by Caitlyn Ng Man Chuen [Non-Fiction]
Lola has the history of her people printed onto her tongue. She can speak English, Tagalog, and Spanish, but Ilocano comes most naturally to her. She claims that as a child I could understand Ilocano and it makes me proud to think that at one point, she was able to communicate with me in her mother tongue. When my mother overhears her saying such things, she kisses her tongue against the roof of her mouth and denies it. In truth, she wouldn’t have been around enough to know either way.
In her native tongue, Lola shouts at me to stop sitting so close to the television. I shuffle backwards until my back hits the couch and she goes back to the kitchen to chop more vegetables for dinner. She lets me play on my Gameboy from morning to the late afternoon, only interrupting me when it’s time for us to pray. She slips handfuls of vinegar-soaked rice and longanisa into my mouth as I watch and when I’m finished eating, she cleans the toys and books that I leave strewn across the floor.
When her friends back in the Philippines call, she tells them about her favourite grandchild, a chubby girl who takes after her fair-skinned Chinese father in looks and can read better than her older sister. I raise the volume on the television to drown out her conversations and she raises her voice over the sounds of animated wars. She peels clementines for me, removing the skin in one single peel, and refuses to let me help because she doesn’t want the skin of the fruit to dye my fingertips yellow. When my mother comes home from work, she slips the pieces of fruit into my pockets and sends me to the room that I share with my mother, father and sister. I take a book from my tiny bookshelf and begin to read as my mother yells at Lola for leaving the clementine peels on the floor.
For the first eight years of my life, I am raised thinking that Roy is the youngest of Lola’s children. I think that he’s my mother’s younger brother, but he isn’t. Really, he is the son of Lola’s younger brother and he didn’t meet my mother until he came to Canada when he was thirteen. He was sponsored and adopted by Lola so that he could immigrate and for that, he is eternally grateful to her. He loves Lola like a mother and loves my mother and aunt like sisters. He has a real sister, but hasn’t seen her since before he immigrated. I never learn her name.
I meet her son when I go to the Philippines, just before my eighth birthday, and I learn where all of my old video games have gone to. We spend our days leaning over the Gameboy that Lola sent to him after I had gotten the newer model for a birthday or maybe for Christmas, both of our fingertips greasy with sweat and oil from the adobo-flavoured nuts that we eat while we play. I never learn his real name but Roy calls him Jing Jing and so do I. His mother lives in Italy, working as a nanny for a family in Milan, and he lives in the home of my great-grandmother who I have come to see before her death.
Roy goes to visit Italy about ten years later, with his pregnant fiancée. His sister is working for a new family in the same city, one that hired her on the shining reference she received from the previous family after their child went to university and she was no longer needed. They pay her handsomely and she is able to send even more money home so that Roy can send less in preparation for the birth of his baby. Roy shows me a picture of the three of them in front of Milan Cathedral. It is the first picture that he has taken with his sister in over twenty years.
I never see or hear from Jing Jing again.
One of my cousins is half-white. He has two younger sisters and a younger brother and all of them are white passing but he is the most handsome. He goes to the Philippines to become an actor and makes a modest living there for two years. Years later, when I’m living in South Korea in the port city of Busan, he stops by on his way to visit his actor friends in the Philippines. We’re walking through the fish market, dodging old women beckoning us into their restaurants with gloved hands slick with the slime of live seafood. The stench would bother any of his siblings and any of mine but for us, it’s comfortable.
He is talking on the phone, switching between Tagalog and English so quickly that I can barely tell when he’s speaking which language. He couldn’t speak anything but English when he first left for the Philippines with nothing but his father’s wallet and his handsome white face. He hangs up the phone soon after and we slow down to let an old woman pour a bucket of seawater into a grate by our feet. She returns to her restaurant as we walk through the water.
“My time in Manila was the best time of my life. And your time here will be the best time of yours. There’s so much for us here. You’ll see that soon. We can be whatever we want here or we can be exactly who we are. I’ll tell you a story. You know I grew up in Greektown, right?”
