Alright, real talk:
I honestly wanted to praise Alex Tizon for his story, as a Filipino American who rarely gets to see stories resembling (some aspects of) my life in the media. Reading the story itself made me feel many intense emotions because it was like reading a personal story of a family member that I barely knew anything about. I had hoped to use Tizon’s piece as an example of how I can write raw, intimate, complicated narratives of my own fiction and non-fiction works.
And then some people ruined that for me. I’m talking about the people that chimed in with their own opinions about Filipino culture and family dynamics. I’m talking about the people that wanted to be righteous and call us out on our “complicity” because we should do more to help those who are placed in positions like Lola Eudocia.
I got something to say to those people (and I will not be polite about it): SIT DOWN. STOP TALKING. FILIPINOS should be the ones given the platform to speak, because this is our life. We get to mic, we get the time. Let us speak.
For many of us in the kababayan community, Tizon’s story struck a chord in the most painful way. I had difficulty in writing my own thoughts because there was a lot that needed to be processed, digested, and articulated into coherent language.
I wanted to write and post my thoughts right away, within the 48 hours of the story coming out online. But what kept me from doing so were 1) my own feelings and memories that I hoped to never revisit for a long time, 2) the criticisms made by people outside of the community that do not know or understand the cultural or historical context that perpetuated feudalism and bougie mentality among Filipinos, 3) the overwhelming responses by those of the community that demanded for the conversation to be centered on Filipino voices, and 4) my fear of how I can write my own piece without sounding like I am justifying the Tizon’s actions or disregarding my own complicity to the larger issue. (What was the rush, anyway?)
This story came during my self-imposed “break from writing”–two weeks prior, I was busy working on my applications and writing samples for submission to various places. After submitting everything on time (which is rare for me), I decided to take a break for a week. On the second day of my break, the story came out.
In the following 48 hours, I scrolled through comments sections, news feeds, and other online forums to read others’ reactions. It became mentally and emotionally exhausting, which led to shoddy appetite, fatigue from lack of sleep, panicky feeling, and body aches in several areas (i.e., eyes, lower back, shoulders, neck, legs). I mean, those are the typical conditions I have from doing my work. But with this story… the toll was much higher.
I grew up without having my grandparents around. They all lived in the Philippines; by the time I was born, my family was living in the United States.
My paternal grandmother died a few months after I was born, so I never got to meet her when I made my first trip to the Philippines in the following year. I was able to meet my paternal grandfather and maternal grandparents when I was four years old, on my second trip. At the time, it was my maternal grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary. I was one of the flower girls, so there are a few pictures of me wearing a tiny white dress and a thin headband made of white and golden yellow fiber material. I was carrying a small basket of gold paper confetti, to be thrown on the aisle leading up to the altar in the church. I also had a few photos with my grandparents, from preparations to the reception. I also had several photos with my father’s father, months before he passed away–those were the only evidence I have of ever meeting him…
A few years later, my maternal grandmother passed away. I remember how, after learning about Lola’s illness, my mother flew to the Philippines by herself, to take care of her mother. Mom was the eldest daughter in her family, so it was her responsibility to look after the woman that raised her. She and her siblings spent a lot of time with Lola, unsure of when her time would eventually come. I think I was eight years old when Lola died, a year after my mother’s solo trip. I remember my mother and I were downstairs in our house, when she received a phone call from one of her siblings. She was devastated beyond words because Lola meant the world to her. My own mother was another mother’s daughter, and it occurred to me that I would also feel the same way…
As for my maternal grandfather, he is still alive. However, he is unable to communicate with anyone in the family, due to “old age”. (I wish there was a better explanation for his condition, but that is how we refer to it.) I have met him several times, during my other trips to the Philippines, but we were not able to have a conversation with each other because 1) I was very young and shy, so interacting with adults besides my own parents was scary, and 2) language barriers. It upsets me that I have reached an age where I want to ask many questions about our family, and my grandfather could be the key to answering some of those questions–only to realize that it may not be possible… The last time I visited him was last year, for my brother’s one-year anniversary. Our only time to bond was through picture-taking with relatives.
Reading Tizon’s story of Lola Eudocia made me think of my own grandparents. What would my life have been like if they were more present in my childhood? Would I have been grateful for their tender love and care, their imparting wisdom, their stories? Or would I have taken them for granted, only to become more appreciative of what they did for me, after they passed away? I can only romanticize the parallel life I would have had with them…
There was one grand-aunt on my father’s side of the family, whom I regarded as “Lola” and was able to spend some time with in my childhood. Maria Laban Almazan, or “Lola Mary”, came to visit us in the States. She was the sister of my paternal grandmother, and my dad’s “favorite aunt” (according to him). As a child, I was very shy and quiet, especially with adult relatives. But I was nevertheless elated to have Lola Mary with us, even for a short time. My memories of her visit are spotty, but I do remember small details. Like, how much she loved French fries, or how she wanted to learn dance when she was little (she knew that I took ballet throughout my adolescence). I remember the way she spoke, the vivacity and feistiness of her voice (despite her old age). Lola Mary was the closest person I had to a “Lola” being present in my life, due to time and distance. It still saddens me that we could have had more time; I could have asked her questions about her life, when I became interested in learning about my family history and lineage. I wanted to learn about her life, her hopes and dreams, her failures and accomplishments, her. Unfortunately, Lola Mary passed away two years ago, in the same year my family and I were planning our trip to the Philippines. (It was also the same year that my older brother passed away.) I was devastated, as if I lost a part of my history that was about to be discovered in depth.
Looking at Tizon’s story made me think of family dynamics. Who has the right to tell the stories of our families? How do we do so, without fearing that we are disrespecting/dishonoring the ones who raised us? That is where I can relate to the author, who took it upon himself to form this story and have it published for the whole world to see.
Having a Filipino upbringing includes being told that one must respect their elders, particularly our parents. We were taught to “not talk back”, to “speak only when spoken to”, and to “keep certain things within the family only”. No one needed to know about our business (with the exception of “making tsismis” with other close relations).
I can imagine what Alex Tizon and other writers of Filipino-descent (including myself) taught of, when deciding to pursue this path that involves exposing personal parts of our lives to the outside world. Is it okay to talk about certain family members that affected our lives, in whatever manner that shaped us to become who we are today? How will we handle the potential backlash from other relatives that try to remind us of “our place” in the family hierarchy? Are we able to continue this path, knowing what may be at stake when we decide to publish our work?
“My Family’s Slave” is the one non-fiction piece that really hit me hard. It made me re-consider my purpose as a writer that wants to discuss Filipino-American life in my work. I thought about my audience, my narrative, my approach, my message. Can I right the wrongs that transpired from pieces like Alex Tizon’s? No, because what transpired is beyond my control and my lifetime; I was born into a time when these practices were and are still in motion. But the best I can do, from my position, is become another Fil-Am voice that will tell another Fil-Am story, from my Fil-Am perspective. We need more of us telling our stories.
As a writer, I go by the philosophy of “I’d be damed if someone else told my story. They’re not going to get it right. And if there are any gaps, they’ll fill them in with their own sh*t that ain’t right with me,” and I will stand by that philosophy as I go down this path.