Which Memories Are Mine?

Thu Oct 31, 2019 at 16:17

After writing my previous post, I sent a screenshot to my mom of my atypically public display of vulnerability on social media. More than an hour passed before my phone screen lit up again, at which point my anxiety concerning her response was already high.

Thu Oct 31, 2019 at 17:27

Touching and very well said. Correction though: Tatay & Nanay looked after u in Balatoc when I gave birth to Carlo. Dad, Carlo and I lived in Baguio (Aurora Hill, Bayan Park Circle) and we visited u on my days off. Then we moved to Bulacan b4 I left for the UK.

My heart clenched as the voice of my inner critic grew louder and my self-doubt surpassed what I already thought reached its maximum level. “If you change what you wrote,” the voice started, “Everyone will notice the amount of times you’ve edited your story. Can you even claim a connection to the Philippines when you can’t correctly recall your own childhood there?”

Of course, no one pays that much attention, but I convinced myself that they did. I’ll admit that it felt risky to detail my upbringing without first fact-checking my reconstructed timeline of events with my parents. Yet for once in my life, I felt an urge to share my ruminations beyond my inner world in spite of potential inaccuracies.

Unless I never spoke, it was almost impossible for me to avoid explaining the juxtaposition of my Filipino appearance against my strong British accent while living in a quaint, southern state like North Carolina. Outlining my global upbringing to strangers consequently became as second nature to me as eating: “I was born in the Philippines, mostly grew up in England, and now live in America.”

That said, if the past five years on American soil have highlighted anything about myself, it’s that I often take an oversimplified, black and white approach to sharing the outward-facing version of my story. And starting therapy this year helped me realize that this was almost my subconscious way of leveling the curiosity of others to the very surface.

In the same way I developed a digestible formula to summarize my background, I created another to predict how people would respond to me as well. Give or take, it usually begins with “I love your accent” followed by “Your mom is so brave for moving,” and ending with “I’ve never heard a story like yours. It must be cool to have traveled so much.” Don’t get me wrong, I highly appreciate when others are kind enough to remind me how far my family and I have come because sometimes, even I don’t give us enough credit.

However repetitive, most of the time I was okay with reproducing the same conversation because I knew what to expect and most importantly–it felt safe. Some days I didn’t even have the energy to endure this small talk, but it still ultimately felt better than running the risk of delving into not-so comfortable directions.

I could simply respond with “thank you” and continue hiding the struggles that underlie my resilience, like how my British accent was one of the few aspects of myself that I truly felt I had in common with my predominantly White peers. How sometimes I’d barely see my mom past a couple hours because she was either working multiple overnight shifts or catching up on rest. How I often wished that I wasn’t the oldest child so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the pressure of my parents’ expectations.

I persuaded myself that in navigating a conversation this way, there would be no need to discuss the darker side of being a first-generation immigrant because others wouldn’t even know it was an issue. Yet this only meant that my inner struggles with self-acceptance, identity, and belonging–which were most intense during my adolescence–often floated in gray and inconclusive spaces.

For instance, I couldn’t quite pinpoint answers as to how far I should deny my artistic nature to work in law or some medical field, just so that I could finally feel accepted by my mom. To reassure her that her sacrifices were ultimately worth it and that we’d be collectively rewarded by the financial security of an industry I knew deep down, I would never pursue as it wasn’t true to who I am. These thoughts are so highly sensitive and deeply personal to me that I still find it difficult to talk about them, even with my closest circle.

So, on my family’s fifth-year anniversary in America this year, my mini social media crisis resurfaced another complex subject my mind wanders to: the way in which I feel a deep sense of nostalgia for a country whose culture was hyper-present in my upbringing, yet didn’t set the scene for any lived experiences beyond my early childhood and several month-long trips back home. This longing for connectedness is grounded in the way I was raised.

When we first moved to the United Kingdom, my parents brought the Philippines with them. They spoke Tagalog to one another, so my siblings and I grew up with an almost perfect comprehension of our native tongue, but broken proficiency levels of spoken communication. We went to church every Sunday to uphold our Roman Catholic roots and prepared small plates of food as offerings to the Santo Niño statue that oversaw our home’s landing. We loaded our global SIM cards to call our grandparents at least once a month until the credit ran out. Thankfully Facebook Messenger exists now, but that’s besides the point–family and faith were central to the Bantigue household.

For me, our family photo albums somewhat helped me reconcile this dissonance. Every house we’ve lived in has at least one closet or drawer dedicated to these albums. My easily-bored, younger self frequently rummaged through them, curious as to why this vast wealth of fond memories was tucked away here, as if to say they carried equal significance to the clothes folded beside them.

I remember that my favorite part of my research was lifting the negative film strips up to the light, then seeing the tiny figures gradually compress in each take until the photographer (most likely my mom) achieved the perfect shot that’d ultimately make it into our albums. Unsurprisingly, me and my brother were almost always side by side in every picture. My imagination ran wild as I’d attempt to reconstruct our childhood, filling in the gaps with my parents’ memories when necessary.

This practice only strengthened after I moved to Baltimore to finish my undergraduate degree at Johns Hopkins University. Still with my childlike curiosity, I found myself spending at least a couple hours revisiting these albums whenever I returned to North Carolina over semester breaks.

There’s no doubt I’m eternally grateful that my parents emphasized the importance of honoring our Filipino roots during my youth. I no longer harbor as heavy anger or blame towards my parents as I once did because they too were only trying to maintain their own sense of connectedness back home. The ideal alternative would’ve been annual month-long family trips, but that of course would’ve absorbed valuable time and money that we couldn’t afford.

Knowing this, molding our home to mirror the culture they grew up in was the best option available. At least then they could balance this tension while ensuring my siblings and I wouldn’t become too westernized. Now as a young adult, the following truth has become increasingly salient in my life: my connection to my homeland is still valid despite my lack of real lived experiences and inability to speak my native tongue, among other cultural markers that constantly made me question my Filipino identity.

If anything, they’ve fueled a personal pursuit for knowledge and made the way I move through the world much more intentional. While the combination of strong Filipino values, photo albums, and my parents’ narratives initially helped to inform my own cultural connectedness, I’m no longer served by sole reliance on these parts alone in understanding my story.

I now strongly value autonomy in creating one’s narrative too and after a lot of reflection, I’ve realized that this life philosophy has been heavily influenced by the way in which choice was scarce in the Philippines my parents grew up in. Political and economic circumstances beyond their control prompted them–alongside countless other immigrants worldwide–to leave behind everything they knew to expose their children to better life prospects. While this motive unites us all, it’s complicated by the nuances of our families’ cultural contexts. Judging by how often my mom alone speaks to her side of the family via Facebook, I know for sure this wasn’t an easy decision.

Before I end, I’d like to share a personal development goal of mine: I’m striving to find a better balance between reality and my imagination, because if you know me personally, then you know that I have the tendency to daydream a lot. (I’m working on it though.)

While I’m still trying to figure out what this harmony looks like, it helps to remind myself in the process that my emphasis on personal agency is at the very least, a small step in the right direction. That perhaps my parents’ sacrifices weren’t necessarily so that I can become the big-time CEO with a six-figure salary (I’ll leave that to my incredibly smart brother), but instead so that I can exercise greater ownership over what my life path looks like.

And that one day when I become a homeowner, the photo albums stored in my closet will contain moments and memories that I know with full certainty are my own.