After the passing of my grandmother two days ago, I’m officially American despite having been born and lived in California for almost 27 years. It’s all burgers and French fries from here on out. I’ve been cut loose from my Filipino ties, from the notion of a “home” that I’ve never thought of as my own. No longer do I have a bridge to a history, of wholly Filipino roots that tied me to another place and another time. If I ever visit again, I won’t be a Balik-bayan, someone returning to their homeland, I’ll be a tourist in my own grandmother’s native country. Not only have I lost my grandma, I’ve lost a sense of identity. The hurt is deep, as if someone has carved a piece of me out and I will never be whole again. And I don’t think I ever will be.
Growing up for me meant moving from household to household. While some can think fondly of their childhood home—the smell, the way their room was arranged, some tree fort in a back yard—I have to think of several places, each move punctuated by some painful familial disaster. I found myself living in different apartments, staying in some bad parts of town with a distant relative I had never met prior, staying with one aunt and then another. I felt like an orphan bouncing from house to house. Most often, I found myself at grandma and grandpa’s house—other than the feeling of uncertainty, it was the only constant in my life at that time. It was the most familiar.
I remember standing slouched against a cool, white kitchen counter. I stared blankly at the graying grout between each white tile, my eyes scanning the linoleum floor up to a hobbled wooden table covered by a vinyl tablecloth with nauseating flowers. I wanted to be anywhere but in that kitchen. Next to me, my grandma asked if I was paying attention. Of course I wasn’t. “You should watch me, so you can learn.” I looked at the floor again. I didn’t want to watch her; I wanted to watch MTV. So as my grandmother cut up garlic, and poured soy sauce, vinegar and black peppercorns onto chicken, I stood distracted by a blue clock on the kitchen wall, by the painting of peaches and berries in a basket on a white canvas with peach colored lace glued to its sides. I regret nothing more than not learning to cook adobo that day. I remember everything about that kitchen, every detail, every overstuffed cabinet with ancient boxes of cereal, and the exact spot where my grandfather’s instant coffee stood on a shelf. I remember everything but how to cook adobo the way my grandmother did.
Almost every memory I have of my grandmother, occurred in the kitchen. At the table she told me about teaching English in Mapandan and smacking students hands with rulers when their penmanship was sloppy, about her college days, and about the Japanese occupation and the brutal things they did. It was also at that kitchen table she would tell me to sit straight, and suggested I made a habit of pushing my fingers across the space between my upper lip and nose so that my overbite would be corrected. I remember the irony of my grandmother telling me to finish my plate because there were kids who didn’t get to eat in the Philippines, and then later that evening telling me that I should exercise more while she bended at the waist showing me what to do. Next to that kitchen table she tied my “waist” with a ribbon so that eventually I would really have one. Another day, she sat at the table with a discerning eye, as I walked from one end to another with a book carefully perched on my head. And there she would cook, and I would be oblivious.
They say smell is the most powerful trigger for memory. I can remember the smell of ginger wafting through the air as we all sat eager at the table to eat arroz-caldo, the comfort of the porridge-like rice and tender chicken. My grandmother knew I didn’t like biting into the sharp bitterness of the ginger, so the slices were coin sized instead of being minced. “So you can pick them out,” I remember her saying. I remember the sweet smells of bitsu-bitsu, bibingka, and cassava. I can still smell and taste real coconut, it’s sweetness and tenderness imprinted on my mind, unlike the dried and shredded versions most people think of when they tell you they don’t like coconut. I remember the lingering smell of cooking oil after a batch of lumpia was cooked. I can close my eyes and think of the smells that came from the kitchen, and I can remember my grandma.
Right now, I’d like nothing more than to smell candles burning. Here in my own house, on a suburban street half a world away from my grandmother’s body lying in wake, I could get up and light a few—but that would be beside the point. In the Philippines, they say that when you smell candles burning when they aren’t, your loved ones are visiting from the other side. I’ve smelled and smelled the air around me since I got the news, but still no burning candles.
I mourn the loss of my grandmother, of both my grandparents really. I mourn the distance between where their graves lay and where I lay my head to rest every night. I mourn the distance between my Filipino roots and me. They were what was Filipino about me, and now they’re gone. They taught me “Lupang Hinirang,” the Filipino national anthem. I can hear my grandmother softly singing and my grandfather joining, singing passionately the way he did when he would sing “Blue Spanish Eyes.” They were the only attendees when I received my “Gintong Lahi” award for outstanding Filipino youth. But no longer will I hear my grandfather call me “hija” or my grandmother call me “annako”. I’ve lost them, and now I’m American.
With the mourning of their loss, I mourn for my own childhood, for the remnants of my family that never talk, for the heartbreak of a family who will never be the same, for any hope that a family could be reunited. I bear the pain of living like an orphan--although I have living relatives, I have no family. I mourn the Filipino food that tastes empty, cooked without the love of my grandmother. I pick at arroz-caldo with hidden bits of ginger that I bite into. I eat bibingka, sad that it doesn’t taste the way my grandmother made it. I buy Manila mangoes from Mexico. I frown at my own attempts to cook my grandmother’s steak and onions—sad that I don’t even know the real name for the dish. It’s not the same; it’ll never be the same.
As I sit here, reflecting on all the things I’ve lost—I just want to smell candles burning. I close my eyes and slowly inhale, but nothing. I’m worried that now that I’m American, Filipino ghosts won’t find me. And I’m a ghost without them.
I love you Grandma and Grandpa, I’m not the same without you.