Wednesday, May 17, 2017

That Atlantic story about a "family slave"

This is Essay #20 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

Do you know what it’s like to be invisible? To not see yourself in the world around you? To not see people brown like you in books, in movies, on television? To grow up thinking that you’re just like every(white)one else? Until, of course, some(white)one points it out to you either directly or microaggressively.

Imagine the thrill, then, to be able to read a book in which you completely understand and identify with the characters because you recognize that language, those turns of phrase, that obsession with American pop culture, even if your own actual life was totally different. For me, it was Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters. That book changed my life. I never imagined that someone could write a book, let alone it be considered literature. about Filipinos. That someone could write with language that I used in conversation instead of that stuffy elevated British version of English.

Suddenly, the world opened up for me.

Twenty years later, there still aren’t that many books written by Filipinos for Filipinos. Yes, there are more books being written and published, but not enough in that we are a significant part of the visible literary landscape.

And then yesterday, “My Family’s Slave” was published in the June issue of The Atlantic.

Before I started to read, I looked at the photo. It was of a woman who looked Filipina, who reminded me of similar photos I’ve seen of my relatives, my ancestors. I started to guess what this story was about and felt myself bracing for whatever I was about to encounter. I sensed it was going to be difficult.

“Difficult” doesn’t even come close.

Tizon’s story sounded familiar: a family struggling, looking to the United States for better opportunities. Once there, more struggle to make ends meet. But they persisted. The difference here is that they had what Tizon calls “a family slave”, Lola.

There’s so much to unpack here and I don’t even know where to begin. So let me start by saying: I am writing this as part of my processing. I may say things that are upsetting or politically incorrect or offensive or whatever. Fuck that shit. This is my blog and this is what I’m thinking IN THIS MOMENT. My thinking could change as soon as I hit “Publish”. Whatever. I need to say what I need to say. Now.

The Philippines is an incredibly poor country, despite appearances (which are usually sourced from a single place in an archipelago of over 7,000 islands: Manila. Or, if you’re feeling exotic, then the Banaue Rice Terraces). That kind of poverty makes you do things you wouldn’t otherwise do. (And before you jump all over me: I’m not make excuses – I am giving context.) The fact that Tizon’s grandfather “gave” Lola as a “gift” to Tizon’s mother is not unusual (though I will say that I have issue with the words he chose to use (“gave” and “gift”) – perhaps that was intentional to create the response that he has now received). Poor people look for ways to survive; wealthy people exploit that. This is nothing new. This is how humans have operated for a very long time. Tizon mentions that even poor people take advantage of those who are poorer.


When I first traveled to the Philippines, I was already an adult in my late 20s. I went with my mom and grandma (my lola), whom I was taking home to Lucban, where she wanted to live out the rest of her days. At this point, I already had a general understanding of class structures. For one, I knew that we’d have a driver who would take us to the condo where we were staying (it’s not safe to move through Manila without one you can trust – I’ve heard stories of robberies and the like).  Then, we’d have another driver a few days later to take us to Lucban, about a four-hour drive through mountains. So far, this all makes sense.

Then, I was also told that we’d have a housekeeper. To which I thought: What? Why one earth would we need a housekeeper in a *condo*? Heck, why would we need one at all? What would she even do? It’s not like we’re not living there; we’re just sleeping there. We’d planned to be out and about during the day. Later, when we arrived at the condo, I’d discover that she was also our cook and our hospitality hostess. She offered beverages and snacks the moment we walked in. She asked me if there was anything I wanted from the grocery store or if I any special meal requests. I was bewildered.

She had this little room off the kitchen –a closet really, with just a chair where she’d sit, awaiting her next command (I hate to use that word, but it goes back to Tizon’s explanation of the role of these domestic workers as utusans). It was awkward. I was wholly uncomfortable. I wanted to tell her that she could go home, that we didn’t need anything. But my mom said she needed the money.


The next morning, she was in the kitchen, cooking garlic fried rice and longganisa (my favorite sausage). When we emerged from our bedroom, she immediately asked: coffee? To which I nodded and sat down at the small glass table. She had set the table for breakfast. Within minutes, she served our tapsilog: the rice, the longganisa, and eggs over easy, with a side of tuyo (dried sardine). It felt weird having someone serve me breakfast in a condo.


