Dear Memory

I recently finished reading Victoria Chang’s Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief and it inspired me to write in the epistolary style. This letter is inspired by the photo (below) I took recently of a family friend’s child.

Dear Sister,

The little girl turned two years old today. You should have seen her in her pink dress and ruby-red shoes. Her dress reminded me of the one our mother made for my 7th birthday. Do you remember that dress? The skirt with its layers of peach tulle.

The little girl ran around the parking lot, a flurry of pink and a flash of red. We tried to hold her back but she pulled us along until we resisted and planted our feet. You should have seen how she struggled to lead us to a destination of her choice, how badly she wanted to be free.

She is not mine but there are times now when she glances at me when she starts to play with another toy or makes a move toward the washi tape all neat and ordered in the acrylic box in my office. She looks up at me, her eyes searching, waiting to see if I will say something, or if I will rush over and stop her from touching things that aren’t hers.

She is only two and already I am trying to control her behavior, molding her to be obedient, to suppress her curiosity and playfulness. Is this what happened to me? To us?

I hear Lola in my voice every time I try to stop her movements. I don’t know if Lola would be proud or if she would find it funny that I of all her grandchildren turned out to be the most like her.

Do you remember how she would inspect the dishes after I washed them? This is why I waste so much water and soap, scrubbing more than once, brushing my fingers along every inch of the plate, checking for dried bits of rice I may have missed. Every time, it has to pass her inspection.

There was that moment when you must’ve been 11 or 12 and I was 8 or 9 when you accidentally dropped a tray of drinking glasses in the kitchen of our old apartment by the local high school. I don’t remember what Lola said to you; all I remember is Dad’s anger because she was more concerned about the broken glass than she was about you, centimeters away from bleeding.

We know now that doing something wrong does not mean there is anything wrong with us. Or do I? I look at that little girl’s eyes and I wonder if I ever looked like that (or still look like that), waiting for approval or disapproval, not knowing if one action will fill me with so much shame that I wouldn’t try it again. If all this time I haven’t let myself run and play without judgment like I used to out in the streets of Kawit, the town where I was born.

Hello, my friend

Yesterday I found out that a family friend passed away this week. Somehow to say “family friend” doesn’t suffice. She was my mom’s first friend in the US. They met at Super Fresh, a grocery store within walking distance of our two bedroom apartment. The six of us lived there for a few years: my parents, my older sister, my aunt (dad’s older sister), my grandmother, and me.

Never the one to sit around all day, my mom went out on her own and walked to the grocery store and inquired about a job. Ms. Peggy was one of the first to befriend her. To this day when I hear my mom say over the phone, “Hello, my friend!” I know she can only be talking to one of two people: Ms. Peggy or Ms. Prasak, also one of my mom’s first friends.

Ms. Prasak lived a few doors down from us and was one of the few Asian faces—and people of color—in our neighborhood. The other Asian family was from Korea; they too, had two daughters. It was in that neighborhood where I first learned about and faced racism. Eggs were thrown against our front door. One Halloween season, pumpkins were smashed on the street, but only that of the families of color. One afternoon, when my grandmother was sitting outside enjoying the fresh air, white men in a truck drove by and yelled several racial slurs at her. They vowed they wouldn’t move into the neighborhood.

When we moved to a house of our own a few years later, Ms. Peggy and her husband were one of the people who helped us move into our new house. We moved at night, a few days before the new year. As their friendship grew, my sister and I would also spend time with Ms. Peggy’s family. I remember playing with the other kids, going to parties, and Mom cooking and sharing Filipino food. Pancit was a particular favorite. As my sister and I got older, we lost touch, but Mom always remembered Ms. Peggy at Christmas, or whenever she cooked pancit. They reunited several years ago—my mom and her friend.


Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about friendship. About what it means to be a friend, how friendships evolve, how some come to a natural end, how a few start quickly and dissipate as quickly, how some do stand the test of time. I’ve realized that there’s no magic formula to a long-lasting friendship. You’ll invest in people, be vulnerable with them, laugh with them and in a month you might realize they’re really not your people after all. I usually build walls then.

I’ve also realized that the ones that have lasted for a while—my deepest, strongest relationships—are also the “easiest.” We don’t expect to be around each other all the time. We don’t even text that often. But when we are together, we are together. I am learning that not every friendship has to be like that either.


From what I’ve observed and from what I remember, my mom’s friendship with Ms. Peggy was like that. Despite the time and distance, they never forgot what brought them together. Ms. Peggy was one of our first meaningful connections in a country that was both foreign and familiar. She was open, generous, and kind. She came into our lives—and we became a part of hers—at a time of major transition.

When I hear my mom say “my friend,” I can hear the weight of that word. I’ve deemed you as someone who is important to me, as someone who is worthy of my love and affection. I’ve chosen you, and you’ve chosen me. Hello, my friend.

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.


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.