My grandfather was a storyteller. A good one, I imagine, but I don’t really know. He died when I was six years old. And up until then, I’d spent 99% of my life an ocean away. He and my grandmother lived in the Philippines. That’s where most of my mom’s family was. My mom was the odd one out. She left at a young age and never looked back.
Mom [On the phone]: Okay
Me: Okay, so can you talk to me a little bit about when you left the Philippines. Because you and I never went into it that much. I just know that you left really young for work stuff or to work abroad.
Mom: Okay, I left the Philippines when I was younger to experience the life abroad and umm…hearing all the news that it’s really… You will earn money, so I can help my parents. And also, it’s fascinating to see how the different places are. I would like to experience living in different places abroad.
Me: I guess what I don’t always understand about that is that I don’t necessarily know that I ever would have left. Like I want to help you sometimes, but I don’t know if I could ever completely leave. And I think in part it’s also that you never went back not for…
Mom: Yeah but eh… life in the Philippines and life here is completely different, and I am the eldest, so I have to… to… give them a better life… Or I… I … Plus, I think growing up, it has always been my dream to go abroad, so I think that’s part of it. And also… pretty much, I also like to be away ad be independent and be on my own.
And that life abroad led her to my dad. Which then led her to me.
I grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona as (And I use this term somewhat loosely or at least without the usually level of certainty) the odd one out. My school was almost entirely white. Not everyone was, but I can remember every single non white person pretty well. And this very vivid memory and pretty accurate inventory pretty much validates the broad generalization I have just uttered.
And I can still remember, when in the fourth grade, we had to fill out the demographic survey on the back of our testing booklet. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, in America, schoold children are subjected to these yearly statewide tests to measure the quality of the school. At least in theory that’s what they’re supposed to measure, but who knows. And in addition to the questions, sometimes there’s this back cover on the test booklet that you have to fill out. And it’s just a bunch of demographic information, for statistics purposes. It doesn’t affect your score at all. And this was the first time I had to fill out that booklet. When I was growing up, theses didn’t happen every year, and I think this was the first time they trusted us to do this ourselves, rather than have labels made.
It’s just for statistics purposes, so there’s no need to worry, right? I’m sure the anxious mind could easily come up with a reason to worry. It’s not that hard for those inclined. I know, even as a nine year old, I was skeptical that this part of the test didn’t matter. Or at least, as skeptical as a nine year old could have been.
I remember our teacher wanted to move through this process as quickly as possible. Standardize testing can take up a lot of class time, and even its most ardent supporters would have to agree that this impact should be minimized as much as possible. With this in mind, the demographic part of the testing was something that could be rushed. It was straightforward, largely done as a class, and served a secondary function.
So that’s what my teacher did. She started to hurry through it. Not hurry, per say, but she hit every question roughly, gave us a minute to fill it out, and then moved on. We got to the “race” question towards the end of the sheet.
Just now, I talked about the racial makeup of the entire school, but now let me zero in on what the situation was in my specific class. Most of the class was white, and besides me, there were two students whose families had emigrated from India fairly recently. So if I wasn’t in this class, it would have been a very straightforward task. And that’s how the teacher approached it. She told almost everyone to put down “white,” those two would put down “Asian/Pacific Islander,” and any more nuanced discussion of race and ethnicity could wait until we weren’t so pressed for time or all the test booklets were turned in.
But that left me, didn’t it? Or I thought so. I raised my hand, but she didn’t see me right away. Because I was always so independent, she wasn’t looking in my direction. She wasn’t used to checking if I needed help.
And by many standards, I shouldn’t have. I’m not going to pretend there weren’t ways in which this whole thing could have been avoided. Or that this wasn’t in some ways, my fault.
At that time in my life, I was vaguely aware of my race in that I could tell you I was half-Filipino, half-[German, Irish, English] mix, but in hindsight, it felt more like a recitation than it did something that I possessed or than something that was a part of me. It was almost like my name, or like a middle name—something that does label you technically but not in a day-to-day arrangement.
The teacher was about to move onto the next question before she saw me. I don’t know what I would have done if she had actually moved on. Going off of my character, I might have just put my hand down and tried to figure it out myself, which would have likely meant filling in some random bubble. There was no “Filipino” option, never mind an option with all my pieces listed out. And I asked myself, was Asian the right answer? Or was it white? Did I just pick a parent and go with their answer?
Fortunately, by some standards, she saw me just in time. She saw me, called on me, and that’s when things took a very slight turn.
I asked my question, “Which one do I put?”
She clearly didn’t know. Her expression made it clear that the answer wasn’t immediately obvious to her. And maybe that’s why she hadn’t given it much thought. She walked over to one of the other students and peered over his shoulder to see what our options were. Then she scrunched up her face.
“They don’t have a mixed race option,” she muttered angrily through her teeth.
When I was growing up, a lot of forms didn’t. It’s becoming increasingly common, though.
She sighed. “Put down ‘other,’” she advised. Then she looked up and studied me carefully. “Because your mom’s Asian, but your dad’s white, isn’t he?”
I don’t think that was actually a question. She’d seen both of my parents, so she must have known. I think maybe she just phrased it that way because it was the best explanation should could have offered in that context.
(Music fades in)
The matter never came up again. In fact, I never thought about it again. Well, that’s being a bit dramatic. But here’s what I’m thinking. Questions about race, ethnicity, and heritage can naturally come up during one’s childhood. It’s a good stage of your life for that. You aren’t really coming up with your own sense of self yet, so much as you’re trying to make sense of the schema you were born into and of the reflections of yourself that other people are offering you. And while this is true for many thing, things as trivial as your music preferences, I imagine this is extremely true for race.
