Friday, September 22, 2017


This is (late) Essay #37 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished & messy) essay each week during 2017.

When I was twelve, my dad taught me how to shoot a gun. I didn’t understand why nor did I question it; my brother and I simply went with him to the shooting range. It was matter-of-fact. It was like him teaching us how to tie our shoes: it was another basic lesson for life. Learn how to shoot a gun.

I didn’t grow up in a state where there were vast stretches of unpopulated land, where hunting was an everyday occurrence. I lived in New Jersey. A state comprised of scattered pockets of dense populations alternating with farmlands and forest. It’s not like I grew up in a neighborhood where everyone went out target shooting every weekend. It was just me and my brother learning how to shoot and care for a gun from my immigrant father, a man who did not serve time in the military. I’m not even sure where he learned to shoot and care for a gun. Maybe from his WWII veteran Bataan-death-march-surviving father.

I remember him teaching us how to hold it, how to load it, how to aim, how to brace for the kickback, how to reload. It was a .22 rifle, a manageable weapon for a 12-year-old.

“You need to be prepared,” he would tell us.

For what? I wondered.

He wasn’t teaching us the basics of gun use and safety for hunting purposes. He was preparing us for some unforeseen doomsday. A day he was sure would come. Like the second coming of Christ. We just didn’t know when. All he knew was that we needed to be prepared.

These days, I wonder if that day is closer than I think. (Some say the world is ending tomorrow, Sept 23rd. Are you ready??)


My parents left the Philippines right after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. The version they tell me of their immigration story isn’t what I imagine their reality to be. Their version sounds like a storybook: we came here for better opportunity, for the American Dream. I believe that to be partly true. I also believe that they have left out some important things. I imagine them fleeing their homeland; they tell me they just came over here because my dad was offered a medical residency in Ohio. My dad admitted later that he applied to every possible residency in the world just so he could get out. Sounds like flight to me.

I try to imagine what it might have been like to be given a small window to leave. To hurry, to get married, pack your things, and say goodbye to your family, not knowing if you’d see them again, not knowing if you’d see your homeland again. But knowing that this was your only shot out. And you needed to get out. Who knew what would happen if you stayed.

I think about this often when I consider what I have inherited from my dad.

Be prepared, he says. Not in the Boy Scout way, but in the “conspiracy-theorist-the-apocalypse-is-coming” kind of way. In a Doomsday Prepper kind of way. But with an immigrant’s flair.

The result?

I stock up on things. Just in case. Costco is my friend and enemy (aka frenemy). It is my biggest monthly expense. You never know when you’ll need 500 ziploc bags. Or when you’ll run out of toilet paper and not be able to make it to the store in time. But make sure that you use every bit of it (even the little shreds that are stuck to the cardboard tube) before you replace the roll. Do. Not. Waste.

Also, paranoia is mandatory.

Trust no one. Be suspicious of everyone. Trust must be earned; it is not automatically given. You must prove to me that you are trustworthy. Sometimes, though, I forget this lesson – I blindly trust and love folks who end up letting me down. And that sucks. Sometimes, though, sometimes folks surprise me.

Be able to defend yourself. That right to bear arms? Your best freaking friend. Well, at least my dad’s best friend.


How much do we inherit from our parents, our grandparents? Our great-grandparents and so on? Sure, we might get their eye color or their hair texture or height. But what about the invisible traits? A knack for financial management inherited from a (great-)grandmother who lived during the Depression? A muted feeling of being “on alert” inherited from a war veteran? There have been studies about how our genes change due to lived experiences like trauma, and how those genes carry these memories, get passed down through the generations.

I wonder: what am I passing on to my children? To my grandchildren?

I also find myself asking: do they need to know how to shoot a gun?

Sometimes you can’t shake loose your inheritance.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Family of Strangers

This is (super-late) Essay #36 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished & messy) essay each week during 2017.

I’ve been thinking about the definitions and ideas of family for a while. There’s the family you’re born into and then there’s chosen family. Generally speaking, for me, family is about being there for each other no matter what—no matter what the risk, what the cost. It’s about helping out without having to ask why. It’s about asking for help without having to offer a justification.

Asking for help is a big deal for a lot of people. It’s hard. It makes us feel like we’re in a position of vulnerability. For some, it makes us feel like we’re “less than” because we can’t do it on our own – we’re not self-reliant. It puts our egos in check.

Let me tell you something: asking for help is a human thing. It shows that we are not invincible –as much as many of us would like to think. But it also shows our need to connect with others. We are a communal species, as much as I would like to deny this because I always think about living in the woods by myself. I also find myself saying often: I hate people (haha! I joke. Kinda.). It’s hard being in the world, having to navigate so many different kinds of people, different personalities, different energies. But in the end, we crave human connection –whether it’s with one person or a group of people.

So when you find your people –those whose company you can’t live without, those who would do anything for you and vice versa—it is truly a gift. Your chosen family.

What about the family you’re born into?

Well, that’s a different matter.

