I Got It From My Mama
"It is often said that the first sound we hear in the womb is our mother's heartbeat. Actually, the first sound to vibrate our newly developed hearing apparatus is the pulse of our mother's blood through her veins and arteries. We vibrate to that primordial rhythm even before we have ears to hear. Before we were conceived, we existed in part as an egg in our mother's ovary. All the eggs a woman will ever carry form in her ovaries while she is a four-month-old fetus in the womb of her mother. This means our cellular life as an egg begins in the womb of our grandmother. Each of us spent five months in our grandmother's womb and she in turn formed within the womb of her grandmother. We vibrate to the rhythms of our mother's blood before she herself is born. And this pulse is the thread of blood that runs all the way back through the grandmothers to the first mother. We all share the blood of the first mother - we are truly children of one blood."
-Layne Redmond, When the Drummers Were Women: A Spiritual History of Rhythm
My mom lost her mother when she was six years old. I couldn’t imagine how that must’ve felt and how life altering that must’ve been for her. I sometimes think about her and how my mom’s life may have been different if she had not died. She was a school teacher and educated, my mom said. Who knows what opportunities my mom could have had if she had not passed away. Sometimes I also wondered what she would think of me and whether I lived up to any expectations. I struggle to call her Lola. Lolas are the white-haired ladies who sniff you as a way of kissing you. But to me, she is forever a picture on a government document of a young woman that looks like my mom. When I read the above quote on Mother’s Day, I was moved almost to tears. Although we've never met, at one moment in time, at least at the cellular level, she and I were together.
My mom immigrated to Canada to marry my dad. They had briefly dated in high school, but lost touch afterwards. They reconnected 15 years later when my dad returned to the Philippines after having lived in Canada for a period of time. My mom was faced with a choice: stay in the Philippines where there was probably no future, or leave her family behind to move to an unknown country to marry my dad where her future was most definitely uncertain. With only $20 in her pocket, my mom flew to Canada with the hope of a better life for herself and her future children.
When I saw memes or parodies of Filipino moms, I would admit I would laugh so hard - the parodies where their North American-born children imitate their accents and mannerisms. I felt a camaraderie with other children of Filipino immigrants. I was born and raised in Canada where diversity is celebrated, but growing up I remember always feeling different. Being one of the few minority kids in your class can do that to you. I was proud of my Filipino heritage and cultural values, but I also wanted to fit in with my peers so bad. The two didn’t always reconcile. It started with small battles like refusing to eat chayote, and as I grew older I would cook myself “white food;” when I finally busted out of Catholic school, my scheming got more sophisticated. With every transgression and every “ingat ka” called after me that I sloughed off as I walked out the door, the response was the same: “Kapag ikaw ay naging isang ina, ikaw ay maintindihan" - "When you become a mother, you'll understand."
I remember the day one of my white friends said to me “I don’t even see you as Asian anymore.” I didn’t know whether to feel insulted (and more so because my friend seemed to have forgotten I was specifically Filipino) or complimented. On the one hand, I am proud to be Filipino. I don’t recall a time ever wishing I was anything but, unlike some of my other minority friends who sometimes wished they were white in order to fit in. I will take my black hair, dark skin, short legs, brown eyes, and adobo-eating, infinite-number-of-family-members-self any day of the week. But on the other hand, the self that has bought into the colonized mindset passed down through the generations, took pride in my ability to assimilate and fit in. This confusion left me without a witty remark.
But, I can also understand why she would say something like that to me (and yes, we are still friends because as my Catholic upbringing emphasized, I have turned the other cheek). I reflect on my own Filipino identity and find it somehow sorely lacking. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been back to the Philippines in 25 years. I sometimes slip and call the Philippines “home”, but it’s not; Canada is. I talk about returning for a visit, but never actually make big moves to make it happen. Maybe it’s because I cook the worst adobo (I can never get the balance of salty and sour quite right). Maybe it’s because I can count on one hand the Filipino friends I have. I know it’s definitely because I can’t speak Tagalog. My parents speak it at home and I can understand it, but I always respond back in English. I work at a hospital and some of my patients are Filipino and can’t speak English well. I have to ask the older Filipino nurses to translate for me, but remind them throughout the conversation not to translate back what the patient is saying to me. It’s always an awkward interchange between the three of us which makes the nurses all cackle and say “You’re just like my children.”
I have a one-year-old daughter. For some reason, after she was born, the importance of identifying as Filipino has become that much more important to me. My husband is a Canadian Polish immigrant and my daughter is mestiza. He is fluent in his language and I hear him speaking confidently to her in Polish. I want her to identify with and be proud of her Filipino heritage as well. But what does that even mean to me? What yardstick do I measure her and myself by? I remember being part of a discussion on Facebook in my Mommy group and one of the Filipino moms mentioned that when she saw other Filipino moms, she would bust out the Tagalog in hopes they would notice. She hoped there would be that connection of heritage and culture. I quickly responded back that I understood how she felt and would do the same to show I was a Filipino nanay too. One of my biggest fears is that, because I am uncertain of my Filipino identity and my capability of teaching my daughter what it means to be Filipino, I will be the beginning of the end of our Filipino culture for the future generations of my family. Maybe if I got that validation, that connection to a common heritage and experience, it will only confirm my Filipino identity that much more.
So yeah Mom, you were right. I get it. It’s not easy raising a child, and my worries have multiplied exponentially. Along with worrying about her not eating enough vegetables (funny enough she eats chayote like a monster…gag), I worry that she too will feel disconnected and uncertain about her Filipino side.
The one thing that I know for sure about my Filipino identity is the strength that has been passed down to me from the women that came before me. It’s the same strength that allowed my grandmother to defy her family to marry my Lolo. It’s the same strength that pushed my Mom to come to an unknown cold-ass place with hopes and dreams for herself and future generations. It’s this strength that's allowed me to be honest with myself about my identity even though I knew the truth would cause heartache and put me in a tailspin. This is my jumping point to explore our heritage, and as my daughter continues to grow and thrive, she and I will learn and figure this out together.
Rosanna Tecson is a wife, mother, and fledgling writer born and raised in Canada. Since her daughter was born, she has been reflective of motherhood and her Filipina identity. Through writing and storytelling, she hopes to make sense of this journey.