My father never advocated for me. But the last time we spoke, we’d had a rare good night, though he kept saying my deadname. I had genealogical questions for him. He returned with a lockbox. It was the only time I saw a picture of the man who looked just like him and me, but darker: darker eyes, darker skin. My father told new stories. I wrote down everything. When I mentioned finding newspaper notices about gambling, he became anxious, wary. Then the box shut. An ending had come.
When my transition and marriage split my family, when I fully “lost” my father, what hurt most was feeling like I’d lost my Filipino-ness itself to his silence. Ironically, by transitioning, I resembled him even more. And for years, the only place being Filipino made sense was in my dreams.
I used to see my father as central to my identity. His sense of Filipino-ness was also mine, tied to place: where his relatives lived, his Ilokano name, food, collectivist action. Though small-seeming, this part of him was central to me. I had his eyes. His hair. His features -- his expressions. But what I didn’t have was language. He was a teenager when his father died of cancer -- he didn’t know Tagalog, and so I didn’t either.
My father was not always ashamed to be Filipino-American; he had to grow to become that way. As my father worked and prayed with white people, he stopped talking aloud. Over years, my father pruned away things they didn’t like: a questioning, rebellious streak; anger over exploitation and injustice. Time and pressures of assimilation forced him to grow small. He became quiet. My father now hides that he’s a college dropout, and is afraid to name racism.
My father wanted things you cannot have when you’re Othered: namely, the power that comes from giving white people orders. Though he was talented, he drifted, unable to name why he’d never become a journalist or novelist. First college. Then seminary. Perhaps these choices were meant to please his white minister father-in-law. The more white collar work and money, the less I saw of his family. They were dark, like him, and welcomed us with our favorite foods and family stories.
I sought the source of this sudden deep pain in dreamspace where my ancestors are. My ancestors had a very specific request: Speak. Speak like us. I didn’t know how, and it took the better part of a year to just begin. Reclaiming a language no one taught you is alienating. Most people reclaiming a language know at least one word, remember someone. Relearning is not what assimilated Americans do. The Asian-American search for equality has not asserted speaking in mother tongue as power.
Model minorities are quiet, like toys; not loud, uncomfortable things. My ancestors are uncomfortable. They send weeping dreams, American soldiers making war. My lack of direct connection to the homeland is uncomfortable. Anger is uncomfortable. But I am not my father locking feelings, memories away.
I don’t know what awakened my ancestors -- testosterone, or hearing Tagalog for the first time. Maybe it was committing to be myself wholly that did it. And suddenly they were everywhere.
These days I leave out gifts for them: cups of water and little candles. I have strange dreams of people who looked like my new face. They are my kin, even if I no longer have my father. They have come into my life to help me claim my voice, a way of being whole. My ancestors and dreams guide me on the rocky path to reclaim my history, and Tagalog, for myself. Though it is uncomfortable, I persist. I will not prune my sense of anger at injustice. I will reconnect with all of me.
Ang pangalan ko ay Lev. Pilipino ako.
Follow Lev on Twitter @thelionmachine.
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