The Conversations I Never Have

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‘Twas the season indeed.

There was tinsel. Presents. The ability to listen to *NSYNC’s Christmas album—arguably their best and most amazing work, ever (I mean, who could forget JC’s “O Holy Night”? Lance’s super deep and perfect “YOU” when he sang “The only gift I wanted was you”? And the sexual undertones and overtones of “Under My Tree”? They weren’t just talking about conifers, am I right?)—without judgment.

There was also home.

And for people living in New York City, a.k.a. land of the people from elsewhere, home is a familiar, comforting, and ever-so-frustrating place.

I know what you’re thinking: Home is frustrating for everyone. You New Yawkers ain’t special!

While I agree, and thank you for speaking in the native tongue, there’s a special kind of frustration that comes from going home after living elsewhere for a long time, and not just any elsewhere, but an elsewhere unlike any other elsewhere in the world. (I’ll give you a minute.)

After all, it’s a city that attracts a high concentration of intensely passionate, ambitious, and competitive people. Which means instead of dreaming of nice, practical things like buying houses with yards, we drive ourselves crazy dreaming of the impossible: writing the next great something or curing cancer, or maybe just some good ol’ fashioned world domination.

Even our food people are intense. Here, you can get the urge to eat something at any time of day and have it delivered to you. Fast. By multiple sources who compete for your measly tip.

You can only imagine the type of people bred by prolonged exposure to such conditions.

Assholes. Yup. We’re assholes.

Assholes who, when found outside of our natural habitat, say:

What is this work-life balance you speak of?

Why does no car appear when I raise my hand likeso in hailing fashion?

And since when does “takeout” mean I have to physically go to the place to take out the food and bring it to the domicile? How positively medieval and wow where’d this giant turkey leg and mead come from because they’re delicious?

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This strange existence gets even stranger when you’re home for the holidays.

In between the tinsel and Justin’s sexy crooning about the wonderful feeling of the love in the room from the floor to the ceiling (down there), you must somehow exist as your present self while surrounded by images of your past life (hi, journalism plaques and pictures from the 4th grade) and while fielding questions regarding your hypothetical present self in a parallel universe everyone else seems to think you’re striving to be.

In this parallel universe, you’re married to the handsome, strapping fellow you’ve somehow convinced to deem you worthy of his ownership, with many offspring, and a career in… doesn’t matter. Because women and careers? Maniacal laugh.

Worse still, on top of being an asshole New Yorker, you’re also the immigrant daughter of two immigrants from the Philippines, which comes with certain expectations set long before any of you were even zygotes.

Like, the writing thing’s cute and all but success is measured by matrimony and procreation. Family. The spreading of the seeds to continue the lineage so that your parents’ sacrifice of leaving behind everything they knew in the Old World so you could prosper in the New World wouldn’t be in vain.

Whoever said you can’t go home again obviously wasn’t a progeny of a people with strong familial, religious, tribal, and conservative views you can never run away from no matter how far you go.

Because regardless of your individual dreams, you’re going home dammit.

Because you are not bastos.

Besides, what would our aunties and uncles—you know, that close-knit community of 200 Filipinos you’re supposed to consider family—think?

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The longer I’m away, the more disconnected I am from this past life. This is normal, as time tends to do its thing. In an ideal world, though, we’d all evolve and change, in disparate yet intersecting ways.

But when it comes to me and my parents, the whole immigrant thing really puts a chink in the armor (Chink sounds super offensive, by the way. How about, a hot sauce in the chocolate chip cookie? A vegan in the meatatarian parade? Birkenstocks in, oh who am I kidding, Birkenstocks are great everywhere.)

Because not only are we separated by time and space, we’re also separated by a set of wildly disparate beliefs shaped by our totally different upbringings.

The more time passes, the further our worlds diverge, to the point where the details of these past lives sometimes feel imaginary.

Like, did I really grow up in what many Americans would now consider an un-hip tiny house without wheels?

Did we really not have hot running water?

Did my childhood jeepney—in other words, school bus—really run over someone on my way to school and this someone was carried off the street and into the center of the jeepney, flanked by two rows of children facing said someone’s bloody carcass, en route to the hospital and, at some point, the school?

Who knows, say I as I sip my $5 cappuccino delivered to me via drone after speaking into the toilet.

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This disconnect is most palpable over the holidays, when it manifests itself after a year of blissful diversion. Because my family and I immigrated when I was around 8 years old, which was well into my cognizance as a human, our most vivid shared experiences are of the struggles of assimilating into this strange new world.

On Christmas, it makes great dinner fodder.

Unsuspecting Family Friend: Can you speak Tagalog?

Me: I can understand it but I can’t speak it well.

Mother: Why DID you forget it anyway?

Me: You guys told us to speak English at home when we first moved to America so we could lose our accents and not be bullied at school. So… way to go, parents.

Mother: That was your Dad who made you do that! I speak Tagalog at home! Why would I do that!

Me: Sounds like something better discussed not over the sacred Sinigang (super delish, btw, you’ve outdone yourself again!), but behind closed doors, not on Christmas, and in 1992.

Father: Anyhoo, on to lighter matters. How ‘bout dat Trump?

