Parallel Universe

Lyn (left). Paula (third from right) with five of her children, one son-in-law, and two grandchildren.

Lyn (left). Paula (third from right) with five of her children, one son-in-law, and two grandchildren.

On a beautiful sunny day, a young woman looks out the window of a moving vehicle to blue skies, green trees, and a paved road.  Having just said goodbye to the only home she's ever known, the woman looks longingly at the spectacular view and wonders if she made the right decision to join her husband in a new foreign land. She hoped with all her might that this new place will foster a wealth of opportunity that her current home cannot—especially for her children.  As she gazes out the window, her hands are full with luggage in one hand and a small child in the other.  

When she arrives at her new destination, her husband excitedly awaits. He came to the city first, to establish a job and home for their young family. Upon their reunion, the husband and wife passionately embrace and he gives his daughter an affectionate kiss on the forehead; he then leads her to the car and they drive onwards to their new life.

Once they arrive at their new home and open the door, she gets a whiff of something that surprisingly smells exactly like the place she has just left behind.  As she enters the dining room, she sees a piping hot pot of her favorite dish at the center of the table, set for two: a dinner plate in the center with a fork to the left and a spoon to the right.  Her husband made this dish as a reminder that her home, heritage, and the place they met is always only one meal away: as long as they keep these connections close to their hearts, they will belong there forever.

The woman in this story is my grandmother Paula.  She moved from the town of Catanduanes in the Bicol province to Manila in the late 1940s with her husband—my grandfather—Jose.  At the time, Bicol was a very rural and underdeveloped area—impoverished by the world war—with no electricity or running water, and bahay kubos made by the people of the community.  Having grown up in a family of eight siblings, Paula knew hardship and poverty. That is why when her brother Francisco, the eldest of the family, first moved to Manila and convinced Paula to move there for better opportunities, she was immediately on board.  Several years after marrying Jose and having their first child, Nellie, she packed her bags and moved to the nation’s capital, unsure of what the future will hold but hopeful that a better life lay ahead.

Adjusting to life from the countryside to the busy city was tough for the duo. They had to switch from their native dialect of Bicol to the one spoken in the city—Tagalog. Furthermore, they had to adjust to paved roads, crowded streets, endless noise, and unfamiliar food. For example, in their homeland, they were accustomed to the abundance of alimasag (crab) and everything prepared ginitaang (stewed in fresh coconut milk).  In stark contrast, coconut milk in Manila came from a can and crab had to be replaced with vegetables and fish because it was too expensive in the land-locked city.  

Nonetheless they trekked on, eventually buying a house, opening a sari-sari store in their front patio, and raising eight children.  Paula was a dressmaker and alterer, managed the store, and took care of the children while Jose worked at a local restaurant.  They continued to cook delicious Bicolano food, provide a good childhood and happy memories for their kids, and—most importantly—were able to support everyone through college.

As life continued in the big city, they would occasionally go back to their homeland in Catanduanes and visit family, eat fresh ginitaang alimasag, and enjoy the beautiful countryside.  They continued to speak Bicol at home and to their children (though their children could only understand but not speak it), and learned to speak Tagalog fluently.  Through their endless support and perseverance, all their children eventually got married, had their own families, and created their own journeys. Paula would eventually have 27 grandchildren who would also pave their own paths—even one who was so inspired by her lola's journey that she would document the story for the world to read.

The woman in this story is also my aunt Linda.  She moved from the Philippines to the United States in the 1970s with her husband—my uncle—Pete in order to provide a better life for their children.  Although they had stable lives in the Philippines, Lyn and Pete both came from a history of hardship and many siblings. They yearned for much more for their two daughters.

Pete was the first in his family to move to the U.S. At the recommendation of his best friend, Rey, Pete acquired a work visa as an accountant, packed his bags, and got on an airplane set to land in Washington, DC—unsure of what the future would hold but hopeful that a better life lay ahead.  He adjusted to his job and found a home where his young family could settle. Lyn followed a year later with luggage in one hand and her two-year-old daughter in the other.

Similar to her mother’s, Lyn’s move was incredibly tough and culturally shocking. She continued to speak her native tongue to her daughters (who could only understand but not speak Tagalog). And although Lyn knew how to speak English, she had to adjust to American English—which had lots of slang and goes 100 miles per hour compared to what she was used to.  With incredible homesickness and constantly missing her siblings and parents, Lyn visited her homeland a handful of times over the years and occasionally met newborn nephews and nieces, myself included.  

