The Food of Love

Most of my defining moments happened around the family dinner table, mainly because my parents raised my siblings and me on a steady diet of hearty home-cooked meals eaten as a single family unit every night of the week.  The family dinner table was where I learned life skills like the art of conversation, proper mealtime etiquette, and how to appreciate every morsel of food put in front of me — especially when I did not like it.  It was also where I learned how to value the time and effort of others, and how to give back to them in kind.

The dinner table of my childhood still stands in my mother’s home today and is a stately piece carved from narra wood, the national tree of the Philippines, that my parents shipped over from the Philippines to Canada when we emigrated in 1992.  I find it rather poignant and highly suitable that a Filipino family gathered daily around a table made from our homeland’s national tree, especially considering that everyone who’s taken a seat around it has helped build and strengthen the bridge between the old world and the new.

No matter where they started, family discussions always ended around the dinner table.  Get-togethers with friends and extended family also inevitably ended there, particularly during the summer months when the conversations of day-long barbecues outlasted the last encore of crickets.  Holidays never really saw us leaving it, except of course to clear away empty serving dishes and dirty plates only to return with more food and clean flatware. We ate around it as a family in both immediate and extended forms, adding not one but two leaves on countless occasions to accommodate more guests.  As a baby my nephew crawled on it in between mealtimes, we older folks standing on all sides to keep him from zooming off its polished top; as a toddler, he crawled and then ran under it before whacking his head one day on the edge.  Our dogs sat beneath it as we ate, often indulging in morsels that fell (or were surreptitiously held) under it.  We presented new friends and partners to one another around it, the “others” sizing “us” up against the yardsticks which we ourselves had measured our own progress as sociable human beings.  ((And, when not in use for its original function, my mother used it to sew clothes and curtains and sheets while we put together school projects.))

Nowadays, eating out is a slightly more frequent occurrence than it used to be during my youth and I don’t get many chances to join my mother and BigSis (and now, her boyfriend) around any table, but the family dinner is still integral to our relationship.  More recently than my BigSis, I too have started bringing my own new boyfriend along to dinner, and seeing his face around our table along with the faces of those who know me and love me best warms my heart immensely.

Last week we all went out to Junior, a Filipino restaurant on Rue Notre-Dame .  It was a grand occasion, mostly because MiddleSis and Nephew are in town as well.  As a kid I grew up desperately wanting to eat the North American fare that my classmates and neighbour-kids always tucked into instead of the dishes of islands I couldn’t even remember, but these days my more matured palate can’t get enough of the flavours and textures packed into Filipino food. I love the crisp saltiness of lechon kawali mixing with the tangy sweetness of Mang Tomas sauce; the heat and crunch of a sizzling sisig tempered only slightly by mayo and white rice; the limey zing of a fried bangus served whole, minus the needle-sharp bones of course.  Even the alarmingly sweetness and chewiness of sticky suman dipped into matamis na bao or the cold crunch of shaved ice mixed with ice cream, evaporated milk, sweet beans, young coconut flesh, fruit jellies, and jackfruit – in other words, halo-halo – seem to hit the spot on my cravings so much more accurately than North American desserts these days.

What  I loved most about this latest outing to Junior was that my new boyfriend – an Xth generation Quebecois from Sherbrooke whose Irish, French, and German roots stretch back a few centuries – is a good eater who thoroughly enjoyed the best of my homeland’s cuisine.  Of course it helps immensely that Junior is hands-down the best Filipino food you can get in the city, but even the greatest  and tastiest dishes can be lost on an unappreciative palate. I’ve witnessed it before with past boyfriends:  the polite smile with a barely-discernible trace of apprehension or even dismay at what’s on the Filipino table; the thinly-veiled suspicion of any meat that isn’t instantly recognizable as beef, pork, chicken, or fish; the staunch refusal to even try one mouthful of something new.  That is definitely not the case with this one, which in my book makes him a true keeper.

My family is somewhat leery of picky eaters, and not without good reason. Clearly, since I’ve just spent a few hundred words on the subject, our family dinner is a sacred and precious ritual, and those we invite to partake in food, drink, and company are not only invited to witness them but are indeed being welcomed into our family’s most intimate and telling moments.

