I’ve often heard Filipinos don’t get irony, although people usually seem to get mine. Here Marianne gives some examples of this and more serious cultural differences. Thanks to Marianne for the family photos.
Other than being married to the man I loved, I didn’t think about our marriage until we heard Paul Harvey on the car radio. Harold said. “That’s got to be hard, right? Interracial marriage? I can’t imagine.” Then we realized we were in one. Sure, he adjusted to my culture, and I adjusted to his, but it was nothing I felt I should prepare for.
After we’d been married a few months, we were watching television, and he said, “You’re weird.” It hurt my feelings. A few days I’d heard other guys saying that, and I realized it didn’t really mean anything. It could mean someone was funny. We were in an adjustment period, but I didn’t know it.
We’d been married for a year when we went to his sister’s wedding in Texas. It was a four-day celebration with brunches and a rehearsal dinner.I was going to meet his extended family for the first time. During the reception I was asked to take a picture. It was a nice camera with a zoom lens, but people were too far away. With my Filipino accent I said, “How do I fuckus this thing?” Everyone stared, and no one answered. I looked at HD and said “fuckus” and pointed at the camera. I kept saying it because no one answered me. HD ran over, grabbed the camera and took the picture. He didn’t tell me until four days later when it was all over. If I’d known I would have hidden in the room the whole time.
In 2004 my parents were watching television with us—this was in Korea—when a preview came on for Lord of the Rings. I said to my mother, “I saw that.” And then I said to HD, “Remember, honey, I went out that Friday night to see it?”
Mom looked at me and said, “What do you mean? You left him?”
“Well, it was Friday night, and he’d just gotten home, I made dinner, I had the kids clean and fed and already in bed so he wouldn’t have to worry about them. I went to the 9:30 show and said I’d be back in two hours.”
“You went to a movie all by yourself?”
In the Philippines that was unheard of, especially if you were female—and you should be home before 9:00. I said, “Mom, it’s okay, it was just for two hours, and I made sure the kids were already asleep.”
HD said dryly, “I know. Who would leave their family for two hours just to watch a movie?”
“Honey, they think you’re serious.”
“Of course I’m serious. What kind of a mother would take a two-hour break from her family?”
Mom was disappointed, and Dad was furious with me. Two days later my sister called from Maryland and said, “What’s going on? Mom is so upset with you. She said HD was even upset.”
“No, HD was joking. Mom and Dad took it literally.”
My sister said she’d said it sounded like HD was joking, but mom had insisted he was serious.
That’s when I said, “Honey, you need to go tell my mom that you were joking.” He didn’t because he was afraid they’d be angry with him too.
In 2007 my parents moved to Texas with us. That was when my dad understood because his American friends at work also used irony. So he apologized to me and said they’d been upset with me for a long time for leaving my children.
Back when we were dating, his parents invited us over for dinner. Then we played Pictionary, a board game where the players have to draw pictures for the others to guess. You take a card which tells you what to draw. Now my husband and I had just seen a movie called About Last Night. I’d seen it in college, but there were some expressions I hadn’t understood, like “a beaver shot.” I had no idea what that meant until HD explained. In the Philippines, a girl’s private parts were called “a flower” and a boy’s “a bird.” This was another example of my being naïve and ignorant in a new culture. I didn’t know a beaver was an animal. I was just happy that I knew the word. I thought I was being wholesome when I drew a back, a butt and a leg with an arrow pointing toward the front. I didn’t think it was bad. His dad thought I meant a tail. HD and I had two different drawings, so no one could guess what the word was. When they finally knew the three of them were on the floor laughing. I laughed too, but I had no idea why.
When I was in high school, every Filipino student was required to do the citizenship army training. We had to tie our hair up like a military person and bring a notebook and pen to take notes. Now, fast-forward to us as newly married and having dinner with his parents, his sister and her new husband. After dinner we played another board game called “Taboo,” where we had to make a list of things that could be in your purse which start with the letter T, like “telephone” and “TicTacs.”If you wrote the same thing as the other players you got a point. I was so proud that I knew this word I’d learned in CAT called a “tickler.” So when I said, “I’ve got a tickler,” everyone started laughing I was trying to be cool about it, but I was thinking, “Oh, no, I did it again.” HD told me, and I said, “No, it means a little notebook.” But it was already too late. I told HD that I needed to check with him when we went to see his family because I didn’t want to embarrass myself anymore.
Of course there were more serious things. Once when Crystal wasn’t even six years old and Andrew was four, we were on the ranch in Texas, and we took a shortcut past a cemetery. Crystal said, “Mom, my teacher said that’s where the dead people sleep.” A couple of months later they were in the playroom watching Elmo’s World, where there were two characters named Mr. Noodles. One of the actors had died a few months before. When I saw him on the screen, I thought it might be an opportunity to introduce the kids to the concept of death. I said, “Hey, you guys, you know that Mr. Noodles? He’s dead.” They looked at me, and they looked at the TV. They were probably thinking, “No he’s not, he’s right there.” I didn’t know if they understood. I said, “No, guys, he died months ago.” HD called from downstairs, “What are you doing?” Then I worried that I might have traumatized them or something. But looking back, I wonder whether you’re ever too young to learn about death as a part of life.
I’m gradually realizing that I’m a bit more liberated, and that he’s the conservative one. For example, the Filipino culture is okay with homosexuality. My parents were living with us, and we used to watch Filipino shows on cable. One day Andrew said, “Mom, there was a boy who was dressed up as a girl. Lolo [grandfather] said he was actually a boy but he is gay.” I was okay with that. I don’t remember anybody hiding anything in high school or pretending to be other than themselves. We knew who was gay. We didn’t even have to talk about it. There were boys, girls and gays.
