pure entertainment for me. My dance partner, my cousin, stepped on my toes at least 80 times!

Reyes-Chow said...

My daugher is seeing some of her friends experience their bat mistvah and other rites of passage and has asked about the whole pinoy thing. She has also seem clips of "The Debut" movie. I guess we'll cross that bridge when we get to it. None of my sisters did one.w

maria said...

Did not have one either (though almost all my cousins had one). My Dad asked me if I wanted one or if I just want to have the money. Guess what? I opted for the money and took my friends out for an overnight swimming party. I wouldn't trade that for a night of entertaining guests and relatives I barely know. Alas, I think my daughter wants one and I am only a year & a month away from it. I'd rather give her money to go on a trip somewhere, but, this is her decision to make.

Ames said...

I had a simply birthday party at a park center. Nothing too fancy :)

mamazilla said...

irene - omg. do you think she'll ask for a quincenera since she's puerto rican too? and a sweet sixteen as well since she's american as well??!!! yikes.

la dra - my family isn't rich by any stretch, but somehow my dad made it happen for my sister in manila... i'm sure a lot of it put him deeper into debt than he was.

xioalin momma - i can TOTALLY relate to wanting a debut. what "normal" eighteen year old wouldn't want one? in a way, i'm glad we didn't have the money to host one, so i really didn't have to make the decision at all...

reyes-chow - that debut movie was a riot.... i couldn't decide if i liked it or not... i haven't gotten around to watching it again yet though.

maria - was it a mixed gender overnight swimming party? 'cause if the paloma wanted one of those - it would HAVE to be chaperoned. ;) you'll have to let me know what your daughter decides to do - i can take notes! :)

ames - my 18th birthday was so simple, i don't even remember what we did... ;)

bokumbop said...

I'm not sure what to think about debuts, quinceaneras, etc ... on one hand it *is* a coming of age tradition, and a very deep-rooted one (EVERY girl of a certain class and up expects to have one), but on the other hand, a tradition that represents what ... vanity, narcissism, some of them more lavish than many weddings, I'm making assumptions here but I'm pretty sure it has something to do with being paraded around for potential marriage, etc. I have to say it's all kinda loco. And then what if you can't afford a lavish party ... I think a saw a movie entitled, "The Debut" that addressed that very issue, the father was a simple mail carrier and they did the best they could to live up to the expectations. I guess if we have a daughter, I will have to give it a lot of thought. I also like the idea of taking a trip, say, to South Korea, or somewhere really significant in Peru like Macchu Pichu instead. Great post, Mamazilla!

maria said...

Hey Mamazilla, It was a mixed gender swimming party, and no we did not have any chaperones. I think my Dad figured if I wanted to do some mischief I would not do it in front of all my friends ;p I don't think I would have called it a swim party if there's only two of us, ti-hee. I guess we'll find out when my daughter decides on what she wants.

SugarMama said...

Oh how I had dreamed to be just like Molly Ringwald at that time. LOL! I would have loved a debut, but I never really got asked, and I never dared asked. And if my daughter ask for one when she turns 18 --- uhhhm...as long as she won't be acting like those brats in MTV's Sweet Sixteen show!

BTW --- wow -- I didn't know Pussycat Doll's lead singer is partly Filipino! No wonder she is sooo good..hehe!