Updated: Oct 28, 2020
(by Carla Hancock)
My mama was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen: perfect teeth (not gummy like mine); long eyelashes (I barely have any); and a straight nose, which is a big deal in the Philippines, because most Filipinos have what’s called a pango or pug nose. My mom’s features suggested the mestiza beauty, reflecting Spanish heritage (also suggesting the history of the Spaniards conquering the Philippines in the 1500s). It’s like belonging to aristocracy. When she was 16, a film company scouting for new talent took photos of my mom, but she got scared that they might ask her to strip, so she never went back.
In a way, my mother exacerbated my feeling of inadequacy. She would say how beautiful I was, especially in a ponytail, but she’d add, “Just don’t smile too big.” When we were kids, people would say that my younger sister and older brother looked and acted more like my mom—and they made it sound like a negative, joking that I was the “black sheep.” Although I got the bad (teeth and feet) from my dad, my mom would also say that I got the best feature from him: perfectly arched eyebrows. But here’s the thing: When she was angry, she’d rub it in my face that I also “acted” like him (and that was definitely not a compliment—he was alcoholic and irresponsible).
My mother was born in 1945, when the war just ending, and grew up in Manila, in the city of Kalookan. She swore that she would never ever live in the provinces—she was a city girl, and always said you couldn’t find things in the grocery store in rural areas. The family was poor—neither of her parents finished school because they got pregnant early. My grandma’s family owned mango and cacao plantations, but there were 12 children to feed. My granddad could not read or write; he slaughtered pigs and sold them in the wet market, which became a family business, including homemade longganisa (a Filipino pork sausage) and tocino (cured pork chops).
Both grandparents came from Pampanga, known for its cooking. Everybody knows how to cook—elaborately, no shortcuts. Home-cooked meals are not only an everyday thing, but a three-times-a-day thing. Many women still are expected to follow a traditional role, staying home to do the cooking, cleaning, and raising children. It was a big treat to have family reunions there because everything is fresh—milk from the carabao (water buffalo), eggs from the chickens. My mom often talked about the time Grandma got her to cook a chicken. She grabbed one and started plucking its feathers, not realizing she was torturing the poor animal.
My mom knew how to cook every Filipino food there is. Nowadays, even I use powdered tamarind, but my mom would use the real fruit, boiling it and smashing it in the soup. Even if we didn’t have much money, she somehow made sure we had a smorgasbord of food, which I still crave. When my dad didn’t have a job, she would go to the wet market and ask for the shrimp heads that are thrown away so we could at least have the taste in our sinigang soup. Even if we were rushing home from church, she would cook a ten-minute meal, and it still tasted good.
In the 1990s, we built a family restaurant, which was named after my parents: DingZon (Agustin and Corazon). It was open 24 hours a day—my mother hired the cooks and trained the waiters and waitresses. I still think it could have been an empire—it was known for bulalo (boiled beef bone marrow), but after eight years, it was closed because of my alcoholic dad.
The Philippine tradition is that once you’re capable of working, you have to “give back to your parents.” It’s a debt of gratitude. Mom made sure my sister and I went to an exclusive Catholic school for girls through scholarship grants, but when I finished high school, she said, “This is it. I can’t afford your college tuition. You’re on your own.” So at 17, I applied as a singer at the bar where my older brother worked. He was always with me to keep the bad guys away. I was able to attend a cheap college at the same time, but my parents were handling my money, making decisions without me. I loved helping the family but also wanted my freedom.
When I was young, my mom often talked about her aunt who had married a U.S. soldier. “When you go to America,” she said, “everything is push-button.” She loved the idea of the water coming out of the refrigerator door. But when we watched American movies on TV ("Sunday’s Big Event"), she would say, “Hmm, you don’t want to live there; see how people have big houses and live far away from each other? Nobody could hear you if there’s a burglar, and you’ll get murdered.” But I always wanted to go to America.
We were Catholic, and I actually wanted to be a nun, but my godmother said, “No! You can still serve the Lord and marry.” She had converted to Mormonism and introduced us to the “elders,” so our family converted. Although my parents were not “active” in the church (they went back to smoking and drinking), I strictly dated church members. The church preaches “eternal marriage” and “no vices.” Who wouldn’t want to have a husband with no vices? My mom kept asking, “When are you going to get married?” So I went to a Mormon dating site and picked an American guy—there are a lot of interracial marriages in the church.
