I’ve had some time to process and come down from this academic year. In between the fun of moving the husband to a new state, finishing finals, in-laws visiting, and trying to adjust to “normal” waking hours, my mind’s felt like it’s been in a constant state of “Go! Go! Go!” Now that I suddenly have a lot of downtime, it’s been hard to pull back and stop worrying so much about, well, everything.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s happening in the world, about what family means and the formation of self-identity and loyalties. Lately during my hours of nightly musings, my mind’s been coming back to the memory of meeting my cousin Jennifer for the first time since we were kids. Neither of us knew back then that it would be nearly three decades until we would see each other again, nor how much our lives would diverge.
I can’t remember when I actually met Jen for the first time. A year older than me, Jen and I were only babies while my family was stationed at Clark AFB in the Philippines and had to evacuate when Mt. Pinatubo erupted in ’91. I do, however, remember meeting our relatives in my mother’s hometown in the summer of ’99 and what a monumental, formative experience that was.
My mom and I had come over from Japan to spend time in Villarreal, Samar, Philippines with extended family for a few months. It was my first time really experiencing anything akin to poverty. Nothing prepared nine-year old me for the sights and smells of traveling across islands and through slums, of seeing stray dogs mixing with people and trash on uneven streets. I remember the guilt of feeling fear and mortification, praying hard that our ride wouldn’t drop us off at edge of what felt like no-where jungle.
It wasn’t an easy summer. In many ways it felt freeing, while in others it was a bone-jarring wake up call to my privilege. Our entire extended family, people I’d only ever known through old family pictures, slept together under mosquito netting on the floor of my grandparent’s one-room stilt house. None of my cousins had ever seen a Gameboy before and, to my consternation, would constantly ask me to leave it with them. There was no running water, let alone a toilet. When I became really sick from drinking unfiltered well-water, I was plopped onto a toddler’s plastic potty chair bought just for me, sometimes in tears on the back porch in plain view of the walking path visitors took to the front door. Needless to say, it was a summer that pushed me to the best of my abilities to adapt, and boy did I struggle at first.
Certain bits and pieces of that summer really stick out. For instance, having to wear mysterious cloth amulets of protection I wasn’t allowed to open, of my grandfather’s stern warnings of tree-spirits at night, and of the terrifying bleeding wax Jesus in the nearby cathedral. Memories of one of my cousins showing me his pet pigeons under the house, of the sadness of seeing an old dog I befriended strung up and slaughtered, of gleefully watching tiny kittens sneaking leftovers from plates, and of an aunt expertly shaking raw rice to get the weevils off.
I remember the overwhelming awareness of being different, something I wasn’t used to back in my community of mixed military kids. Scraggly children in the Philippines would get sticks and poke at me through bars in windows calling me Americano or just “Cano” and asking me for money. My lighter skin, smaller nose and rounder eyes were beacons of my foreignness, as was my losing argument about how to pronounce my name (no one would say the “f” sound in Stephanie – and my name quickly devolved into just “Panie” that summer).
Incredibly shy, I hated how my mother was obliged to host the entire village upon her arrival. Everyone came out to see us. I watched fascinated as a pit was dug and a hog, squealing terribly, was skewered so everyone could have a fiesta even though neither my mother nor I could partake of the decadent lechon as pork was haram to us at the time. I took to hiding my face behind a hand towel on the big night, not wanting the attention of the crowds from being at the main table like some kind of royalty and feeling the burn of embarrassment when uncles would make me dance steps I didn’t know in front of them all.
Despite all of this, the one memory that really sticks out isn’t of food or awkward moments in the village, but of feeling left out while watching all my laughing cousins take “rain showers” mostly naked under the afternoon downpour. I wasn’t allowed to join in the fun, betrayed by my overly-nourished American body that was developing breasts faster than all my fellow girl cousins. This feeling would later crop up again and again as I grew older, at first as frustration for being treated differently for things beyond my control, and then later as anger as assumptions were mistakenly made about me being a stingy, rich American and unwilling to help out the extended family unit.
That summer did give me a taste of what life was like for my cousins “back in the province” as the hometown is called. It was a brief, yet important, exposure to what my life could have been like had my circumstances been different.
I waited for over an hour for Jen at the Mong Kok area of Hong Kong where I was staying. It was the first week of October 2018, and I had come down from Lishui for the Golden Week holiday (see my past posts on HK here). I remember pacing nervously and constantly checking my phone for messages outside of a metro stop, scared her boss had decided not to let her take the time off and worrying if we’d be able to recognize each other over the crowds.
And then this petite human being, primped and adorable (but oh-so-skinny!) snagged my arm and held me close. A wave of calmness and warmth overtook me. A sense of acceptance and familiarity so profound, it felt unfamiliar and staggering as we left the station clutched arm in arm. It had been 28 years since we’d last seen each other, and my heart knew her.
Here we were strolling arm in arm through the narrow streets, our lives had diverged in so many ways, and yet were crossing again in a foreign land. Jen’s accent in English so heavy you could chew it, and me, distressingly awkward with my chunky Waray and Tagalog.
One of the hardest aspects I’ve found amongst children who are biracial is often the lack of priority given to teach both mother tongues when one parent is a non-native English speaker. This is most times due to a desire to eliminate any form of accent, considered a sure sign of “otherness” that could potentially limit blending-in along with future opportunities. By the time I really wanted to try to learn, other “critical” Asian languages of pressing economic importance to America took precedence in my education. It’s a shameful and sensitive issue for me that is still in an ongoing remedial process for, while I was raised on Filipino food and culture, the nuances of the languages still escape me in adulthood. Jen, being highly forgiving, found it amusing and heartwarming that I would even try.
