When I’d made my mother review my college application before I submitted it, she pointed out that I’d forgotten to check off on the application that I’m Asian.
“Am I supposed to?” I asked her.
She looked at me in disbelief. “Yes. Your grandmother was from the Philippines.”
Years later, I searched on the internet: Am I still Asian American if I am white? Is it okay to call myself Asian American if I don’t have Asian culture? How do I help my dad heal from the effects of racism? Am I still Asian American if I can’t speak Tagalog? Google has never had answers for me.
I grew up in Texas. Girls in my third-grade class were from Mexico and Puerto Rico. They would ask me, “Are you sure you’re not Mexican?”
“No, my grandma is from the Philippines.”
“Oh. Have you been to the Philippines?”
“No, she came here in the Sixties. And besides, she died before my parents met.” All that I knew about my grandmother was filtered through the lens of my grandfather, a quiet, looming man. He would tell stories, recount the war, or drop tidbits of genealogy at each family gathering, all the while sitting in a corner surveying the room, his white hair glistening. Anything he told me about his late wife never satisfied the insatiable appetite I had for information about her. He was tall, she was short. He has white, she was not. He was in the Navy, she lived in Bacoor.
My dad is half-Filipino, while my mom is proudly Irish with green eyes and fair hair. She learned to cook adobo and tilapia and lumpia when she married my dad. It was a love letter to him, to us. Something to honor the woman she and I both admired and had never met.
The older I got, the more I started to look like my mom. My broad nose changed shape to slim and delicate, and in the summer, sprayed with freckles. I haven’t been able to tan like my dad, dark in the summer, since elementary school.
In middle school, my mom would occasionally cook only vegan meals for a month. We would take family trips to Central Market to peruse the exotic fruit section. For me, going to Central Market meant buying boxes of Botan rice candy to eat on the trip home. My dad had introduced the candy to my brother and I. He had told us that my grandmother had eaten them during her childhood, and he had eaten them during his, too. Eating them was a ritual I always looked forward to. I still buy them now whenever I find them. I can’t leave tiny candy stores or Asian markets until I do.
During a family vacation the summer before I started high school, my father lost consciousness twice, at Grand Central Station and at a Mexican restaurant in Texarkana. Both times, his face had suddenly turned deathly purple, his eyes glazed over, and he fell onto the ground. We admitted him to have emergency heart surgery. Because my siblings and I were too many and too young to visit the recovery ward, our mother called from the hospital to tell us that our dad was okay. She told us that while he was recovering from anesthesia, he had asked the nurse if she wanted to hear all of the swear words he could remember in Tagalog.
My dad often traveled for work when I was young. He was a physician recruiter for twenty years, and he took flights all the time to place doctors in hospitals across the country. Each time he went somewhere new, he would bring back a postcard for me. His flights usually came in at night after I had gone to sleep, so he would give his souvenir to me the next morning before school. I kept them in a stack on my nightstand, photos of Mount Rushmore, Lake Superior, and my favorite, the Mall of America.
Once, when I was eight years old, he arrived home earlier than usual. Eagerly, I asked for my souvenir from Milwaukee.
“Go bring me my carry-on and I’ll get it for you,” he told me. “I put it right on top of my clothes.”
Within moments, I wheeled in his black bag. With hands clasped in anticipation, I looked on as he unzipped his bag and revealed a neon orange slip of paper.
“I get these all the time,” he nonchalantly assured my mother who was looking on from the next room. “My bags always get randomly searched.”
She raised her brows and said, “It’s not random if it happens every time.” She told him morosely that the color of his warm, brown skin should not be cause for concern.
One of my friends from high school, Audrey, had a Filipino mother. She would tell her about me, and her mother would make extra lumpia for Audrey to bring to me. I would save half of them to bring home for my sisters.
When I told Audrey stories about my life and what I knew about my heritage, some imposter syndrome in the back of my mind convinced me that I wasn’t “Asian enough.” On most days, I mourned the fact that my heritage felt so distant. I didn’t know a single word in my grandma’s native language, the same language Audrey wove in and out of when she parroted back conversations between herself and her mother.
“You’re always welcome to come over. My mom will cook for you,” Audrey told me once as we studied for our statistics exam. She would tell me about her grandparents, Lolo and Lola, coming into town. Lolo and Lola. I repeated the words over and over again in my head.
I recall some Saturday afternoon when I was fourteen sitting in my grandfather’s truck after a lunch visit to his place.
“What was she like?” I asked.
He was silent for so long that I had to turn back to look at him to see if he had even heard me. To my surprise, he was crying.
“She was…amazing. She was so bright. I don’t know how to tell you.”
I nodded. “Everyone tells me I’m like her but what does that mean?”
“You are like her in every way,” he agreed.
My grandpa was seventy-two at this time, and that was the only time I had ever seen him cry. My question remained unanswered.
