I’m sitting at a table facing the door, waiting for a date I’ve never met. Finally, after watching the door open five times, he walks in. He raises his eyebrows in an awkward “A-ha! There you are!” greeting, and before I can figure out the appropriate way to greet him back, he’s sitting in front of me.
We order drinks. I already decided on a Cosmopolitan — a standard strong drink for women that doesn’t give anyone room to remark. If I were home alone, I’d drink a neat vodka in a cordial glass. He orders a beer. We chat about our mutual friends a little bit and as our drinks arrive, he asks me where I’m from. I remind him that I live right here in New York City.
He says, “No, that’s not what I mean. I mean, what are you?”
I remember when I heard this question for the first time. I was in second grade. A classmate who spoke Russian with her friends and siblings put her face close to mine as she spat the query at me. I was one of two girls of Filipino descent in a very overcrowded school. Everyone got our ethnicity wrong.
Once, at recess, three students sang “La Cucaracha” over and over as they chased me. Another time, in the hallway, a boy yelled, “You Chinese! You tell joke! You go pee-pee in your coke,” when he was dared by his friends as they walked by. So I wasn’t surprised by the Russian girl’s question. My response was, “I’m a human being, what are you?” Then I stuck out my tongue and put my hands on my hips.
I’ve heard the question “what are you?” countless times since then, from classmates, teachers, and strangers. I’ve heard it at interviews, at parties, in the doctor’s office, at the gym.
And obviously, on many first dates.
Tonight, I decide to be more gracious than I was in second grade. “Oh, I’m half Filipino and half American. My mom came here from the Philippines when she was young,” I say.
Intrigue changes his facial expression from a polite smile to a thoughtful gaze. There are some compliments (I think) about my “nice” light brown skin and my difficult-to-decipher, maybe Asian/maybe Spanish facial features. And then, he asks about my dad.
“What does your father look like? Where is his family from?”
The last time I had a good look at my father, I was about 8. I describe him to the best of my ability. He’s from South Carolina, but I might be confusing that with South Dakota. He is of Polish and English descent — my best educated guess.
I’m dreading the follow-up questions that always seem to come along with the curiosity about my ethnic background. He wants to know how my mom came to the U.S., and what brought her here in the first place. I carefully tell my date that my mother came to America on a work visa.
Thankfully, he doesn’t pry about her occupation or any other details.
My mother’s very first flight, which followed her very first taxi ride, brought her to the United States when she was 18 years old. She kissed her boyfriend goodbye just days before and promised him she’d be home in two years, then never saw him again. The promise of work and an education made my mother less reluctant to leave her love and her family, but inside, she was raging. Living in the United States, even for a short time, was something so unfathomable that she never allowed it to cross her mind.
She didn’t want to leave, but how could she say no? She was the youngest of five children, and her parents chose her to go to America. This was the first time they showed any favor toward her, and she was intent on making them proud.
What her parents called “sending her to the U.S.” is what is also known as human trafficking, or more specifically, domestic worker trafficking. Forced labor — in the form of trafficking, debt bondage, and other forms of modern slavery — affects nearly 21 million people worldwide. My mother was one of these women.
My grandparents signed an agreement with an agency that sponsored my mother’s visa. She was assigned to work as a maid and nanny for four years, until she paid her debt to the agency. Her parents received a cut of the money in exchange for selling and deceiving their daughter. My mother received almost nothing in exchange for her live-in work arrangement.
Fortunately, the family she was contracted to was reasonable and kind. But she had no free time, no friends, and no one to talk to when she was homesick and lonely. Months went by, and there was no mention of when she’d start college. Finally, after one year, her “employer” told her that she would not be attending school and it was, in fact, never part of the agreement that was made between her parents and the agency. The pain of knowing that her parents lied to her was unbearable. My mother’s letters to her parents went unanswered. They had no phone, so she couldn’t call them even if she found the money to pay for a call. Devastated and heartbroken, she decided to leave her “employer’s” home.
On the date, I make a weak attempt at changing the subject, because I know what question will come next. But asking him about his jacket and complimenting his sense of style doesn’t distract his train of thought. “How did your parents meet? I mean, I would have guessed that your father was in the military…”
Every time someone assumes my dad was in the military I find myself, for a brief second, imagining a whirlwind romance between my carefree, island-dwelling mom and dutiful soldier dad. They meet and instantly fall in love, then my soldier dad bends the world in half with his bare hands to make her his wife.
But the fairytale story of “soldier meets island girl” couldn’t possibly be further from my parents’ reality.
