A Little Girl Named Delia

When I was little, I would plague my grandma with questions about her life before she was my grandma. Within the few years that I had lived on this earth, it seemed impossible to me that she could have lived so many years and still be there in front of me. I was six at the time when my grandma told me about the Japanese invading her village in the provinces. It was 60 years past at the time, 10 times the amount of time I had been alive. Impossible.

It was even more difficult to imagine my grandma as a young girl. Difficult to imagine the wrinkled skin, which she massaged with Oil of Olay every morning, smoothed over into the face of someone’s anak. Difficult even to imagine a little girl with her name. Delia. It seemed fitting only for my grandma, who embroidered red roses and red “D’s” on white pillowcases, who loved to walk to the flea market until the year her legs turned on her, who stayed overnights because my parents worked graveyard shifts, who slept in between my older brother and me on the shared king bed so we wouldn’t kick each other, who scratched my back until I fell asleep, who walked me to school every morning and packed me lunch and knew my friends’ names and packed extra food when I told her some of them had nothing to eat during breaks. I would close my eyes as she told her stories, trying to imagine her at my age, shrunken through backwards time and smoothed out into a little girl.

The little girl was adopted by her uncle and his wife because her biological parents could not afford another daughter. She was brought to a rice farm and raised with her cousins in the green fields of Quezon’s provinces. 

“I was like her,” My grandma said, pointing at the screen when we watched Cinderella. The tall, thin blonde girl was crying on the floor in a torn dress. I imagined my grandma riding in a pumpkin carriage and singing to birds in the morning. How could a pumpkin carriage navigate the deep, mulched rice fields of that yesterday so long ago?  

When her mother passed away, her father married another woman who was not kind. My grandma’s stepmother didn’t allow her to go to school with her siblings, and I imagined the little girl who was named Delia and had smooth skin staring out the window at the other little girls who were hurrying by with their books and pencils. My grandma said she practiced spelling with bigas: hard, uncooked rice. And I wondered if she sculpted each single grain into lines and curves that formed letters, or if she flattened a pile of bigas into a canvas and dragged her finger across and made trenches into words. 

The Japanese came and the little girl who was Delia ran with her parents who were not her real parents and her siblings who were not her real siblings into the trees. She said they dug holes and hid in them while their village and rice fields were raided. I imagined the people in her village digging and building an elaborate civilization underground, vast torchlit caverns with stores of food and water, where they could hide out the war.

On the backs of discarded wrapping paper I drew mazes of tunnels where the little girl who was Delia would run and play, hidden deep underground in the palace of lupa. Perhaps a small chapel for them to sit and pray and wait for the war to pass the islands by. Perhaps it was a kingdom, she Princess Delia. “Hindi ganun,” She told me later. Not like that.

As I grew older and watched videos of that war in the distant past (growing more distant with each passing day) it became harder and harder to imagine what it was like for that little girl who was Delia who would become my lovely wrinkled grandma who smelled of Oil of Olay and Estee Lauder and who has been gone now for more than 10 years. I’m 24 and have 50 years left until I’m the age she was when she died, and it seems impossible to live so many lives in that short amount of time. Only five decades between who I am now and who Delia was when she left me; and I wonder if there will be a child in my place asking me who I was before I appeared in their lives, wrinkled and worn and lovely, and I wonder what I will tell them.

On Mental Health as a Filipino-American

I was inspired/#triggered to write this from this article that addresses toxic behaviors in Filipino culture. In it, Abby Pasion revisits her childhood as a young Filipino American and discusses the all-too-familiar family gathering with the infinite trays of food, ear-shattering karaoke, and unwarranted comments about bodies, accomplishments, etc.

Pasion talks about the pain that accompanied the eating and the laughter during these parties, as they were often places of “judgement, drama, and toxic social behaviors like child bragging and comparing, body-shaming, gossip, and even subtle public ridicule.”

As someone who grew up as the fat kid, this really hit home. It brought back memories of making my plate, finding a place to sit to enjoy my food, then being bombarded with comments about my weight.
“Oh my god, look at how much you’re eating, why don’t you just drink water!”
“O, you better run on the treadmill tonight, ha?”
“Your face is so pretty, anak. Why don’t you go on diet? Sayang naman, eh?”
And while I know these came from a place of love, I have to admit that they hurt and enraged me.

