The Farewell

I saw The Farewell last week at the Charles Theatre in Baltimore. Having watched the trailer and skimmed a few reviews, I was ready to see Awkwafina shine and to cry out my feelings. But surprisingly, I didn’t. Not because there weren’t moments worthy of tears—I more or less psyched myself out of it.

I thought I’d walk out of the theater a crying mess because I’m sensitive to any story about grandparents, having only spent a significant amount of time with one grandmother, and never being around a grandfather. Instead I was filled with this yearning to be surrounded by my family—all of them, from both sides—and all our imperfections.

There’s a scene in the movie when the camera pans around the table and Billi (Awkwafina’s character), her dad, her nai nai (grandmother), uncle, and cousin are playing a drinking game. I may not have understood what they were saying but there was so much joy in that one moment it’s almost bringing me to tears as I recall it.

I can’t remember the exact details of a moment like that from my own history, but the feeling is familiar; I know it’s happened before. And so, the next day, with The Farewell fresh on my mind, I put aside some work and spent more time than I usually would with my mom. We didn’t talk about anything in particular; I simply accompanied her to her best friend’s house. She picked vegetables from their garden and afterwards, we all shared halo-halo (the Filipino dessert made with shaved ice, lots of different toppings, ube ice cream, and evaporated milk all mixed together, hence the name “halo halo” which translates to “mix mix”). It was a most ordinary and extraordinary Friday evening.

(Part 2 coming soon)

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.

In my element

On Saturday I was the Master of Ceremonies for the 33rd Anniversary Dinner Dance of the Filipino American Association of Upper Chesapeake (FAAUC). My family has been part of this organization since 1996. It’s an integral part of our history and life in Maryland; my parents met many of their closest friends through the association and I grew up with a group of friends many of whom have families of their own now, although we’ve grown apart in recent years. I have hosted this event on and off since I was 16. I’ve lost count exactly how many times I’ve been MC; it all blurs together most of the time. Except for this one.

For the first time, my outfit matched how I felt inside: powerful, grown, self-assured. My hair was styled. I was wearing make up. My cue cards in my hand, handwritten numbers on the top right corner in pink marker (I wrote my script that morning). I was ready to go.

(For those interested, I wore a faux jumpsuit—black, shimmery wide leg pants and a black v-neck satin sleeveless top—with a Filipino kimona, and blush heels. I’m usually not that trendy.)

I shared a poem about balikbayan boxes which was, surprisingly, a big hit with the crowd. I became part of the cultural program providing the transitions between acts–most of it ad lib as I had only prepared the minimal thinking that I wouldn’t have to introduce each dance or singer; in the past the program has been one long medley of songs without breaks. I made people laugh.

For the first time in a long time, I showed who I was and what I could do without giving a thought to my weight or my unruly eyebrows or how I would be perceived. When I featured at Busboys and Poets at the end of March, I still didn’t take up space and was super conscious of how large I must have looked to others up on stage, the lights so intense there was nowhere to hide.

So when someone asked me why I was so beautiful that night, I said, “Because I feel good.”

I took this selfie before I left the house. I usually don’t take a selfie alone. I’m not that comfortable taking a selfie alone. But I made it a point to take one so I could look at my face and not criticize every inch of it, to recognize how long it took me to get to this point of acceptance and love, to capture me at my best, in my element.

I’ve struggled with my weight for a long time, more notably so in recent years. I dread going to the Philippines and seeing family because they’ll always comment on my weight first. Once, a childhood friend saw me for the first time after 15 years and when we were alone, his first words to me were: “Why are you so fat?”

I’m not conventionally pretty (my mom would argue that I am, but what parent wouldn’t?). Cute would be the closest I’d say. Only because of my dimples. It bothered me more growing up when comparing yourself to others is a daily ritual and none of the boys around you seemed to find you attractive. So I focused on academics and writing instead, on developing skills and my sense of humor, on community and working towards social justice, believing that in the end, those things would matter more. And they do.

