I had a moment as I was cleaning rice today. I felt the grains slip between my fingers, saw the water turn a milky grey and thought about all the “Filipino-ness” I took for granted growing up.
I haven’t kept white rice in the house for over a decade now and have been eating frozen brown rice from Trader Joe’s for the past two years. Yes, I am a bad Asian. Since quarantine however, I’ve gone back to my roots. I am now thankful for growing up on corned beef, Spam, liverwurst, and vienna sausages. But I’ve realized that while I love Spam in masuibi, it’s been years since I’ve cooked with it. There’s just something unsettling about that loud slurp it makes when it slides out the can. No food should make noise when you cook it, but definitely not that noise.
I hadn’t had corned beef and cabbage since my great-grandmother Nana was still alive. It was soupy and delicious. I remember ordering it for the first time after she passed and ended up with the Irish version, which don’t get me wrong , is good – just not what Nana used to make. I legitimately didn’t even know there was any other kind of corned beef and cabbage until then. Along with beef nilaga (which all the kids just called “soup and rice”) and sotanghon soup, these three dishes were staples at our 2-bedroom apartment on Taraval and 40th in the Sunset. Aptly dubbed “Hotel Taraval,” because anyone who recently immigrated to San Francisco stayed there, it housed a rotating mass of tenants with up to eight at once. Not sure how I managed to sleep in a room with my mom, great-grandmother, and cousin at the same time. It doesn’t take much to wake me up nowadays.
During a Christmas party, my Uncle-Dave “bugged” me while I was using his computer most likely acting a fool in some AOL chatroom. I use the word bugged in quotes, because I was in his house on his computer. At any rate, I was in high school and didn’t care about family. We all have that stage. He said I should be in the living room talking to Nana, because she wouldn’t be around long and had some good stories to tell. Obviously, I now wish I had left whatever Brooklyn chatroom I was in to hear one of those stories.
I wish I had learned more Tagalog. I wish I had helped roll lumpia, and memorized more recipes. I wish I had helped Nana make coconut oil. She would be laughing at how popular it is now. You know how people feel about Vicks? Nana would make coconut oil from scratch. Back when her old bones were still agile enough to sit on a small wooden stool with a coconut grater attached at the end resembling some medieval torture device. The entire apartment would smell like coconut for days, but it was always worth it. Got a headache? Coconut oil. Back hurts? Coconut oil. Wrinkles? Coconut oil.
I was never ashamed to be Filipino and I never denied it. No one ever made fun of me for it either. I just always envied how beautiful ambiguity was. I wanted to have people wonder if I was part Hawaiian or mestiza or hapa. It was dumb. My Tita-Shirley once tried to teach me Tagalog and I made fun of myself and called the accent “ugly”. “Don’t say that,” she said and now I am so fascinated by my friends who can speak fluently, and am embarrassed to hear myself attempt Tagalog with a “white” accent and broken sentences.
Now I see Instagram posts of all these magical, “exotic”, tropical paradises like the white sand beaches of Boracay, clear waters of Siargao, private boats in Palawan, and sand bars in Cebu and I can’t help, but think “That’s BEEN there, that’s BEEN home”. Have you drank soda out of a plastic bag? Have you made your own shampoo from Guamamela leaves? Have you taken a cold shower from a plastic trash bin? Then, you haven’t visited the Philippines.
But who am I to say shit like that? Me, someone who only comes back once a decade. Who would still, to this day choose to live in the United States over the Philippines any day? I can’t even speak Tagalog for crying out loud! So how do you determine your Filipino-ness? It’s a fucked up question right?
I don’t actually think there’s a wrong answer, and I know it’s different for everyone. For me, it was the feeling I felt in those few minutes I was washing rice. It was feeling some type of way seeing all of these photos of the Philippines on Instagram, because I’ve also seen and stayed in the slums as well. It’s my great-grandmother’s paper-thin skin on her hands, wrinkled yet smooth. Hand that have never had a license or drove a car or had a paycheck, because her only job was to take care of her family. It’s the smell of nilaga, tinola, and adobo just as you lift the lid off the pot. It’s the leftover halo-halo milk, getting another heaping spoonful of salty eggs, onions and tomatoes for your rice. It’s rolling lumpia while rolling with laughter, because Filipinos do not have cute, dainty laughs. (Maybe that’s the real way to gauge someone’s Filipino-ness).
I became an American citizen in 2009. During the oath ceremony, there was a part that asks you to “Give up allegiance to any other nation or sovereign, and renounce hereditary or noble titles, if any” and for a split second I felt sad, but mostly guilty. I felt like I was giving up a part of me. The funny thing is I think the minute I relinquished my Filipino citizenship, I represented it even more.
I can’t take back those years of ignorance, but I can pass it down as knowledge for future generations to come – including my own. So my dear, beautiful, young people: learn the language, and stay in the family room where it’s loud and crazy and maybe even a little boring. Cook with your elders. No matter how ratchet or thuglife you are, “bless” inay and tatay when you see them. Don’t be nasty, take your shoes off when you enter the house. Taste the food – you don’t have to like it or eat it ever again, but at least TASTE IT. Embrace your melanin (or lack of it, because us Pinays come in many shades) – JUST BE YOU. Support your people. Whether it’s by having your office party catered by a local, authentic restaurant or buying a straw purse from Tita-Baby’s cousin’s neighbor’s brother in-laws shop instead of Forever 21. Read about the history – the good and the bad. And when you take that trip to the motherland for your 30th birthday with all your friends, make sure to leave the luxury resort that costs you nothing to stay at and visit the humble beginnings of your ancestors. Just don’t forget to bring me back pasalubong.