How to be a Suki

How to be a Suki

I have this saying - if it happens twice on the same occasion and without planning, it’s a tradition. New traditions emerge in our two-person family often. I think it’s because when we discover something we like, we want to do it again. No complexities. It’s a simple response to things we enjoy doing.

One recent tradition that emerged since I opened my pretend sari-sari store is a Friday visit to the Filipino market. Prior to that we only visited the store by need basis only. If I’m out of sitaw, long beans, we go to the Filipino store. Out of patis, fish sauce? Drive to the Filipino store. The day I shopped for my sari-sari ingredients was a Friday and it was the first Friday of the year. Welcome to 2021.

The following week after the sari-sari experience I found myself in the same Filipino market. It was a Friday and the same time of day, 5:00 pm. Ahhh! A new tradition! I nudged my husband.

“Can we come here next Friday too?” Hiro of course said yes. He likes coming to the Filipino market too.

When I moved to America in 2008, the American grocery stores were the shops that were fascinating to me. I roamed up and down the aisles scanning through the variety of cookies, bagels, ice cream flavors, and frozen pizzas. It felt like a dream. They didn’t arrange grocery stores like this in the Philippines. The lighting was gravitating. The smell was different. People spoke English. Visiting the grocery store was what made America feel real to me. The amount of Kellogs and Ocean Spray locked me in. I had no idea what to buy and eat. During those days my frequent purchase was a case of Starbucks mocha raspberry frappuccino bottle. 

Returning to the Filipino market did not happen quickly for me. I went through a phase of discovering Trader Joes, the bodegas in San Francisco, Berkeley Bowl, Mexican markets, Whole Foods, farmers markets, and of course the Chinese grocery stores too. Those places were just as fascinating to me. They had food I wanted to try. They were part of my American experience.

The Filipino grocery store is a special place though. I never lived in Little Manila when it existed in Stockton years ago but now I understand the feeling of entering a space that warps you back home. That to me is the Filipino grocery store. 

First of all, the music they play inside is Filipino. They play OPM, Original Pilipino Music, and you know instantly that the songs they're playing are hits, not random music. You can rely the store will have salted egg and kakanins, sticky rice treats. It doesn’t matter if you're Filipino or not the store will have chips and beer you will want to come back for. Best of all, it will include a baked goods section with treats you will want to add to the list of breads you know.

And this is where our Friday tradition expands. After scanning the aisles, Hiro and I walked to the Filipino bake shop hidden in the corner. On our first visit, I jumped like a cartoon character and pointed at everything I wanted to buy. I grabbed all the breads and cradled them in my arms but returned them calmly because I picked far too many. I settled with two choices: a container of pimiento cheese spread and pande ube. The lady behind the counter was grumpy. I spoke in Tagalog to signal to her that I was her people. I told her I was happy to have bread.

The following Friday when Hiro and I approached the bake shop, we waved our hands high in the air to tell bakery lady that we were approaching. When it was time to charge us at the register I explained our over enthusiasm:

“You know, we come here every Friday now. We are your new Suki!

Her eyes lit up. She knew what Suki meant.

“Where do you drive from?” She stopped being grumpy. She was smiling.

“Half Moon Bay. We like to drive here so we can get bread.” I tapped on breads we chose like they were my pets. She said she remembered us from last week. She was happy we came back.

Suki in english can easily translate to a regular customer, but it’s more than that. To me, it translates to a long term and beloved customer. The kind of customer that returns over and over and tells everyone about you as a vendor. In Filipino market culture, in palengkes, the wet market, every vendor takes pride in having their own suki and every customer takes pride in being a suki. It’s a relationship that binds seller and customer into a real human relationship. The kind of relationship that births into a genuine lifeline of support for each other. 

Suki, I should say, is not unique to Filipino culture. I don’t know what it translates to in other languages but every place and culture once upon a time had this connection alive in the marketplace. Nowadays this bond is endangered. People shop from online spaces and stores they don’t make time to get to know. Everything is instant. Things get delivered. People forget that sellers are people making a livelihood too. The afterglow of boasting about your favorite vendor as your go-to place for ordinary things like bread is a thing of the past. 2021 is a tap-click-order type of culture. If we make time, maybe we'll find ourselves standing in line in the brick and mortar but the regularity of the visit is threatened. No more human visits. No conversations. No names exchanged. No one is seen.

“You drive so far. Thank you for coming all the way here.” Bakery lady was happy to see us again. She flashed us this very special Filipina gesture which is to show a slow blink with both eyes while giving a cheeky smile. A sign of affection. We exchanged names after we got our receipt. For this story, I will call her Cynthia (not her real name.) We said we will see each other again next week. A Friday. Our tradition continues and now Cynthia is part of it. We have a relationship.

When we got home that evening we noticed three extra cheese breads added to our purchase. Cynthia added an extra treat! A notable sign of her acknowledging us as her true suki.

Two nights ago we returned to the bake shop (yes, it was a Friday) and this time we came home finding extra four turons added to our bag. Think of turon as a sweet banana lumpia. Yum! 