“Right. When I was in high school, I was at a friend’s house working on a group project and my mom came to pick me up. You know my parents’ Mercedes, right? The one my dad bought my mom for their twenty-fifth anniversary?”
“Well she rolls up to the house in the Mercedes so I get my stuff ready to go. When I get to the front door, my friend goes, ‘Hey Jon, your parents let the maid drive the Mercedes?’ I swear to God, that was the worst moment of my life. My mom doesn’t know about it. No one does. I don’t need anyone to know about it. I get it. I know how I look. But in Manila, they look at me and they know what I am. They’ll look at you and know too. And no one in Manila mistakes my mother for my fucking maid.”
Six months after my eighth birthday, my mother and I are in two different hospitals, about forty-five minutes away from each other. I am getting my tonsils removed. She is having a baby. I remember the Filipina nurse telling me that she knew my mother and hearing my own voice counting backwards from ten before fading into her anesthetics. After I wake up from the surgery, the nurse brings me a popsicle and my father tells me that my mother had a boy.
My baby brother starts school four years later. In the mornings, I make him a breakfast of toaster waffles with strawberries and hazelnut spread. In the afternoons, I boil hot dogs and boxes of instant Kraft Dinner for our supper. In the evenings, right before I put him to sleep, I cut frozen croissants in half and slip slices of black forest ham between the two pieces, cut apples into slices, wash baby carrots, pick out his favourite cookie and stuff it all inside his blue lunch bag. I help him with his homework and I don’t let him touch the television until five o’clock. I drop him off to his class every morning and pick him up in the afternoon. His teachers tell me that I’m a good sister.
I go to Hong Kong just after my twenty-first birthday, in the thick of summer. One of my friends has been working illegally there for almost two years as the personal assistant to an American restaurateur, running errands and booking hotel rooms for his mistresses. She is mistaken for Filipino sometimes and in Hong Kong, people look down on her brown skin and wide nose. She tells me that she relies on her Canadian passport to get her out of situations with the police.
I’m staying in Kowloon in a cheap apartment complex with only one window that looks out onto a demolition site and ants smaller than eraser shavings crawling across the floor. The area seems faded and yellowed like a postcard that was lost in the mail for years. There is no air conditioning and when I sleep, I wake up every twenty minutes to spray my body with cold water.
My friend meets me at Central Station and walks me through a chain of buildings to get to the restaurant we’re going to eat at. In this area, she explains to me, anyone can go from one end to another without actually having to step outside. On the way, we see a rest area under a footbridge surrounded by a perimeter of murals, benches, and paintings on display mounts.
“That’s where all of the domestic helpers go every Sunday. They bring spring rolls and fried chicken and noodles and eat on the floor together. It’s sweet but it’s so fucking sad. It’s the only time they ever have off.”
She tells me that many of the domestic helpers are abused and mistreated by their employers but are trapped in Hong Kong. They can’t quit their jobs because their families need the money that they send home every month. They can’t find new jobs because their employers faked their documents without them knowing to save money and they’re working without visas. She doesn’t tell me their ethnicities but she doesn’t need to.
As we walk through the rest area, I can see my grandmother laying out a benig on the dirty tile. Her sisters lay out a spread of fruits, lumpia, pancit, and take-out fried chicken that they had brought in shoddy containers made of a paper plate stacked on another paper plate and sealed together with an elastic band. Sometimes I can see my mother squeezing a lemon wedge out onto a piece of fried fish.
“Sometimes, you can see old Chinese people doing taichi here. And they put up new artwork every so often. The mural never changes. It’s nice, isn’t it?”
My friend points at the mural as we walk. We don’t stop to look.
My mother’s mechanic tells me that his children’s caretaker had become part of their family. He taught her how to drive. He helped her buy an old car and fixed it up for her, free of charge. His wife bought her an expensive collection of perfumes for her birthday. They invite her to have Christmas dinner with them every year. His children love her. He helped her find another job when his children were old enough to care for themselves.
