On ancestors

The past week has been monumental on a personal and community level. I have not had the emotional and mental bandwidth to process the murders of 6 Asian women in Atlanta, Georgia as my family grapples with losing one of our own.

My uncle’s passing has hit me harder than I thought it would have. In the past decade, I’ve lost my maternal grandparents, an aunt, and a great-aunt whom I considered a grandmother. But my uncle is an anchor, not just for me, but for the whole Pakingan-Lares family. He is part of almost all my childhood memories in the Philippines, some of which are fuzzy, compilations of a second here or there. He was so loving and he rarely showed his struggles. I wish I had paid more attention as an adult. Instead of running away from overseas phone calls because I didn’t want to answer his questions about my love life (my family tends to ask these questions because as I perceive it, they believe love and marriage are the only markers of a happy life and I disagree). I wonder who was there for him when he was there for us.

My dad calls my uncle “the connector.” He was the bridge to both the Pakingan and Lares families; he knew family members my dad can’t remember now or was too young to know. And now, I’ve lost yet another thread to my ancestors.

In my teens I wanted to talk to my grandmother and write down her stories. I wanted to be the family historian. Then she died when I was 14 and I never did write down her stories. (We didn’t have the best relationship and I was less patient and even more defiant then.) My aunt–the oldest of the siblings–suffered a stroke a couple of years ago and only has a few lucid moments here and there.

My elders are few now. All I have of their existence are old photographs. I recently found one of my great-grandfather while looking for photos for a slideshow. I think it’s the oldest photograph our family has and the farthest I can trace my lineage. There are no papers, no DNA to show me where I come from. Papers destroyed in World War II or damaged and swallowed by typhoons. It exists—we exist, briefly.

One Year Later

Public Workshop Performance of Yappie: A Musical Comedy. Cohen-Davison Family Theatre, Peabody Conservatory, Baltimore, MD. October 4, 2019. Photo by Shealyn Jae Photography

Today marks one year after the workshop premiere of Yappie the Musical (well, half of it. We also changed the title shortly after the workshop performance.) Yappie is a creative project I’ve been working on since July 2019 with composer, Bobby Ge, and producers, Roger Wu Fu and Donna Ibale. I had never written lyrics up until last summer, and I never imagined I’d ever write a musical.

The night before I remember feeling nervous and strangely confident. I was nervous about how it would be received by the audience. Would they find it funny, endearing, irrelevant, terrible? I hoped they would enjoy it at least, but I knew deep down that no matter their reaction, I was proud of my work. Proud that I pushed myself to be a better writer even if there was a great (and very public) chance of failure. (I mean, who writes half of a musical in 2.5 months? Apparently we do.)

The night unfolded better than I could have imagined. The cast was brilliant, the audience laughed, and so many friends came out to support us. My mom and sister sat right in the center, second row from the stage. My former co-workers came together, my former students-turned-friends-for-life brought their friends, a few friends from the DC area made the trek to Baltimore (on a Friday night nonetheless!), and my dear friends from undergrad who have witnessed my writing and performing career from the beginning were there once again to see me embark on a new one. My heart grew exponentially that night. I wasn’t sure I deserved all that support. But I was and am so very happy to be surrounded by such amazing people.

Fast forward a year, and here we are, the arts in a precarious position because of a global pandemic, an economic downturn, and the very necessary uprooting of racism in arts and cultural institutions and organizations.

We were slated to premiere the complete musical in May this year and decided at the start of the pandemic to postpone the premiere to the fall. We will not be staging this production any time in the near future; however, we will be sharing a part of it with you soon. I can’t share in what form yet, but know that we’re working on it and are excited to release it into the world! 🎵🎵🎵

I know our creative endeavor was one among many that had to be delayed, change course, or shelved indefinitely. The pandemic gave me more time than I ever thought I’d have to write the lyrics and script. It also made it incredibly difficult to write. To write about anything other than missing putting on shoes, missing in-person conversations, missing any sort of contact, missing wandering the streets with no destination in mind, missing sitting at a bar drinking a pint, missing being immersed in a live performance with people in a room—an experience that really can’t be replicated. It also pushed us to flex our creative muscles and think of ways to produce a version of it with everyone’s safety in mind.

For this time around, I’m not nervous at all.

Check out the Events page and follow us on Instagram: @yappiethemusical for updates.

National Poetry Month: A Throwback to the 2000s

Happy National Poetry Month!

To celebrate, I decided to travel through time and read my very old poems. Poems I wrote in high school when I was a writing machine. In 2001, I wrote 45 poems. 45! Are they any good now? Who knows. Probably not. It doesn’t really matter if they’re any good or will not stand the test of time. What I’m taking away from looking at old work is that I kept writing. And writing consistently. I wasn’t afraid of what ended up on the page. That’s a feeling worth reclaiming.

I was incredibly emo at the time, but then, who wasn’t at that age? Many of the poems are about crushes (one-sided), not feeling seen, defying expectations of beauty and femininity, and wanting to claim my life for myself. Themes that, looking back now, at times still permeate my recent and current work.

So come on this journey with me, as I dig deep and try to remember what inspired some of the pieces below.

