Leron, Leron, my love
Went up a papaya tree
Holding a basket
To get some fruit for me
But when he reached the top
The branch broke off the tree!
Oh what bad luck!
I have to find another love!
Wake up Neneng,
Let's go up the tamarind tree
Bring a basket
To gather the ripe fruits
But when you reach the top
The branch begins to sway!
Hold on tight Neneng!
I don't want you to fall!
Emil and I have been singing the Filipino folk-song “Leron, Leron, Sinta” in Tagalog and in English on our way to his school for about five years. Now he has reached the age when he wants to probe what the words are saying.
“It's meant to be silly,” I reply. “Nursery rhymes are meant to be silly, like Rock A Bye Baby. It’s also about chivalry and serving your elders …” I start to add but break off before Emil can challenge what I know myself is a flawed interpretation with his favorite put-down: “How lame!”
Yes, the lady in the song is lame—and how strange because so many of the Filipino women that I know are strong and independent, quite the opposite of lame. I remember reading that the Philippines, even with all the machismo, is a matriarchal society. In fact, we are the first in East Asia to have a woman President.
And then I think, how in the world did I end up doing a contextual analysis of the English translation of “Leron, Leron, Sinta,” albeit in my head? It’s one of those things I never envisioned myself doing — another unexpected consequence of my deciding to live and have a family away from home.
I grew up in Manila and moved to New York to take my masters in graphic communications management in my early twenties. I met Tony — an American and a doctoral student at the time — at New York University. After we married, we decided to stay in New York City.
Both my parents had gone to grad school in the US when they were young and then returned to the Philippines. I still envisioned something similar for me but every Monday and Wednesday (Tuesday, Thursday, Friday is my husband's shift), I find myself crossing Broadway on 204th Street in NYC, accompanying my auburn-haired son to school and, today, thinking about Leron, his hapless girlfriend, feminism, chivalry and helping the elderly.
Like many Filipino women, I am short in stature, barely five feet tall. And for several years after my husband and I got married, when a light bulb needed to be changed, I would ask him to do it. Weeks would go by and no new light bulb! It was a little thing, but it bothered me a lot. I needed a lot of light in my home. The house in Manila I grew up in had an entire wall made of glass. Sunlight came through almost the entire day.
Because Tony, my husband, was taller, I viewed it as his responsibility to change the light bulb. But in the evenings after work, he was always too tired. Finally, after an argument about it, he said I should change it myself! I said I would if I could, but because our ceilings are about 12 feet high, even if I stood on a chair AND a stool, I couldn't do it. He was the man of the family and it was HIS job!
But then it occurred to me that Tony had a different, less gender-typical upbringing. His parents divorced when he was 13 and his mom did many of the household maintenance tasks herself. She painted her own walls, even sanded her own porch. She often told me she was a better handyman than her two husbands.
Finally, because I couldn't stand the darkness any longer I called the superintendent of our building to change the light bulb, even though I knew he would charge a fee. Although almost six feet tall, the super showed up with a ladder and completed the task in two minutes. Watching him, it dawned on me that I could buy myself a ladder! I went online and found a small, foldable five-foot ladder that fit in one of our apartment closets. It was delivered right to my apartment door.
Since then, I have changed light bulbs, put up picture frames, patched holes from old curtain brackets and even painted entire walls in our apartment. Stepping on that ladder was so empowering! Like Leron's girlfriend, I learned to do things myself.
In the song the singer asks “Neneng” to wake up and get some tamarind from the tree — perhaps to make some sinigang (a traditional Philippines soup that is very sour).
When I was a young girl, we would have lunch with my mom's sisters and their families almost every Sunday, and the grownups would order the children around. I would often be asked to get a bag left in another room, call one of the other grownups to come into a room, play the piano for the guests. No matter what the grownups asked you to do, you couldn't say no. Sometimes, my sister, my cousin and I (we were the three closest in age) would find a place to play far away from the grownups so we wouldn't have to be constantly running errands.
