Saturday, May 03, 2008


I WAS proud to correctly say the word to the clinic receptionist. Had I not tirelessly wound my tongue around the word--"circumcision"--so that I could make it less cumbersome when I first mentioned it to Juan exactly a summer ago?

But after pronouncing it to the young woman setting down our May 1 appointment, as well as to the roomful of patients bored from waiting for the surgeons, I realized that I only chose the English word to put some distance to an inevitability I had not fully accepted.

When another clinic staff bade my nine-year-old son to approach the scales, the receptionist casually remarked to her companion that he was scheduled for "tuli." She repeated the word again when another mother walked in, pulling along a worried-looking boy . "For circumcision, Miss." "Okay, Ma'am, P1,500 'ang tuli'."

Lack of respect for privacy may be typical in the country, not just in its clinics. But in the case of circumcision, the informality approaches the level of unblinking acceptance with which one follows the habits of the sun, the falling behind of salaries from rising prices. Isn't circumcision more than a medical procedure? It is an age-defining summer ritual, painful, more dramatic and thus more prestigious than the May procession of young girls dressed up as angels. As they say, the blood and sweat turn it into what it is: a rite of passage separating the men from the boys.

When Juan made the decision to get circumcised this May, it was partly driven by the self-consciousness he faced while showering with his classmates or facing down the teasing of his older brother. But he picked the specific week for the appointment after we went on a trip to the south, where we saw several boys wearing oversized shirts in the towns we passed by. Though the shirts reaching below their knees made them seem like girlish caricatures, they must have convinced Juan to finally get it over with. Playing tag, watching the passing buses or licking an ice drop, these boys must have towered like free men, liberated finally from one crucial test of manhood.

What should a mother of sons do, for whom the rigors of manliness seem such a messy business that should involve only gladiators, not boys whose head still smell of hours of playing under the sun?

I emailed my sister, lucky to have only daughters who will never have to put up their fists to challenge chants of "pisot (uncircumcised)."

In Australia, my sister emailed back, nearly all doctors do not perform circumcision as it is perceived as having few clear benefits. The operation is lumped along with genital mutilation and found to be abhorrent. Only a few Pinoy doctors will perform it; many parents who want their sons to be circumcised have to return to the Philippines. Since complete healing takes place from two to three weeks, it is a steep expense for those opting for this.

Some of my sisters' relations and friends have decided not to have their sons circumcised. They will teach their boys how to clean the area covered by the foreskin. In older boys and adult men, the foreskin naturally retracts to facilitate proper hygiene.

In the land of "tuli" and "pisot," there is no real contest. I sat for hours in a room where women talked about rivers of blood gushing from a nicked vein and tips for preventing "nagkamatis (swollen like a ripe tomato)"--wear a brief until full healing, do not throw a tomato at the bandaged member, grant whatever the boy wants before, not after, when he will take forever to waddle to places.

When Juan sauntered out with his father, I understood why they still make movies about gladiators, never about their mothers (unless you can squeeze a statement from someone in a dead faint). 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu's May 4, 2008 issue

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