Whenever Franco and I come home, people want to give us things.
A TV. A microwave. Something to make the food that will inevitably find its way to the microwave.
“I thought you were a pauper,” they say, after a brief mention of our incomes. “My apologies.”
When people from elsewhere visit, they make assumptions.
“Being in your 30s is quite old. Sorry, I know you don’t like to hear that,” she says, rubbing my shoulders.
Then there’s the universal: “One day he’ll ask you. Don’t you worry.”
At this point I lower my hands, which have been locked in prayer for who knows how long in a direct appeal to the gods of nuptials and fertility. I’m also kneeling for some reason.
“Golly gee I sure hope so,” say I, nodding extra hard. “After all, my sole purpose in life is to become a worthy partner to a mate so we can procreate with much gusto.”
Often this satisfies them enough that I’m allowed to retreat to my dark corner, where I’m always sipping a dirty martini—definitely with much gusto.
I didn’t grow up with my mom.
This catches people off-guard when I tell them, but it’s just a fact of life. Here’s another fact: I had a very happy childhood. I had a father and aunt who cared for me, my brother and sister. We had many pets—cats, dogs, rabbits, hamsters, birds, chickens, and hermit crabs—a backyard to roam; a house with doors and running water, which in the Philippines was a big fucking deal. So maybe it wasn’t hot running water because we weren’t the Marcoses or anything, but running water nonetheless.
We had a nanny who loved us, too. She had lice. But having lice there was like having intestinal worms, a scar where the anti-tuberculosis needle pierced your skin, a family dog presumed dead after escaping the yard via jumping a fence and likely falling prey to the neighborhood uncles having many night caps and thus craving a pup-flavored snack, or, as we call it in Tagalog, “pulutan.” In other words, it was all totally normal, guys.
Like many overseas workers who were the backbone of the Philippine economy, my mom lived and worked elsewhere in the world and sent home much-needed funds. But unlike the hardworking overworked nannies and maids of the homeland, my mom had a prime gig as a registered nurse in the Bronx, with benefits and everything, and PTO that allowed her to come home in two-week spurts.
My dad likes to tell the story about how I hit her with my milk bottle when I was 3 because I didn’t recognize the strange woman hugging my dad. My mom doesn’t like that story very much.
But even at a very young age, I knew my mom was the reason my siblings and I went to really good schools, why we had a TV with a VCR (also a big fucking deal in those parts), and why we were the proud VHS owners of all the American musicals and the best animated films Disney made during its late ’80s, early ’90s renaissance.
Even then I knew my mom made the money. Therefore, she was a badass.
Every girl, so the narrative goes, has been dreaming about The Big Day since they were 5.
After The Big Day come the house and the kid and the other kid and… I guess the story trails off after that because there’s nothing more to life, am I right?
My narrative, however, was always something else.
I decided I’d become a writer, see the world, and live in New York City. I’d meet the love of my life at some point, of course, and we’d have a pup and probably adorable offspring, but these would come in addition to the goals I’d set for myself—not at the expense of them.
After all, my mom was living her own badass existence. Why couldn’t I?
When we’re young, we’re told we are the culmination of all the things we do, aspire to be, and become.
But there’s a cutoff.
At some point life just boils down to the paper you’ve yet to sign and the things that haven’t yet come out of your vagina—which frankly, as amazing as those feats are, is insulting.
I get it, though. Real narratives are hard to talk about in bullet form. They’re messy and depressing. They meander and don’t always make sense. They’re often unsatisfying.
If we were to have a real conversation about other notable things in our lives beyond the familiar topics of getting betrothed and procreating, we’d encounter uncomfortable truths about life and the people in it.
The stories would go a little something like this:
I’m 8. We’ve been in America a couple weeks. Two old men talk to my sister and me at a recycling center in the Bronx, and we ignore them. “They’re fresh off the boat,” they say to each other, laughing. “They can’t speak English.” We speak English, I think to myself, just not to strangers.
I’m a tween now, still not allowed to go outside because my dad thinks doing so would spell certain doom in the form of an irresistible urge to do drugs or get pregnant. I read and write a lot.
14 years old. I’m now a freshman at a high school in Virginia, where people wave Confederate flags at football games. A decade or so later, hundreds of students there will sign a petition to lift the ban on the good ol’ tradition, citing their heritage.
