Vanessa spent the first decade of her adulthood adventuring. She’s lived along California’s coast, Nevada, the Alaskan frontier, England, and Eastern Europe. She’s jumped off mountains, excavated ancient archaeological sites, and lived out of a backpack for years at a time. She is more often found writing than living adventures these days. She is first-generation half-Filipino and half-Pakistani. She felt a lack of representation in media growing up, so now she writes stories she wishes to see more of, populated with quirky protagonists finding their way when traditional labels don’t fit. Her first YA novel comes out early next year.
There is a common Tagalog proverb which has always stuck with me. “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan.” Roughly translated to English, this says that a person who doesn’t know how to look back from where he came from won’t reach his destination.
I am a product of the lure, the promise of the American dream.
And I am thankful for the sacrifices my parents made so that I might exist. I must never forget to be grateful. In Tagalog, walang hiya, in Urdu, zalil. A curse thrown by parents at their children for perceived ungratefulness. My mom and dad might come from vastly different places, but they share this cultural importance of gratitude toward your elders. My dad is Muslim and Pakistani, born in British-ruled India in 1945, three years before the partition. My mom was born in Cebu City, Philippines, in 1948. I was born in Long Beach, California, in 1985. Together, we circumnavigate the globe.
But to be first-generation American means to be disconnected from everything that came before. There is this grounding I lack in my identity, history, and origin story. My parents met in the United States, and it’s as if they didn’t exist prior to my birth. I know so little of who they were before. They were forty years old when they had me. There was an entire history and three continents in their past, yet I know so little of it. And often, this secrecy was purposeful. Perceived shame or fear kept them from wanting to share the burden of their experiences with me.
Like Hansel and Gretel, I have picked up breadcrumbs of history along the way and traced their pattern, again and again, to try to find my way home. And we all know how that story turned out.
My Filipino grandmother, whom I lovingly called lola, helped fill the gaping holes in my knowledge. In 2004, she spent almost an entire year teaching me to drive, stopping by once a week to give me lessons. I was 19 years old, living on my own, but struggling without a car or a license. Southern California is not the place to live if you rely on public transportation to get around.
On Sundays, she drove her rickety old Buick from Long Beach to Fullerton, a forty-minute drive. She was so afraid of the crush of LA traffic; she took side streets the whole way. She would pull up to my dingy apartment with a trunk full of groceries and cook me a meal with plenty left over to freeze. She showed me so much care in these acts. To this day, I can think of no greater gesture of love than cooking for your family and friends.
Once we’d eaten, she’d force me into the driver's seat, and we made loops around the city as she taught me the basics. I failed my driving exam twice, so there were a lot of dinner-and-a-drive Sunday dates that year.
On those Sundays, we talked.
“Aye, Ba-ning. Turn left. Okay, good, ease off the gas.” Lola’s voice was so calm compared to the seven fiery, fierce children she birthed and raised. I often wondered how she could have had my mother, uncles, and aunts, who differed from her so much in personality and disposition.
Turning left, we drove by a car repair shop. There were vehicles on blocks, their oil bleeding into the cracked cement as I carefully maneuvered past, hands at precisely ten and two.
“You know,” she said, gesturing to the garage. “Your lolo was a mechanic and we were very wealthy because he was so good at his work. But it’s why he went blind. He refused to wear eye protection, and it destroyed his vision. Although he always believed it was his punishment from God.”
“Why?” I asked, trying not to sound too dismissive of this theory. My Filipino family always talked of fortune or misfortune as reward or punishment from above.
“He could be… cruel when your nanay was growing up. He used to hit the children if they misbehaved. But it was... a different time.”
Always, this refrain of a different time, like it excused the atrocities of the past.
“His tatay before him, your… how do you say? Great-grandfather? He once put your lolo in a burlap sack and beat him bloody. So you see, with each generation, we have become better people. When your lolo went blind? It brought him peace to stop having control over everyone. He became a happier, kinder man.”
This story shaped me in measurable ways. I still think often of what unexpected obstacles life can throw at us, and how they can change us, for better or for worse. I don’t have the same mindset about karma and divine entitlement that lola believed in so firmly, however. I see the world as a series of accidents, and how we react to them and learn from them is ultimately what imbues our lives with meaning. My lolo didn’t “get what he deserved.” When my lolo was hail and healthy? He was not a kind person. But after he went blind? He chose to let go of the anger he had inside and became the lolo that I got to know, who sat patiently and listened. Who let others help him. And who always had a warm hug ready for me.
Another Sunday, we sat around my plastic dining room table as I helped shell shrimp for Sinigang soup, a sweet and sour broth made of tamarind.
“You’re nanay…. She could have had this.” Lola gestured around my apartment.
I looked around the flat. The walls were off-white and full of patched holes from too many tenants, with crooked posters and a Pride flag pinned to the wall. An old TV on an upturned wooden crate sat before a sagging thrift-store sofa. I gave her a lifted eyebrow and a half-smile. “What? A dingy two-bedroom with three roommates?”
“No!” She laughed as she looked around the same apartment, seeing what I could not grasp. “College. Independence.” She shook her head in memory. “She married too young.”
Confused, I looked away from deveining shrimp to focus entirely on what she was saying. “Mom married dad when she was like, forty.”
“She was married before your tatay. You didn’t know?”
Now her eyebrows bunched together, and she bit her lip, realizing she said something she shouldn’t have.
“Yes. She went off to college when she was a little younger than you, and she secretly married her boyfriend and dropped out of school.”
