Meeting My Father

 The grand reunion! April 1995 at Dulles International Airport

The grand reunion! April 1995 at Dulles International Airport

It was my first time on a plane. I was on my way to America with my mom, brother, and sister after a disorienting 24-hour voyage from Manila, Philippines. Along the way, one child almost got lost, two children threw up at every landing and take-off, our last flight got cancelled, and several cardboard boxes carrying our stuff had ripped apart. Tired but antsy in the Dulles International Airport waiting room, we saw a man in the distance. A man that we recognized from photographs and videos we’d seen over the years, but had never met in person. I knew how he looked, how he sounded, maybe what his interests were, and that he loved us, but have never felt his touch. As he got closer, I started running towards him as fast as I could. Finally, I was going to meet Papa.

My twin sister and I were born in April 1990. The February prior to our birth, my mom received her visa to come to America—she was six months pregnant and also had a two-year-old son in tow. On the brink of adding two babies to a family of three, my parents had to make an incomprehensible decision of whether to bring us with them to this new non-tagalog speaking, non-rice eating foreign land, or entrust our care to family members while they built a foundation in America. After much deliberation and advice from relatives in similar situations, they painstakingly decided that my mom would travel first and get a job, my dad would follow once she was settled, and they would come back and get us the following year.

To their dismay, the American immigration system had a different plan in mind. When they applied for the petition to bring the three of us to America, they were told that the immigration quota had been filled and they would have to wait for the next batch to be approved. Dumbfounded at the thought of delaying their reunion with their children, my parents filed various applications, special case petitions, and called the US Philippine Embassy over and over again trying to find a loophole to get us to America sooner. One year turned into two years, two years turned into three, and three became five. My mom was able to visit once for three weeks when I was two years old—we were so excited to “finally have a mom”—but unfortunately our dad was never able to visit due to budget and status constraints.

Luckily, we were blessed with our paternal grandparents, aunts, and uncle who compassionately and selflessly raised us in our parents’ stead. My aunt Susan was only 27 years old when she quit her job to raise the three of us, while my other aunt Annette and uncle Larry treated us like second, third, and fourth children alongside their son. They along with my grandparents assured us that our parents loved us tremendously and did what they had to do so that we’d have a bright future. My siblings and I never felt a lack of love or resentment towards our parents.

During those years we communicated very openly with our mom and dad via phone calls, birthday cards, letters, videotapes, and balikbayan boxes—huge cardboard boxes filled with goodies such as cans of Spam and corned beef, boxes of Swiss Miss cocoa mix, Dove soap bars, Crunch chocolate bars, Play Doh, Crayola crayon sets, Barbie dolls, action figures, Game Boy consoles and games, and coloring books. They regularly sent picture albums of their lives in America while we in turn sent albums and videotapes of our birthday parties, first days school, Christmases, and vacations. We felt their love with every new package we received; however, we were never able to feel their hugs and kisses, or even speak with them in real time (video conferencing didn’t exist in the 90s). To this day, I cannot fathom the immense sacrifice our parents, aunts, uncle, and grandparents made for these three little kids.

After five grueling years, our immigration papers finally went through in 1995. My mom flew back just in time for my sister and I to have one last birthday in the Philippines, a memorable occasion at Goldilocks restaurant. After another short three-week vacation, my mom brought her children to the airport to start our new lives—on my uncle Larry’s birthday. Needless to say, that was the saddest birthday he’d ever had. Before we boarded the plane, we achingly said goodbye to the only family we had known for our entire lives. It was an unbelievably emotional time, and I am only now beginning to understand the bittersweet uncertainty we all felt as we hugged and kissed each other one last time.*

Although it was an excruciating 24-hour voyage through three countries, several delays, cancelled flights, and an hour-long shuttle bus ride between airports, all the effort became worthwhile when we finally saw our dad waiting for us right as we got off the shuttle bus. Although I’d never seen in him in real life, I knew who this man was. I still have a vivid memory of running to him because I was so excited touch, smell, and feel his embrace.  My dad’s not an emotional person, but I knew he was beyond ecstatic because it was finally here: the dream of seeing his family together.

We left the airport exhausted, jetlagged, and hungry—but so excited to finally be holding our dad’s hands. When we arrived at our new home, we were met with more strangers who would eventually become our second mothers, fathers, and siblings in America. We were about to embark on a journey that we then couldn’t have ever comprehended: growing up in a bicultural household—simultaneously learning how to be Filipino and American—and all the pros and cons that came with that lifestyle.  It’s a journey neither our mom nor dad, nor us kids have taken for granted. To all be together in this country was well worth all their sacrifices.
 

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*We are still incredibly close to our family back in Philippines and visit each other every few years. We call them during every birthday, holiday, and sporadically just to say hi. They attended the college graduations of me, my brother, and my sister, and we attended the graduation of our cousin, Valro, who we are also still very close with, and his sister Myla, born after we moved to America. The time we shared during those first few years left an invisible connection that bonded us for life.

