I look at my boyfriend with such anger, but I feel a little sympathy too, as I notice a part of his chin dripping with blood. Tears stream down my face. I am scared out of my mind.
“Everyone take off your seatbelts and put your hands up or on the dashboard where I can see them,” I hear a cop say.
The first time I ever get in trouble, it has to be SDPD.
“The passenger in the van, get out of the car with your hands up and walk backwards toward the sidewalk,” came through the megaphone.
That’s my cue.
It all started six months earlier, in 2002, on the south side of San Diego.
I walked into my ninth-grade, fifth-period PE class at what was then Bell Jr. High School in Paradise Hills. Standing on the hot black pavement, our names were being called in alphabetical order for roll. I heard Toney’s name. As I looked around, I saw him hanging onto a girl by her waist.
What a flirt, I remember telling myself. I knew he didn’t have a girlfriend at the time because my best friend Joann was on his jock. But I didn’t care. I found myself beginning to feel an attraction toward him.
At Bell, I was a cheerleader with straight A’s and Daddy’s angelic little girl. Not some hood-rat rule-breaker or badass. I was more about academics and socializing.
But I am also a Filipino. We eat with our hands, drive crazy on the road, point with our lips, and have fathers in the Navy and mothers who are nurses, both speaking with broken English.
My parents moved to San Diego from Bohol, Philippines, when my dad got stationed here more than 23 years ago. Like many Filipinos before them, they left all their family and friends behind but brought a few things along with them: their hopes for a better opportunity, their accents, and their Filipino rules.
We have to do well in school, graduate from some college, get a good job, and visit our parents’ homeland with 20-plus balikbayan boxes full of stuff as pasalubong for our cousins, which seem to increase by the thousands every few years. We’re not supposed to move out or have kids until marriage, which isn’t expected until age 30. No staying out too late, no calling older family members directly by their first names, and no “disco-disco.”
My older sister is ten and I am eight when the lectures start. “No boyfriends till you graduate college” is what my parents emphasize.
Four years later, my sister is an eighth-grader at Bell. She walks to my elementary school every day after class because that is where we get picked up. We usually have to kill time before our parents come to get us because of their work schedule. I find it an opportunity to play with my friends or join after-school programs. My sister uses her time otherwise.
One day, I am about to walk down the ramp toward the big kids’ playground when I run into my dad. It ended up as his day off, so he’s come early.
“Where’s your sister?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I start to say, when I notice out of the corner of my eye that my sister is sitting on some guy’s lap at the bottom of the ramp.
They’re both in their school uniforms. He wears his like a wannabe gang member who’d run at the sight of real danger. My dad sees them and storms down the hill. I am scared for my sister but so glad it isn’t me. Every Filipino kid knows to stay clear of an angry father; you don’t want to be beaten with a slipper. Although I am some distance away, I have a good view of this potential Jerry Springer episode. I can smell the popcorn. I watch intensely. I hear loud shouts. But I can’t make out the words.
I see my sister quickly try to remove her short little body off this guy’s chunky lap, and I can’t help wondering if my dad’s intimidating behavior is going to scare the toughness right out of the round-faced deviant.
My dad directs his yelling at the guy, who just sits there. I can tell my sister is trying to defend him because of her constant attempts to get between them. My dad then grabs her arm and pulls her up the ramp. Her arm and face turn red as she struggles to break his grip.
The yelling gets louder the closer they come.
“Sitting on his lap, Heather?”
“Dad, just stop!”
“You can’t see him anymore! Break up with him!”
“But I love him!” Her sobbing gets heavier.
“Let’s go!” he yells at me.
I can’t help smirking at my sister’s comment and laughing about her embarrassment as I follow them to the car. I couldn’t care less that I am being inconsiderate. It isn’t me getting into trouble, it is her.
We get home in what feels like two minutes. I’m not sure how we survive the car ride. There is a lot of yelling, jerking, and swerving on my dad’s part and crying, sobbing, and whining on my sister’s part.
My dad goes into the house and straight to the phone to call Mom. I watch my sister attempting to pack her stuff to run away if Dad continues to forbid their relationship. How far could she get? I think. She’s only 14. If my dad was angry earlier, he will be the Hulk now! But my sister dares not test his strength. Instead, she locks herself in her room.
Three years after my sister’s great love affair, I am a ninth-grader at Bell. I decide to go on a trip to Disneyland with people from a neighborhood rec center. Toney was going, so of course I wanted to. We’re in the same group and ride almost all the rides, but one in particular makes me cheese it every time I hear its name.