I wept the entire time I read Tizon’s story. I felt myself nodding at the struggle of it all. I got angry towards his parents for how they treated Lola, but could see how my own parents might have acted the same way. I could also see the difficulty Tizon endured to write this story –to break that silence so conditioned in most Asian cultures—and put pen to paper –to so do (seemingly*) unflinchingly, but with compassion. It takes some guts to not only be truthful about this reality, but also to put himself out there as complicit in all of it.

(*Note: we all know that stories are subject to the one who tells it. There is an article, a kind of memorial/ obituary, here that presents a different perspective. Which one is true? Which one is reality? Can there be more than one?)

A lot of people are up in arms now, the day after. Everyone’s got an opinion. Most of them are split between “Oh my God how brave of him to share this story!” and “How could you let this go on for as long as it did, Master??” (I can’t ignore how much of the story’s title created this kind of response. Was the title written this way in order to create a kind of sensationalism? We must ask these questions.) There is very little in between. There is little nuance, little critical thinking to unpack the layers.  Many people are selectively reading; others are creating their versions of meaning. This is what happens in the experience of reading. No? But on the whole, many of the voices being amplified are outsiders. I have yet to see someone from within the Filipino culture –heck, from ASIAN culture in general—express their opinion. Not to say that we’re not talking –oh, hell yeah, we’re talking!—but is anyone giving us the SPACE to express voice?? Nope. None that I can see.

So unless you take the time to peel the layers, to look at them more closely & more critically, to understand the context within which this story happens, then shut the fuck up with your judgments. Shit is more complex and complicated than you think.

Now, excuse me while I go process some more. Including the fact that Eudocia Pulido was called Lola (which means “grandmother” in Tagalog) and that both of my grandmothers, my lolas lived with us when I was growing up. Yeah, let me go untangle that.

[To be continued...]


  1. I'm filipina too, and my lola (and lolo) also lived with me growing up. Still unpacking the article and people's reactions as well, but I did want to point out: I don't actually think Tizon using "gave" and "gift" are so far off the mark. There's a story about something similar (actually even worse) that occurred within living memory in my own family, and I don't think it's uncommon at all. The kind of inequality and poverty that has existed in the Philippines for so long can lead to some pretty terrible things.

    1. I know. I agree with you on everything you've said here. (Especially the part about the use of "give" and "gift - perhaps that is my reluctance to admit something terrible about my own culture) As I said, I'm still trying to unpack this & process everything -- and it's a LOT. I think what bothers me most right now is the response: the lack of inquiry, of critical thinking -- how quick people are to judge. And unfortunately, against my better thinking, I'm taking that judgment personally. :/ So I'm also trying to understand my cultural complicity as a Filipina in such a system. It will take some time. (My process is slower than most. :p) Thanks for sharing your thoughts here!

  2. Thank you for this post - (someone posted it in a comment thread on a writer I admire's Facebook page.) My grandfather is Filipino, grew up very poor and joined the American Navy during the war during the Japanese occupation during the time this essay started, so I was pretty much crying the whole time I read it, thinking the whole time about him, and his life, and all the things he did to survive (leaving his country, lying and saying he was 17 to join the Navy so he could have money to send home to his family when he was really 16, crying and missing his Mom every night and wanting to go back to the Island, being segregated because of his skin, etc) - these are all stories I heard growing up.

    I had SO MANY EMOTIONS reading this essay. And I'm a writer now, trying to get my first novel published, so YES - I used the word "beautiful" when I first described the essay. And I was a little taken aback by all the (non Filipino) people I saw horrified that anyone would dare use that word or react with anything BUT rage and disgust.

    I'm mixed - my grandfather married a girl from Italy and had a son who married a white woman (my mother) so some would say my claim to the Philippines is small indeed. I look pretty white. But still - as soon as I saw that photo I thought - oh my goodness that woman is Filipina. She looks just like my relatives. And I braced myself, and knew it was going to be rough. So yeah. I appreciate this blog post.