Settling In (Part 1)

Many years ago, I wrote a short story that placed second in a competition for Filipino American writers. I was reminded of it when a dear friend gave me this print, which is now hanging in my foyer. So, for old time’s sake, I am posting it in three parts.


When I was five years old, I wanted to be Janet Lennon. She was the youngest and the prettiest of the sister trio on the Lawrence Welk Show. I shared this dream with Lani and Sylvia who lived next to Uncle Louis. Singing “Sentimental Journey,” we used to skip in unison down the narrow dirt which led to our family farm in Ka`a`awa, O`ahu. If we timed it right, we would start at Uncle’s house with “Go -onna take a sentimental journey,” and end up at my family’s pig farm with “Se-entimental jour-er-ney home.”

By the time I was ten, and living in Palolo Public Housing, I decided I was going to be just like Honey West, the blond sexy private detective. I used to brush my bangs to the side and draw a beauty mole on the side of my mouth with my mom’s eyebrow pencil.

Eventually I shed my TV dreams, but not until I secretly tried to emulate Mary Tyler Moore. A thin brunette newscaster with high morals, supportive girlfriends and platonic relationships, she was a perfect woman for the 70s.

A few years ago, I was having drinks at the Pacific Club with my law partner after work. She was reminiscing about her experiences as an airhead cheerleader at Neshaminy High School outside of Philadelphia. I retaliated with my girlhood dreams.

She was mildly surprised by my revelations. “God, Trina. Didn’t realize that all of your role models were Caucasian women?”

“Who else would I have chosen? Besides,” I confessed, “for a long time I fantasized that I was part haole (white), and that someday my real parents would come and get me.”

She laughed. “I don’t know if that’s sick or sad. What about successful Filipino women you looked up to?”

“I didn’t know any with careers,” I rationalized. “I think the only Filipino women I knew were moms, aunties and grandmas. I didn’t even have Filipino teachers until I went to the University of Hawaii.”

As I drove home that night, I thought about growing up Filipino in Hawaii. I was teased a lot. At my grade school, which had mostly Portuguese and Asian students, Filipinos were “book-books” who ate black dog and smelled like bagoong (a Filipino fish sauce). The old folks spoke funny with their drawls and “pshht” signals. Our names were gutteral, humorous. Sometimes, even teachers made fun of our names.

Several Filipino girls compensated by claiming to be half-Spanish. I went the other way. I decided that I was just me, no color. Even being a girl didn’t matter. I studied hard, got good grades, and finished high school among the top of my class.

By the time I was in law school, I paid no attention to being Filipino. I didn’t join any ethnic clubs, and only ate Filipino food when I visited my parents.

This attitude did not sit well with my father. For him and mom, there were two ethnic categories — Filipino and Others. Everywhere we went, they would make comments. One of them would say “That police officer looks Filipino.” Or, “Look, that guy’s wife is a Filipina.” They would read the name tags of store clerks and waiters and ask, “Are you Ilocano or Visayan?”

One of dad’s favorite dinner time lectures went like this: “You should be proud you’re Filipino. Filipinos are hard-working, good people, especially us Ilocanos. You should learn your Filipino history. If you don’t know your heritage, you’re not a whole person. But the most important thing is you need to learn to cook Filipino food.”

My responses infuriated him. “Dad, I’m an American. I work hard because that’s who I am, not because I’m Filipino. It’s what’s inside that counts, not my skin color.”

No one ever won these arguments. My mother usually ended them with, “If you both don’t shutup, I’m leaving the table.”

As I turned off the car engine, I mentally prepared myself to enter my house. Living in Lanikai brought me close to the ocean, and at that moment, I could hear the gentle waves and smell the salt air. It calmed me. Ever since my parents moved in with me, these last precious moments helped me think calm before I went through my front door. I never knew what I would have to face. We didn’t have the “Filipino” argument anymore, but sometimes I was caught in the crossfire of their trivial spats, and, as the “family lawyer,” I was often asked to give my opinion.

I opened the door and heard the television going. “Hi, mom and dad, I’m home,” I called out.

“Your mom’s not here,” dad answered. “She’s at the Andersons, babysitting. There’s leftover chicken papaya on the stove if you’re still hungry. Do you want me to get you a bowl?”

“No thanks, I had dinner. She’s babysitting again?”

“Mrs. Anderson came over at 4:00 and said she and her husband had to go to a dinner. She asked mom to babysit, and mom went their house at 5:30.”

The Andersons were in their late 40s. Lanikai is known for its upscale expensive beach homes, and the Andersons lived in one of the bigger Lanikai “mansions” about a quarter mile away.  Steve was an architect; Jenny stayed home to watch the kid and play housewife. They were Caucasian.

It irritated me that my parents called them “Mr.” and “Mrs.” When my parents first moved in, I wanted them to call our neighbors by their first names. They balked. “We can’t. We’re not like that,” mom argued. “Like what?” I asked. “We’re different, that’s all. It’s habit to call these people by their title. Leave us alone about this, Trina.” Case closed.

I insisted that dad talk to me about this babysitting business. “Dad, mom is not some teenager looking for something to do. Jenny Anderson shouldn’t be asking her to do this kind of shit. Who does she think mom is? Somebody’s nanny? A servant? She’ll probably pay her minimum wage!” I was getting angrier by the minute.

“Your mom likes little Joey. She likes to see the kids. That’s why she goes to the park so much. So that she can play with the kids.” He forced his attention away from “Law and Order” and looked me right in the eye. “If you had kids, she’d do the same for you.”

“My not having kids has nothing to do with this,” I sputtered and ended the conversation by stalking out of the room.

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