When my grandfather left China to start a new life in the Philippines, he left behind a life completely different from the one he was born in. I know little of what my grandfather lived through; he died when my father was but a young man. What I know of him and his life came from fragmented stories from my grandmother, my father, and other elders in the family. I was told that he was a giant of a man, a tall strapping six-footer to my grandmother’s barely five-foot diminutiveness. I remember that, as kids, whenever we paid our respects at his mausoleum at the Chinese cemetery, one of our favourite pastimes was measuring the length of his marble tomb with our hands; he was so tall that we soon ran out of hands to cover the expanse of his tomb. Then again, my father always said his father was a big man in more ways than one. Apa, as we would refer to him, was a generous man, sometimes, too generous for his own sake. He was also a huge risk taker and a gambler; perhaps these are the very same traits that allowed him to take that leap of faith to leave his homeland for an unknown future.
Despite his traditional upbringing, my grandfather sent all his children to non-Chinese, secular schools, imbuing in them a more Filipino way of life. They, in turn, sent us- their children- to the best private schools in the country. What little of the Chinese way of life we learned came mostly from the traditions he laid in his family.
In my childhood, I refused to acknowledge that I was even part Chinese. I hated my skin, which reminded me of a deathly pallor. I didn’t like my hairless, chinky eyes and desperately prayed for the crease that would give me a semblance of double eyelids. And other children constantly made fun of my surname, calling me or my siblings Hong Kong, kangkong (Filipino for water spinach), bagoong (Filipino for fermented shrimp paste), and, yes, even King Kong. And so, I bucked family-imposed Chinese traditions and quietly rebelled against them whenever possible. Yes, it wasn’t always easy being different.
I really only began to appreciate the different parts that made me who I am when I had children. It must be a parent’s mindset- the desire to bequeath a part of yourself to your children. My memories of my Chinese-Filipino childhood suddenly seemed less burdensome and more important. And here I was, the defiler of traditions, wanting these same traditions to live on in my own children.
I went to Beijing, China last week and discovered for myself how it felt to be reconnected with a part of myself I once denied. The truth is, as proud as I am to be Filipino, going to China felt like coming home. Many people thought I was actually Chinese. As our guide quickly pointed out, I still look like one of them. More than once, I was caught looking dumbfounded when they would attempt to start a conversation with me in Mandarin. In those moments, I regretted passing up opportunities to learn the language when I was younger.
China was a revelation to me. Every place reminded me of a history much larger than anything I have ever known. Each place chronicled thousands of years and millions of lives from a time I could hardly imagine in my mind. And to think that my life is only separated from this amazing country by two generations, I am genuinely in awe. I hope to come back someday soon and tour the places we missed out on the first time. And perhaps, next time, I can bring my sons along to remind them that no matter how far we’ve gone, a small part of us will always be with the land of our forefathers.
Next post: Pictures of Kittymama in China 🙂