Yeah, Thai culture accepts a “third gender” too.
Really? When Andrew was in kindergarten his teacher commented in his behavior folder that he got in trouble because he wouldn’t stop kissing a boy. He was five! I laughed about it. I remembered my cousins holding hands. It didn’t mean anything. I didn’t think Andrew was gay, but if he was it didn’t matter. HD was upset. He said, “This is a small town.” His response was an eye-opener for me, and I knew we had a problem. Thank God I was able to ask the teacher which boy Andrew kept kissing. I knew his mother, and I said, “Ellen, did Brad say anything the other day about Andrew kissing him in class? Does it bother you that my son is kissing your son?”
“No, I’ve got two sons. They kiss each other all the time.” I was so relieved, and explained everything. She started laughing and said, “That’s how you can tell?” She was grateful that I’d approached her about it, but she was laughing at the same time.
Crystal is now fourteen. HD and I have talked about whether the kids should be allowed to date at an early age. I wasn’t allowed to date until I was eighteen, and I knew there was no hiding or pretending, even with the guys I liked who wanted to date me. In those days in the Philippines dating was preceded by courting. The boy had to visit you and court you and give you flowers and show you that he was interested. Yes, and sing serenades.
My Tagalog language textbook talks about that.
Yeah? Harana? I was never serenaded because I always refused, but my sister was. After you’re courted you say, “Okay, you can be my boyfriend.” You can’t date anyone else. My relatives still do things the old-fashioned way, but they live in Davao, in the provinces, which are conservative compared with Manila. HD is strict with Crystal, but says it’s okay for Andrew. I don’t want a teen pregnancy, but I also don’t like the double standard. In my household it was equal for both sexes. If the Ate [older sister] couldn’t date, neither could the two younger siblings. My sister started dating when she turned eighteen, but I took my time.
In the Philippines everyone always stated that I was shorter than average. I’m four feet, eight and a half inches, and that one-half is important to me. My height was one of the causes of my insecurity. When I tried to get a job after graduating from college, they measured me, and I was rejected because I was under five feet tall. You had to be between 21 and 27 years old, and they loved that I was part Chinese. I began to think I didn’t want to work in the Philippines after all. When I got to Korea and started hanging out with HD and our friends, my height became more of an asset than a liability. Or no one cared.
A lot of Filipinos have told me they lived in the States and couldn’t wait to get out. They just wanted to save money and go back to the Philippines. I was the other way around. Why would you want to leave? I loved the respect of personal space, the big parking spaces, the customer service and the convenience. In the US, I never felt discriminated against. I never had a problem finding work in the States. I’d go out and find a job in a couple of weeks. HD was a good coach on how to do job interviews.
I know. He did workshops on job interviewing for my students. He even hired one or two of them.
He always guided me well when it came to work and business. When he started a new company I was helping for a while. I looked at their contract documents I noticed, “There’s IT guys, doctors, security guards, and other various professionals. What is it you do?” So he explained. I said, “Why can’t I do that?” his reply, “Of course you can but you’ve got to take some classes.” I hated going to those long classes, but I showed my face every time and made connections with the right people at the Small Business Administration in San Antonio. I talked to newcomers and to people who’d been in the business for years. They all said “don’t stop coming.” In 2007 I started my company, Program Support Associates, which provided support for businesses working for the US government. It took several years but I finally won my first contract and I was in heaven. My company grew from six to eleven employees almost immediately, and eventually all the way up to forty-five employees. I loved working at home and also being able to be a mom and do volunteer work at school. I loved being part of the community. I also loved the income. Then of course my husband announced that we were going back to Korea. I haven’t been able to get a contract from here but I haven’t stopped thinking about the possibilities for the future.
So yes, it was a sacrifice leaving the States. We had a big house in a top-notch neighborhood, and I drove a fancy SUV, paid for by my company. I’m proud of how hard we worked. The kids were in a school where I knew everybody, and they were happy. Why would I come back to Korea? I didn’t know whether I could come back after an absence of seven years. Being jostled or bumped into on the street doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t mean people did it on purpose. But with my children I get protective. We’d just gotten back and were on the street when someone ran into Andrew. I hugged him and yelled, “Watch it, lady.” She couldn’t even understand, but I was ready for a confrontation. Three or four months later I had readjusted. Korea will always be part of our lives.
HD made sacrifices too. I had to accept that it was time for him to be part of the family business; it’s what he had been groomed for the last 20 years. Maybe that’s the Asian part of me that believes it’s the oldest son or the oldest child who takes over the company. Did I make sacrifices? Absolutely. Do I miss the States? A lot. When people ask me where I come from I get confused because in my heart I’m from Texas. That’s where my family is now, and that’s where I am from.
When I was a child, life in Korea was very fancy compared to where I came from, but I loved the Philippines because it made me who I am. My sister used to say,“I think you were already a mother when you were born.” She said I was a mother figure in our family because our parents weren’t around all the time—although my aunts were always there for us. I was very maternal when I had my own kids, and I didn’t have a hard time having babies. To this day, I sometimes call my daughter by my sister’s name, Margarette, and my son by my brother’s name. When I talk to my siblings, I call them Crystal or Andrew.
I know it’s said you have to be away from your own country to see it. I feel liberated. I like the Filipino respect for elders. I still make sure that my kids get that and dinners where the family eats at the table together. I know HD found some of my ideas shocking, but he’s embraced them too. He always said, “Let’s take the good stuff and leave the ones that don’t work for us.”