Coming to America was a delight at first. I wanted to see Disney, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, but I also wanted to ride the subway. My first goal was to enroll at Brigham Young University in Utah, which my fiancé attended. Nope, he decided to return home to his momma in North Carolina, without letting me know. I have a great mother-in-law—she’s a nurse, she taught me how to sew (I recently made a lot of face masks for donation), cut hair, even move furniture, and I love her Sunday roast—but I wanted to be independent. My only friends were older people at church. I was the only Asian in the all-white congregation. My husband didn’t want me to work, and I felt so useless.
Mom always said, “You need to learn to cook before you get married. It’s easy-peasy.” After I came to the United States and became a mom myself, I would call her for tips and advice. I also learned her special way of folding clothes, making a T-shirt into a square, and I’ve passed the technique on to my kids. She was generous to the food vendors called suki who supplied the restaurant, and would wrap shirts as presents for them that way.
It wasn’t until I came to the United States that I realized how important Filipino foods are to me. My experience is that everyone in America is busy working, both men and women, so my mother-in-law and most mothers I know only cook on a Sunday after church. During the week, they just grab a frozen dinner or microwave hot dogs.
My sons are American boys—they have a hard time accepting that they are half-Filipino. They don’t remember visiting my mom there when they were little. Four years ago, my mom died, and we went back for her funeral. On the very first day, my sons hated it—the heat was unbearable. My younger son was crying to get back on the plane because he was “soaking sweat.” I bought an air conditioner for my mom’s tiny apartment, but I wanted my sons to experience real life there—not hotel life, no special treatment. We walked in the heat or commuted by tricycle, pedicab, or “Jeepney.” It turned out that my younger son liked Filipino food, especially the hot soups, which for some reason keep us going in the heat. When we got back home, he wanted the chicken soup called tinola, made with ginger, green papaya, and pepper leaves. When he smells it cooking, he comes out from his room and says, “Whatcha makin’?” It definitely connects me to my heritage and brings back a lot of memories, especially when I am trying to recall how Mama or Grandma made it. Then I become nostalgic and tear up.
One of my favorite Filipino food traditions is “boodle fight,” but I did not know about it until I went back to the Philippines for my mother’s funeral, and her best friend prepared one for us. The food is assembled on a long table covered with banana leaves, serving as both tablecloth and plate. We sit on a long bench to accommodate everybody and partake of the food with our hands, resting an elbow on one knee. Who needs plates and utensils?
Ironically, when my mother’s siblings saw me at her funeral, their jaws dropped because I looked much more like her. I think of her so often because of the cooking videos on the Internet—she would totally have her own YouTube channel if she were here. I miss calling her and asking, “What are the ingredients for lumpiya [egg roll] or pansit [noodles]?” I think those are the only two words Americans know when they find out I’m a Filipina.
I have a new custom: As I drink my coffee every morning, I imagine my mom sitting and talking to me while she’s reading the papers or doing her English crossword puzzle. See, when we became Mormons, we all quit drinking coffee, but my mom and dad went back to it. Every morning, before I went to work, she loved to prepare breakfast for me, to have a little chat over her hot coffee and my hot chocolate. I miss that so much that I regret not drinking coffee with her.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but “I see dead people”—my grandparents and aunts and my mom, all showing up at my dining table to visit. It hasn’t happened in a while. It seems to happen when they know that I am mourning so they can comfort me that they are not really gone, that they are just on the other side of the veil.
Oh, that just made me cry.
Tinola (Filipino Chicken Soup)
(adapted from Foxy Folksy)
2 T. cooking oil
1 1/2 in. ginger root, peeled and cut into strips
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 lb. chicken, cut into serving pieces
4 - 5 T. fish sauce
6 c. water
2 stalks lemongrass, optional
1 chayote or green papaya, cut into wedges
salt, to taste
1 c. chili or malunggay leaves
In a pot over medium heat, heat oil and sauté ginger, garlic, and onion until tender.
Add chicken pieces and fish sauce.
Cover and simmer for 5 minutes.
Add water and lemongrass.
Bring to boil, then lower heat and cover pot.
Simmer for 20 minutes or until chicken is tender.
Add chayote or green papaya, and cook for 5 minutes or until softened soft.
Add salt if needed.
Add chili or malunggay leaves, and simmer 1 minute.
Serve in bowls with rice.