By: Carlos Bulosan
I found the dark hole of the steerage and lay on my bunk for days without food, seasick and lonely. I was restless at night and many disturbing thoughts came to my mind. Why had I left home?
What would I do in America? I looked into the faces of my companions for a comforting answer, but they were as young and bewildered as I, and my only consolation was their proximity and the familiarity of their dialects. It was not until we had left Japan that I began to feel better.
One day in mid-ocean, I climbed through the narrow passageway to the deck where other steerage passengers were sunning themselves. Most of them were Illocanos, who were fishermen in the northern coastal regions of Luzon. They were talking easily and eating rice with salted fish with their bare hands, and some of them were walking, barefoot and unconcerned, in their homemade cotton shorts. The first-class passengers were annoyed, and an official of the boat came down and drove us back into the dark haven below. The small opening at the top of the iron ladder was shut tight, and we did not see the sun again until we had passed Hawaii.
But before we anchored at Honolulu and epidemic of meningitis spread throughout the boat and concentrated among the steerage passengers. The Chinese waiters stopped coming into our dining room, because so many of us had been attacked by the disease. They pushed the tin plates under the door of the kitchen and ran back to their rooms, afraid of being contaminated. Those hungry enough crawled miserably on their bellies and reached for their plates.
But somewhere in the room a peasant was playing a guitar and another was strumming a mandolin. I lay on my bunk listening and wishing I could join them. In the far corner of the dining room, crouched around the dining table, five young students were discussing the coming presidential election in the United States. Not far from them was a dying boy from Pangasinan.
One night when I could no longer stand the heat in the closed room, I screamed aloud and woke up most of the steerage passengers. The boy who had been playing the guitar came to my bed with cold water and rubbed my forehead and back with it. I was relieved of my discomfort a little and told him so.
“My name is Marcelo,” he said. “I came from San Manuel, Pangasinan.”
“San Manuel?” I said, “I used to work there – in the mongo fields. I am glad to meet you.”
“Go to sleep now,” he said. “Call for me if you need my help.”
I heard his feet pattering away from me, and I was comforted. It was enough that Marcelo had come from a familiar town. It was a bond that bound us together in our journey. And I was to discover later this same regional friendship, which developed into tribalism, obstructed all efforts toward Filipino unity in America.
There were more that two hundred of us in the steerage. A young doctor and an assistant came now and then to check the number of deaths and to examine those about to die. It was only when we reached Hawaii that the epidemic was checked, and we were allowed to go out again. Some of the stronger passengers carried their sick relatives and friends through the narrow hatch and put them in the sunlight.
I was pleasantly sunning myself one afternoon when Marcelo rolled over to his stomach and touched me. I turned and saw a young white girl wearing a brief bathing suit walking toward us with a young man. They stopped some distance away from us; then as though the girl’s moral conscience had been provoked, she put her small hand on her mouth and said in a frightened voice:
“Look at those half-naked savages from the Philippines, Roger! Haven’t they any idea of decency?”
“I don’t blame them for coming into the sun,” the young man said, “I don’t know how it is below.”
“Roger!” said the terrified girl. “Don’t tell me you have been down in that horrible place? I simply can’t believe it!”
The man said...