When my mother left her “employer,” she found work at a small restaurant, where she met my father. He was a man 15 years her senior who still slept in his childhood bedroom. After eating home-cooked meals prepared by his parents, my father would walk her back to the tiny room she rented at a nearby boarding house. She adored his family, and for the first time since she stepped off that airplane, her loneliness subsided. She felt wanted and cared for. But there was one looming issue that her former employer had warned her about — the fact that her legal status would be at risk if she ever left before the end of her contract. Her future was in a million pieces, and she had no idea how to put things back together again. So she tempted fate and decided to try and get pregnant.
Five months after my parents met, my mother was expecting a child. Just as she had hoped, my father promised to marry her and take care of his new little family. To this day, I’m not sure if they married. If they did, they never went through the legal process of applying for my mother’s green card. My mother’s visa expired and she was dubbed an illegal alien by society.
I tell my date that my mother and father met at a restaurant while she was working there. To my relief, he doesn’t ask why she came all the way from the Philippines to work at a restaurant. He tells me about his parents — their ages and their hobbies and some of the places they recently visited. He asks me about Filipino food and culture. He wants to know about our customs. I’m not going to tell him that I was raised on white rice and Top Ramen, as that is what a poor Filipina feeds her child.
Instead, I talk about dinuguan and note that most Americans can’t bear to eat a stew made of pig blood. I mention kare-kare, lumpia, and pancit, and I’m surprised that he has heard of these dishes before. To playfully make him cringe, I mention balut, the partially formed duck embryo that’s boiled in its shell and sold as a street food in the Philippines.
This knowledge is not from firsthand experience, but from Google searches, Wikipedia, conversations with my cousins, and things I have overheard on rare visits from distant family members. I’ve never seen or tasted most of these foods.
When I was a child, there was no time for cultural immersion. I was raised as an American. My mother did her best to assimilate, and with the exception of a heavy accent, seemingly succeeded. After my father left, it was up to me to raise myself since my mother spent most of her waking hours at work.
My date asks if my mother was strict. I tell him yes, she was, and in an attempt to avoid the sting of this truth, I ask about his mother’s discipline practices. While he talks about time-outs and missed desserts, I think about the years I spent as my mother’s anchor and shackle. I remember the looming worry over her possible deportation and the anger and fear that manifested. She had no time to deal with the emotions, fears, or teenage rebellion of her American daughter. She regularly reminded me that I was an incredible burden who added to her suffering because she had to support me alone.
If things were different, she might have encouraged my interests and helped build my dreams. She might have looked at my report cards. She might have gone to school to talk to the counselors who tried to steer me in the right direction when I failed classes, cut school and caused trouble. It was much easier to keep me in line with threats that were followed through with heavy hands.
Even though there’s no way my date can see from where he is sitting, I carefully reach under the table and pull my skirt down to reassure myself that the scars from her beatings are hidden.
I’m not going to tell him that even though most people believe that immigrants are ever-grateful to be in this land of opportunity, I have countless memories of my mother weeping because she hated it here. I would bet that my date has never met a survivor of human trafficking. Would he want to know that her anchor baby is sitting right in front of him?
She desperately wanted to go home, but her parents had disowned her for breaking the contract and bringing shame to them. She would sob and heave and tell me that if she didn’t have me to worry about, she would pack her things, get on a plane, and beg their forgiveness. It took years for my mother to learn that she had no reason to apologize and that the shame belonged to them, not her.
I’m going to refrain from telling my date that my mother’s biggest fear was that my life might turn out like hers — a life of loneliness and poverty with no visible relief within reach. She always warned me that should this be my fate, my failure and shame would be magnified by one major difference: That I am American.
When asked “what are you,” I can never share the honest answer on a first date, or for that matter, at an interview, at a party, in the doctor’s office, or at the gym.
What I am is a piece of the fragile heart of a young woman who came to this country all alone. I was molded by her dismal existence and her unfathomable perseverance. My dreams were carved from her hard and endless work that left her no time to pursue dreams of her own. I wear her eyes and her features with a lighter shade of brown on my skin, but my appearance does not depict her hardship or her triumph. I can almost feel my mother’s heart break when I’m asked about my family history. I’m proud of my Filipino heritage, and proud to be an American, but when I think of the cost and loss my mother suffered, my pride is twinged with betrayal.
What I am is a promise that her broken, weary heart did not beat wastefully. What I am is a legacy that will not be of shame and fear, but of survival and strength. My date won’t know all of these things tonight.
Until I get to know him better, I will be just what everyone else sees: half Filipina, half American.
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