I think the most painful part of it all was that I didn’t allow myself to cry or show that I was hurt. Because I deserved and needed these comments, right? I was fat and it was unhealthy, so why would I be upset about the truth? I learned early on that the best way to react was to either not react at all, or to retaliate with a joke. One of the things that came from being a fat kid was the need for a sense of humor and fast wit. I could never speak back to my elders and tell them they were wrong for saying these things, but I could grow a thick skin and deflect. Laughter is the best medicine, but it became my vice and addiction when I used it as a means of numbing the emotions that I should have been processing and expressing.

When I was about 9-years-old, there was an instance where a family member learned how much I weighed. Being embarrassed, I asked them not to tell anyone. This was something personal to me and something I knew was wrong and ugly about myself. So when the person told all our friends and family about it the next Sunday at church, it felt like someone had stripped me naked and left me standing in front of an audience while they laughed at all my rolls and imperfections. I was devastated, but I couldn’t show it. Because if there’s anything worse than standing naked in front of a laughing audience, it’s crying while standing naked in front of a laughing audience.

It took a long time and a lot of reflection for me to get over my fear of treadmills and diets and health discussions, because in the back of my mind I always equated them with being publicly humiliated and ridiculed. I regret to say that it wasn’t until I had a boyfriend who loved me for all of me that I started to become truly okay with my body and understand that self-love went beyond posting selfies and face masks, rather it also encompassed taking care of my emotional and physical health.

With the recent birth of my nephew came the new generation in my family, and I find myself stressing about what kind of aunt and role model I want to be for him. While I do want to uphold Filipino traditions and culture, I don’t want to perpetuate the idea that family is a social hierarchy with children on the bottom. I want him to not fear social gatherings like I did as a kid, and I want him to be comfortable enough to speak up if I do or say anything wrong.

My brothers and I have discussed this and a big word we throw around is “ego.” While I do think that may be a part of the problem, I think the issue goes deeper than personal ego or self-esteem. Being an elder in a culture that values cohesive extended family structures means having taken the brunt of the hierarchy as a kid and young adult. My parents’ generation in my family are wonderful people and have raised my generation to be successful, so a part of their grasp to the hierarchy and archaic traditions could be that it worked for them, so why not us?

What I appreciate about Pasion’s article is that she doesn’t simply blame the older generation, making sure to point out that “it is easy to label the elders as the villains of this story. Taking a moment to challenge that and to look at the larger picture of toxic Filipino culture, there’s really an intergenerational conversation that needs to take place.” I was angry for a long time at my parents and aunts and uncles without analyzing where their behavior came from and what it probably was like for them when they were my age. As I’ve grown older, it’s become more clear to me that the hurtful comments and the toxic behavior were reiterations of what they must have experienced as children. I believe now more than ever that these expressions of “tough love” are not only rooted in good intentions, but that they also provide a window into truly understanding why and how this became part of our culture. And understanding that and starting conversations to fix it is the first step.

I must admit that although I know this first step, it’s still difficult as hell to approach the wheel, let alone try to break it. Confrontation has always been terrifying for me, even more so with the people I love and respect. But isn’t that a part of growing up? Understanding that although some things have been in place for a long time, they aren’t necessarily always right?

An emerging conversation amongst Filipinos is the topic of mental health. Pasion refers to a 2015 study finding that while “Filipino Americans have some of the highest rates of depression among Asian Americans, Filipino Americans also seek mental health treatment at some of the lowest rates.” During a family conversation about depression and anxiety, a family member expressed confusion at the apparent rise of mental health issues in my generation. “We never had depression,” they exclaimed, “but we had less money and things than you guys do. Why would you feel depressed?” A big consensus was that our generation does not pray enough (another issue for another day), but one of the glaring reasons as to why our generation seems to be more depressed and anxious is that we and the society we live in are more open about it. My grandma and grandpa were very loving parents and grandparents, but I’m sure if anyone had come to them and told them they were having panic attacks, they would have pointed them to the nearest Santo Nino and Mary statue with a rosary in hand.

So who can blame my parents and aunts and uncles for not completely understanding mental health issues and how to help?

Throughout high school, I suffered from frequent panic attacks. With how comfortable my life was and how many resources I had at my disposal, I didn’t understand why I had them and felt frustrated at myself for being weak and sensitive. It wasn’t until I started seeing a counselor during my freshman year of college that I started to work through why I was having these feelings and what I could do to address and fix them (it wasn’t prayer).

