Migration, My Mother, and Me

Finding hope in an immigration center.

  • Privilege shelters you, and mine — enough money to be middle class, enough learning to write books, a birthright guaranteeing my place in the United States — had sheltered me.
    Photo by Getty Images/Tzahiv

In the day after the 2016 election, I found myself strangely unmoored. I, like many others, was unprepared for the outcome and unsure of what to do. On the Wednesday following Trump’s victory, after a largely sleepless night of watching the various results come in, I packed my bag as I’d committed to a weeklong residency at the Vermont Studio. I drove the three hours north from my hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, in a daze, listening to National Public Radio, first a Baptist minister explaining how President-elect Trump was acceptable despite his transgressions as the minister was not “proud of everything I’ve done,” followed by Gloria Steinem speaking about white male entitlement. The talk was all very enlightening, although it offered little hope.

Later that night, I pulled myself together to speak with my son, Nick, in his first year at Bennington College, but admitted to having no words of comfort other than to point out that he was an exceptionally smart, motivated boy and would figure out a course of action. He had turned to his mother for comfort, and it made me think of my mother, who was a woman of many opinions and little reassurance, and what she would have made of all this had she been alive to see it. As a Filipina, she would be in the group of “vulnerable citizens” that the election results had left in a precarious position — a nonwhite woman, an immigrant, a target for energetic bigotry. A note here: I am one of those racially ambiguous people, someone whose intellectual and cultural constructions are richly influenced by my Filipino heritage, but walking down the street one might think me Italian or French or Spanish, and the Continental sort of Spanish, not the “Spanish” that inspires to walls. My father is largely Irish American, with some other stuff in there, all white. Yet I know well what it is to be identified as other and, as a result, attacked. It is an informing part of my childhood.

I spent my early years in Perth, Western Australia, during some turbulent times. It was the 1970s and the Vietnam War had deposited a large number of Vietnamese refugees in our city, and the overwhelming response to this was hostile. As a child, I did not understand the larger movements of history. I was, however, familiar with the fenced enclosure where many of the refugees were housed. I remember driving by the camp, although infrequently. It was not close to where I lived. Once, as my father and I were on our way to a rugby match, the car was stalled in traffic, and I made eye contact with a boy close to my age whose fingers were loosely hooked through the wire that kept him imprisoned. The exchange was silent but meaningful. My look no doubt communicated, “What did you do?” His eyes replied, “You’re going somewhere and I’m not.” Or perhaps the boy was not Vietnamese but rather Timorese, because in those years we also had the “boat people,” who were fleeing the strife in East Timor. No doubt many sympathized with their plight — the fact that they were given sanctuary attests to this — but to hear people speak of the refugees, one would have thought these desperate families to be a plague of locusts.

Once, while waiting for a bus with my mother, a man yelled at us, “Go home.” I asked my mother what he meant, because we were weighted down with shopping bags and it was fairly obvious that home was exactly where we were headed. My mother, not one to sugarcoat, said, “He means Vietnam.” And I might have asked her why we would go there, but I sensed the ugliness in her response, an ugliness that I was hesitant to pursue. There were other incidents, kids on the playground taunting me that my mother was a boat person, more yelling on the street. My mother was a woman who commanded respect and had many friends, but in her interactions with the various shopkeepers and some of the school parents, there was a lingering sense of her otherness, and not the “otherness” inspired by her singular personality, but some other thing — her foreignness — that inspired a wariness in me.

No doubt many sympathized with their plight — the fact that they were given sanctuary attests to this — but to hear people speak of the refugees, one would have thought these desperate families to be a plague of locusts.

My mother never learned to drive and as a result was always walking or waiting at bus stops, easy prey. There was a story she liked to tell of how she was planting petunias on the perimeter of the front footpath and some idiot walking by had called to her, “Indian woman, dig-dig-dig.” She thought this was hilarious. What might have been a deeply dark time for my miscegenated family was somewhat offset by my mother’s unflagging sense of superiority to most of those around her, by her conviction that the West was undeniably inferior — culturally, socially, aesthetically — to the East. That brio was not lost on me, but neither was the reality that many around us wished us ill.

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