What I Learned From My Filipina Mom
Growing Up, I Felt So Different From My Mom; as a Mother, I Cherish Our Similarities
Growing up with a mom who's a Filipina immigrant to the US comes with its perks — and quirks. It means that "open the light" was a part of my inherited vernacular, Sunday Catholic mass was our rhythm, and eating with a fork and spoon (rather than a knife) was common. It also meant I was resentful more often than proud of our heritage.
As a child in a small town in the Pacific Northwest where there were few other brown girls, I wished for pizza instead of fried fish, and I envied the bowl of M&Ms my white friends' moms all seemed to have by the door.
If kids came over to my house, I'd often wish I'd hidden away the patis (fish sauce), soy sauce, and enormous rice cooker that were ever-present in our kitchen. The snacks my mom would offer my friends were "weird" — though I secretly loved them — like shrimp chips, pastel-colored discs we bought uncooked and pan-fried in oil to salty perfection.
"Why can't we eat normal food?" I'd complain. I even convinced my mom to make our Thanksgiving dinner more "American" instead of featuring Filipino fare.
As is so often the case, however, as I grew older, I regretted my efforts to accelerate the assimilation and cultural loss that were already underway. I felt called to learn about our culture, and in the process, I began to see my mother differently — for the lessons I didn't even realize she was teaching me when I was young.
The stereotype of the quintessential Filipina mother often centers around the idea of her as a caretaker. And while my mother wasn't a typical Filipina mom in many ways — including her preference of Western medicine over popular Filipino home remedies such as Vicks VapoRub — she does have a deeply caretaking nature.
Beyond being a nurse, a profession common for Filipina women and shared by most of her sisters, caregiving is in her bones. Instead of attending to her own plate, she still makes sure that everyone else has filled theirs. She's always asking if you're feeling OK or need anything. She learned this from her mother, who birthed and raised 10 children and was remarkably generous, patient, and kind.
But in our family, like in so many others, my mom carried the invisible labor — which I didn't always appreciate. I have memories of waiting past my bedtime for my father to come home from working late at the hospital, so we could listen to records together. Where was my mother in this story? She was there, all along, keeping me company, holding me up.
I'm an artist, and I can give much of the credit to my mother for encouraging my creative gifts. She was the one who enrolled me in piano classes. She was the one who helped me find my leotards, toe shoes, and costumes, shuffling me to ballet classes after school and to performances on the weekend. She didn't miss a beat in making sure I could pursue my interests.
My mother married my dad in 1969. They eloped then left for the US, leaving behind her family and everything familiar to her in Quezon City, Philippines — taking a huge risk for the possibility of a better future. She speaks of that choice with a sense of adventure and no regrets.
Though she began her career as an obstetric nurse and worked as a psychiatric nurse at a methadone clinic in Harlem, she eventually left the outside work force to support my father's practice. I used to think this was a weaker position, one she took because of her traditional upbringing that encouraged her to put her husband's goals ahead of hers.
But as I examine my own life, I see that I've taken parallel risks by maintaining a long-distance relationship with my Cuban husband across borders and through immigration processes. Spending the little money I had bringing our baby to visit him time and again likely seemed impractical to many, but I had no doubt that our family needed to be together. Similarly, I now see that my mother wasn't just following my father, but trusting her instincts.
After the first big move from the Philippines to the United States, my parents moved 10 times across cities and states, uprooting and starting anew in a country they were still adjusting to, one that often didn't treat them well. Through all that, my mother kept optimism and a sense of flexibility.
She was especially resilient when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 47 — the same age I am now. I remember being a freshman in college, my world spinning with the fact that my mother was facing her mortality. But with faith in the best outcome, she underwent surgery and went into remission, and is a decades-long survivor.
When I was a child, I thought I was so different from my mom. As an adult, I cherish the ways I take after her. The way, for the longest time, I pronounced "war" as "waaahr" instead of "wore" — a trace of her accent that I picked up. The way I still crave fresh rice and soy sauce as comfort foods. The way adapting to new places is in my veins, reminiscent of those first adventures she took with my father, then with me and my sister. The way I make decisions for my family based on what I know is right, which often means choosing the hardest paths, not necessarily what's been done before. And in a sense of resilience that's my own driving force.
My mom's influence shows up in the way I hold up my son, making sure I'm always there, nudging him, offering him the resources to try new skills, to discover what he loves to do. I hope to make not only visible but vibrant the kind of constant and reliable presence my mother showed me and that I show my son. Though it's not often seen this way, it's the work of heroes.
I'm not doing it for credit. But it will be even better if my son does notice and turns to me to say what I rarely said to my mom: Salamat po. Thank you.