What’s Your Name?
When I am four, I go to the Birthday Club show on the local TV station in San Diego. For the occasion, my mother envelops me in ruffles, spirals my hair in curls, and pins a shiny barrette to my scalp.
We are all ages and sizes – thirty or so birthday kids, marshaled into four messy tiers for a group photo. I’m among the youngest, so I’m in the front row, not quite center. The boy next to me is crying, a fist in his eye. The boy behind me is picking his nose. My hands are pressed to my sides, lost in the folds of my dress, which flares out like a fancy lampshade from my clenched body. My eyes dart sideways.
For the show, we are placed in individual little booths lining a rotating platform. We are kiddie confections on a giant lazy Susan, an invisible hand slowly spinning us in our frothy Sunday best under the studio lights. The air clangs with birthday music. The audience lights dim while the stage lights blaze harder. The host in his Western shirt, string tie, and big grin stands at center stage as the platform spins each child to him. “What’s your name?” he asks, leaning down, offering his microphone.
When it’s my turn to be on camera, I stare at the microphone. The host asks me my name again. It’s there at the back of my throat, but with no muscle or breath to expel it. My mouth hangs open to allow passage in case the words should fall of their own accord. But then I’m being rotated away on the lazy Susan, away from the host, out of the spotlight. In the half-darkness, I swallow. My name, I think—my name.
In kindergarten, I discover I am brown. Or rather, what it means to be brown. Up and down the block of our Navy housing, white families occupy nearly all the units, except for the one next door to us. The family is Filipino. The family is Filipino. Like us, my father tells my sisters and me. Except not like us. We have a Mexican grandmother who speaks Spanish and makes her own tortillas and pounds seeds in a molcajete. My father speaks Tagalog with the neighbors, sounds that are mysterious and musical, and which belong not at all to my sisters and me.
The boy Canuto and I are in the same class. His mother calls him Cani, so I do too, but he becomes angry and says that’s not his name. The other kids say Canoodo, which I know is wrong. I speak to him without saying his name, ask him if he wants to play. He ignores me.
After a while, he and his family move away, and a little girl and her parents move in. The girl shakes her halo of blond hair in hello. When we play pretend, she is the princess. You can be the monster, she tells me.
How Now, Brown Cow
Words that are said to me on the playground in third grade.
Can’t You Talk, Girl?
The summer after fourth grade, I somehow persuaded my parents to send me to camp for a week in the mountains east of San Diego. I have persuaded myself that I am there in the camp brochure photos, singing campfire songs, tramping through woods arm-in-arm with new camp buddies, releasing arrows to zing their way to a bullseye during archery class, even miraculously knowing how to swim. And I am madcap and plucky, a charismatic queen of camp hijinks, a cross between Pippi Longstocking and Trixie Belden, inciting pillow fights, food fights, water fights. Each time, I am the winner.
At the real-life, piney-smelling, insect-buzzing Camp Cuyamaca, the shenanigans are a swindle. There are campfire songs, but I don’t know the words. There are hikes with twenty campers and two camp counselors, but no one I know how to talk to. There are craft classes so we can make souvenirs that preserve the memories of our camp experience.
One afternoon we are sanding bits of wood, which will be polished to make an amulet and strung on a leather strip. At my table are two girls with long, sunshiny hair and a jokey boy. All three of them talk and talk, loud as day, clear as bells, easy as pie, and I try to think of a place where I might join in, insert a word or two, maybe a whole sentence. But nothing in my head matches anything coming out of theirs. I push my glasses up my face and close my mouth over my braces as I concentrate on making my camp souvenir.
The boy tells a joke. The girls giggle and a sound – a bark or a whimper – escapes my pressed-together lips, and when one of the girls asks, “What was that?” I pretend the noise comes from elsewhere, the wind or the trees.
The other girl says to me, “Can’t you talk, girl?”
I look up for a brief second from polishing my amulet, which is hard and smooth as bone, and I nod yes.
A Rock and a Heart Place
Near our house is a ravine with a couple of dirt hills that my older sister and I play on. We claim them as our own, and at the top of the larger hill, we store rocks for ammunition behind a mound of dirt should anyone try to seize our territory.
We survey our realm and spy two girls passing below. My sister hisses at me to take cover, and we throw ourselves on the ground. Slowly, we raise our heads above the rampart to spy on the trespassers. One of them is in my grade at school, the other a grade ahead. The bigger girl, the one I don’t know, puts her hands on her hip. “What are you staring at, you little Filipinos?” Then, taken with her own words, she sings, “little Filipinos, little Filipinos.”
The other girl doesn’t sing along, but she laughs.
My sister takes a bow. “Thank you, thank you,” she says as if in response to applause, and I secretly hate her for not understanding.
The girls jeer.
We throw rocks at them, and they run until they’re out of range of our throwing arms. They turn around and laugh as our aim falls short.