Splash Mountain is the most popular ride, and we debate whether it’s worth the two-hour wait for the two-second drop at the end. We decide that it is. For the first hour and a half, the stop-and-go line moves so slowly. We play stupid riddle games to pass the time. As we get to the area of the tunnel where you know you’re almost there, we smell the muggy air-mist from the ride. And then, during one of those one-minute stops in the line, Toney throws my arms around his neck and backs us into a groove in the rocky cave wall. I get butterflies, chills, you name it. When he starts to open his mouth, I give him a kiss on the lips.
I feel a little awkward afterward. Not because it’s my first real kiss, but because a couple with a five-year-old child had to interrupt us to move forward. But I don’t care.
I imagine what my dad would do if he saw me at Disneyland. It would probably be a repeat of my sister’s incident, only with my sister laughing at my inconvenience. In the end, I get away with this mischievous act, but I know I won’t get away with everything.
On a hot Monday afternoon in April 2003, I get a second peek at the Hulk. My father witnesses his little girl wearing a pair of silver bracelets, and I’m not talking about Tiffany. I stand at the front door, escorted by two adults dressed in navy-blue uniforms. Slowly the halo around my head bends out of shape, forming two horns. I have never seen such anger, hurt, and disappointment on my dad’s face before. My sister’s incident cannot compare to what I have done. I am scared. A Filipino dad who is angry is as scary as a bull. You get ready to run.
I do my walk of shame into the house while the two officers tell him the whole story. I want to tell the officers not to mention Toney, but I stay quiet. I’m not about to risk digging myself into a bigger hole.
“She was with a boy about her age who actually stole the vehicle,” says the small female cop. The tall male cop continues, “She was just a passenger, but we would have to consider her to be an accomplice. Since she is a minor, we’ll leave the punishment up to you.”
At this point, I am so afraid of my dad that I would have opted for staying in juvie for the night. I am going to get it.
“What were you tinking, huh?” he yells at me in his broken English, staring with his evil glare.
“I don’t know!” I yell back, with attitude. I am so scared of my dad, I don’t know why my tone comes out like this. I guess I’m angry too. At least my English is better.
“Don’t talk to me like dat! I’m your podder!”
I run to my room.
I feel relieved that there’s a door between me and my dad. I don’t want a repeat of me getting a spanking for throwing a dictionary at my sister during a heated argument when I was eight. That was the last time I was punished physically, and I intend to keep it like that.
He knocks on my door.
“Open!” he says.
“What do you want?!” I yell through the door.
He gets louder. “Just open it!”
I open the door, then back up quickly.
“Who is this guy?”
“Some guy from school.” I feel guilty for denying Toney as my boyfriend, but I’m so mad. Also, it might be smart to leave that detail out. I don’t really know where our relationship is going at that moment anyway. If we end up breaking up, it’s pointless to build up another argument with my dad.
My sister, acting clueless, walks in from the other room. “What’s going on?” she asks. She knows. She isn’t deaf.
Shaking his head in frustration, my dad yells, “You’re grounded!”
“Do you even know what that means?” I challenge him because he’s never grounded me a day in my life.
“Dad, let me talk to her,” my sister calmly insists. She leads me toward the end of the hall, where the bathroom is.
“What’s wrong, Mae?” she asks with concern.
“I just want to get the fuck out of here!” I want to get away from my dad. I don’t want to hear it anymore. I need to be around someone that can comfort me, not yell out my mistakes and hold it against me. I know what I did was wrong, I just need space.
“Okay, but you can’t talk to Dad like that!”
“Man, whatever! Just get me the fuck out of here!” I feel so frustrated, hurt, mad, trapped, but guilty too. How dare I take this all out on my family? But I need to channel my anger somewhere.
“Okay, okay!” my sister says. “How about you just go to one of your friends’ houses for a while? I’ll take you there myself.”
“Fine. You talk to Dad then. I can’t talk to him.” I feel a little relief that the situation is out of my hands.
Ten minutes after entering the house, I am right out the door.
My dad was always more intimidating than my mom, based on their looks. He is tall and dark, with unreadable expressions, compared to my short, light-skinned, and jolly mom. You’d want to stay clear of him when he’s in a bad mood or about to be.
After the car-stealing incident, my dad didn’t speak to me for days. I missed being his little girl. I remember listening to “Perfect” by Simple Plan on repeat because it was exactly how I felt. I couldn’t take it anymore. I picked up the phone and called Toney and suggested that it was about time they met.
I know my parents want my first and only boyfriend to be a Filipino aspiring to be in the military, but instead I give them a half-Filipino criminal. Toney did go to juvie for a night for grand theft auto, but his charges were reduced to a misdemeanor since he was a minor. He did several hours of community service and paid an abundance of fines, or at least his mom did, but he accepted his consequences and took responsibility for his actions. I just hoped that his good qualities would outweigh his bad in my parents’ minds.