Recently, a friend told me he gifted his dad golf flags with pictures of his mustachioed face. I told him how cool it was that his parents understood his humor. If I’d given my parents the same thing, they’d wonder if I had, like, a hormonal issue or something.

Also, what is golf?

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Thus, I’ve learned to adapt. Immigrants are nothing if not master adapters. “Assimilate or perish!” our collective forehead tattoos say.   

Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Gift cards make awesome presents. They say I’m thinking of you, Mom and Dad, without confusing you by getting you something only I think is funny.

2. We can talk about the weather and how New York experiences weather, sometimes seasonally.

3. When there’s a lull at dinner and I don’t feel like bringing up my past life growing up in an un-hip tiny house without wheels nor my shaky grasp of my native tongue, I can pull out the Trump card to really get the party started. Since my parents have declared lifelong fealty to opposing parties, it’s fun seeing a microcosm of our adopted country’s polarizing views in action.

4. Questions about marriage? Point at the partner. Children? Point at the dog. Marriage AND children? Point at the Corona.

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Still, I can’t help but long for a more nuanced conversation about my real, actual self in this universe.

I think it would be quite nice.

Here’s how it would go:

Hello, Karen, darling progeny of ours. How’s your domestic partnership—a totally valid life choice, by the way, seeing how marriage isn’t the only way to solidify a union—of more than four years with Franco, and your progeny from another Frenchie, Henri?

Good. Our family is a small but happy one filled with laughter and many farts (sometimes Henri’s).

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How’s your career going?

Not bad. I wrote a bunch of burrito jokes for two packaging projects that went national—literally my dream projects, NBD. Actually, it was a big deal. I saw the mountaintop and it was filled with burritos, and I climbed it! Then I ate all the burritos.

That’s pretty cool—I’m sure your burrito jokes are funny to somebody. How’s the small but practical apartment for two people who aren’t fond of cleaning, and a small dog who doesn’t like exercise?

It’s good! It’s rent-stabilized, and we were able to renew the lease for 2 years. Plus, the rent only went up by, like, $30!

Amazing. That means you get to save a lot of money and take time off to write about nothing, much like this very entertaining and thoughtful essay, which is like your dream, right?

Yeah!

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And take time off to travel for an irresponsibly long time, which is another one of your dreams, right?

Totally.

How wise and frugal of you, given the whole rise of the far-right movement and the seemingly inevitable end of the present world order (big ups to the big man in the homeland with a name that rhymes with Do Tear Tay, that loveable rascal!)—we’re just kidding of course. But seriously, who knows how long all the borders will be safe to travel freely, am I right?

You’re so right. Tyranny is funny!

<Shared laughter, with one of us laughing way too hard.>

So, what’s next?

I want to keep freelancing and writing in New York City. It’s been swell.

Cool, cool. We’re so happy for you, our sweet, amazing, and one-of-a kind daughter.

Aw, stahp, but don’t stop.

One more thing.

What?

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When are you gonna get married and pop out dem babies?

<Fin.>

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Pork Chops on Christmas

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Christmas came and went.

We ate deep-fried greasy everything and saw just how far we could sink into our respective couches. We stared or didn’t stare at the TV. At dinner we sat around the table fact-checking each other’s know-it-all claims about something or other, each refusing to give in because we were all equally right.

Then it happened.

It began just as any of my dad’s depressing-to-us-but-normal-to-him-tales typically do—out of context.

Just what we were laughing and chatting about I can’t remember. A mispronounced word perhaps? An errant booger?

Whatever it was, it went a little something like this:

Me: Pork chops, am I right? Man, do I love me some pork chops!

Dad: Speaking of pork chops… it was 1992, and it was time to enroll you three into your first American school.

[My sister, brother and I exchanged knowing looks, “Here he goes again.” Franco, an experienced awkward-moment provocateur, perked up.]

Dad: We’d arrived in the US just months before. Your mom and I decided to take you to a private Catholic school a couple blocks from our apartment. I remember talking to you in the principal’s office in Tagalog, and the lady at the front desk—

Older Sister: She was mean!

Me: What did she look like again?

Older Sister: A mean old lady!

Dad: She snapped at us and said, “We speak English here.”

[This led to my parents telling us to speak English at home so we could get rid of our accents as well as minimize the inevitable discrimination we’d experience elsewhere. This also led to us losing fluency in our native tongue… whoops.]

Me: I remember leaning on her desk as a little 8-year-old, 3-foot-nothing, and she said, “Before I begin, how about no elbows on my desk?” And I was like, bitch please….

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[Author’s note: That may or may not have happened.]

Dad: All the immigrants they’d previously admitted had trouble catching up and had to take remedial courses. The school even suggested we enroll you in public school instead. Imagine that, public school!

[Lest you think my dad was some kind of elitist snoot, remember that this was early ’90s NYC in Da Boogie Down Bronx. We eventually made friends with people who did go to public school, but they were noticeably less, um, geeky and lame than we were. In short, we totes would have gotten our faces punched.]

Dad: I was like, Nah, homies. I want them to go to school here. The school said, “They should take ESL (English As a Second Language) classes first.” They were held in these trailers parked in front of the school.

