In 1980, my mother was a 21-year-old student at Western Leyte College, living with her family in Lamanoc, a cluster of two-room, dirt-floor houses, bordered by the ocean, mangrove forests, and wetland tropical jungles. Even 20 years later, this village wouldn’t be recognized by the Philippine postal service. My grandfather had started a second, weekday family in the city where he worked as an engineer. My Grandma Limosnero had been supporting all 13 of her kids by selling lumpia beside the National Highway. When my mother’s friend suggested they submit their photos and biographies to an international marriage agency, my mom saw an opportunity.
She received three letters, one from a man in Greece, another from Houston, and the last from my dad, a twice-divorced U.S. Marine living in Mountain View, California. She wrote back only to my dad. She believed that in California she would encounter the least amount of racism. He had looked handsome in the picture that he’d sent, standing in Levis underneath an arch made entirely of deer antlers. In his second and subsequent letters, he sent a $20 bill, enough for rice for her family for the week.
After a year of correspondence, my dad took the two-day trip to Lamanoc from San Francisco, and my parents were married within a week. My sister came nine months later, my mom’s first and my dad’s fourth child.
It was my Grandma Limosnero who had insisted that the new couple stay in Lamanoc. At the time, immigrating from the Philippines as a bride was common, and horror stories swirled around about women being abused or killed by their foreigner husbands.
Dad’s family liked to say that he could sell ice to an Eskimo, and I imagine his charm served him well during their honeymoon period. He didn’t even drink during his first week in Lamanoc. But by the time we moved to the U.S., the Budweiser truck was making regular monthly stops at our wooden beach home. The two-story truck would be parked right in front of our second story porch, and cases of tallboys would be unloaded and assembly-lined into the kitchen at the back of the house. By this time, the fights between my parents became legendary. Our aunties would hear them start up, and immediately shuffle my sister and I out of the house.
During the 11 years we lived in the Philippines, my father’s military pension was more than enough for our family of four. I grew up with my mom’s siblings living with us, nannying, cooking, and cleaning in exchange for university tuition. Though Dad was an authority figure in Lamanoc, both teaching English formally and dolling out advice informally, he never learned Visayan and strictly enforced an English Only House. My aunties and uncles made sure that we ate fried fish and rice with Spanish hot chocolate for breakfast. We’d eat with our hands, hurriedly picking-up forks and switching to halting English if Dad made his way to the kitchen from his roost on the porch.
On December 18,1991, my eighth birthday, we moved into my paternal grandmother’s Northern California home. My mother had been living in the U.S. going to college for a year, and caring for “the kids” fell to my dad and my grandma. Grandma Carolyn was a retired accounting professor, and she had the thinnest, whitest skin I had ever seen. She showed us stacks of Hungry Man frozen dinners, saying, “I was never going to cook again.” That first night, she taught me how to make a scotch and water and cooked chicken liver with onions for dinner.
Growing up on a rural Philippine island, there had been no other family like ours. If I heard the word “Americana” yelled from across the street, I was bolstered knowing they were meant for either me or my sister. When we moved to the U.S. I learned that there were many other families like mine. I learned that there were other women like my mom, and that these women were from Third World countries, and that they “used” men like my dad. The stereotype grated against everything I knew about my mom and my Filipino family, but I was also a kid and still learning to be an American. If Mail Order Bride was what women like my mom were called, who was I to say differently?
In the U.S. I also learned that people could date, that they should fall in love and then get married. In the Philippines people had just married. I started learning other people’s love stories and eventually decided on one that fit my family. I started to tell people that my dad was a Vietnam veteran, that he was stationed in the Philippines, and that is where he had met my mom. I remember an adult on the receiving end of this lie cocking her head and asking, “Now, how old is your mom?” None of these lies made sense: my mom was 12 years old at the end of the Vietnam War.
The summer after I graduated from eighth grade, after six years in the U.S., our family booked a vacation home to Lamanoc. Our old two-story house had been partitioned with plywood to make more bedrooms. My aunties inspected my mother’s luggage, picking out which clothes they wanted to keep. After leaving for the day, my clothes had also been rummaged through. My uncles drunkenly asked why Dad didn’t come, then giggled and said they were relieved.
Our trip was for my Auntie Gretchen’s wedding; my sister and I were bridesmaids and my mother was the official host. The ceremony was in the Lamanoc Catholic Church, a low, cement-brick building, and the reception was at my childhood home. But when the wedding party was seated for dinner with the priest, my mother was left standing. In all the 11 years she lived in Lamanoc as a married woman, my mom was excluded from Communion, a weekly right for practicing Catholics. During the reception she was snubbed again because of her marriage to a divorcee. The insult was so public and visceral that even the memory of it makes my stomach churn. During this visit, I saw that none of my aunties or village girls had chosen to follow my mom’s path to international marriage, and I wondered if witnessing my parent’s marriage affected their decisions.
Later that week, I found myself on stage for the Annual Ms. Lamanoc Pageant. My mom, Ms. Lamanoc 1979, had surprised me with my participation. I would be a decoration on the stage, a literal wallflower, next to the five actual Ms. Lamanoc contenders. I had been excited to dress-up and get ready for the pageant, but once on stage I felt a familiar shame flood my body and heated, pulsing blood rush to my skin. This night was another humiliation to endure, another chance for Lamanoc to put my mom in her place.
Looking from the stage, I found my mom’s face. Standing there in her hometown, she was lit with joy. I thought about the 21- year-old girl she had been, about the choices that she had made, what she had withstood, and what she had accomplished. In eight years in the U.S., she earned an AA, a BA, and was working towards an MSW. She financially supported our entire family, helped her brothers and sisters to buy houses and farms, and sent my cousins to private schools and to university. She petitioned for her sister and mother to immigrate the U.S., and helped them establish themselves. That day, I glimpsed what would take me years to grasp, that she had always been more than the phrase “Mail Order Bride.”
Carolyn Prasad is a grant writer and aspiring author. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two small children who are perfect distractions from writing.