She didn’t know at the time, but Lyn’s daringness to do what her mother did thirty years prior paved such an incredible path for all her family members.  Several years after living in the U.S., Lyn petitioned her mom for a permanent residency visa, who then eventually petitioned all seven of her other children—Lyn’s brothers and sisters.  Because of various rules and blockades of the US immigration system, it took 20 years for all seven to arrive.  Each sibling had their own unique journey to obtain their visas and bring their own families; but ultimately, created limitless opportunity for their children—Lyn’s nephews and nieces, and Paula’s grandkids.

As mothers and role models, Paula and Lyn had equally monumental challenges when they decided to leave a familiar environment and culture to explore a completely foreign one. Because of these two brave women, my aunts, uncles, cousins and I were able to foster successful careers and higher education, own homes, build families, and travel all over the world. Specifically, they inspired me to write about my heritage and document their journeys.

This story is multi-generational for my family: my grandmother and mother were immigrants—as am I. We immigrated in the late 20th century, while many Chinese and Japanese families immigrated in the early 20th century, and many European families immigrated in the 18th-19th centuries.  The pattern continues today as even more families from all over the world continue to immigrate—especially those in our neighboring countries.

However, there are hundreds or thousands—no, actually millions—of others over time who can relate almost exactly to this story because the immigrant story is all the same: we sacrifice our home, culture, and comforts to move to an unfamiliar place; all for a chance at a better life—for ourselves, our children, and future generations. This is not just the immigrant story, it is the American story.

Leap and the Net will Appear [Part Dalawa {2}: Charm City Night Market]

Baybayin print (Photo by Zhou Winston  @wzhoupho  to )

Baybayin print (Photo by Zhou Winston @wzhouphoto)

“Leap and the Net Will Appear.” I don’t know if it’s because I’m a liberal artist, a dreaming American, a spoiled Millennial, or a stubborn Aries—but for some reason this quote fuels me to wonder, explore, and create without fear. To me, this quote sends the message that if we just go for the thing we want, the thing we dream about and yearn for, the universe will conspire to support us and make sure we succeed.

Sometimes I fight this feeling of curiosity and try to obtain a “normal life” by focusing on my client-based, secure, 9 to 5 career. Oftentimes I am even scared of the feeling because of this looming thought that if I don’t succeed then I will disappoint my parents and my whole family. However, I push hard to stay empowered and motivated by this quote. Thank God for that, because this little quote led us to start hosting supper clubs from our crowded dining room and tiny galley kitchen back in 2015, contribute to our first ever published recipe and story for The New Filipino Kitchen, and it’s what encouraged us to sell artwork at the first ever Charm City Night Market.

Prior to the Night Market, Timpla had been quiet to the public for quite some time, sitting comfortably in the silo of our living room as we shared our new focus of storytelling and artwork through the internet. Yes, we were sending out monthly emails and getting positive responses from subscribers, but we hadn’t really poured our souls to the community since our last supper club in 2017. Which is why when Stephanie Hsu (@chinadollbaltimore) and Leandro Legara (@foodnomad) of The Chinatown Collective approached me to sell work for an upcoming Asian-American night market she was organizing, the little voice in my head whispered {or maybe more like shouted}, “Yes, it’s time to leap!”

Until then I had only vendored twice, at the Baltimore Vintage Flea. Whether it was a mismatched audience or general inexperience on my part, both events only managed to sell a handful of pieces. As a result, I worried that our new artistic endeavor would not and could not be as successful as our previous food endeavors. Food was easy—everyone likes to eat (especially Filipinos) and we had years of collective experience in the food industry. Selling artwork, on the other hand, was a whole new ball game. Once I confirmed with Stephanie, my mind began to race with anxiety: will people like, understand, or care about our work; will they view us as legitimate in the art field; will they finally find out that we in fact don’t know what we’re doing, and that we’re just carelessly leaping off cliffs and hoping to find nets?

Manning our booth at the Charm City Night Market (Photo by Jasper Samson  @jaspaaah )

Manning our booth at the Charm City Night Market (Photo by Jasper Samson @jaspaaah)

With doubts in our minds but promises made and money already deposited for vendor fees, we had no choice but to push on. When brainstorming what to create for the market, we started with some basic concepts that we thought would be most marketable to the attendees: watercolors of Philippine flowers, landscapes of beaches, etc. We conceptualized for days but were neither excited nor enticed to create any pieces. We eventually realized that this is because when one creates art, he/she cannot simply push themselves to do the work if there is no emotional connection to the act. It is not like doing mindless paperwork or doing the same tedious task over and over again. It must be felt from deep within the heart and soul; felt by the purest form of self; the self that is most closely tied to the divine.