My half-American son Emil, an only child without any older cousins close by, naturally has a different relationship to family "hierarchy." When I fell into the Filipino habit of ordering him to do errands, he resisted. Once, while I was making dinner in the kitchen, I asked Emil to get the kitchen scissors from his bedroom. He forgot to put it back. "Get it yourself!" he answered. I was livid! I could never ever say that to my parents!
I yelled at him to get them at that moment and threatened that there would be “consequences” (i.e, no dessert or screen time). Later on, when I was calmer, my husband and I explained that we needed him to help us at home since there were only three of us in the family. My parents and Tony’s mom all live far away, there was nobody else we could count on except ourselves. Like Emil, Tony is an only child. Tony told Emil that when he was growing up, he was expected to help his mom with all the household chores. “We are a family,” we often remind Emil. “We help each other.”
The one thing Emil and I have not talked about was the concept of chivalry. Because I grew up with only sisters and went to an all-girls school, there was no conscious lesson on what men and women could and could not do. It was only when I attended a co-ed university and was allowed to go on dates that I learned about chivalry.
I was surprised when the men in my group of friends kept on changing sides when we crossed a two-way street. I was later told that they were taught to always be on the side of the traffic to protect the women they were with. When I went out on dates, my dates always insisted that they pay.
In casual usage, chivalry refers to men being gallant toward women. According to Wikipedia, however, chivalry was the code of conduct practiced by knights in medieval Europe. It obligated the knights to protect those who cannot protect themselves, such as widows, children and elders. The composer of “Leron, Leron, Sinta” may have never heard of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere and the Knights of the Round Table, but because of the Spanish influence in the Philippines, it was probably in the Zeitgeist.
Emil now runs errands when asked, opens the door for me when we come into our apartment building and willingly gives up his seat in the subway or the bus for the elderly. But there are still moments of cultural (or is it temporal?) dissonance.
My husband lived in Atlanta, Georgia, for several years and he said in the southern states of the US, the chivalric practice of giving your seat to the ladies, opening the door for women, letting women step out of the elevator door ahead of all the men was almost universal.
In New York, though, where we live, there are really no rules. Sometimes a man will motion to have me get off the elevator ahead of him; sometimes I let a man go ahead, especially if he is closest to the door. My husband said that shortly after he moved from Atlanta to New York, a woman he worked with scolded him when he let her step out of the elevator first! She was evidently offended that he was treating her as a member of the “weaker sex.” In the age of feminism, what do I teach Emil about this aspect of chivalry?
I think it would be nice if he offered his seat and opened doors for female friends of his — but what would I say to him if he asks why? Because women are the “weaker sex” and we cannot take care of ourselves? Hardly.
Recently, during one of our walks home from his ballet class, we talked about chivalry and knights and how women in those days were thought of as the weaker sex and unable to protect themselves. Then I asked him, “If you and Ruby (a friend who lived next door) were on the subway and there was one seat left, would you give the seat to her?
He said if he were coming from ballet class, he would take the seat — it is a 90-minute class, he and his classmates are really tired after standing or dancing the entire time. But if it were any other day, he said, he would give the seat to his friend, not because she was of the “weaker sex” but because it was “a nice thing to do.”
I was delighted with his answer. I liked how he considered both his needs and his friend’s before deciding to give up his comfort (unlike Leron who paid the ultimate price). I liked how he didn't feel obliged to live up to what was expected of him; he just wanted to be nice to his friend.
Then I asked Emil what he imagined was going through Leron’s mind when he undertook that dangerous task for his girl friend? And if Leron were alive today, in 2013, what would he do? Emil didn’t have to think for more than a few seconds before answering: “Mama, Leron would have used a ladder.”
Tricia J. Capistrano’s essays have appeared in Newsweek, MrBellersNeighborhood.com, The Philippine Star, ANI 32: The Global Pinoy Issue, and Hanggang sa Muli: Homecoming Stories for the Filipino Soul. She is also the author of the children's book "Dingding, Ningning, Singsing and other fun Tagalog words."