But for me, having grown up with one foot in Canada and one occasionally still on the boat back to the Philippines, it means the world to have a non-Filipino partner with whom I can share my cultural roots on every level – especially when it comes to the weird food I have grown to love and re-adopt as “my own.”

The story of my family was written around that narra table; the story of the Philippines, by Spain’s use of the islands as a gateway to the New World.  In both cases food played a huge role in the shaping of such narratives, the exploration and development of which appeal to me as both an amateur writer and as an enthusiastic food-lover.  I can’t help but feel incredibly lucky and rather blessed to have grown up at a table that always had homemade meals upon it, especially from a cuisine that like the table itself was brought over from the home islands to the True North, Strong and Free more than twenty years ago.  And I certainly can’t help but feel extremely proud to share that table now, in all its laden groaning glory, with a person who will add his own words – his own chapter of the story – to that warm and loving narrative.

Shakespeare called music the food of love, but in this family the food of love is the food itself as well as the company we keep when we partake of it around our narra table.

Failing to fit in

I’m really into all things TED right now. I listen to TED Talks on my daily commutes and while I’m at my desk I listen to episodes of TED Radio Hour instead of music. One of the TED Radio Hour episodes I keep going back to is called “Playing with Perceptions,” and I think it’s because I can identify so deeply with the issues raised therein.

Canada is known for its diversity. We’ve all heard Canadian culture being called a mosaic in comparison to the so-called melting pot of the United States. The faces of Canada’s citizens, permanent residents, immigrants, and refugees represent numerous nations, as well as all the cultural and ethnic diversity they bring along with them. And because Canada is a nation whose inhabitants seem to celebrate, you’d think we’d all be used to it by now – used to the fact that there is no typical “Canadian” face, or that the Millennials are riding off into the sunset in intercultural/interracial/interwhateverPCtermyouwanttousetodescribteit pairs, or that non-white people in this country are doing the same activities and pursuing the same careers as the white ones.

Ultimately, you’d think that this whole multiculturalism thing would have made us all very aware of the different ways people come into Canada and become Canadian. And as a result of all this variety and the political correctness and politeness for which we’re apparently internationally famous, you’d think we’d be well-informed and educated enough to talk about the subject without offending anyone, inadvertently or otherwise.

And then conversations like the following happen:

“Wow, your mom is gorgeous! But why don’t you look Chinese? Is your dad, like, white or something?”
“Well, see, we’re actually not really Chinese. I mean, we have a Chinese ancestor somewhere I think but we’re actually mostly Spanish and Filipino.”
“Oh, cool! So do you speak Filipino with your mom at home?”
“No, we speak English at home.”
“Does your mom have, like, a really thick Filipino accent? I always find Filipino accents so fun to listen to!”
“No, she doesn’t really have an accent…”
“How long has she been living here?”
“We came over in –”

“Wait, you were born there?”
“But you are so Canadian!”
“…what exactly do you mean by that?”
“Like, nothing racist or whatever – just, like, you’re so not ethnic. I would have never guessed that you’re not Canadian.”
“I am, though. I’m a naturalized citizen and I have a Canadian passport.”
“I thought it was like, super hard for refugees to get into Canada right now though. How did you become a citizen so fast?”
“We emigrated in 1992, and we weren’t refugees.”
“…so, wait, like – you can get a visa to come to Canada and be a permanent resident even if you’re just, like, a maid or caregiver or handyman or whatever?”

I’ll stop there and continue on in my own words – because yes, as you’ve probably guessed, this was a conversation that happened a few days ago between myself and an acquaintance. I do take offense at being seen as the daughter of a domestic worker and a menial laborer – not because I have anything against domestic workers and menial laborers (in fact, I have a deep respect for them) but rather because it simply isn’t true – and because sometimes people don’t want to hear that. 

And yes, I also take offense partially because I believe that applying that kind of narrow perception to an entire demographic is just another form of marginalization.

