Whenever I leave my house and walk down the dirt path to the road, there’s a bevy of small girl children who chase after me.
“NataLEE! NataLEE!” they love to call out, as though the name itself has some magical power. One small girl in particular will throw her arms around my legs.
“NataLEE, very beautiful,” she says. “Oh so beautiful, NataLEE.”
A little ball of rapture at my knees.
“You’re all very beautiful too,” I say to them, and disentangle myself, and carry on to the pub or the laundry or wherever.
I am not, nor have I ever been, a beautiful person. But here in the Philippines, sometimes I feel like Miss Universe herself (who by the way is a Filipina Australian).
The man who sells sunglasses and belts will pause in his commercial pursuits to smirk and say to me out of the corner of his mouth – “hello beautiful! I love you!” I raise my glass to him and nod and smile and under my breath I say, “I really hate that guy.”
Alan the Annoying Trike Driver also calls out to me on the street, except he unfortunately knows my name. “NA-TA-LI! YOU-ARE-BEAUTIFUL!!” He yells it at me like he is an army drill sergeant, like his words are bullets, like he is angry about it. “WHERE-ARE-YOU-GOING??!!!”
“Hello Alan,” I call back with a sigh, and carry on to the supermarket or the pet store, or wherever.
I hear it at the hairdresser, on the street, in the 7-Eleven, at the karaoke bar. Even at the massage parlour last week.
“Excuse me, ma’am, finished now.”
“Thank you,” I said. I opened my eyes and she was still standing there. Normally, the masseur will slip away quietly and leave you alone for a few moments.
“Where are you from, ma’am?”
I told her I was from Australia and she said that I was very beautiful.
“I wish I had a face like yours,” she said, by which she meant she wishes she had a big nose. Big noses are a thing here. Sometimes, when I’m at a party with children, they will ask if they can touch my nose to see if it is real. They are intrigued by the bones at the top.
They push my nose and gasp and say, “very beautiful!”
I remember when I worked in China, and I would ask my students to describe their hometown.
“My village is very beautiful,” each one would start. “We have a beautiful river and many beautiful forest. Also, there is a beautiful mountain nearby.”
Until the word is meaningless.
I am not now, nor have I ever been beautiful. But on some days, it’s still nice to hear.