Many of us are expected to get along with our blood families. “Blood is thicker than water” is often said when referring to the supposed unbreakable bonds of blood family. But what if we don’t get along with our given family? What if we try but it just doesn’t work? I mean, if you think about it, would you stick around with someone you just didn’t click with? Would you stick around with someone you barely knew? Probably not. So why do we stick around when it comes to family? Just because we share the same bloodline? (I want to note here that there is the matter of abusive relationships. I want to acknowledge that, but that’s for another post. Or for another person to write about. I’m just talking generally about familial relationships.)


I come from a family of strangers.

Do we know each other? I mean, do we really know each other as individuals? Nope. Not really. My parents are my parents, not actual people. My siblings are my siblings. Again, not actual people with individual and specific lives of their own. We see each other at family gatherings, like birthdays and christenings and funerals, but do we hang out with each other? No. (I don’t know how many families do this, but it seems that a lot of folks have ritualistic things like Sunday dinners to stay connected.)

This is weird to me. The fact that I don’t really know my family members as individuals. That they are strangers who just share the same bloodline. What does this say about the meaning of family? This doesn't fall into my definition of family. We just happen to be related. (To be fair, I do have a sense of who my parents are as individuals as I work to explore my personal history by talking to them about their lives – it’s more my siblings who feel like strangers.)

My brother, who is younger than me by a few years, is a complete stranger. It feels like he always has been. He keeps to himself. Ever since his high school years. Part of that perception could be that I was already away at college and just not around.

When we were kids, we were close in the way that a brother and sister can be: we fought hard and played hard. Because of him, I played with GI Joes and Transformers rather than Barbie dolls. Despite me being older, if I wanted a playmate, I had to play with boy things. There was no way I could convince him to play with dolls (though, it can be argued that GI Joes are dolls). It didn’t matter, though. I loved playing with boys stuff. I loved playing cops and robbers. Adventures across the hot lava. Cowboys and Indians (yeah, yeah. I know. I just cringed writing that!) The girly things were incidental. And when we fought, it was physical fighting. Hand-to-hand combat. Mostly me grabbing his hair and dragging him around the house. Shoving him into the bushes. I was older and taller. He was a puny thing.

Despite this, he understood family loyalty. Once, there was a neighborhood kid who was picking on me. My brother got mad, picked up a big jagged rock from the construction site of the new house next door, and threw it at the kid. The rock hit him square on the forehead. We all stood there, stunned. Then the kid started to cry. My brother and I ran. Hard. We were going to be in so much trouble. We hid in the garage, hearts beating in fear for our lives. Our dad would whip us real good with his belt. We just knew it. That might have been the last time we were in it together. (For the record, we didn't get into trouble. The other kid did. We got a scolding to not throw rocks, but the message was that we were in the right.)

Then my sister was born. Then we moved. Then I entered seventh grade (Worst. Grade. Ever.) And everything changed.

We didn’t play so much anymore. I was more a little mama than a sister, a playmate. I looked after him and my baby sister while my grandmother cooked dinner and my parents were at work.

When he got to middle school, he was doing his own weird things. Like skateboarding. I couldn’t understand the attraction. I watched him practice tricks in the driveway and thought: how stupid. Ah, the typical teenage girl talk. I was such a cliché! Still, there were moments when we’d joke around, laugh at silly things. I still knew who he was.

Then I went away to college. He started high school and made the wrestling team. Again, I thought it was weird (Why not basketball? I thought. I played basketball. You’re Filipino – you should play basketball!) but whatever – I was preoccupied by my own drama, trying to figure out college. My immigrant parents didn’t know what American college was so I was on my own – tossed into the deep end and told to learn how to swim. I couldn’t be bothered with what was going on at home when I was drowning.

And that was the beginning of the stranger.

I watched him struggle to find himself as he switched majors several times, transferred from one college to another to another, moved through various jobs in retail. The one constant I saw was his love for art, for drawing. I tried to encourage him to pursue that, but like most college kids, the focus was on preparing for a career that made money. And soon, because of this and many other factors (like me moving to the city), the distance between us grew into a canyon.

Fast-forward to today and I hardly know this person who has the same parents as me. I don’t know what he does for fun when it’s not winter (he love snowboarding, this much I know.) I don't know what he does on the weekends. I know the names of a couple of his friends, but I wouldn’t know them if I physically bumped into them. I was thinking about this when, recently, one of his friends tagged him in photos on Facebook. I looked at the photos and thought: this is my brother? This is (part of) his life? Who is this stranger? It was weird. But it also showed me just how much of a stranger he was to me.

Did I mention that he keeps to himself? It’s very had to talk to him, to even make small talk (and I *hate* small talk). Most of the time, when he’s at my house, I don’t say much at all. What does one say to someone who is a stranger but not? Heck, I have an easier time talking to a complete stranger!

