Family Talk: Unearthing the Past


I used to think my parents were straight up crazy. Case in point: I was eating lunch with them one day in a humble sandwich shop, begrudgingly listening to my mom give me financial advice about something or another. Suddenly, her face turned stone serious. She looked me dead in the eye and started whispering in Tagalog as if it she were embedding her message in some secret code. The only problem was that I’ve never been able to understand Tagalog, a fact that she of all people knew very well. “What...?” I replied bewildered and frustrated, “I can’t understand you.”

She then drew her words out slowly.


I looked around the nearly empty store to see what diabolical agents she might be trying to hide this classified information from. There was nobody but the cashier and two other customers well out of earshot.

“I… don’t… know… what… you’re… saying…”

At last she switched back to English, lowered her voice even softer and divulged:

“Do not ever enter your credit card information into a cell phone app.”

I was not amused.

“What? Why didn’t you just say that? Nobody here or anywhere cares that you’re warning me about entering credit card information!”


I pocketed that scene into my head as another one of my mom’s ridiculous antics, and it was only later that I understood why she was behaving so abnormally. I was reading The Gun Dealer’s Daughter by Pilipina author Gina Apostol and casually mentioned to my parents that it was set in the Philippines during the Marcos regime.

“Yes, they called those of us born during his rule Marcos babies,” explained my mom. “And you weren’t allowed to saying against the government. People were really disappearing.”

A blunt blow of realization hit me. I never fully imagined what it was like for my parents growing up through a tyrannical dictatorship, whispering in codes for over twenty years. For a land-of-the-free baby like me, the reality of their past was unfathomable.

Throughout my childhood I’ve heard very little about my parents’ younger years in the Philippines, as if starting a new chapter in their lives necessitated silence from the previous ones, and my assimilated American self didn’t need to know about any of it. Now that I’m older and have shown them I am interested in my roots, the stories are finally starting to slowly trickle out.

For me, the differences between their lives then and now are almost inconceivable. I’m talking traveling salesman to comfortable couch potato, grass mats to memory foam mattresses, farm living to strip mall-studded suburbia. Equally shocking are the tales of their struggles as undocumented immigrants, such as how they were manipulated by their employers and faced the threat of deportation.

The stories I’ve heard, however, are merely snapshots of the big picture. I realized that I know very little about my parents, barely anything about my grandparents and practically nothing beyond them. It’s almost shameful to think that I'm in the dark when it comes to understanding my own family’s history.

That’s why my latest personal quest is to unearth the stories on my family’s past and find ways to keep them alive in the future. It’s exciting really. What lost adventures are waiting to be uncovered? What patterns might I find, what quirks, what tragedies, what might I see reflected back in myself?

I bet there are lifetimes of lessons to learn. I would be gaining a better understanding of who my parents are as people, and preserving a unique narrative that can’t be found in any textbook. What it really comes down to though is that I’m looking for a good story. And the stories that touch us the most, whether in books or Facebook news feeds are those that we can relate to. What’s more relatable than the epic saga of the people who made you?

Photo Credit: Big Fish Games