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.

 

Lessons Learned: A Family Road Trip

img_0575.jpg

Earlier this month a few of my extended family from the Philippines visited the U.S. for the first time. As the first members of my mom’s side of the family to be approved for a visitor visa, we were ecstatic to host them and to show them our life here. We took them on a mini tour of the East Coast from Washington, DC to New York City to Ontario, Canada. It was a packed 12 days filled with lots of driving, lots of eating, lots of laughing, and lots of photos.

Traveling with family in enclosed spaces for a long period of time can test one’s patience (among other things). Here’s a few things I learned along the way about myself and traveling in general:

I walk fast.

Or is it that everyone else walks very slowly?

My family is terrible at this communication thing.

I already knew this before we went on our numerous road trips, but it was further highlighted throughout our trip. At times it was funny though, like when I got mad that no one told me I was supposed to drop off my aunt at her apartment instead of going back to the hotel.

They told me when I was about to turn into the hotel.

It was nearly midnight.

(Funny and maddening).

As the driver, you can miss out on some things.

I like driving. I do. Maybe just not parking gigantic full-size SUVs that are a foot taller than I am. Climbing into that monster of a vehicle was its own training exercise.

By the time we were on our last road trip to DC, and I had driven yet another rental car (this time a van), my right leg started cramping and I was struggling to walk down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

It’s also a lot of responsibility, and it’s hard to have meaningful conversations with your relatives when you’re unfamiliar with the car and your surroundings. I may have wanted to engage with them more, but I was mostly focused on the road and staying awake and alert. In a way, I felt like I missed out on connecting with them. I also often take on the responsibility of entertaining my family and making them laugh; I’ve done it ever since I was a little girl. So I felt bad that I wasn’t able to keep everyone entertained and that there were long lulls in the car. Then I realized that those periods of silence weren’t because people were bored. It was because they were all sleeping.

I can be moody, but it goes away quickly.

This a truth about myself that I had to confront during and after our trip. Have I always been this way, or is it a recent development? Have friends been trying to tell me this but I wasn’t ready to hear it? Does family bring out the worst in you sometimes? How could I have handled situations better instead of just snapping?

I’m sure we’d all like to think we can control our emotions all or most of the time. Before their arrival, I was mentally and emotionally preparing myself to be on my “best” behavior. In Filipino cultural terms, that means being polite, respectful, and not shaming your parents in any way. But when my family arrived, something switched and subconsciously, I decided to come exactly as I am–moods and Americanness and all.

So when I was upset about something, I expressed it. Not in the best way sometimes, but I didn’t want to silence myself. I was finally on a family trip where I could be all of me. Where I didn’t feel like I couldn’t say something for fear of shame or rejection or misunderstanding. Other family trips have usually been to the Philippines when I don’t feel like I can be exactly as I am–loud, outspoken, strong and sweet. It was important to me to be real, even if it’s not deemed to be “good” behavior.

However, I recognize that being true to oneself doesn’t allow me to be disrespectful or disregard others. Are there moments I wish I approached differently? Yes. Will I still snap if I’m hungry, sick, or when people are being unreasonable? Probably. But maybe not as often.

On leaving a place

img_8104-e1531178080576.jpg

A little over a week ago I closed the chapter on a job I’ve had for eight years. It was a decision that’s been a long time coming, and despite how terrifying it is to not have a major source of income at this time, it was the best decision.

I spent the first week of “freedom” just being. I didn’t have specific plans. Just a list of things I wanted to do. Like start a bullet journal. Write more. Watch World Cup games. Read fiction books for a change. I actually thought I’d miss the routine of the job. The emails, the application checklists, the processes I created over the years. I thought I’d go through some kind of withdrawal. I did spend eight years of my life there, after all. But instead it struck me how easily one can leave a place–at least physically and logistically.  It only took me an hour or so to clean out my desk, file away some papers, respond to that last email. And the next day my email and phone were disabled. One day you’re there, and the next it’s like you were never there.

I was fortunate enough to work with some pretty amazing people many of whom became true friends. When big decisions were made that fundamentally altered our jobs, we stuck with it and did it well even though at times it felt like the office was going to fall apart. We shared a lot of laughs, some tears, and lots of beer. As proud as I am of the work I accomplished, it’s the relationships I built with colleagues and students that I will always treasure and treasure more. I think I lost sight of that in the past few months. I was so immersed in my own issues and thoughts, I wasn’t sure whether I was a good colleague, friend, or even a good person anymore. (Sometimes when you are that unhappy it affects everything else).

On my last day a mixture of colleagues, their families, and current and former students celebrated with me at a local restaurant. It felt like my birthday! But even better. Because by showing up they told me that I matter, and not because I happened to be born on that day. I matter on an ordinary day. I mattered to them. And they matter to me.

In the end, I could have left two, three even five years ago, but I think I was meant to leave now.

Finding a way to happy

 

A few weeks ago I started reading Rachel Hollis’ book, Girl, Wash Your Face. I kept seeing it at Target and loved the title because: mood. I’ve been trying to read books mostly by women of color, but decided to give this one a chance after seeing a designer and business owner I follow on Instagram share a story about it. In the end, while the stories and advice may not always present an intersectional perspective, I can still get something out of it.

The book dissects each lie we’ve been taught as women. Lies that we tell ourselves everyday. Something else will make me happy. I’m not good enough. I should be further along by now. I’m only a few chapters in, so while this post may be a bit premature not having finished the book yet, I had to share some thoughts on the first chapter, “The Lie: Something Else Will Make Me Happy.”

“Moving doesn’t change who you are. It only changes the view outside your window.”

Throughout high school, I was obsessed with the idea of moving to a city and becoming a completely different person. I wanted to leave everything behind and begin a new life and be whoever I wanted to be. Looking back, it was heavily influenced by graphic novels I was reading at the time (Ghostworld and Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve series) and the desire to determine my own fate beyond the reach of family. But it was also rooted in the idea that my happiness was determined by location (and a whole lot of insecurity, a bit of self-hate, and depression). That trading the suburbs for city life where I could leave behind my baggage and history was the key to “living my best life.”

Reading this chapter brought back those thoughts, and when I outgrew them (if ever). In a way, leaving home and going to college was the first attempt at becoming a different person. I do credit those four years for laying the foundation for the woman I am today. After I graduated I lived and worked in Ohio for a few years. I was so lonely the first few months I even found myself driving down some road in the dark in the middle of corn fields in tears. Then I moved back home and tried to set myself up to move to DC. When the life in DC didn’t pan out, I resolved to make it work here in northeastern MD. I reframed my thinking and started to believe that I could be happy in my hometown. And for a while it worked. Until recently. Now it feels like I need to leave again to grow and be happy.

Maybe moving is the answer in this case. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s both. I agree that moving to a new place doesn’t necessarily change who you are. But getting away for a while can help you figure out what you want. It can test you. You can learn what you’re made of. But you have to choose to do those things. And whether I move or not, or make a big change like get a new job, I fully understand now that there isn’t a singular answer to being happy. So I’m going to fight the urge to run away and instead of looking elsewhere for answers, examine what I allow in my life as the book suggests. And then, maybe little by little, find my way to being happy.