Someone may see me in passing, take a glance, and ask, “Where do you come from?”
Depending on my mood, I may answer, “I’m from Seattle,” then walk away.
Or, if I feel like disclosing more information, I may answer, “My parents are from the Philippines, but I was born here.”
It used to bother me at times, when someone would ask me, “Where are you from?” When someone noticed my black hair, almond-shaped eyes and olive skin.
In cities along the West Coast where I was raised, I smile when I hear the accent of Tagalog, the native language of the Philippines, coming from laughter of a chattering group of Filipina aunties. In Filipino culture, every female you know is Auntie, a term of endearment.
In other locations across the country when I hear the voice of another with an unfamiliar accent, or dark-skinned features, or interesting eyes, I may find myself the one asking another, “Where are you from?”
When I ask that question to others, it is out of true curiosity. A question of “tell me a bit of your story, I would like to know more.”
Sometimes when I am on the other end of the question, it can seem intrusive, or ignorant, depending on the context.
And I feel driven to ask the question in turn, “Do you know where you come from?”
Do you know where you come from?
In the past months, after the loss of my mother, and in tracing the history of my father as a World War II Veteran, I am on a quest to uncover where I come from now that I am an orphan. I come from a stock of Filipino heritage deeply tied to tradition, determination, family ties, faith, and good Filipino food.
I come from a father who was raised in a nipa hut in the barrios, or farmland, who left his native farmland to train as a Philippine Scout during World War II. Who risked his life in jungle bunkers to fight alongside the army of the United States of America, a land he only read about in magazines or saw in pictures at the cinema. A man who was captured by the Japanese and escaped from the infamous Bataan Death March. A man who proudly fought for and became a citizen of a land he had never seen. A man who came by ship to the United States of America as a U.S. citizen, after being sworn into citizenship on foreign soil as a member of the United States Army. He was a prisoner of war during the Bataan Death March, prisoner for a country he had never seen. Seventy-five years later he would be honored as a posthumous recipient of the Gold Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest honor a U.S. Citizen can receive.
When he first approached the borders of the United States, passing under the Golden Gate Bridge—the West Coast Symbol of America—in the early 1950s, on the bow of a navy ship, he whispered to my older sister, a toddler standing at his side, “We will have a good life here in America.”
And we have.
Not only my family but generations to follow.
Not only my family, but other families to follow.
For my father, in his proud service as a United States citizen, who served as a sergeant in the Army for 25 years, whose mother had inscribed on the gate to her now modernized house in the barrio SGT JESUS C BERMUDEZ, US ARMY, was the gateway to a host of others looking to a better life in America.
Even though his only post-Army job was pushing the metal food service cart through the wards of a Veterans hospital, serving veterans of wars like himself, the wars of WWII and Korea and Vietnam, the small split-level suburban house he proudly bought with his hard-won earnings became the doorway to a better life for many others like him who dreamed of having that better life.
Multiple times he filled out in his simple, boxy handwriting an affidavit of support for family members who waited in the Philippines for years, even decades, to receive their entry papers. He and my mother hosted not only immediate and distant family members, but acquaintances who needed a home during their first days in the United States, for a few weeks or even months.
When I was a young girl I remember sharing our small bedroom with my sister so guests could have the other upstairs room. After my father finished the basement, more rooms became available for multiple family members to stay.
And there was always the food.
The kitchen was the center of the home, where my mom was always cooking the same delicious dishes of her heritage: chicken adobo, pancit (seasoned noodles), lumpia, (egg rolls) bibinkga
(sweet rice cake). But my mother was the only Auntie who mastered the preparation of new American dishes my other Aunties did not have the courage to try: turkey at Thanksgiving, pot roast beef with vegetables, lasagna.
In the kitchen she infused the traditions of her past with the culture of her present.
Her lessons in the kitchen inspired a lesson for life: Impart tradition into the place of opportunity where you have landed.
I have raised my four “hapa” children, half Filipino, half Caucasian, in the southern corner of the United States where I very rarely hear the accents of my parents, where I have to drive at least 30 minutes to buy the lumpia wrappers for my mother’s famous eggrolls, lumpia shanghai.