It seems that all the Filipino kids in the neighborhood play the piano. They’re musical. My mother wants us to be musical. She buys a piano and hires the old Filipino music teacher who goes to all the other Filipino homes in the neighborhood to come to ours as well.
He sits on the piano bench next to me, his breath sour, his breathing heavy. Whenever I finish a piece – baby songs with titles like “The Funny Little Bunny” – he uncaps his ink pen and scrawls a D on the page. D is the first letter of my name and is equal to an A in terms of a grade, he explains through yellow teeth. I receive a D each time, no matter how I play. He squeezes my thigh, which is bare because it’s summer and I’m wearing shorts. He does that to everyone, the neighbor kids say. Just put your hand on your leg before he does. They know these things. And they know music. They play duets at each other’s houses. They perform at group recitals, a dozen pianos on stage, a dozen pairs of hands moving in concert, making the same sound.
I never make it out of the baby book. I’m not musical, my sister only marginally so. My mother cancels the lessons and sells the piano.
My best friend in sixth grade is a red-haired girl with glasses, a vast vocabulary, and a voice like Arlene Francis on What’s My Line? We both like books and school and good grades. We get along. Sometimes I go to her house. (She never comes to mine.) We talk about our futures, hers as a math teacher, mine still vague. Don’t you know what you want to be? She says in her Arlene Francis voice. Maybe a veterinarian, I tell her, though I have doubts.
In junior high, I abandon her. One day, while walking not quite in step with my red-haired friend, I veer off without a word to join the Filipina students eating lunch together.
I hang with my Filipina girls all through junior high, high school, and intermittently through college. They try to teach me some Tagalog words. My tongue balks at the pronunciation. One of my friends has a karaoke machine at her house, and I listen to her sing “Dahil Sa Iyo.” It’s the only Filipino song I know aside from the rice-planting song.
I attend Filipino cultural festivals they perform in. Once, I am recruited to hold the bamboo poles for the tinikling dancers. But my rhythm is off. The poles are instruments to be banged in a percussive beat, which eludes me. I am soon replaced, given another task, though my friends are gentle about it.
I follow the grace of their arms as they sway above their heads. I watch their feet leap between the banging bamboo poles. Their limbs fly as the bamboo clashes faster, harder, pulsing even in the stationary limbs of the onlookers like mine, which thrills with some deep echo of an unknown past.
I have saved my money for a post-college trip to Mexico, a border close enough to cross with relative ease. When I graduate, my father asks if I want to go to the Philippines. He offers to pay, but I decline. I’m afraid of all I don’t know.
There’s an unspoken competition between my sisters and me on one side and our cousins on the other. We’re better at sports. We know more and bigger words. They’re better looking. Advantage: them. They always wear the right clothes which flatter their curves (we are sticks) and use all manner of brushes and combs to style their hair. They are dexterous with an eyeliner pencil and mascara wand. Their faces are unnaturally free of pimples.
They attend dances and other social functions in the Filipino community like the ubiquitous and inescapable beauty pageant – Maria Clara, Miss Pangasinan, Miss Philippines. One year, the same year I cheer the New York Radical Women’s protest of the Miss America Pageant, the prettiest of my cousins enters the local Miss Philippines contest. I watch her practice walking in her gown, swiveling on high heels as she turns, pausing to pose, hand on hip, chin high, the smile on, gazing far away so as not to register the eyes that will be upon her face, her body. Perversely, I want my cousin to win. It’s a competition and winning is the goal. My cousin is named first runner-up and receives a small crown and a sash. An achievement, we all agree.
A few years later, rumors float that two contestants plan to disrupt the Miss Philippines Pageant in feminist protest. I manage a seat at a table near the stage. The contestants parade in evening gowns without incident. It’s during the hot pants segment that the two young women grab the microphone and shout their manifesto, hoisting their fists. They’re racing through the speech written on a crumpled paper one of them has pulled from the waistband of her hot pants. Someone tries to yank the microphone from their grasp, but they resist. Someone else rips the plug from the power source, but the young women raise their unamplified voices even as they are dragged off the stage out of sight. The ladies who run the pageant smooth their glittery, butterfly-sleeved dresses, the men who have helped to dispense with the troublemakers straighten their barongs, and the show goes on. But the beauty of this pageant has already occurred – women seizing the microphone.
In my thirties, I birth two daughters three years apart. Before, during, and after my pregnancies, I bike or run daily. My heart is sound, my lungs are strong, my limbs wiry. My physical strength is essential to my being because of the power I lack in other ways. I don’t know yet that I want to be a writer. Not until I am nearly forty – when our lives are at their most chaotic when my daughters are seven and three when my husband leaves his job to start his own business when our house is in disarray as he embarks on DIY home remodeling projects, when my roles as full-time wage-earner, mother and wife leave me with a fractured self – do I recognize this long-held urge to write. To my overscheduled life, I add an hour to write each evening after the kids are in bed. I understand finally that this is how I talk – on paper. It’s how I say my name.