Feeling unmotivated and discouraged with our brainstorming, we scrapped the bland, watered-down ideas of what we thought could sell and shifted our energy towards what we knew in our souls we wanted to express. We brainstormed ideas about what would excite us to create meaningful work that we would be proud of even if no one was interested in purchasing them. Once I let my guard down and stopped approaching the project by what I thought people would be willing to pay for, I shifted my attention to my favorite topic—the one topic that I keep gravitating towards year after year, project after project: baybayin and indigenous tribal symbols. These were the themes for my senior projects in college, the basis for our Timpla logo, and the only thing that really fuels me to create. With that, we read through our go-to books on Filipino tribal symbols (1) and baybayin (2), scanned old notes from similar projects, and constructed new concepts inspired by Filipino life and history. In the end, we came up with seven strong pieces ranging from lighthearted and recognizable to deeper and more thought-provoking:

In the month leading up to the night market, we denied any and all social gatherings to work on the pieces. There were long nights of flurried designing, but the time we spent making art didn’t feel like work at all—in fact, it felt like a beast had unleashed from sleeping quietly within our bones and heart, a feeling similar to when we used to plan and execute our supper clubs. We felt stress and stiff joints along with elation, adrenaline, and excitement as we prepared our beloved pieces to showcase and sell. We weren’t confident in the audience reception, but we decided to take the leap and anticipated what we would meet on the other side.

Our amazing parents supported us by coming to the art show!

Our amazing parents supported us by coming to the art show!

On Saturday, September 22nd, a quiet and otherwise abandoned grassy field right outside of downtown Baltimore was transformed into a busy and bustling array of activity. Chinese lanterns and string lights lined table tents and buildings. Food vendors, artists, crafters, dancers, musicians, and performers brought the space to life. Streets were closed down in order to make room for the foot traffic of 12,000 attendees! And at the center of the tent arrangement, right across from the stage, we carefully and meticulously set up our grand reveal of Timpla’s rebrand—telling the story of immigration and cultural identity through art.

Our amazing titas Vivian and Lyn surprised us with their attendance!

Our amazing titas Vivian and Lyn surprised us with their attendance!

The night began in full swing, with attendees circling the perimeter even before the event officially started. As the evening progressed, more and more people scattered throughout the space and—much to our surprise—tens, dozens, and eventually hundreds of people curiously stopped at our booth. Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike were drawn to our colorful watercolors of jeepney, parol, and bahay kubo; our bold digital prints of baybayin and tribal symobls representing kapamilya (family), mandarigma (warrior), and diyosa (goddess); our nouveau pop prints of flowers, teacups, and maps of Maryland and DC. And, at the forefront of our booth, angled to be the first piece seen—and the one that initiated the most stops and conversation—was the alphabet guide for reading and writing in baybayin.

Prior to the show, we focused on being as humble as possible to minimize the blow—we told ourselves that if we can sell six pieces, it will have been the best market we’ve participated in. Thank God that the reaction from attendees was more supportive, uplifting, and empowering than anything we could have ever imagined! I wish there was a way to express in words the elation we felt as each person stopped by the booth to compliment, praise, and adore our pieces. The people that came into our booth were blown away with the level of creativity, detail, and uniqueness of the pieces.

We met so many diverse and curious people that asked questions about Philippine indigenous culture—a topic so overshadowed by Spanish colonization that most Filipinos don’t even know of its existence; men and women with tribal symbols and baybayin tattooed to their bodies; Fil-Ams excited to finally see art that told their stories and connected them to their homeland; non-Filipinos who bought pieces because they felt connected to the themes; and—as an ego boost—praises on our artistic skills and ability to tell such complex ideas through beautiful products. And in case you were curious: yes, we ended up selling way more than six pieces!

When the evening finally ended well into the night, we were swollen with appreciation and satisfaction to have landed on the net that we so hoped would appear. We realized, as we had time and time again, that taking the risk was worthwhile as it open doors and opportunities that we would have never come across. We truly learned an important lesson that evening: as the renowned artist Marina Abramović stated, “An artist should look deep inside himself for inspiration; the deeper he looks inside himself, the more universal he becomes.”

  1. Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern by Lane Wilcken

  2. An Introduction to Baybayin by Kristian Kabuay