These dishes of lumpia and adobo of my mother’s that I cook are ones I prepared for my sons’ baseball and swimming teammates, the sons of various families who line up at the counter to fill their plates with steamed rice and chicken adobo and dip the freshly fried lumpia into the spicy vinegar sauce my mother taught me to make.
Once, when my oldest son was about eight years old, he asked me as we drove through our upper middle-class suburban neighborhood, “Mom, why am I the only one in my class who looks like me?”
We were the only ones who served steamed rice out of a rice cooker, not minute rice boiled on the stove. This son, the firstborn grandson of my father to be born in America, now lives in Seattle, a melting pot of humanity, surrounded by Aunties and killer Filipino food, prepared by his second cousin, an award-winning chef, the daughter of my oldest first cousin.
This cousin’s mother, born in the Philippines, remembers as a child receiving airmail letters sent from my mother to her mother, who was my mother’s sister. My cousin would take the blue airmail envelope into her hand, memorizing our address scripted in my mother’s handwriting in the top left corner. My cousin pored over every word about our life in America, gazing with longing at the black and white photographs of my sister and me in matching outfits in front of the door to our small two-bedroom house. Twenty years later, sponsored by my father’s affidavit of support, she sat dreamlike at the kitchen counter of my parents’ home listening to their words: Work hard. Finish your education. Save your money. Buy a house. If you can buy a house in America, you will have a good life here.
My cousin took their advice. She worked hard as a nurse, married, and bought a house.Thirty years later, her American-born Filipina daughter, Melissa Miranda, trained as a chef in Seattle, Florence, Italy, and New York City, and bought a house. And last week she opened a restaurant in it, with crowds waiting an hour and a half to get a table after she received rave press from Seattle Magazine.
“We pass down our traditions through our food,” says Melissa, owner of Musang, the restaurant named after her Filipino father, who taught her how to cook the savory dishes of their homeland when she was a little girl. “If we don’t pass down our heritage, how will we remember who we are?”
She knows her great-great grandmother cooked over a wood fire outside her nipa hut.
She watched her great aunt, my mother, prepare traditional dishes on the brown stove in her orange 70’s kitchen.
She observed and joined in with her father, cleaning squid and skinning fish when she was only eight years old to prepare the sinigang, the tamarind fish stew.
How will we remember who we are?
How do we pass down and share the flavors of our heritage?
How do we pass down the testimonies of our past?
There is a series of stories where generations of a family pass down their traditions. It’s called the Bible. Along with those traditions they pass down stories of family failures and triumphs. There’s even a story where two brothers fight over a pot of stew.
The fight is not literally about the stew, but about receiving the blessing.
They fight about the honor of passing on the family line.
The fight is about having the greatest chance to stake out opportunity in foreign lands.
To have the chance to pass on stories of the fathers
of the God who met them in faraway places
amidst war, famine, loss, devastation
and faithfully led them to a new land, one of promise, and hope
and fulfillment: “You will be the father of many generations” the one God promised to Abraham, the grandfather of the brothers fighting over the stew. “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.”
He did not say, “Wipe out your past. Assimilate to the culture of the lands where you live.”
He said: remember who you are, and whose you are.
I will make your name great
And you will be a blessing to many.
My father is gone now.
But last week
Four generations of family stood together in a home that will become a restaurant
Sons and daughters of his children
Sons and daughters of his brothers’ children
Much like the time in the story of Abraham and Lot as they stood at the edge of a land where they were strangers.
Entering into a space where they were foreign inhabitants. Pressing on, because of hope and the promise of God that they would prosper and be a blessing to many.
They would be the father of many nations.
And the children of my father and his brother stand on the floor of a house that will feed and serve many who will pass on the flavor of food and community and stories around the table. These children of my father and his brother who have married and had children of their own:
Black, White, Hispanic, Chinese, Ethiopian…children of many nations.
The flavors of my family endure after four generations—standing together on the floor of a new beginning because of opportunity and a lot of hard work. Chefs, producers, software engineers, teachers, doctors, dentists, accountants, firefighters. Children who make a difference, who are a blessing to many—a blessing to their fathers.
They know where they are going.
They remember where they are from.