A young twenty-something man was waving at people gawking at him in the parking lot while loading several pounds of burgers, loaves of bread, and cartons of beer into the trunk of our car. My boyfriend Tony was a sight to behold in any crowd, with his blonde hair and muscular build. But today, what was catching the crowd’s attention was his inside-out shirt, pants, and canvas hat.
I’m not too worried about people reporting my eccentrically clad hunny-bunny to the police. Rambling, crazy locals were normal for the day before the Superbowl when every adult in our town was on shopping duty. The crazier you looked, the less likely anyone would disturb you while you were taking all the beer. Only, today wasn’t a normal one for my crazy family, who we’re visiting for the Superbowl weekend.
It’s Backward Day, a tradition that our family kept going for as long as I could remember. Despite its name, it was not just one day, but rather two whole days of exhausting psychological warfare against our family members, forcing them to break the rules of the game.
The major rule was to dress and speak backwards to each other, except for the one you’re sharing a room with. Easy enough? Wrong! It was so difficult that each participant prepares for it for a few months at least. Since my white boyfriend was joining us for the first time this year, I planned our practice a year in advance, although we’d only been seriously practicing for the last month. I sincerely hoped he would still want to be with me after this weekend.
Our grandfather and grand uncles started it along with their cousins, and the most recent generations had upped the ante dramatically by adding a “penalty jar” where we were supposed to deposit money whenever we break the rules. The host family assigned marshals, also known as Snitches Extraordinaire, to report who had been speaking in the normal way.
“Olleh!” Two burly Filipino-American males in inside-out clothing approached our car carrying their own load of food and drink. My twin brothers. They playfully messed with my boyfriend for a while before turning their attention to me.
“Why are you hiding in the car, little sister? Ashamed of us or something?” Jigs, who was older than my other brother Jhun by ten minutes, poked my head through the passenger window. I sat huddled in my seat, trying to look inconspicuous as curious passers-by ogled the boys.
“I don’t want people to know we’re related. Can you blame me?” I poked back. Hard. Jigs yelled “Kcuf!” probably to show off rather than in real pain. My brothers had obviously been practicing, too. Jhun got in the backseat as Jigs went back to help Tony.
“Did your white guy learn all there is to learn in time, you think? It’s Uncle Sammy’s plan to invite him and then milk him of every dollar on him through the penalty jar, you know,” Jigs whispered conspiratorially.
“Well, Uncle Sammy's in for the shock of his life, then,” I whispered back. “Tony can even speak some Filipino words backwards.”
“Hey now, we’re all scheming allies in this, right? What’s with the whispering?” Jigs said, as he and Tony entered the car.
“Vul” Tony said, leaning down to kiss me, regardless of my brothers’ catcalls. We agreed to call each other by our common endearment “Luv” for the weekend instead of our names. My name, Juliana , is particularly difficult to pronounce backward.
We drove to a diner on the way to our uncle’s farm to eat brunch, strategize, and enjoy a few minutes of peaceful normalcy before the chaos started.
“Hand signals are allowed, and they’re still straightforward in terms of meaning. In fact, you should use them if you’re not sure what to say. Thumbs up still means ‘yes’ and thumbs down means ‘no’. Dad turned mute and used hand signals exclusively last year, “ Jhun was coaching Tony when their order arrived. My boyfriend had his notebook out and taking notes rapidly like a madman. “They will ply you with beer and food, so be vigilant of the uncles and cousins around the barbecue pit. That’s how they get you. If you have to swear or exclaim something, use ‘A-ha’ because it’s pronounced the same backward or forward.”
“You can also opt to use the Filipino word for yes, ‘O-o,’ which is a good answer for just about any question,” I quipped, earning a stink eye from Jhun for the interruption.
The table was quiet for a few minutes while Jhun ate. Jigs and I were sharing a big milk shake, like always. He didn’t feel like eating, he said. He was nervously muttering the backward version of the prayer before meals in between slurps. It was his turn to be prayer leader for the family dinner.
Tony was still scribbling furiously, barely touching his food. Finally, he plunked down his pen and rubbed his temples. “Is there any rhyme or reason for doing this? I mean, you’ve got to give me a backstory of sorts. I’ve been thinking more about this than the freakin’ Superbowl!”
My siblings exchanged an amused look, then looked at me expectantly. I shook my head to confirm that I didn’t explain anything to my boyfriend beforehand.
“I’ll do it,” Jhun said, smacking his lips. “The ‘why’ of it is simple enough. It’s like a fund raiser. We’re using the collected penalty money to fund our family vacation to the Philippines in December. The bigger the collection, the better the accommodations. Sure, we could simply pass the hat around and ask each family to contribute, but where’s the fun in that? We’re a competitive bunch.”
Jhun paused to chew on his breakfast steak and glanced at his twin. Jigs took the hint and continued the story.