One of the most difficult conversations I had with my counselor was about the root of my anxieties, where she focused on my relationship with my family. I was defensive at first, because I didn’t want to victimize myself and in turn make them villains. But through long discussions and a lot of work she helped me understand that it wasn’t that simple, and that I needed to learn how to maintain these vital relationships while also distancing myself from toxic and unwanted behavior. The solution we came up with was moving out from my parents’ house while remaining relatively nearby, because until then I was either living under their roof or studying abroad on another continent. She pointed out that my relationship with my parents had only ever seen 2 extremities, which could have been the reason why I didn’t have the tools to confront my feelings about it. I either felt suffocated by them, or was too far away to process them.

So here I am: 23-years-old living about an hour away, a daughter, sister, cousin, and auntie. I can happily say that over the years I’ve worked on my response to my anxieties (whether about my family or work or a sudden change of plans that I wasn’t ready for), and I’ve definitely progressed in how I process and express myself. My family has had its ups and downs but I see my siblings and cousins being more outspoken about their beliefs and the beginnings of what look like open conversations with the older generation. It’s hard work and I don’t see it becoming any easier any time soon, but I have hope that love (and tigas ng ulo) will help us follow through.

On Atheism as a Filipino-American

Disclaimer: This post is based completely on my personal experience with Filipino Roman Catholicism. Individual belief is just that: up to the individual, and I do not claim to have any authority of judgment over what you believe in.

My earliest memory of questioning God was at around 5-years-old, when my grandma told me to behave because Papa Jesus was always watching. I took this as a threat and was thenceforth terrified of the Jesuses that seemed to multiply in our house. An emaciated Jesus weeping as he bore his cross, a calm Jesus standing before a golden halo with his hands stretched out in a welcoming embrace, and the Santo Niño, the baby Jesus. At every corner he was watching me, waiting for me to make a mistake. And why was he always blonde and blue-eyed?

I remember waking up in a cold sweat one night, dreaming that the Santo Niño had come to life and was walking towards me, saying “I’m always watching” as it bore its teeth and reached its claws toward me, ready to punish me for my sins. When I told my grandma about this she was livid, telling me that I was watching too many movies and that I could never think about Jesus in such a way, that it was a sin in itself to be scared of Jesus and what he would do about my sins. I don’t doubt that I probably had watched Child’s Play one too many times, but I wondered at that moment what I was doing to deserve this close surveillance. Why was Jesus always watching me? Didn’t he have more important things to do?

I grew up going to church every Sunday at 7 pm, and even some Wednesdays and Fridays. I took evening classes where we read the Bible and colored in pictures of the benevolent Jesus, often sitting on a rock in the middle of a pastoral scene, with children and sheep surrounding him. My mom, dad, and three older brothers sang in the church choir with my uncles and aunts. They still sing, every Sunday at 7 pm. When she was alive and able to, my grandma sat in the front pews and prayed diligently. Besides church, we prayed the Rosary at home, gathering together in the living room-turned-altar with dozens of statues of saints. My grandma would sit on the couch and have her eyes closed for most of the prayer. Her Hail Mary’s were always calm but firm, and sometimes she would rock back and forth to the syllables of prayer. I remember wanting so bad to feel what she felt, a presence of grace and knowing and assurance of what she was doing and who she was.

My grandma died in 2008 when I was in 7th grade. For a year after her death, we gathered and prayed the Rosary and a litany, imploring Jesus and all the saints in Heaven to welcome her into the radiant gates. Selfishly, I also prayed because I wanted to reach the state of grace my grandma seemed to be in when she prayed, moving back and forth as she communicated with God and Mary. And it always seemed like they communicated back to her. For me, it felt like I was whispering into a void. I mimicked my grandma’s Hail Mary’s and sounded out every syllable, every consonant, as if to push my voice further into the void in search of something there. And with every conclusion of our nightly rosary, I was left feeling empty, nothing coming back to communicate with me. I was terrified of this void and the unknown because it meant that all of my prayers, all of my tears and wishes were going into empty space. What was there, if not God?