**A condensed version of this story was originally posted by NextDayBetter as part of their Father's Day Campaign.

Why We Love the Beatles

The first Beatles song I remember hearing is I Want to Hold Your Hand.

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It was during the annual Urgel Family Crab Feast, one of many family get togethers we had on beautiful, long summer days during my childhood. We gathered at the same place we always do: my aunt’s house in Herndon. This was the house where Christmas and Thanksgiving was celebrated for nearly 20 years; where my parents and aunt and uncle had their weddings; the house everyone called home. During the Feast, we ate on a long picnic table out on the patio, snuggly sitting elbow-to-elbow with each other and still not having enough room for everyone to sit together all at once. Scattered on the table and patio floor were boxes of large, succulent, juicy snow crabs purchased earlier that day from the DC Wharf original outdoor fish market. Accompanying the crabs were piles of discarded shells, plates of rice, and bowls of vinegar and garlic sawsawan (dipping sauce).

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As we ate, enjoyed the sun, gossiped, and laughed, the battery-operated boombox blared Beatles song after Beatles song from the dozens of albums my uncles owned. I Want to Hold Your Hand, Help!, Twist and Shout, Please Please Me, All My Loving, Ob La Di and the band’s other upbeat songs and ballads filled the atmosphere with mellifluous harmony. As the adults sang along at the tops of their lungs, I sat at the kid’s table cracking shells and picking the meat with my tiny hands. We ate the crabs, rice, and sawsawan with our hands—kamayan style. The only utensils were tools for cracking the shells. There were also no napkins needed because the disposable plastic table covers and laid out newspapers encouraged us to make a huge mess.

The eating lingered as a slew of other activities began to take shape: titas played mahjong, cousins played board games and video games, and titos drank beer and smoked cigarettes out on the yard. And, as always, the karaoke machine was the star of the show. Love ballads, disco, funk, Filipino OPMs, and—of course—even more Beatles songs were sung. It was the very best way to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon. And because of these beautiful gatherings, to this day I still correlate gobs of crabs with I Want to Hold Your Hand.

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This is why we love the Beatles: memories. The Urgel Family Crab Feast is one memory out of dozens associated with The Beatles and family get-togethers. Memories of the good ol’ days, of innocence and celebration. Over the years and to keep with the times, we’ve converted our uncles’ collections of Beatles albums from CDs to iTunes to Spotify playlists. Today, when I listen to their songs, I find myself relating to lyrics much more deeply than when I was a kid merely singing along for fun. For example, in Help! The Beatles talk about how as they get older, they realize they need more help from others:

When I was younger, so much younger than today
I never needed anybody's help in any way
But now these days are gone and I'm not so self assured
Now I find I've changed my mind, I've opened up the doors

Help me if you can, I'm feeling down
And I do appreciate you being 'round
Help me get my feet back on the ground
Won't you please, please help me?

Similar to John, Paul, George, and Ringo, I definitely have more doubt these days than I did when I was a young and careless child or teen, and now often turn to others—especially my family—for help when navigating the world of finances, house loans, career obstacles, relationships, marriage, and children. Even though the Beatles stopped making music together more than 50 years ago (!!!!!!), their music will forever be timeless.

I thank my parents, aunts, and uncles not only for introducing us to their amazing taste in music, but also for teaching us how to embrace art and emotional expression, and how the power of music allows you to release worries and just be happy to sing and dance to your favorite songs.

In the year 2068, The Beatles will be 100 years old!!!! My cousins and I will be in our 70s, 80s, and 90s! We will have grandkids and great-grandkids! But I guarantee you we will still be listening to The Beatles on our super high-tech, floatable, voice recognition, or whatever-the-heck-the-future-will-come-up-with technology and thinking about our parents, the memories of childhood, and how this music has helped pave our lives. The Beatles has always been their favorite musicians, has easily become ours, and will hopefully be our children’s as well in the future.

Filipino Fat Ass

 Our 6th birthday party, when one cake wasn't enough (shout out to Tita Linda Pastrana for making the cakes!).

Our 6th birthday party, when one cake wasn't enough (shout out to Tita Linda Pastrana for making the cakes!).

Ok I know, the title may be a little harsh. But it’s the truth: Filipinos can really, really eat a lot! It’s always a shock to my non-Filipino friends when they see how much I can eat at a restaurant or party—especially considering my small stature. My sister and I are consistently the last ones eating at the table and always still have room for dessert—a special skill we’ve crowned as The Last Ones Standing. We can continue to eat new dishes or snacks even when we aren’t hungry or had just eaten a meal—a feat that only those with the strongest stomachs can achieve. At my work, every time a new dessert is being sampled by the staff, they automatically give me a plate because they know I will always want to try it and will always enjoy it. One of my co-workers has actually asked me, “How come it seems like Asians can eat more than most people?” Truly, this skill is one of the greatest gifts of being Filipino!