I am nineteen and Lola is in the Philippines. She leaves like she always does with the geese flying south when morning dew turns to frost but for the first time, she doesn’t return with them in the spring. Her usual four-month trip stretches out into one and a half years and I don’t know if she will ever return.
My mother and I drive to an apartment building in a rougher part of the city, an area where immigrants spend some time when they first arrive in Canada or where they settle when they can never find their feet. Two of my grandmother’s friends live here and she had been living with them before she left. We take the elevator up eight floors and as we walk through the hallways, I can hear a baby screaming from inside one of the apartments.
The apartment smells of fried fish and ointment. I sit at their kitchen table and eat pandesal as my mother catches up with the two women. I finish eating and we gather all of her things from her tiny room and bring them down to our car. Candles with ornate pictures of Mother Mary, a blender with a blade so dull that it could barely cut through water, a stale-smelling wallet with nothing inside but a picture of me as a toddler. Dozens of rosaries.
When we leave, my mother throws out some of the things that she deems useless, chucking them into the dumpsters behind the apartment. We take the rest of her life, pack it into the backseat of our SUV, and drive it across town to another one of her friend’s apartments. On the drive, she puts on my favourite radio station and we laugh at the banter between the hosts.
The apartment is over a Jewish bakery. I had always dreamed of living in a place like this, where the smell of fresh bread would waft through the walls every morning. I carry my grandmother’s things up the narrow staircase, which is completely blocked of any kind of lighting except a flickering incandescent bulb that guides my way.
Lola’s friend tells me that I’m pretty and tells my mother that she looks like she’s gained some weight. The apartment is messy in the way that I had expected it to be. There is a half-eaten Bundt cake covered with plastic wrap on the kitchen table and a surprisingly impressive collection of teas spread out behind it. She cuts a piece of cake for me and when I bite into it, I know that I have met this woman before.
We put all of my Lola’s things in a space between the couch and the wall in the living room. I arrange her religious items in the way that she likes. My mother comments that it barely has room for a piano and as we leave, I realize that it would be her living space. My mother pulls out of the bakery parking lot and starts our drive home. She doesn’t turn on the radio and I don’t either.
“I wish things could be different, but she did this to herself. If she wasn’t such a bitch, I would take care of her, but I can’t. Dad would never allow her to live in the house with us after all that she’s done. She threw me out when I was pregnant and when we lived with her, all she did was yell at your dad and call him useless. She’s done nothing but make our lives miserable. She’s never done anything for us. Nothing at all. One day, you’ll realize that.”
In the winter of my last year of university, I travel to Japan and Korea so that I can decide which one I’d rather live in when I finish with my degree. I go with my sister and we leave on Boxing Day, only because our mother wants us to spend the holidays with family. We spend Christmas Eve with our extended family like we do every year and already, I am dreaming of Asia.
I’m sitting on a couch in the living room, a paper plate filled with mismatched dishes from our potluck dinner resting on my thighs. Lola sits beside me for a moment, slips a one hundred dollar bill into my pocket and tells me that she’ll pray for me while I’m away. She leaves soon after, called to the kitchen, and her sister slides into her empty seat.
“Your mommy tells me you’re going to Japan. How long will you be there?”
“About 10 days.”
“I have some Japanese money. Come get it from me tomorrow.”
“You better be careful when you go there. You have to carry your passport. If the police see you, they’ll ask for it. Maybe you’ll be okay but your sister needs her passport everywhere.”
“Your sister looks like a Filipina so they might think she’s there without a visa. But once they see her passport, she’ll be okay.”
I see my mother watching the two of us from across the room. She throws a loonie onto the mahjong table and begins to shuffle the tiles in front of her. She sets up walls two tiles high in front of her, making a perimeter that stretches from one end of the table to another. My aunts do the same and soon they begin to play. When we drive home that night, snowflakes fall onto the car windshield before melting away and my mother asks me what Lola’s sister had been saying to me.
“Told me to carry my passport around in Japan.”
“Listen to her. Whatever she says, just do it. She’s been there tons of times.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah. She’d go all over the place when I was younger. I was always so jealous. She’d take my sister everywhere with her.”