I prayed harder than I ever had before, because the silence on the other side was terrifying. Why weren’t the Heavenly Hosts responding? My one-sided prayer made me feel so alone and scared, and it was at this point in my life where I truly began to feel what this emptiness meant. I was terrified that I was questioning God’s existence, because surely this meant I was going to Hell.

This was also the same time that Proposition 8 had passed in California, overturning the right of same-sex couples to marry. My church, the people whom I loved so dearly and who I knew loved me back, talked about the institution of marriage and how it was the Catholic’s duty to protect it from abomination. As someone who was coming to terms with her bisexuality, I wondered what that meant about me as a member of the Church. Was I still welcome? Or only the acceptable part of me? People of the Church assured that their position against same-sex marriage meant nothing about the individuals, that they still welcomed queer people. But it just didn’t make sense to me how you could claim to welcome and accept someone while denying and dismissing their love. I know now that not all Catholics shared this belief, but it was the authoritative teachings against LGBTQ people that began to affirm my suspicion that I didn’t quite belong.

Growing up, my family and the church were woven together. We were well known in the congregation as a strong family of faith. I didn’t want my lack of belief to smudge that reputation, so I’ve kept it hidden. I went to church with my family every Sunday up until the year I moved out. Even up until now, I’ve either avoided the subject of religion altogether or simply nodded my head and lied about it. Yes, I was going to church. Yes, I took communion. Yes, yes, yes.

But now as I’m getting older and coming to my own in this world, I have to question if what I’m doing is right. I’ve been lying to my family because I don’t want to cause them distress over my faith and humanity. With faith such an important aspect of being Filipino and being part of my family, will my personal beliefs become a barrier between me and my loved ones? I chose to keep up the image of a somewhat decent Catholic, because I believed it was a part of my duty as a Filipino daughter. I wanted to avoid the conflict that would come with being atheist, but in doing so I’ve created my own problems because I feel like I have to constantly edit and hide myself to appease my family.

One of the things I was most worried about when I started questioning my religion was the idea of good versus bad. Whenever I misbehaved or did something out of selfishness, my grandma would tell me, “Don’t do that or Papa Jesus will be mad at you.” So for the first years of my life, my compass of morality was based on what I thought Jesus would approve of or what was taught in the Bible. You know the basics, love thy neighbor, obey thy mother and father, don’t covet thy neighbor’s wife or donkey…

But I realized growing up that the things that I can do things that are “good” or “righteous” simply because they are good and righteous, not because it says so in the Bible. What is the Bible, anyway? It’s a compilation of stories and teachings written by ordinary people, which was then picked over and edited by men of authority, men who were building communities and empires and needed literature that justified and supported their cause. Who knows what else was written in the name of Christianity and left out because it didn’t serve that editor’s needs? But why does that have to stop us from being good people? It’s an evolutionary trait to want your species to survive and reproduce, so can’t being kind to others also be an inherent function of being a social animal?

And as for that void that I found when I was 12, it’s still there. The universe is constantly expanding, which means the void is just growing bigger and I’m getting smaller in comparison. The empty space between infinity and me is infinity itself, a vast space of unknowns and emptiness. Of course, I’m still terrified of the unknown, but I’m also comforted by it.

I don’t believe that I’ll meet my deceased loved ones in an afterlife, and while this makes me extremely sad because I miss them, it also helps me cherish the moments that I did have with them. When my grandpa died last year, I was heartbroken at the thought of never seeing him again. I even prayed to the universe and whatever is out there to make sure that it knew I loved my grandpa. But in doing so, I realized the only entities to which my love mattered was my grandpa and myself. I realized how lucky I was to have shared this time with my grandpa, in the infinite vastness of time and space I had the chance of knowing such an amazing person. That inspired me to rethink my current relationships with other people, and how the universe has miraculously chanced the intersection of the strings of our lifetimes. Not believing in the afterlife as rekindled my belief in this life, and loving as hard as I can while I still have the people I love and who love me.

This is a long, convoluted whatever it is, but it’s something I’ve been wanting to say for more than 10 years. I don’t believe in God or Jesus, but that doesn’t mean I have no beliefs. I believe in being kind and fair for the sake of being kind and fair. I believe that we are here for a transient amount of time and that we can never be sure of what will come afterward. Our lives are minuscule and insignificant in the face of such a vast, infinite universe, but that just means we have to squeeze all the love and happiness and fullness we can out of the short time we have with one another. For me, that’s enough.