I knew I gaped like a fish, but today was a day for surprises.
“You have to understand; it was a different time. They had —” Lola whispered the next part, “— gotten pregnant, so they married quickly. She was supposed to be living with her aunt in the city, but her aunt had no rules, so she ran wild. I only found out after she was married, and the baby was on the way.”
“I have a half-brother?” My eyes nearly bulged out of my head.
“No… he passed when he was three years old.” Her wrinkled face sagged into a frown at the words.
“Oh. That’s… that’s awful. How?” I stuttered.
“He had a a bad heart, what they called… a blue baby? His heart just… failed him one day. He was on some list to get a big surgery, but… he died. It destroyed your mother. She was… not the same for a long time. She left her no-good husband and eventually came to America.”
There is so much unsaid in the pauses of her telling. With bits and pieces I gathered in the years that followed, I managed to patch together most of the tragic tale. Of how it was a national holiday the day he died. How my mother was teaching him to sleep in his own room and not come running to her bed every night. She tucked him in at bedtime, and he cried and cried, through the fireworks, and the parades in the streets, before going quiet. She found him the next morning, alone and cold.
She lost her mind with grief after this. Mental health wasn’t something publicly discussed then. As lola would say, it was a “different time.” My mom described months passing without her knowledge, how her mind dwelled, again and again, on the seizure of fear she felt when she found him. She said she used to see him everywhere. In the corner of her vision, in dreams, in the curves of my face, my cries at night after I was born. Now she sees him in the faces of my children. He haunts her, though she spent years never speaking a word about him.
I often think of this person, this brother, I never met, born twenty years before me on the other side of the world. I could have had a brother! I imagine what it might be like to share the burden of family with someone. In this way, he haunts me too. How different would my life be if he lived? Would I even exist?
He is the what-if and the could-have-been of my mother’s past. He was the missing answer to a question I never knew to ask. A person whose echo I feel in my mother’s overprotectiveness. In her exaggerated fear when, to this day, she calls me at 1 a.m., terrified something might have happened to me. Her chronic insomnia. Her love and grief and need all bundled up in the one child she has. Me. It’s a lot of pressure to shoulder all by myself.
As hard as my parents tried to leave their pasts firmly behind them, it has shaped everything to come after. In every action and reaction they have. No one can leave their history behind.
After another driving lesson, while eating another home-cooked meal, I asked lola for her take on the story of how my parents met. They told me several different versions over the years, the story constantly evolving until I had no idea what could possibly be true. They met at a gas station he owned. My dad rented a room out to my mom. They lived in the same neighborhood. I could never get a straight answer from them. They couldn’t even get their wedding date right. When I asked, they told me their anniversary was on Valentine’s Day. I found their marriage certificate once. They were wed in July.
“Oh! Well, you know your nanay was dating someone at the time?”
“Yes, she had been with her ex-boyfriend for years, but he just never… wanted to settle. Your nanay, she must have been about 35? So, she was worried about what all unwed older women worry about. She and her cousin were looking for an apartment. Your tatay had just moved from Pakistan to the US to get into real estate. You know, his family used to be very wealthy?”
“Dad has never told me a single thing about his family.” I didn’t know what city he was born in, I’d never seen his birth certificate, nor even a photo of him before he married my mom. I didn’t even know his parents’ names.
“Oh… well, I only know what your nanay has told me. Your other lola, she passed when he was very young. And his tatay, who was a wealthy man who owned a flour mill, remarried. His new wife and stepchildren were awful people who used to mistreat your tatay. He was enrolled in a fancy British-run boarding school, and he never went home again. Your tatay worked in accounting in Saudi Arabia for many years before moving to America. He always wanted to live up to his tatay’s level of wealth… but never quite attained it. He heard about others making millions in California real estate, so he bought up a bunch of properties in Long Beach. But none of them were very lucrative. He rented a unit to your nanay and her cousin. He lived in the same building, and he would stop by with pizza sometimes. He was such a nice man, and he wanted a family too. So, after a few months, they got married. And a few years later, they had you. And you are their absolute pride and joy.”
This explained a lot about their relationship. They mixed about as well as oil and water. Or, more aptly, like fire and oil. Combustible. But no one could doubt they loved me. As misguided and overbearing as that love could be at times. As many children of Asian parents could testify to. I was always expected to do well in school, become a doctor or a lawyer, make heaps of money, and eventually take care of them. It hasn’t quite worked out that way.
In their single-minded drive to make me as American as possible, I fully embraced the American dream. I am a lover of art, and of literature, philosophy, and science. I have never been driven by the lure of “success” as my parents defined it. I have multiple university degrees in “soft” subjects, and spent the majority of my twenties alone, traveling and learning. I aspired to some intellectual aptitude without any thought for how it distanced me, more than ever, from my humble immigrant beginnings. But now, approaching forty myself and raising my children, I think about identity and belonging more than ever.
I am half-Pakistani and half-Filipino, but I feel like a fraud when I claim either. I will never know the languages my parents were raised with. Their native tongues. Lola and lolo are gone now. My parents are in their seventies, and when they pass, so will their experiences. All I have left are these stories, filtered through the lens of immigration and translated past the point of fact. And isn’t that the way of memory? It becomes nothing more than the story we tell ourselves, again and again. If not accurate history, these stories can be parables I tell my children to connect them to the past. To connect them to countries and places and time periods which only exist in the telling. I hope it brings them the connection I so deeply desire to have with cultures I know so little about.