I have to imagine, anyway. I didn’t go through this cycle of identification and interpretation that I’m half-heartedly proposing. If I had, I would have been “The Filipino girl” or “the Asian girl” or “the brown girl.” Instead, I was the girl whose father was sick. Then I became the girl whose father was dying. And finally, at thirteen, I graduated into the girl whose father had died.
Yeah, I had other things to think about. That might be overly blunt or vague or whatever. I admit that. Now ask me if I care?
Besides, it helped that this part of my family was an ocean away. I never saw them. And because I never experienced them, I never had to make sense of those habits or traditions that came with day to day life but weren’t matching up with the ones that my peers were going through. Those things that would have set me apart from everyone else never came up. Phone calls, even for the best at them, weren’t the same as daily living. I didn’t have to struggle to make sense of my grandmother’s voice or even her accent. I just knew that she loved me. Because she always told me that.
Visiting would have probably helped. Being in the same place at the same time experiencing something together probably would have built a stronger connection and helped with all the issues I currently have about this segment of my life. And if not, it still would have been a worthwhile thing to do, right?
Yeah, that’s not a question that needs to be asked. It would have been great; it just wasn’t possible.
(Music fades out)
Trips across the ocean—regardless of the purpose—just wasn’t in the cards. My dad wasn’t healthy. Not all the time, anyway. He had his good days, but they were never long enough for us to plan a full trip, never mind go on that trip. There were just too many near-misses of the grim reaper’s scythe, to be daring.
But I still made a few trip over the year. My mom and I went for a visit when I was three. At six, Grandpa died; we went for the funeral. Then we didn’t go for a while. For a while, there was a Dad to take care of. Then he died, but he left behind his mother, and my mom wasn’t going to leave her for any period of time. So at sixteen, I went by myself for my cousin’s wedding.
Then my paternal grandmother died my sophomore year of college, and I struggled to cope. So mom and I went back for Christmas, hoping it would revive my spirits. But last year, we went back twice. Once for my grandmother’s eightieth birthday and then again for another cousin’s wedding in December.
(Music starts up)
So that’s six trips. Six trips to the place where all my family is, to some place that is an integral part of my identity, and some place everyone expects me to be an expert on.
At least, I can fake the latter pretty well. (chuckling) Most people just ask about the food, anyway. And I do know a lot about that.
But whatever personal curiosity I had, I could easily ignore until recently. Besides, when I thought about the Philippines in any tangible way, I couldn’t help but zero in on the pain from being so far from my family, from not being able to see my many godchildren grow up, and from knowing that—truly and unfortunately—I was little more than a stranger tied to them by a fairly lose string. Blood as a bodily fluid is great because—you know—it keeps you alive, but in other contexts, I find it completely useless.
Life went on, though, as I struggled to articulate the sense of longing and loss I was feeling. But the internet is great at distractions, and maybe it’s distracting you right now. No judgments. A little judgement. Actually no judgment. Promise.
To get back to the point, my favorite place to watch things is YouTube. It bets TV or any of the streaming services that derive their style from those older forms of media. See, the vast expansion of online video can have its problems, particularly if you are the one or ones who have to manage it in any capacity. But variety is a wonderful thing. It lets you create a personalized watching experience. And I’ve taken this capacity to heart.
One of the many channels I’m subscribed to is called Snarled, and it describes itself as “the Internet’s cool big sister,” which is somehow a more descriptive title than anything I could come up with. Snarled is a variety channel of sorts. Its character is the byproduct of having a large team of content creators working behind the scenes.
The “Something Scary” series is the one that drew me in, and it’s the one that keeps drawing me back. And that word choice is accurate. It’s not a series I follow religiously. But from time to time, I’ll think about it and want to catch up on all the episode I’ve missed.
Packing is a great time to catch up on online content. I can make a playlist for the day and just let it go. And with the trip for my grandmother’s birthday looming over heard, I set aside a Saturday afternoon to rearrange my apartment-slash-my life before I’d have to pack up my suitcases. This was early last year. But before I could do any of that, I loaded up my playlist with all the videos I was behind on, including the episodes of “Something Scary” I had otherwise neglected.
But then, of course, after I clicked, I found myself distracted by my computer screen. Hey, in my defense—and to get why I’m telling this story—the first video I had lined up caught my attention. The word “Duende” was in the title. Which was a word that should have meant anything to me, but it did. It was vaguely familiar, just enough for me to sit down and watch the video. Just for me to sit down and watch the video.
The series is, like, a spooky story time video… It’s along those lines. It’s a collection of easily digestible stories animated in a very distinct, black and white style.
This particular chapter is one of the more informal ones. You can tell the host doesn’t have a stone-written script. And no offense to her, but she could have done a better job with that particular story.
The story in question centers around a girl who might have been possessed—for a lack of a better word—by a duende, she disrupted its home in the anthill-like mounds outside of her school. A duende is like the Filipino equivalent of a gnome or an elf, but it’s not a one to one comparison.
The story didn’t grab my attention because it was a particularly well told story, but that wasn’t the point
I knew that story. Or, at least I knew that creature
It was one of my grandfather’s stories. Of course, I only knew it through hearsay, and even then, the details didn’t completely line up. But it was enough to light a fire in me.
I wanted to know more. I wanted to hear that story again. I wanted a lot of things again. I wanted to feel connected again, like I did when I was with my family
I have a lot of feelings about this part of myself particularly since those last two trips and since that one YouTube video. And I’m struggling to make sense of it all. I heard that the word Hugot is the Filipino term for “drawing out.” But in recent years, it’s take a more sentimental character. Now when evoked, typically in hashtag form it’s used to describe something that pulls emotion or sentiments out of you. Those that make you feel something.
This is mine.