There have been other instances in my life in which I’ve found myself under social scrutiny on the basis of my biological, cultural, and ethnic heritage. Workplace discussions about things like food or holiday traditions or politics have often, for me, devolved into being put under the white-Canadian microscope through which I am studied with ogle-eyed fascination. Getting set up on blind dates with white guys by well-meaning friends always involves a casual remark that I look so different from other girls they’ve dated, and maybe that’s because “well, you’re exotic, right?” One blind date, upon being told I come from a Filipino family, delightedly told me that he loved dating Filipino women because “you Asian women are all so smart and hardworking and dedicated to your men, and now Asian culture is more open to white people so now you get to share that with us white dudes.” (I’m dead serious.) I have been presented to parents of more than one former love interest with surprising expediency, and the ensuing dinnertime conversations often became a civil and courteous, but nonetheless cutting, cultural cross-examination.

Basically, every time I feel totally Canadian somebody comes along and reminds me that I was not born under the Red Maple Leaf, and they were prodded to that point by their assumptions about non-white Canadians and immigrants.

These conversations reminded me that, while I do hold Canadian citizenship, travel across borders under a Canadian passport, pay taxes, vote, and even paid for part of my university education with a Canadian Forces scholarship, I’m still a visible minority. And being a visible minority means my face only tells part of my story. My non-Caucasian face keeps the chronicle of my life permanently open to the public on just one chapter – and yes, I’ve met many people who won’t bother reading the rest of the book or, at best, skim over the other parts but still pin their concept of my identity on what’s written on my face. My face means on some level, I will always fail to fit in because somebody will be making an assumption about me based on how I look…and that the assumption will often bear little semblance to the truth.

But failing to fit in means I become more like myself each time, which is what I realized when I head Heitan Patel’s TED Talk.  And then I realized that instead of reacting with indignation, silent or not, to what people say about me based on my face, maybe I could share my story instead.  Maybe instead of wishing that certain kinds of people would open their eyes and see the world without privileged first-world blinders, I could use what I know and what talents I have to contribute to the conversation that would eventually lead to clearer understanding across all these divisions.

As far as Filipino immigrants go, my family was extremely lucky. We were lucky in the Philippines because we had social, financial, and educational advantages that the majority of the Islands’ population does not have. We were lucky when we left because we were able to come over as an entire family unit – two parents and five children – which is the exception to the norm of third-world migration; furthermore, we were landed immigrants which meant that the entire process becoming permanent residents and then citizens took less than ten years. And we were lucky in Canada because we spoke fluent English when we landed and my father was able to find work in finance which, with help from my sisters, put food on the table, clothes on our backs, roofs over our heads, and a little extra every once in a while to have fun.

This is not the story of every Filipino immigrant – nor is it the story of every other kind of immigrant that comes to Canada. Like I said, we are the exception to the norm of third-world migration. Back then we were the “One Percenters” of our demographic, yet much of my young life was spent in denial of being Filipino because I so desperately wanted to fit in with my Caucasian, Xth generation Canadian classmates. (For example, my mother is fond of repeatedly telling the story of how I, as a three-year-old, turned my nose up at a plate of white rice and adobo, proclaiming, “I want hotdogs for dinner. I don’t know about you, but I am Canadian.”)

But now that I know better my family’s immigration story does not shame me. It humbles me.

It humbles me because when I read a similar chapter in other faces I see in this city, I know that there’s more to the story than just the lines on their faces and that each story is unique. It humbles me because I am reminded that immigrants bring more than just outward indications of diversity when they land: they bring experiences and stories that often go untold or ignored, even in a country constantly praised for its openness and multiculturalism. It humbles me because their smiles and their eyes gently remind me not to forget where I came from, and that even though I’ve moved from the “immigrant” demographic to join the ranks of citizens, I am a contributor to the same chapter of Canadian history as they are.

It humbles me because as a naturalized citizen who grew up Canadian from Filipino roots, my branch of the family tree will span across many divides – social perspectives, ethnic backgrounds, cultural traditions, and even the Pacific Ocean itself – as it grows.  And part of that growth is accepting that my face will always be non-Caucasian and using the ensuing moments of marginalization, regardless of how or why they transpire, to make the voice of my cultural and ethnic background heard in Canada’s narrative.