But unlike Takeru Kobayashi and other food competitors who developed an entire science around eating massive quantities of food, I believe that the reason Filipinos can eat so much is simply because our culture is centered around food. In our culture, food doesn’t have much to do with health or nutrition—its purpose is to bring people together and show hospitality towards guests and loved ones. Throughout childhood, food was the epicenter and excitement of our days. Breakfast was eaten together every morning before school with my siblings and whichever parent was home (our parents worked opposite schedules growing up); after school snacks—or merienda—was synonymous with homework; dinners were always home-cooked Filipino dishes with heaping amounts of rice and eaten together at the table; Friday night hang outs with my aunts and cousins were at fast food restaurants or mall food courts; Saturdays were big parties with at least a dozen dishes and desserts; and Sunday meals after church were enjoyed as a family at home or at restaurants. It really is no wonder why my siblings, cousins, and I were all overweight as kids!

 Another birthday party, when someone thought it was a great idea for the whole gang to pose  with the food .

Another birthday party, when someone thought it was a great idea for the whole gang to pose with the food.

Food is also how Filipinos show affection and care towards each other. Even just a small gathering or quick get-together is accompanied with three or four home-cooked dishes, sliced fruit, frozen chicken wings quickly cooked in the oven, chips and snacks from the pantry, Costco cream puffs and ice cream sandwiches grabbed from the freezer, and lots and lots of coffee. I’m always surprised at how quickly my mom and aunts can whip together enough food on a weekday evening when five, ten or fifteen relatives unexpectedly drop by on their way home from work. Moreover, when we were kids, my mom would always ask our friends—right as they walked in the door and no matter what time it was—if they’ve eaten yet, or if they would like something to eat. “No, thank you” or “I’m not hungry” was usually an unacceptable answer, as she’d still warm up Hot Pockets or frozen raviolis and leave them out on the counter just in case we did get hungry. And now, when my friends come over to my house the first thing I ask them is, “Are you hungry?” And just like my mom, I find myself rummaging through my fridge and pantry trying to find something they can at least nibble on. It is always a goal to ensure that my friends have eaten plenty by the time they leave. This obsessive need to feed others is how Filipinos express care and love.

With this strong foundation in food, it’s no surprise that we have a profound love for cooking, Culinary Arts, and the restaurant industry. In my perspective, food is so much more than eating to alleviate hunger. It tells the story of earth’s living things, geographical climates, and seasonal patterns. It’s a creative outlet, an expression of joy, a way to form close bonds with others, and is an essential tool for learning about other cultures’ lifestyles and traditions. I love bringing my non-Filipino friends to a Filipino restaurant and describing the various dishes and memories associated with the dish; or when friends take me to a restaurant of their culture and share stories with me. Food truly breaks barriers and creates conversation that otherwise wouldn't be shared. I built a passion for food over a decade-long journey of enjoying every meal that was prepared for me, every new dish I attempted to cook, every party I attended, and every new restaurant I tried. In the similar way that a young boy or girl builds a treehouse with his parents and wants to become an architect, my background in being a Filipino Fat Ass forged a career in food and hospitality. Unfortunately, even though our love of food continues, there is, of course, a negative side to the colossal appetites that Filipinos carry.

As I mentioned earlier, we were overweight as kids. And when I say were overweight, I mean we were OVERWEIGHT. However, once we hit our teens, we realized that we needed to make a drastic change if we wanted to live healthier lives. Filipino cuisine uses an abundance of pork and animal fats and is very high in sodium. Furthermore, there is not enough fresh, nutritious fruits or vegetables in everyday cooking, and the average amount of white rice that Filipinos eat during the day is very unhealthy. This diet has caused many Filipinos to obtain fat-and-salt-based health problems such as type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Through this realization, the younger generation has decided to take control of our cuisine and health for the better.

Over the years, we learned how to eat healthy, what foods to avoid, and how to manage portion control. We also learned the importance of staying active, doing sports, and exercising regularly. The arduous process of changing our food lifestyle was a rough transition. We got so obsessed that at one point we would use a napkin to remove the grease from pizza and french fries, stopped eating lunch at school, kept food journals, only ever drank water, and even forced our dad to eat less rice by hiding the rice cooker after giving him a small portion. It was a surprising change of heart, but one we needed to take so we don’t end up with the same health problems in the future.

Today, we’ve learned the art of moderation: eating healthy most of the week and allowing a cheat day (or two) on the weekends—which is when we uphold the title of Last Ones Standing at social functions, and spurge on multiple rounds of food when visiting home. An important change of lifestyle from childhood is finding ways to making Filipino dishes healthier. How can we introduce less animal fat, more vegetables and legumes, better varieties in cooking techniques, and more sustainable ingredients to traditional dishes? This is a fun, everyday challenge that is catching on (1) amongst Filipinos who still want to eat great food but live a healthier life.

The Filipino Fat Ass will always be a part of us. We will always see food as an essential expression of love, hospitality, and care—and because of that, we will gorge on copious amounts of love-filled dishes when we can. However, understanding the invaluable aspect of food as a nutritional tool for energy, health, and well being has become equally as important. Truly, you can have the best of both worlds.


1 Check out these websites about healthy Filipino food and lifestyle:
www.astigvegan.com
www.thefatkidinside.com
www.thelittleepicurean.com