“The backstory of the backward tradition is a bit crazier than the reason for it. It has something to do with the hadas -- the fairies or old folk as westerners know them. Our great, great grandfather supposedly encountered a dwarf on his way back home from the fields and it tried to lead him astray or bring him to their world or something. Lolo Tasyo began to confuse the roads and the trails, and soon enough, he was lost.
“That’s when he remembered what his grandfather told him. By turning his clothes inside-out and speaking words backwards, he can confuse these supernatural beings in turn, and if they're confused enough, they will leave you alone. See, they want whole, mentally stable humans to bring to their lands as their companions or they're playthings in their world underground. Not lunatics. Or so gramps said. So, Lolo Tasyo did all this while trying to find the correct path, and he finally did! The next generation of our family did this regularly to ward off the elves or dwarves who may be lurking around.”
Jhun, who had finished all his food and half of Tony’s while his twin was speaking, snorted in disbelief.
“You forget, bro, that Lolo Tasyo always had a flask of lambanog on his person and would drink all of it before he even reached home. That probably had a lot to do with his confusion. No, no – the real backstory of the Backward Day tradition was more ancient than Lolo Tasyo’s generation. It started in the sixteenth century with our forefather Inkyong Dako, who was the youngest son of a tribe leader in a small island named Mactan, where our family was originally from.”
Jhun looked up to see the three of us leaning forward. He plunged on excitedly when he realized he had a captive audience.
“So, twelve-year-old Inkyong and other young children encountered colonizers -- Spaniards -- by the sea. The Spaniards were armed to the teeth and had several natives among them. These natives were probably traitors who translated for the colonizers. Inkyong and his band of followers decided to divert the colonizer’s attention by behaving oddly, while one among them ran back to the tribe to alert the elders.
“Inkyong and the rest turned their clothes inside out. They danced around and shouted epithets backward. Even the traitorous natives who were with the Spaniards couldn’t understand them and probably assumed they’re a little-known or yet undiscovered tribe speaking another language. Or they’ve landed on looney island. The children just kept speaking backward, which sounded like gibberish even to them, when asked to speak or prompted with questions. Anyway, the diversion worked. The tribe sent all its warriors and massacred the colonizers right there on the sand.”
By this time, the other patrons in the diner were looking at my brothers’ tabletop reenactment of what looked like a battle involving throwing pen at each other like spears. I could barely breathe from laughing too much.
“July, honey, are you OK?” Tony was acting the concerned boyfriend while aiming a straw at Jhun.
“Oh stop that! It’s no wonder you believed all those stories told by our uncles. Gullibility does run in the family after all.”
“What are you talking about?” Jigs asked.
“The backstory of the Backward tradition was more recent than my brothers would have you believe,” I said, speaking to Tony. “It started when dad and two of our uncles concocted a scheme to scam our miserly grand uncle Ruding of his money.”
“Wait, are you referring our scrooge-y grand uncle, Lolo Ruding, who used gift us only with the freebie pens and notepads he got his pharma conventions for Christmas? He only attended family functions if someone picked him up from his home, so he wouldn’t have to pay for gas or spend money for the bus ride. And dad and the uncles were able to scam him?” Jhun was aghast.
“Yeah, by inventing Backward Day,” I answered triumphantly. “One summer, Lolo Ruding invited the uncles and dad over to help him clean his overgrown yard so he didn’t have to pay a professional landscaper. He refused to even buy proper equipment, which were very expensive, he said. He finally busted his back while tugging on weeds and couldn’t walk or drive for nearly two weeks.
Dad and the uncles had to do his banking and errands for him, which was when they discovered how absolutely loaded with cash Lolo Ruding was, even if he always claimed to be poor. I mean, it makes sense that he’s supposed to be uber rich, because he’s single and worked as a pharma sales rep for decades!”
My companions were silent, as was the entire diner. Everyone was riveted by the story of Lolo Ruding’s downfall.
“So, the next family reunion, dad and all his siblings dared Lolo Ruding into playing the backward game with penalties. Everyone was penalized, of course, but by then all their cousins were in on the scam.
Everyone else got their money back, but Lolo Ruding was bled dry. The tradition continued year after year, and that was how Lolo Ruding unwittingly and unknowingly funded all our vacation trips to the Philippines for many years until he passed.”
Jhun, Jigs, and Tony were looking at each other, smiling. I didn’t know whether they believed me or not, but they’re definitely amused.
“Nah! I like the colonizer story. It has more ring of truth to it, not to mention the drama. That’s the story I’m telling our kids,” Tony said to me, with finality. My jaw dropped.
“What?!?” I was incredulous. The backstory I just told him was clearly the most credible one.
“I’m sticking with the faerie story,” said Jigs, clearly tickled by my reaction. “I’ll add even more details to it for the next generation to enjoy.”
“You can start with the next generation now, bro,” Jhun said, glancing outside. There were two big vans in the parking lot, and sunbaked cousins of all ages, shapes, and sizes were spilling out from both vehicles. Our relatives from Hawaii have arrived.
Let the Backward Day games begin!