What got me thinking about writing this essay was something that happened earlier this week. I had asked if he could hang out with my kids one night this weekend so that Hubs & I could go out to dinner for our anniversary. (My parents were attending a wedding.) His reply? “As soon as you start paying me.” Uh, what? (In my head, my response to that was: “Then you need to start paying me for all the food you eat at my house.”)

Now, I could give him the benefit of the doubt: he was in a really bad mood. But you know what? I don’t give a shit. Since when does ANYBODY expect payment to spend time with your nieces?! But also? This reveals to me who he really is. His priorities are himself and money. And that’s too bad. What really sucks? My kiddos love hanging out with him. But if I have to pay their uncle to play with them? Unfortunately, it’ll be a long time before that happens again.

I’m really beside myself on this one. Clearly, I have underestimated the level of “stranger” at play here. But now that the cards are on the table, I know how to move forward.

“Family” is a really charged and complex word with varying meanings and expectations that are always in flux. Which, I guess, is par for the course seeing as that to be human is to be in constant change, constant flux. We just need to learn how to embrace that, to go with the flow, to adapt. But it's a big let down when family sometimes doesn't turn out to be what you thought it was.

I am grateful, truly, for those in my life who carry the label “family” with loving-kindness and generosity. Family who are not strangers. Life would be much harder without them. Because of them, I am blessed.

Sunday, September 10, 2017


This is (super-late) Essay #35 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished & messy) essay each week during 2017.

“It makes you look dirty. Like you need a good scrub brush in the bathtub.” This was what my parents said about tattoos. Dumi. Dirt.

When I was in my early teens, I played around with the idea of a tattoo. It looked cool. Rebellious. I don’t know if I actually wanted one at that time – I was just fascinated by how they looked on people and what that inked skin might mean for them. I also thought about the pain they must have withstood in order to get these tattoos. It must be really important to that person to want to go through pain willingly. And to know that the marking was permanent.

But then my parents words, repeated over and over, each time we came across someone who had a tattoo, started to stick in my brain:

Who gets tattoos? Dirty people. Trashy people. Low-class people. Why would you want to mess up what God gave you? Why would you defile the temple of your soul? He makes all things perfect. Why would you want to mark yourself like that? Brand yourself like cattle? Only good-for-nothings, drug dealers, drug addicts, and rough bikers get tattoos. Only losers get tattoos.

As a straight-A, perfectionist Asian girl, daughter of immigrants, I most certainly wasn’t any of those. Which meant I most certainly wasn’t going to get a tattoo. Ever.

So I continued the family tradition: to judge people as my parents did: tattoos are dirty and only dirty—sometimes scary, threatening-looking—people have them.

Still, my fascination persisted. Just below the radar, in the way back of my mind. What is it about marking your skin permanently? And to endure pain for it? How does this act demonstrate a kind of devotion or dedication to the thing that one chooses as a tattoo? How much thought goes into it? (There are, of course, those impulsive tattoos in which not much thought is given. What, also, does this say?)

I used to be shy about asking people the story of their tattoos. Heck, I was shy even trying to look at them! I would sneak glances, pretending to look at other things nearby. It never occurred to me that people who get tattoos want you to look at them. And if they didn’t want you to look? They would’ve picked a different location on the body. Somewhere hidden.

In Melissa Febos’s book, Abandon Me, she writes about her tattoos in the essay “All of Me” and how they serve as reminders of her scars, of past pains. New people started coming into my life who bore tattoos as a declaration: this is who I am and whom I love – don’t like it? Too bad. Then I started noticing that almost everyone around me had a tattoo. Was there a tattoo boom and I missed the memo?

These people were not dangerous or “dumi”. They were yogis, poets, suburban moms, academics, young professionals. The stories they told about their tattoos ranged from beautiful to funny. One friend has a tattoo that she got in her younger years— one of a moustache on her index finger, so she could put it under her nose for fun. I laughed when she told me, loving it so much because it spoke to her playful spirit.

The other night, another friend told me about his plans to get a tattoo. He’s not some twentysomething who’s trying to figure out his life; he’s a man in his fifties who has recently found yoga and wants to have a permanent reminder of how much yoga has changed his life, a way for him to stay on this path. I laughed when he told me because –yes, I too, have been thinking about getting a tattoo.

What's funny is that people are surprised to learn that I don't have any. We know what my assumptions were about people with tattoos. So for others to assume that I have a tattoo *somewhere* on my body -- what does this say about their opinion of tattoos and the kind of people who have them? And how do I fit into that opinion? (Not that I care, but instead, I'm curious.)

Know this about me: I am a visual person. I learn better visually. I can sight-read music like nobody’s business. I get mentally crowded when I am surrounded by clutter (which is most of the time –don’t get me started!—but imagine how much more amazing I could be if I wasn’t mentally crowded!) I need visual reminders. Handwritten to-do lists are my thing (things get lost in my head all of the time!).Vision boards rock my world. A tattoo? A visual reminder and a testament of devotion. For me, if I were to get one, that’s what it would be. A tattoo of what? Well, I have a few ideas…