Translating the Untranslatable: What Filipinos are Really Saying (Part One)

The Finnish have a word for people like me:  pilkkunusija.  In English, we’d say “Grammar Nazi” and – believe it or not – that’s actually the polite term.  But there’s so much more to the Finnish term than any English idiom can encompass.

Now, because my mother and other people’s mothers read my blog from time to time, I feel somewhat awkward in telling all of you the streetwise translation – so if you’re curious, click here and scroll down to the bottom of the new page.  For those of you still here, the mother-friendly translation for a pilkunnusija is —

“A person who believes it is their destiny to stamp out all spelling and punctuation mistakes at the cost of popularity, self-esteem, and mental well-being.”

For a logophilic pilkunnusija such as myself, knowing that one can so succinctly wrap all of that into a single word is simply mind-blowing…and it makes me wonder if there’s a word to describe people like my friend from Lyon, France, who loves pointing out almost every time we talk that “English is so imprecise” (complete with a sigh and a roll of the eyes on the italics).  As frustrating as he is in such moments, in true French form he is quite level-headed and rational…and I have to admit that I do think he has a point.  English falls terribly short of the mark when it comes to having single words that encompass so much more than one aspect of life.

To my nerdy chagrin, I must admit that discovering new weird words in foreign languages is probably one of my life’s little guilty pleasures.  The more I think about it, though, the more it makes sense and the more I embrace that part of myself.  You see, I’m a naturalised Canadian. Sure, I’ve assimilated pretty well (and that’s to expected, since we landed in Canada when I was only two years old).  I will bleed maple syrup if you cut me open – but that’s because I’ve had transfusions.  If you put it under a microscope, you’ll see that my blood is actually also part patis (a brown, salty, and smelly sauce made from fish that is a staple condiment of Filipino cuisine).  Ethnic food aside, though, in any cross-cultural child’s life there is an issue of language.  There are several posts out there in the blogiverse that compile untranslatable Filipino words, so it probably seems trite of me to be writing one of my own.  However, while I grew up hearing the adults of my family speak Tagalog, I never actually learned to speak it myself.

What I know and understand of Tagalog has been stewing in my brain for the last twenty-three-and-a-half years, and most of it was learned through constant immersion without any English aid.  Basically, growing up was sometimes like watching a foreign film without any subtitles:  whenever Tagalog was used around me, I pretty much had to take into consideration body language, tone and volume of voice, and environmental indicators to understand what was going on.  For example, when sternly asked one time by my mother if I knew the meaning of tigas ng ulo, my four-year-old self promptly replied, “Messy and bad!”

Well, actually, it means “hard-headed,” but it always came up in discourse concerning the disaster I called my bedroom.  As you can see, my whitewashed brain has built some pretty interesting linguistic bridges between English and Tagalog – simply because I’ve had to spend most of my life explaining to my non-Filipino friends what these words mean without actually knowing Tagalog.  While most of my puti friends have come to accept and love the quirky side of me that sometimes throws random Tagalog words into conversations, there’s a New Person in my life for whom a deeper understanding of these words is vital to their survival.  And if I’m going to go through the effort of translating key words and phrases for them, I might as well share the love with all of you.

(By the way, puti literally means “white.”  It can be used to describe anything animal, vegetable, or mineral that actually is white, but is also used in reference to people who are not from the Mother Island or any sort of physically identifiable ethnicity.)

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Because Tagalog is often described as untranslatable in its entirety and because I don’t speak it fluently, I’ll have to break this crash course into smaller modules of related vocabulary.

So, let’s start with family-centric terminology.  The Filipino culture is based on an obsession with hierarchies, so it’s only natural that the nuclear family has a rigid hierarchy of its own.  Multi-children families in all cultures have a distinct “pecking order” but we Filipinos actually take it to a whole new level.

I am the youngest of five, which makes me the bunso.  In English, this would be “baby of the family,” but there’s so much more to the Tagalog term than mere birth order.  To be the bunso is to be forever free and easy, always coasting through life on the charms and wiles that youngest children have engrained in their psyche.  To be the bunso means you’re never taken seriously because you’ll always be super kulit and nakatiwangwang (more on these two later).  The bunso is chattel for much longer than the others, even if they get delusions of grandeur into their head and move out when they’re clearly not ready to.  And, being a bunso, I will always resent this while simultaneously loving it.  When somebody uses, “Oh, they’re the bunso” as an explanation for behavioural ticks or outbursts, all of what you’ve just read is immediately implied by the one offering the explanation and acknowledged by the one receiving it.