Listening to Jen pour out her anguish over the course of the day was gut-wrenching. The path her life had taken was rough. While I was able to find ways out of my own hardships and put myself through college in the U.S., Jen became one of the 2.2 million overseas Filipino migrants, members of the diaspora employed in everything from construction to domestic help across the globe due to the lack of opportunities back in the Philippines. She remains currently in Hong Kong employed as a domestic helper for a wealthy family.
The Philippines is often lauded for having basic protection rights for their overseas workers abroad (unlike Indonesia), but the reality of a getting an employer that follows the rules stated in their contracts is not always feasible. Numerous stories of abuse abound, Jen’s own among them. Though not the worst, her situation with her current “Madame” is deplorable. It entails long hours of cleaning and babysitting, much verbal abuse, and very little time for sleep or breaks. She had to beg to be able to see me as my visit didn’t fall on her one day off a week. I was lucky the Madame let her out at all that day.
The statistics aren’t great for Filipino migrant workers, many of them enduring untold suffering and exploitation just to be able to send remittances back home. Laws that are supposed to protect workers are often the ones that simultaneously oppress them, like requiring periodic pregnancy tests to remain working. About half of Hong Kong’s foreign domestic workforce are Filipina women, with the rest being mostly Indonesian or other Southeast Asian, and they were hard to miss around town when I visited. Migrant workers were everywhere pushing strollers, trailing behind their mistresses, and resting together in small groups huddled in the corners of bridges and stairwells.
I left that day mulling over what life would have been like had our roles been reversed. It could easily have been me working for a family in Hong Kong or in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia like Jen’s sister. I could be the one instead suffering in a compound somewhere, living in a closet and having to scrape for morsels of food. In that light, my own experiences with abuse seem paltry in comparison. Could I have survived such back-breaking, soul-sucking work? At least I was able to get out of the situation that gives me nightmares. Theirs and so many others are still ongoing.
Not a day after meeting with Jen, the calls and dm’s started coming. It felt like a spotlight was focused on me. Requests came in a daily tidal wave, an onslaught of assumptions from people who knew little to nothing about me except that I was American and therefore must be holding out on money. Jen’s dad wanted cash, a young aunty wanted me to find her an American “friend,” extended family members and complete strangers needed help starting businesses with money I didn’t have.
I avoided answering after a couple days, cold and callous as that is, the anxiety grew to be too much as this went on for months. I felt my own resentments building along with a sense of helplessness from what felt to be an ever encroaching, unwanted burden.
Was it my duty to carry and uplift the entire village? This being a place I have little emotional connection to outside of childhood nostalgia and a few ancestral graves sinking into the sea. To what extent do I owe loyalty to people who only try to contact me when they have troubles or need something?
In a way, it hurts to get such requests for connection. There was a time in my teens and twenties where I would’ve jumped at any olive branch extended to me in the name of family. Where were these people when my own family life was imploding, or when I needed someone to talk to? Am I really being selfish and stingy? Why would none of them ever ask how I was doing rather than “Where’s my Christmas present? Do you have kids?” or the constant “I need to contact your mother.”
There’s a mistaken belief that America remains the “gold mountain” it once was for many immigrants. Being the token American in the family, there’s this expectation that I would give back and possibly sponsor others to gain a foothold in this land of plenty. My lack of money/inability to fulfill dreams comes off as improbable and disrespectful when it’s a known fact that I’m given so many opportunities and freedoms others wish they had. Why I would work for a meager pittance with an NGO in Asia rather than be a lawyer or some other white collar in the US makes no sense in their view. Altruism has no place when there’s need at home.
When I was younger, I would be easily swayed, scrimping and saving, giving big portions of my hard-earned scholarships to send back to the province or to help make balikbayan boxes of dry goods and other necessities. I tried to help put a younger cousin through high school. She dropped out and later had a baby, but then wanted help with her new baby and to return to school. It feels hypocritical to push my own morals and condemn her knowing there’s a lack of access to birth control. At the same time, is it the duty of my mother and me to care for her and her baby when she has other family, and we could use that much-needed money on our own debts and expenses?
Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 was a hard lesson in how easy it was that the money and goods I was sending might not even get to their intended. My beloved grandfather was suffering after his house crashed over him. My mom and I sent funds to help. The funds never reached him, squandered instead by the same people who were now, again, asking me for money.
I like to think that experience has made me a bit wiser in terms of who I decide to share what little I have with. In truth, all I care about is to see my immediate family and grandfather fed and happy. I no longer feel as obligated to take care of anyone else.
I once told my political theories professor that my goal was to buy my mom a house someday, and we’re working on it. My mother’s shared with me her desire to return home after being unable to visit after 20 years in the US. My mother understands my calling to Asia that confounds so many of my relatives. It’s the same calling that has us on this ongoing journey to reclaim land in the Philippines, to plan and rebuild slowly until one day she’ll make it back and start life anew on her terms. In the meantime, my grandpa is there waiting, cared for by another aunt and watching as each extension to the house is being built.
Some pictures of the progress on the house (thus far) with my aunt and grandpa celebrating his 84th birthday this year. My mom bought some water buffalo and had a toilet installed! Progress!