It is all of those things and talent and stage presence and practice and experience and my support network that created me in this specific moment in time. We carry all of who we are every day and everywhere. And on this particular day, I felt good. Despite certain parts of my life in limbo for the past 11 months and being fabulously broke, I know who I am, I know I am powerful, I know I have a lot to offer. And I wanted to celebrate that.

Circling back

Over the weekend I was surrounded by Filipino aunties and uncles, little kids running around, teenagers chatting doing anything so as not to be bored, and music—traditional and contemporary Filipino music. On repeat. I watched as yet another generation of Filipino American youth danced between bamboo sticks and tried to swing their hips while gracefully moving their arms from the right to the left as their feet tapped to the beat. The young girls—no more than 10 or 12 years old—could sense everyone watching them, their cheeks turning a little pink. One even teared up when she stepped on the bamboo and fell. We were all worried about her well being. But for a moment I thought I saw more embarrassment than pain and the pressure of expectations.

It’s been two decades since I was that little girl. Twelve years old. Roped into joining the dance troupe with a promise of a meal at McDonald’s (I know. I know. So gullible). My memory of those days is untrustworthy, as memory often is. But I remember feeling like people were always watching, calculating your worth in their head, almost waiting for you to mess up. That one over there is pretty. The other one, not so much. She’s smart but that’s trouble. I’m not surprised she got pregnant. Does she have any talent? She may be graceful but she’s a little fat.

I wish I could say these calculations stop at some point. Or maybe I wanted to believe that they do. That I had grown up enough—that my life experience, skills, and relationships speak for itself. That there is no space for others’ calculation here.

Instead I found myself explaining what I’m doing now. Stating (with a bit of hesitation and uncertainty) that building community, especially among AAPI artists, and providing a platform for our stories to be heard and celebrated is very important to me. The interaction bothered me enough that here I am writing a public blog post about it.

Thinking it through now, I don’t think it was their question or response that really bothered me. It was the tiny hesitation I heard from myself. It’s the young girls going through the same thing I did—a handful of people watching them, expecting things from them that fall within the limits of what they consider to be “normal” or “traditional.” Young girls who may not, for a long time, know what it means to be your own person. Know what it means to be free.

start, end, delay, return

For months now, I’ve had this on my to do list: journal about things ending. I wanted to write something after reading about major changes to a few of the creatives I follow on social media. One online publication/community announced it was closing down in a year; the other scaled back their business to a staff of one. The announcement resonated with me as I remembered what it was like to make the decision to step down from Sulu DC, an arts organization in DC I co-founded and lead for four years.

There was something about the way that they “ended” their business that stuck with me. These women made the changes to their business on their own terms. They closed out with a sincere and thoughtful message; they expressed so much openness and hope about the future.

I had wanted to dive into that more because I felt like I didn’t give myself the chance to say goodbye the way I really wanted to. But then I kept delaying writing about it, pushing it to the following week and then the next, until here we are.

At some point between then and now, I put myself out there and contacted a new, local arts organization, the Baltimore Asian Pasifika Arts Collective (BAPAC), to see if I could help in any way and to connect with AAPI artists again. A few days later, I didn’t flake out on going to an event at the University of Maryland and reconnected with my fairy godmother (of poetry), Regie Cabico. Now I’m making a comeback performance at Busboys & Poets (14th & V location) tomorrow night and have joined the staff of BAPAC as the Marketing & Communications Manager!

I was going to write about things ending, but now I’m living a new beginning. Or is it not so much “new” as returning to what once was?

It took five years for me to come back to this path. Before, I sometimes thought of this time as a waste (but not the people I met during this time, of course–they’re the ones that held me up). Now it isn’t so much a waste, but a necessary part of the process. A necessary part of life.

I am both nervous and excited about performing tomorrow night. I am reminding myself to enjoy it–to really enjoy it this time around. To shake off any pressure of a “perfect” performance, or debuting a new poem. To let the poems carry the night.