Alright, let’s take a breather.

All good?  Okay.  On to the siblings who rank higher than the bunso:  the kuya and the ate.  If you’re lucky enough to be born in a position that gives you this ranking (basically, if you’re not dead last and thus a bunso), you’ve got it made.

A kuya, or oldest brother, is not just the firstborn son.  If a son is the kuya everyone knows exactly what that means as soon as the word is mentioned.  The kuya has paternal authority over the younger kids when Papa’s not around, and I’ve briefly touched upon that before.  The kuya is a protector and a mentor, and even if he seems to throw you under the bus during public shaming, in private he usually ends up taking all the hits for you because he’s supposed to the one keeping you out of trouble.

However, the ate (oldest sister) has supreme power over the brood, especially if she happens actually be the oldest child.  She’s not just the firstborn daughter:  she, like the kuya, has a title that embodies everything that she is.  To simply translate ate as “oldest sister” is an insult to them all.  The ate is the right hand of the gods known as Papa and Mama. The ate will get into the most crap for her younger siblings’ transgressions because she is responsible for all of them.  But a younger child would never dare put the ate in such a position knowingly, because she’s a demi-goddess. She has the power to be judge and jury of her own volition whether or not Papa and Mama are around to do it themselves.  That’s right – in a Filipino family, your oldest sister has the power to ground you.

Now, the bunso can usually get away with it if they don’t tack the title onto the kuya’s name, but Heaven can’t help them if they forget to address the ate as such.  And this doesn’t apply exclusively to biological siblings, either.  A good bunso will inform their Significant Other of this; in turn, the Significant Other will obligingly add the word ate to their everyday vocabulary.  Plus, it’s not just the bunso with a butt on the line here:  it’s everyone who’s not the ate. 

I’ve mentioned three expressions already that Filipino parents apply to their children:  tigas ng ulo, kulit, and nakatiwangwang, and you already know what the first of this trifecta means.  Now, kulit can be simply translated as “pesky” or “annoying” – but of course, it’s inadequate.  It’s word that covers a wide range of actions:  where my puti crew has to be specific with their younger siblings (“Get out of my room!”  “Stop following me around!” etc.), my older siblings only need one phrase to cover every scenario:  “Stop making me kulit!”  Therefore, to make somebody kulit is to follow them around, to hover incessantly, to ask so many unnecessary questions, and to do everything else that makes an annoying person so annoying.

Filipino parents use nakatiwangwang to describe either one of two things:  the first being a physical state of something or someone; the second, the manner in which one conducts oneself.  In either case, nakatiwangwang can be described in English as “having everything bursting out of something,” or “the way a place looks when somebody’s broken in and ransacked everything.”  This can describe a child’s bedroom or the living room (sala) when everyone’s playing in it, but it can also be used when somebody is taking up the entire couch or spilling their guts to everyone who enters the room.

Of course, every family has its share of disagreements and squabbles.  Filipino families have a certain propensity towards fierce arguments, and we prefer to use raised voices rather than physical altercations to settle them.  And there’s always that one member of the family who totally loses it in the heat of the moment.  We call this state nagjujuramentado.  Now, in English you’d probably describe this as acting like “a chicken with its head cut off” or “going on and on and on” or “running around in circles” but – you guessed it – it’s actually a lot more than that.  It includes all of those things and more besides, because nagjujuramentado is a way to describe somebody who is uncontrollably emotional, who is experiencing a Chernobyl-esque meltdown over nothing, who is in a terrifying berserker rage, who cannot be reasoned with and will only stop once they’re dead (and you might have to kill them for this to happen).

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Now, go have some merienda (a snack between meals – that is a meal unto itself – often taken in the afternoon when one gets home from school).  You’ve earned it after all of this – and make sure you get back into time for Lesson Two!