“We didn’t order that!” Hiro pointed out. 

“We didn’t, but Cynthia gave it to us. We are her suki.

And that, myfriends, is how to be a suki. Wherever you are, if you find a Filipino bakery or grocery store, go inside and explore the aisles. Discover our ice cream flavors and instead of bagels, visit the bakery. Tell the Filipina ladies behind the counter that you want to be their suki too. They will raise their eyebrows and if you are lucky, they will give you the slow blink with a cheeky smile I was telling you about. It will be infectious. Who knows, when you get home they might slip an extra treat for you too.


@kwentobynica has its own sukis too - Sneha, Teri, Alex, Tina, Josue, Kathryn, Jessica, and Joy. Thank you for purchasing what I make and being my suki! Through art and my love of writing, I will take care of you the same way you take care of me. Thank you.


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  • Marlon

    Lovely story, Nica. Lovingly rendered. Very honest, heartfelt and touching.
    Thank you for sharing, and also teaching me a little but about the Filipino culture. Reading about being a Suki, brought back a lot of memories of when I was a young boy growing up in a suburb in Bombay, and shopping at small stores at our corner market, or buying all sorts of delicious food from vendors who carried their wares on their head and walked through the streets, each with their own distinctive signature, and catchy tune.

  • Nica C.T.

    @Josue and Kathryn – My March woodblock is inspired by the two of you. Hang tight until I show you! Thank you to my sukis!

    @Kat – I didn’t realize my stories were a pick-me up! Since you left me that comment, I read my writing differently. I understand now why I have to write more. Kat, thank you for telling me!

    @Celeste – Hi Celeste! Hiro and I really like the chili from the Chinese market so we make sure to visit it when we are out. I’m happy you read the story when I posted it! Everything happens at the right time and how perfect was it that you read the story when you needed it 😊

    @Julie – Hi Julie! You know what, looking back I think my five years of customer service really taught me how to be a kind person. East West Bookshop is so fun to browse at and now you will identify your own sukis in the shop too!

    @Valentina – Oh, Valentina! I am imagining the bakery you described when you were 9. I feel transported because I find myself in Italy and seeing a small girl buying bread. I am so taken by it and you know what… I have a very similar experience except it was in the Philippines. We are connected!

    @Tina – If you feel honored to be a suki, I feel that way times two! Sometimes I feel like my job as an artist is to show and tell our hidden stories. I am volunteering to display it for all of us and put it on a nice display corner so we can celebrate, laugh, and feel every emotion for it.

    @Gwyneth – How beautiful is that! Suki is such a special word and I am really proud that we have a word to describe it. What makes it more beautiful is that we can share it. Small town America? Ethiopian corner store??! Suki is a word we can all grab and take as our own. Thank you for telling me, Gwyneth. I learn more and more 😊

  • Gwyneth

    My life is forever better as I know have a word to describe a type of relationship I have long treasured! I grew up in a small town, so you grow used to knowing all of the shopkeeper and employees— even at chain stores. When I moved to the city, I made sure to establish connections at the Ethiopian corner store and with the venders at the farmers market. It makes a big place feel small in the best of ways.

  • Tina

    It’s an honor to be your suki! I love reading your stories because I more often than not learn something about a part of my heritage no one bothered to teach me growing up. The good stuff I do know or have experienced, bring back good memories & the unpleasant stuff makes me feel like there is someone out there who understands where I’m coming from. Something that is truly scarce in my life. So for all of it & you, I am thankful.

  • Valentina

    What a lovely story, Nica!
    What you said about creating a tradition Is so wise and sweet at the same time!
    We sometimes struggle in feeling ourselves “at home”, so I think that being aware that making room for new traditions can be as simple as finding yourself doing the same thing twice, Is so helpful!
    You also reminded me of a very special bakery that was just past the corner of the flat I lived in when I was a child. There, I first started buying food by myself. I was 9.
    I defenately was their Suki! :)
    (Ciao from Italy)

  • Julie

    Yes!! Thank you for sharing this!! Helped me see a broader perspective in the relationship between customer and the store employee. I’ve been working at East West bookshop, and this gives me the ability to interact with even more intention. Acknowledging those who are making it a tradition to shop at EW. Thank you for sharing!

  • Celeste

    Hi Nica~ I’ve been feeling a little down lately and knew I could count on you for an uplifting read _ thank you for sharing this sweet experience! It’s definitely relatable going to both Chinese and Filipino markets growing up. It’s fun to hear your perspective and also being able to relate to it to my memories :)

  • Kat Reyes

    I read your stories for a quick pick-me up, Nica! They’re so light, and just full of positive juju :-) So glad you and Hiro are keeping our Filipino traditions alive even when you guys aren’t back here in the PH. Looking forward to more adventures of you two!

  • Josue And Kathryn

    There were way too many smiles and “awwws” reading this one. We both learned what sukis were today and are more than happy to be your sukis. 🥰

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