It turns out I’d been paying my respects to the wrong ancestor for the last thirty years.
I really thought the twice a year, early morning, big family trips to the Chinese Cemetery were for my great-great-grandmother. The mausoleum was a tiny, brilliantly white concrete cube tucked two blocks from the road. We would slide through an alley of dusty tombs and peeling black and white portraits. We would offer a plate of whole fruits and line up by age: my grandparents first, then the aunts and uncles, my parents, cousins and siblings, and me. We’d waft incense and kneel four times one by one. There was the Chinese character for “mother” (母) on the tombstone and everything. And then one day, I asked my dad how our great-great-grandmother died, and he said it wasn’t her. It was a distant aunt we never knew.
I guess this means that despite my shaky grasp of Chinese, which can be classified as “Airport Sign Comprehension,” my grasp of peacefully unquestioning obedience, another Chinese trait, is doing fine.
My grandmother (I know it’s her this time, she’s alive and I live with her) makes it very clear how things should be. She only watches Chinese TV from the mainland beamed to her from a satellite dish on our roof. She reads the Chinese newspapers, loves the fake islands off of Zambales, and tells us of the new herbs curing cancer and that we need to start eating sea cucumbers or animal tendons or goji berries again. When she’s done talking, we look at each other, say “Ho, Amah,” and go back to eating in silence.
“Lan si Lannang (We are Chinese),” she’d say, when we spoke Filipino or English. “Gua bwe hiao tiah Huanna uwe. (I don’t understand that foreign language.)”
But—those foreign languages were mine.
I’d become Chinese when I get home. Then I realized people stayed Filipino all day.
Certain events make me feel extra Chinese though. We celebrate over 35 relatives’ birthdays with misua for breakfast and everyone wearing red. We play dice games during the Mid-Autumn Festival. We do Ting Huns and wear white at wakes. We order extra XO sauce and take home all the leftovers. And I look around the living room, the restaurant, or the funeral parlor, and see people who finally look like me, and think are these all what being us means?
I’ve learned this though: obedience is the secret love-language of inexpressive Chinese families. When the traditions slowly stop being passed down, when the kids start speaking foreign languages like Filipino or English, when they stop marrying before—gasp—25, all you’re left with is obedience.
Does it make me less modern to say that there's a lot to like about obedience? It's the same in every language. My grandparents and I understand each other a fraction of the time when we talk, but they understand me perfectly when I clear their plates, or adjust the air-conditioning to their liking when they ask.
Obedience is what gets us to the cemetery those two early mornings a year, to weddings or funerals filled with people who are there out of duty. It’s what gets me home every night before sunrise. I’ve tried to explain what this brand of Big-Chinese-Family Style obedience meant to me to some friends, but it’s too straightforward a concept to explain meaningfully: everything else is becoming a caricature of an identity, except for doing what I’m told.
I’ve accepted that a big part of being Chinese is not feeling Chinese enough. But I want to be a good one, and I will kiss any old unfamiliar relative. I will wear the red clothes. I will eat sea cucumbers or animal tendons or goji berries. I will bow at the wrong damn grave if I have to.
Joseph Pascual is a Fiipino-Chinese photographer living in Manila.
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