My parents had finalized their divorce in August of my senior year of high school. By that November, my grandfather reached his final days. The first time my grandfather had battled his cancer was something I’d only heard stories about—surgeries and treatments from well before I was born, scars that blended in with tattoos from his days in the Navy. I thought that sickness was like a far-off dream. This time, it was much worse. He was older and weaker. My uncle was the first to break the news to me. He promised me that this time, my grandfather wouldn’t win the battle.
My mother handed me her cell phone and a black velvet pouch that I had seen stored in her jewelry box growing up. In the past, whenever I had asked what was in it, she’d tell me that I’d find out when I was older. My grandfather was on the other line of the phone. I didn’t know it then but it was the last conversation we would have.
“Hello?” I said into the speaker.
“Gracie.” He sounded terrible. “Did your mother give you my gift?” I opened the pouch. Opalescent pearls glimmered back at me. “They were Evelyn’s,” he said. “I gave them to her as an engagement gift when I was stationed over there in Subic Bay. When your dad got married, they became your mom’s. Evelyn wanted you to have them.”
“She did?” I asked him. I held the pearls in my hand. It was a set: necklace, bracelet, and earrings. I didn’t understand how someone who had never met me could want to give me their engagement gift.
“She wanted them to go to her first granddaughter.” His voice was quiet and a million miles away.
I thanked him for the gift and wished him a good night. He told me he loved me and hung up the phone.
After the phone call, my mother and I laid on her bed and examined the pearls. “When did she wear them, do you know?” I asked. I held the set in my hands, tilting them this way and that so that they glinted in the lamplight. I wanted to imagine them around my grandmother’s neck but I had no visual memory of her.
“To dinners and special events, I think,” Mom answered as she took the bracelet from my palm and held it up to her own wrist. “I wore them to my rehearsal wedding dinner.”
I watched from the outside as a memory played in her head.
She smiled and handed it back to me. “You could wear them when you graduate in the spring.”
My grandfather died on the first day of December, and his funeral came quickly afterwards. I wore a black dress I bought on sale from Old Navy and in my anxiousness chewed the inside of my mouth so hard I had a fat lip for days. I didn’t go up to the casket. I watched as my father kissed his father on the forehead.
My aunt gave the eulogy. She told a story I’d never heard before, one of my grandfather being punished for going back to see my grandmother when he was restationed.
“He never stopped going back for her,” my aunt said. “He went back to her then and brought her to America with him.”
There was so much about their love that I would never know and will never get to ask. The answers are lost somewhere below their shared burial plot.
In the winter of my sophomore year of college, my father moved three hours away. In the months before that, I dropped in for the occasional dinner, went on family vacations with him, and did my best to answer his phone calls. We had attempted to be cordial since the funeral, but it would never be like it was when I was a kid. The move had made it even harder.
I went to visit him with my siblings and help him decorate his new house for Christmas. We talked about how different things had been since the divorce, now that he and mom didn’t share the holidays. I hadn’t spent a Christmas with him since the first winter after the divorce. We talked about what winter festivities would be like when I had a family of my own.
“What will your children call me?” he asked.
“Lolo, I imagine.”
“Lolo! That’s right!” He remarked that he had called his own grandfather that, a lifetime ago.
I smiled. “Do you think if your mom was alive, we would call her Lola?”
He pondered this. I imagined her here, all four feet, zero inches of her standing next to me. Even my youngest sibling, my seven-year-old brother would have been taller than her. “I’ve never thought about it, but I suppose you would.”
In May of that year, I sat at a beach with my mom, processing my thoughts. I told her, “I want to say I’m Asian American, I want to say I’m mixed race, I want to claim all these identities, but I know I haven’t felt the same pain that so many other Asian Americans have. I haven’t grown up with the same culture, you know? I mean, I eat the foods, I have the hair, yet I don’t have their skin nor eyes, or language. It doesn’t feel like my heritage. It’s not my right, I haven’t earned that privilege.”
She was silent for a long time. Then, in the same quiet voice she’d used when I cried as a child, she told me, “Your grandma Avelina was the strongest woman I’ve ever known, and I only know her through stories. She left her whole life behind for your grandfather, for a whole new world she didn’t know. She went from her family and friends in the Philippines to middle-of-nowhere East Texas, and they were not kind to her, your dad, nor your uncle. They called them names. They excluded them. But she was powerful and could not be stopped or hindered. It wasn’t until they took her heart out of her body on an operating table that she stopped. You have her hair, her name, but most importantly, you have that same strong, powerful, and unstoppable heart. That is your heritage.”
Riley-Grace Avelina Huggins is an English literature student at Texas Woman’s University. She lives in Denton, Texas. She is a proud Filipina American. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @rgahugg.
Katya Roxas is a Communications and Design Strategist at the University of British Columbia. Katya has experience with branding, content creation, and social media and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Multimedia Arts, specializing in graphic design and illustration, and a Diploma in Digital Marketing and Communications. Born and raised in the Philippines, Katya is well-versed in the sacrifices and opportunities that come with being an immigrant. Through her experiences, she strives to break the barriers of cultural misrepresentation by creating honest and inclusive visual expressions.