“Only your sister?”
“She was her responsibility. Lola’s youngest sister was in charge of me.”
“She never took you anywhere?”
“We went to Virginia Beach once. That was nice. But mostly, she would help me with my homework while doing studying for nursing school. And I would go with her when she went on dates with Uncle. She raised me.”
“Where was Lola?”
“Working. She was always working.”
One of my aunts that comes to Toronto in the nineties is a kleptomaniac. Lola hadn’t known about her problems when she sponsored her immigration. Her older sister is the assistant manager of a fried chicken restaurant and gets her a job there. She steals three thousand dollars from the safe in the back and no one ever finds out what she does with it. Her older sister pays back the money quietly.
When she finds out that she’s pregnant, her boyfriend is angry and he pushes her down the stairs. The baby is fine but for the rest of her life, there is a part of her face that is incapable of moving. No matter what she is feeling, half of her mouth is always stuck in a frown.
Her son is just a few years younger than me and he looks like his father. He is raised by her older sister from the time he is a toddler until he is in high school.
When I’m six years old, my mother calls my school to make changes to the emergency contact section of my file. Lola is no longer allowed to pick me up from the after-school program. She cannot take me home if I fall sick during the school day.
One day, I’m called down to the office from my classroom during lunch. I leave my baloney sandwich on my desk beside my apple slices and go downstairs. When I get to the office, my grandmother is there talking to the secretary. She takes my hand and leads me outside. It’s snowing. She carries me to her car and I sit in the front seat for the very first time. I eat the Happy Meal that she brought for me quickly so that I can make it back to class before lunch ends. When I finish, she wipes my face with a napkin and hands me a plastic bag from her backseat with a rainbow-coloured stuffed bear inside. It has a hard plastic badge reading HAPPY BIRTHDAY stuck to its chest. My birthday is three months away and I’m not sure why she’s given this to me.
“Do you like it?”
“It’s really cute. Thank you, Lola.”
The bear joins the rest of my stuffed animals on my bed though the badge makes it slightly uncomfortable to sleep on. I don’t hide it from my mother, but there’s no need to because she spends her days at school and her nights at work. She never sees the bear until so much time has passed that she’s embarrassed to ask about it.
“I know that you love her but you don’t understand the things that she’s done. She might be a decent grandmother to you but she was a nightmare of a mother to me. And she was a shitty daughter, too. You know, when Inang used to live with us, she was really horrible. She would yell at Inang all the time so I would yell at her back. The two of us would scream at each other while Inang stood in between and tried to get us to calm down. Once, Inang wet her pants. She was so old. She couldn’t help it. I thought that mom would help her. She was used to dealing with that kind of stuff at the hospital. But she just screamed at her until she cried.”
When I’m twenty-two and living in the Korean countryside, my cousin who was once my best friend, suffers from a psychological breakdown. We haven’t spoken in three years so I don’t find it necessary to talk to him. My mother calls me one day when I’m getting ready to leave for work. I haven’t spoken to her in nearly two months partially because of the time differences but mostly because she still works too much and too often. She doesn’t need to work as much as she does anymore, but she has become too accustomed to living like this. She tells me to contact him but I never do.
A week later, my sister tells me that my mother has offered to pay for him to finish his university degree, that she has told him that she will pay for him to see a therapist, and that she has invited him to live in our house in the common space beside my bedroom.
She asks if I’m angry and I say that I’m not. There is nothing to be angry about.
I come home on a Sunday night just as my mother is about to leave for her night shift. The house is silent and she is packing a few fruits and crackers into her purse to help her stay awake through the night. I have been out all day but when she asks me to drive her an hour to work, I don’t hesitate to say yes.
On the drive, she doesn’t talk but looks into the cone-shaped path of light ahead of the car while I hum along to an old Chinese love ballad that I will never know the words to. I ride the melody into the city nights and settle in the peacefulness of the ascent from the suburbs into the city. When we arrive at the hospital, I pull up to the curb outside of the entrance she directs me to and put the car in park but she doesn’t leave. She keeps one hand on the door handle and tells me that my baby brother had some kind of psychotic break while I was out. He lay down in the middle of her bed, shaking and crying and mumbling unintelligibly.