In college, I become editor of the student paper. “Maybe the first Filipino-American editor?” my dad says. I dismiss it. Who knows. Who cares.
21. I intern at a paper, where I talk about growing up in New York City and scoring in the top percentile of some standardized test (the reading portion, of course. My math was and always will be terrible). A staff photographer, a white dude in his 40s, surmises it’s probably because New York standards weren’t that challenging.
23. After interning at a paper for several months, eating ramen and developing a potassium deficiency while making minimum wage, I get hired as a full-time reporter at a time when few papers are hiring, much less hiring people like me. But not before one of the editors of a mostly white, Southern-born and bred newsroom asks, “Do you have trouble making friends?” When another staffer brings around her adopted Asian baby, she points to me and says, “Look. Sister.”
25-28. After getting laid off by the paper during The Great Recession, I move to New York jobless with less than $4,000 in the bank. I get a journalism job at a time when few people in journalism (or anywhere for that matter) are hiring, like, at. All. I kick ass, take names. I eventually get bored of struggling to buy groceries while paying rent (because journalism, am I right?) and decide to go back to school.
27. I ask a person of some authority from a former life for a letter of recommendation to a grad program. “This program is very hard to get into, you know,” he tells me in a way that means I shouldn’t bother. He drags his feet writing this letter, and when he does, a white girl’s name appears where mine should be. I get in anyway.
28-30. In grad school, professors joke about whether I can speak English. The class laughs. Many of them come from places that probably also waved Confederate flags at football games.
30. I graduate from grad school. I move back to New York. I freelance in a field where most writers are white dudes. I get paid an absurd amount of money to make puns.
31. A white dude of some authority, after barely having worked with me, says, “You don’t have to be the most talented person in the room as long as you show much enthusiasm and hard work. You could take out the trash at a place you really like to show your dedication, like I did.” He doesn’t seem to understand that if I took out the trash at a place where most people looked like him, they would just assume I really was the maid.
31. As Franco and I celebrate my new gig, a woman I barely know turns to me and says, “Now it’s your turn to support him.”
31-32. I continue to live and work in New York City. I still get paid an absurd amount of money to make puns. In my spare time I write, but it’s hard because life’s busy. There are all these weddings to go to.
I want to talk about all these things, how difficult it all is but hopefully it’s all worth it, and when do you know anyway, is there, like, a sign that says, “Hey doofus, you’ve freaking made it. Have a margarita.” Is there? Is there a sign? What do you think?
But the only thing they ask is: When are you getting married?
I kiss my index finger, point to the sky and say: “Any day now.”
Not following The Narrative raises eyebrows.
If you’re past 30 and unmarried, it’s not your choice.
Not having a TV means you can’t afford it.
Freelancing means you can’t get a full-time job. Because everyone wants a full-time job. Everyone.
The man makes all the funds. He’s funding you, in fact. Never mind that you once lived independently in NYC before there was even a hint of you two ever dating. You are subservient.
Most importantly, you envy the people of The Narrative. They are the lucky ones. And one day, if you’re very lucky, you too will be one of them.
According to The Narrative, success is defined by the paper you sign, the offspring you produce, and the fancy things your fancy job affords.
Nothing else matters.
Usually I find it best not to refute it. It comforts people. They’ll think what they want to think anyway.
But I’m finding that staying quiet is even worse than taking a stand on anything, no matter how dumb or erroneous. It too perpetuates lies, misinformation, and cowardice, and even elects buffoons—just without the conviction.
So this year I’m taking a stand, dagnabbit. Because, while I may not have control over how people will interpret the truth, the lack of diversity in creative fields, nor the median age of every newlywed in the world, I still can control how I present my truth.
In fact, my wish for 2017 is for everyone to be so bold as to start or keep pursuing their alternate narratives, and dare speak of them at family gatherings, friendly reunions, and random hookups with their most favorite bar persons, if that’s what they’re into, regardless of anyone’s fragile eyebrows.
I’ll go first:
I’m a writer in New York City. Sometimes I go weeks without a paycheck, but I’m an excellent saver. In my spare time, I travel not nearly enough and draw and play the ukulele because like me, it is very small. I live in sin with my boyfriend whom I love very much—with much gusto, some might say. We share a small apartment in Queens with not a lot of fancy things, because that’s how we like it. We may or may not get married one day.
We consider ourselves very lucky.