Doomsday comes and I am anxious. I don’t want my parents to think Toney is ghetto and be quick to disapprove. He walks in wearing a nice blue dress shirt. He greets my mom with a kiss on the cheek, a custom in our culture, and my dad with a firm handshake. I am surprised that I’ve never seen this side of him before. He walks into our dining area with such poise and sits himself at the table. My mom offers him some food, which he politely declines. That makes me a little nervous because often in a Filipino household, it’s disrespectful to decline food. But I’m sure he already knows that. They talk for a little bit before my dad has to take my mom to work.
“He’s a gentleman,” Mom says, as I walk her out the door. “And he’s really tall.”
“He’s a nice guy,” Dad adds.
That is all the approval I need: multiple brownie points!
From that day on, I decide to screw the Filipino rules and do what I want to do — of course, while still trying to be respectful toward my parents. I move to Long Beach right out of high school and constantly go out with my friends. It ends up lasting for only ten days before I get homesick.
I used to think that if I did everything on my parents’ list, I would be successful while also making them happy. But whenever I mention journalism or business as my big-picture career choice, they respond with “It’ll be hard for you to get a job! Pick something practical!” I don’t care what they say. I do what I want.
One day my sister announces, “I think I’m going to go into nursing.”
“Oh, good!” Mom says happily.
Typical, I think, taking a seat on a nearby couch and turning on the TV. Great way to kiss ass!
“Grossmont has a good nursing program,” my sister explains as she takes a seat at the table.
“Oh, yeah?” says Dad. “How long will it take?”
My dad is always curious about when we’ll graduate from college. He and my mom have talked about moving back to the Philippines after they retire. That’s what most native Filipinos do. Make plenty of cash money in America, then move back to PI to live luxuriously in a big house with a maid. But my parents can’t think about leaving if they know we are going to be in school still or if we don’t have a career started before they retire.
My sister applies for the LVN program. She doesn’t get in. She’s disappointed for about a day, until she gains perspective on what she really wants to do with her life: public health.
“Why’d you change your mind?” I ask.
“Nursing isn’t for me. It’s too much pressure.”
“Then why’d you choose it in the first place?” Maybe, I think, to make me look bad for wanting to do journalism or business?
“Because that’s what we do. It’s what makes Mom and Dad happy. Plus, I’d get to help people, like I want to.”
“But you didn’t even like it. You wasted your time.”
“Yeah, that’s why I’m changing it to public health! Duh, Mae! It’s still in the medical field, so Mom and Dad will be happy. And I don’t completely have to start over.”
My sister’s current boyfriend of five years is going to be a chemical engineer. That equals big money. My parents dare not question his future. Their main focus is on my boyfriend Toney.
Because of how intimidating my dad is, Toney and I spend our quality time at his mom’s house. His family does all they can to make me feel at home, whereas, after all this time, my parents make Toney feel only somewhat welcome.
“I can’t really be myself at your pad,” Toney says when I ask him to come over. “I constantly have to try and impress your Ps and feed them what they want to hear. I can’t lie to them, so if I tell them something they don’t want to hear, I got to watch my words. My family makes you feel comfortable at my pad. I don’t feel comfortable at your house.”
“You can’t just come here for a little bit?”
I spend some minutes trying to convince him. Finally, Toney agrees to stop by.
I’m on my way to meet him at the door when I notice my dad outside, watering plants. Toney usually approaches Dad first, to be respectful, even though he knows Dad will use the opportunity to lecture him or give a speech of some kind. I pretend to have to do something in the house while they talk.
“What’s up, Uncle?” Toney says. He calls my dad Uncle. In our culture, that shows respect.
“Oh, hey, Toney. I’m all right.” Then Dad skips the small talk and gets straight to the point. “What are you doing now? Do you have a job yet?”
“Oh, no, not right now.” Toney sways from side to side, while Dad walks around.
“How ’bout school?”
“Oh, no, not yet.”
Dad is always trying to convince Toney to join the military, so he knows I’ll be in good hands if we were to marry. But reading Toney’s face, I can tell he is thinking of a way to end the conversation.
“Just join the Navy!” Dad says. “I was in it for 13 years.” He starts to get excited. “They got good benefits. Think ’bout it — 42, 43 you can retire!”
“I’m not really military material, Uncle. Plus, I didn’t like moving from place to place when my parents were in the military, so I wouldn’t want to do that when I have kids.” Toney spits it out, then attempts to end the conversation by laughing. “So, uh, Uncle, you’re watering the plants?”
“Yeah, they’re drying up.” My dad starts to water the brown spots in the grass.
“Oh, all right then, Uncle.” Toney moves toward the front door. “I’m gonna see what’s up with Maecel.”