Driving down I-95
 
Windows rolled down
Stereo volume at its zenith
Trees blur as we speed down I-95.
You play our favorite CD
Sound waves penetrate the silence.
The lyrics roar from my mouth
And you bang your head
Words form on your lips.
Cars drive past, glances linger
Two young women sputtering nonsense
We laugh at how they gawk
And turn the volume knob clockwise.
 
I grip the wheel, reluctant to let go
And you don’t dare touch the door handle.
How we both desperately wish
That somehow
We could drive forever
With the wind rumbling
The volume near the point of deafness
The trees smearing past
As far away from home
To escape suffocation
From a life not our own.

(c) 2001

To this day I remember the moment that inspired this poem. I was in the car with my sister, windows rolled down, both of us wishing we could drive forever instead of going home.

Grace foreign to my body
 
Her hair swings past her eyes
Gliding across her face
As if the wind gently lifted the strands
And kissed her forehead.
I, walking beside her
Am tumbled down by the fierce wind
Stomped upon by the grace
Foreign to my body.
Her miniscule feet never really touch the ground
My gargantuan toes crack the floor I step.
A magnet, attracting metal
A net capturing friends
My magnet is split in half
There are holes in my net.
She speaks lyrics
I roar slogans.
Trifle with her
She will smile.
Trifle with me
And I will crush you.

(c) 2002

Did you ever have that friend who reminded you of all the things you wanted to be but weren’t? Yea, this one right here. I learned a lot from that failed friendship.

This last one is a precursor to my spoken word career. It was inspired by a book of the same title I picked up at the bookstore. It was bright green and I was yearning for an explanation as to why I felt different from others, growing up in a predominantly white county.

Yell-oh girl
 
Do I look Chinese to you?
My miniscule almond eyes
Dominating the take-out industry
With lo mein and fried rice.
 
Or maybe I’m Korean
Adopted like all the rest
Fresh off the boat, twinkie
Americanization at its best.
 
Do I look like Japanese?
Sakura, Hiroshima, Tamagotchi
Animation freak, techno geek
Devouring shark, seaweed, sushi.
 
Do you know where I come from?
Or do you automatically assume
I originate from another third world country
Where mail-order brides bloom.
 
Have you witnessed Pinoy power
Defiant frail bodies against an armored truck
The pride of a nation never faltering
Never sinking in the muck.
 
An archipelago
Its people engulfed by the sea
On a map can you spot it?
You will, once the world is done with me.

(c) 2001

These poems will never be published (aside from this blog right here). They are not monumental, life-changing, award-worthy pieces. But they are precious to me. They are my own time capsule. Proof that writing has always been there for me, even when I abandoned it at times.

The last of a generation

I found out last night that one of my great aunts passed away. She was 88 years old.

This is the part about growing older that I can’t ever get used to.

She was my favorite Lola (grandmother) growing up in the Philippines. I absolutely adored her. She let me pluck the white hairs off her head! I don’t know why I did that, and why she even let me, but it’s one of my fondest memories. I remember being at her house for hours almost every day. Our mom worked a lot and was gone most of the day so my dad’s extended family took care of us (he was in the U.S. during this time).

She was kind and loving; one of the few grandmothers who showered me and my sister with affection and not criticism. We may not have been related by blood but it didn’t matter to her. At times she felt more like my actual grandmother than my dad’s mother ever did.

And now she’s gone.

And this is the only way I know how to say goodbye.

Typing words into the void of the internet. Trying so hard to recall memories from three decades ago. Wondering why I never wrote her any letters, or called her, only seeing her a few times whenever I visited the Philippines.

She was the last of her generation. My elders have all moved on, leaving us to carry their memories for them.

I hope she was proud of who I became. Time and space and oceans and language separated us but I like to think she was always with me somehow, deep in my memories, knowing without a doubt that I was loved.

grandfather

Earlier this week I went to the funeral of a dear family friend. Growing up in a tight Filipino American community, my generation called him “Lolo” (as we do with all elders of a certain generation). It means “grandfather.”

I was holding back tears throughout the day and I couldn’t help but think back to six years ago, July, when my own maternal grandfather died weeks before my parents were set to travel to the Philippines to see him. He was the only grandfather I knew. My dad’s father died decades before I was born. Yet I probably spent more time with Lolo than I did with my actual grandfather (whom I called Itay which means “father”). It’s not his fault–or anybody’s, really. That’s the nature of a transnational family. People get left behind. Decades pass until you see each other in person. Technology may advance and be readily available but not in every corner of the world.

My fondest memory of my grandfather was in 2006. I had just graduated from college and the family went on a long-awaited trip to the homeland before I had to start my first professional job. By this time, his health had already deteriorated and he was mostly blind. We really couldn’t understand each other. He was a Waray speaker through and through. Me: English. Maybe a little Tagalog.

I was sitting on a bench outside of his house when a stray cat jumped on the table and I screamed in fright. He was sitting across the table and immediately turned towards me and began to ask where the cat was, waving his arm from side to side to dissuade it from returning. This gesture of protection was one of the rare times I felt so loved by a grandparent. Here was this person who didn’t know me that well and could barely see but none of that mattered. I was scared and he was by my side.

Thanks, Itay.