“I need your help. I can’t do this alone. You raised him and now I don’t know how to. I don’t know how to raise my son. I don’t know.”
As she speaks, I stare through her gaze and out to the front doors of the hospital. She leaves soon after and before I can be alone with my thoughts, I leave too. As I begin my descent back into the darkened suburban roads, Teresa Teng croons from me across oceans. When I get home, I go to my baby brother’s room and watch him sleep until I can’t keep my eyes open.
“You know your cousin Raymond? When my cousin was pregnant with him, she was terrified. I remember her sisters dragging her down the hallway of their apartment. Two of them holding her arms and one holding her legs while she dropped her body weight to the floor. She was screaming but no one in the building came to see what was going on.”
“Why was she so scared?”
“She was unmarried and hadn’t finished her nursing courses. And the father wasn’t Catholic either.”
“Where were they taking her?”
“She’s the head of the family in Canada. Everything goes through her.”
In the summer before I leave Canada and just after I graduate from university, one of my friends tells me to read this article in the Atlantic that’s been going around recently. It’s about a Filipino family and a woman who the writer calls Lola. She worked as a glorified slave in the writer’s home for most of her life. My friend sends me a copy but it’s long and I’m exhausted from a year of a flow of articles, short stories, and novels so endless that words start to lose their meaning. I leave it aside for a few weeks and when I finally sit down to read it I’m taking the subway to my dad’s apartment from downtown. I don’t stop reading even when the train reaches its terminus and I stay seated while the workers sweep at the dust around my feet.
When I get home, my father is asleep. I boil water for instant noodles and crack two eggs into the broth as the hot water breathes life back into the dehydrated vegetables. I spend the night looking at angered responses to the articles from Westerners then looking at responses from Filipino people clarifying nuances about culture and I wonder if any of it even matters.
Some of my friends from the Asian literature class that I took in my last semester of university want to discuss the article but I avoid them for the last two months that I’m in Canada. The article makes me feel equal parts uncomfortable and empty and I don’t think I have the stomach to discuss it they want me to – like we’re scientists poking at bacteria wiggling around under a microscope. Instead, I think about Jing Jing’s mother, the women on the floor sharing food under a footbridge in Hong Kong, to inang, to Lola’s sisters, and all of the other caretakers that I’ve known.
One of my best friends brings the article up to me a few weeks later when we’re having lunch at a sushi restaurant near her house. She says that she can’t imagine a world where something like that can exist and I’m envious of her because of that. I don’t know what to say so I let her talk while I pick at the individual grains of rice floating in my soy sauce dish and think about the clementine peels that I left on the floor.
Lola hates being a nurse for many reasons but most of all because she occasionally has the responsibility of disposing stillborn children. When Lola is twenty years from retirement, she suffers an injury at the hospital and the labour board deems her unfit for work. She is put on worker’s compensation for the next twenty years and she’s thankful that she doesn’t have to look at the dead for any longer.
The following winter, Lola’s unmarried teenage daughter gives birth to a screaming sickly baby girl. She had thrown her out when she discovered that she was pregnant but when the baby is born, she takes her daughter, her daughter’s daughter and her daughter’s Chinese boyfriend into the basement of her home. Two years later, just before summer arrives, Lola’s daughter has another baby, but this one is silent with pale skin and eyes so dark that they’re almost black. Her daughter and her boyfriend enroll in school and while continuing to work. Her daughter takes on an additional job to bring in some extra money for the new baby but she will barely be home to care for the child. Lola begins to stay home with the two children, only leaving to bring them to church.
This is when her labour begins.
Caitlyn Ng Man Chuen writes with an interest in memory, perception, permanence and the ways in which they diverge. She has been published in Ricepaper Magazine and worked for the White Wall Review. She graduated from Ryerson University with a degree in English and is currently living in Seoul.