As a child of Filipino immigrants, I got used to hearing stories of strife about my parents’ upbringing.
We were so poor that I ate rice…with coffee as sabo (sauce).
When I was a baby, my brother wrapped me up in bamboo leaves to hide in the mountains from the Japanese soldiers in World War II.
I didn’t even eat at a sit-down restaurant until I was married.
I heard these stories, er, guilt trips, so much that I probably tuned them out at one point. It was painful to hear them because god, what do you say? “You win?” “Thank you?”
Sensing my disassociation, my mother, who always worked the night shift at factories and gas stations because she preferred solitude (never mind that she didn’t have the self-confidence nor resources to pursue higher-paying roles), would tell me that one day I would have mean girls just like me. Daughters who wouldn’t listen. Daughters who would throw back sass. Daughters who were “tonguesit,” the Ilocano word for cruel. I do love that about her dialect—that words sound like the intention behind them. Tonguesit is for mean motherfuckers.
She was right. I have two teen girls now, and they have been hurtful. They’ve said things that they can’t take back.
But it’s because I modeled that behavior.
I consider it an honor, and sometimes, if I’m being honest, a burden to be Asian. Can’t it be both? Can I not be so proud of my Filipino heritage, my golden brown skin, the unbridled joy of my uncles, aunties, and cousins known for their all-night gatherings…and also resent the constant reminders of the sacrifices that they made to get here?
Can I not be so proud of my Filipino heritage, my golden brown skin, the unbridled joy of my uncles, aunties, and cousins known for their all-night gatherings…and also resent the constant reminders of the sacrifices that they made to get here?
I’m seeing this play out with my girls, Maya and Eliana. Consciously and unfairly, I carried on the tradition of riding them for good grades. I wasn’t as bad as some of my best friends’ parents growing up, who would ground their daughters and sons for anything less than an A. I nagged. And nagged. And nagged. They would get well-paying jobs. They would not be out on the streets. They would be the best at everything, or at least try.
And I compared. “So and so’s kid got a full ride to Northwestern.” In my circle, it was common to reduce a whole family—and legacy—to how they made their money. So as you can imagine, there was no winning in my household. Between my mother’s shame in being cheated on, losing her home to repossession, and working menial jobs, we carried shame in our hearts. She stopped seeing friends. She declined party invites. When she was at home, she was asleep, or talking back to the TV, usually in disgust at some news story that she found offensive: anything to do with Democrats, efforts to help the homeless, you know, that sort of thing.
She couldn’t imagine taking handouts. She’d rather work three jobs than accept help. So that’s what she did.
To see my mother in a constant state of stress, prioritizing survival over pleasure, shaped the way I parent. As an upper middle class family, my girls have gotten the next best thing to everything. I never got to do anything. A brand new house in a gentrifying neighborhood. Day one of Lollapalooza tickets. The Stan Smiths they wanted. Trips to college campuses in California and Virginia—spa trips included—just to see if they’d be the right cultural fit. I didn’t go to concerts until I was 21. I blind applied to all my universities with only the knowledge that these were the schools you wanted to be in. I didn’t have a fallback trust or a lake house in Northern Virginia. Still don’t.
My girls have called me toxic, materialistic for all the years I’ve invested in my career. This hurts like hell. I’ve told them so. Their guilt trip usually involves, “I didn’t choose to be born. Parenting is your job.” They’re right. Parents shouldn’t weaponize their hard work to feel seen. And yet, I did. I do sometimes.
How do I impart my kids with history, with the real miracles and sweat that brought my parents to the United States that would one day lead to their good fortune, without coming off like a bitch?
This is the creaky door of modern Asian parenting. How do I impart my kids with history, with the real miracles and sweat that brought my parents to the United States that would one day lead to their good fortune, without coming off like a bitch? How do I tell them that their grandmother stocked beer coolers at 1 a.m. in a convenience store where a woman had been raped at gunpoint? They shouldn’t have to suffer because previous generations did.
Like it or not, that’s what I’ve equated with work: If you aren’t hurting, you aren’t working. The trauma behind money is real. I lived it.
The shame of being born with less than is the invisible scepter that haunts the reason I still freelance, and walk into rooms feeling skeptical that I belong, that I’ll be regarded as nothing more than the help. My mother was a hoarder, angry, short with me, and jumped from lease to lease because she couldn’t afford to buy a single family home for years after her divorce. My father had gambled our basics away, and her wages were garnished.
I’m trying with my girls. We’re all getting therapy. I’m specific about telling them what I love about them, not just the surface qualities. I praise specifics about contributions.
I like it that you showed empathy to a girlfriend who was being bullied.
I’m proud of the way you led that project on student council.
And I’m trying to just enjoy life, to emphasize that little wins can get us through dark times. My mom never left the house except for work. I go to concerts with my girls. I check in on their relationships. I talk openly and honestly about sex, consent, and disappointment. Life will always be hard, but life will always be good, too, if you can see it. If you allow yourself to believe that you are enough.
We all are, whether Laotian, Filipino, Cambodian, Chinese. Those before us and after us: grandmother to granddaughter, uncle to nephew. We’re enough.
Published on November 15, 2023
Words by Valerie Moloney
Chicagoan and Filipino-American Valerie Moloney has worn many hats in her 20+ years as a professional: beat reporter; digital manager; social strategist; restaurant critic; even obit writer. At her heart, she's an observer. When she's not pouring through analytics dashboards, she's on the hot yoga mat in puppy pose or figuring out what to feed her three kids for dinner.
Art by Vivian Lai
Vivian Lai is an experienced L.A.-based graphic and UI designer with a proven track record of problem-solving for diverse clients across industries. She is highly skilled in design thinking, user experience, and visual communication and is committed to staying up-to-date with the latest design trends and techniques. Vivian has been recognized for her exceptional work with numerous industry awards.