I told them you all could speak English! So you took a test to prove it. Then, when you passed, they came to me with another problem: “They’re older than the kids in their grade! They need to be in their proper age group, but I don’t think they’re ready for that.” So I told them, “Well, I suppose they could take summer school if they end up struggling.” The school begrudgingly let you three take an assessment quiz.

Older Sister: I remember it being really simple. They asked us to spell words like “cat” and “dog.”

Me: Meanwhile, in the Philippines, I was already spelling four-syllable words.

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Dad: Of course this was all reflected in your test scores, but the school came back and said, “We have another problem.”

“What now?” I said.

“Well,” they said, “it seems they’re actually quite advanced for their grade level. Would you  mind if they skipped a grade?”

“Wonderful,” I said. Then I thought, “What about letting them skip two grade levels?”

“Mr. Bolipata,” they said. “Now you’re pushing it.”

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***

Epilogue:

My mom, wanting to show up our doubters, incentivized us by promising to shower us with presents should we get first honors. This method proved way too effective—we asked for TVs, our first desktop computer and dial-up internet, a dedicated phone line, film cameras, video cameras, books. My mom soon dreaded report-card season, while the nerd monsters she’d created grew into even bigger nerd monsters.

We Went To Oregon

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“Are you saying the greatest creations are manmade?”

“Of course,” said I, making sweeping motions with my arms. “Cities are amazing.”

Lucas was dubious. At least I think his name was Lucas. A Swede, he probably spelled his name with a K. And Lukas with a K was the unwavering sort.

Logical and devoid of passion, he made it hard to tell just how much he believed in the things he said. He made jokes using the same delivery someone might use when saying, “My dog got hit by a car today.”

“Nature,” Lukas went on, “is the greatest creation.”

We were obviously not going to agree. But this was normal. This was what we did for fun.

Well into a semester at the University of Barcelona, Lukas and a couple of others and I gravitated toward each other because of our inability to fit in anywhere else. My particular study abroad group was made of a bunch of fellow Americans who spoke mainly to each other and traveled to a country a weekend.

I was broke. And I wanted to learn Spanish. My idea of fun consisted of eating dinner with my homestay parents (Lola and Eduardo) and drinking café con leche with other café con leche enthusiasts who were also broke and didn’t fit in elsewhere.

There was the Armenian from California who could make friends with a plant (and the plant would love her). The Swedish Ecuadorian with an affinity for the ladies. The 40-year-old Taiwanese man who’d left home to learn Spanish for a few months. The amazingly sweet French girl from Bordeaux. The thirtysomething-year-old American who married a Spaniard and had just moved to Barcelona. And Lukas, the sometimes-friendly Swede.

Because only some of us knew English, or didn’t trust our English, we felt best speaking in clunky Spanish.

It was the one language we all equally didn’t know.

On this particular day, Lukas and I were disagreeing about what made countries interesting.

‘Tis the cities! I said, pointing my index finger to the heavens. Cities are culture, art, people, learning, innovation and architecture.

NAY! said Lukas, punching the air. ‘Tis nature! Lakes! Mountains! Purple majesties!

For years I thought he was wrong.

And then I went to Oregon.

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Fort Klamath en route to Crater Lake.

Our campground mom at Joe’s, after our third or fourth water bottle: Where are you guys from?

Franco: San Francisco.

Campground mom: I knew it.

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On our way up the Pacific Northwest coast, we stopped by Florence, land of many, many sea lions and endless seas.

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Five hours across, the trees and lakes disappeared. We saw desert, nothingness and abandoned shacks. Every couple of hours, we saw another human. We waved.

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Lake Trillium (Note: same place as first picture), the best part of Mount Hood. Which we never would have gone to had our cab driver, a proud Oregonian, not told us about it in Portland the night before.

And dassalligot. For now.

Much more to tell and just as many pictures. Some of them in FLAS.

Graduation beckons.

Looking At Something

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When you spend a year doing one thing and not much else, you go a little nuts.

At least I do. If I don’t get to write or take pictures, I get seriously crabby. I start thinking of projects. I declare to no one in particular, with much defiance, I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU SAY, BY GOLLY, I WILL MAKE STUFF.

It doesn’t even matter what it is as long as it’s something. Which is how I started a winter break blog about being on winter break, or a blog about pups in sweaters, or PROBAATD.

It’s how I, an aspiring copywriter, started Franco Looking At Something — a wordless, writing-free, un-captioned photo project.

The concept is simple. There are cool things everywhere. You just have to look.

Sure, that’s easy to say when you’re in an awesome city. Even then, though, we’re subject to Getting Used To Everythingitis.

Everything on FLAS is taken with an iPhone 4S and Instagrammed. I’d toyed with the idea of using DSLR pictures, but the iPhone’s portability allows for more spontaneity and, let’s face it, it’s the camera I have with me at all times.

Sometimes the city’s so beautiful I do nothing but press a button. Other times I capture the mundane. My favorites are often the ones nobody likes.

The most popular so far? This one.

Take a gander. Hang a while. Raise yo hands in the air and wave them like you care a lot.

Because it’s important.