 

On birthdays…

Today, I am officially in my mid-thirties.

I don’t know what I was expecting my life to look like at this age. To be honest, I don’t think I ever imagined it or even thought about it. Growing up I always fantasized about being 26 and 28. Like it was going to be the peak of my life, or the best years of my life. (Side note: 26 was an amazing year; 28 not so much).

Why did I romanticize those particular ages? Where did that come from? Maybe because 26 is my “golden” birthday? Or maybe I just like even numbers (but apparently only in the 20s)? Or maybe because I was taught to think of it as the “marrying” age for women and then your life is not your own after that?

Whatever the reason, here we are now, at an intermission of sorts in my life where I’m figuring out where to go, what to do, who I am, and who I want to become. I’m closer to answering those questions now than I was months ago. That’s worth celebrating. And celebrate it I shall. With a free snickerdoodle cupcake from the local bakery. And some soju.

But in all seriousness, I want to thank you for all the birthday messages. Thank you to my parents and sister who love and support me no matter how much I test their patience. Thank you to my friends, near and far, who forgive me for running away and hiding at times and who love me more than I think I deserve sometimes. My life is only as good as it is because you’re in it.

Thank you. Maraming salamat.

Cheers to another revolution around the sun!

 

My daily ritual (or lack thereof)

After sitting on my bookshelf for more than a year (maybe even two), I finally finished reading Mason Currey’s book, Daily Rituals. A compilation of the routines and habits–both peculiar and mundane–of writers, composers, choreographers, painters, architects, etc. it provides insight into how artists and creatives have navigated through issues that plague artists on the daily: How can you create while also earning a living? Do you wait for inspiration to strike? Or is establishing a set routine and having the basic comforts of life a prerequisite to create?

Here’s what stuck with me from my first reading:

  • Lots of alcohol, coffee, or drugs involved. Maybe even all three.
  • Walking provides a break and can inspire ideas.
  • Peculiar habits–we all have them.
  • Naps. Naps are good.
  • After breakfast until noon tends to be a productive time.
  • Savor the time alone in the mornings before the work starts.
  • Keep regular hours in order to cultivate a daily creative rhythm.
  • Write whenever possible–at lunch; on walks; during work; when family is asleep; when no one else is awake, not even the world.
  • A lot of the artists in the book were men, and at a certain point, it became increasingly clear that they had the privilege of either having servants, or a wife to take care of the house, the children, and their meals.
  • Every body is on a different clock.
  • You can accomplish a lot if you don’t watch TV or check/update social media.
  • Some think you can force creativity/good work; others think you can’t. But I’d say most would agree that sometimes, you can only really get about 2-3 hours of concentrated work per day. But that adds up.

Ultimately, as the book suggests, it’s up to each artist to figure out what works for them: Writing standing up. Only writing when on holidays. No distractions or interruptions, not even for a meal. The same breakfast every day. And loads and loads of coffee.

It got me thinking about my daily rituals and habits, if any. I only recently started writing more consistently again, so I’m in the midst of establishing some sort of rhythm. I wish I could say I was an early (and consistent) riser, and that by 9:00 am, I’d be at my desk with a strong cup of coffee (probably the second cup). I’d work for three hours, break for lunch, answer emails and make calls, then work for 3 more hours at a cafe or library, then go off to dinner and socialize with friends. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

But in reality, I think I’m more like Francine Prose: “When the writing is going well, I can work all day. When it’s not, I spend a lot of time gardening and standing in front of the refrigerator.” (Minus the gardening part; plants tend to die on me.)

Only recently have I finally embraced that as appealing as a set routine may be, it’s just not how I’m wired. However, after reading Daily Rituals, there is something to following a regular schedule even if the work produced isn’t necessarily “good” work. I like how the composer, John Adams, maintains a regular schedule but tries to keep unstructured freedom in his daily life so that he can be open to ideas as they come. That seems to be a happy compromise.