Writer's note: I wrote this piece for my 11th grade English class assignment regarding my identity and what it means to be an American. I am Filipino American, but there are aspects of my ancestry that were unknown to me for most of my life. I wanted to capture this discovery in a story and describe how my understanding of myself is changing with that revelation.
March 18, 2021
I’ve been curious about my heritage since I was little. Classmates would ask me, “What are you?” and with pride I would say, “I’m Filipino-American, 100 percent.” I am 100 percent hard work and determination and bravery that took our family from Eastern Samar, Philippines to Silicon Valley. I am the pure ancestral roots that I thought traced back all the way to colonial times, all the way back to the beginning.
I was talking to Mama one night about our family: how the Guillermos organized a rebellion against the Spaniards and took back their land; how they stood up against the white men who forced them to do their dirty work; how they reclaimed what was rightfully theirs. “This bravery is in our blood,” she told me. “Their strength lives on with us.”
“But,” she said, “there is uncertainty in our ancestry. We don’t know the whole story. There are ancestors who can only be traced back so far until we’re lost in genealogy, until we’re drowning in the endless sea of stories and oral histories.”
She then mentioned my Lola (the word for “grandmother” in several Filipino languages including Tagalog; similarly, Lolo means “grandfather”), her Mama who is still alive but isn’t fully there, who laughs and cries and smiles and sleeps and eats but doesn’t always know who we are.
“I know almost nothing about her mom, my Lola,” Mama said. “And her dad, well, it’s not entirely clear if he was fully Filipino. I think he was even part Chinese.”
“No. But he has to be Filipino,” I said in surprise. “That’s who we are. A hundred percent. The blood of the oppressed, the rebels, the scholars, the immigrants.”
“We don’t know anything for sure,” Mama said. “That’s why we did her DNA test. I want to know. I would just like to know.”
So, I visited the website and first checked my Lolo’s profile. The pie graph on the screen showed us unsurprising results: nearly 100 percent Filipino with some “broadly Southeast Asian.” But what about Lola?
We were shocked when we learned that she was 100 percent Chinese across the board; she didn’t have a single drop of Filipino blood in her.
“No way!” I said immediately.
“C’mon,” Mama said. “There must’ve been a mistake. She’s not Chinese.”
All those years living with Lola, listening to her joke about Chinese stereotypes. She was never consciously racist, but in her mind, they were an “other.”
“What else don’t we know about her?” I asked. “I don’t know anything about her childhood. Or her parents. I don’t even know their names.”
“Well, no one really knows her father’s name,” Mama replied. “So I think that’s where the Chinese part comes from.”
“But what about her mom?” I shouted. “She must’ve been Chinese too!”
“If she knew,” Mama said. “I don’t think she told your Lola. Chinese people were discriminated against in the Philippines, you know. She probably just wanted her to have a better life.”
“Tell me everything you know about her,” I said. “My great-Lola. My Chinese great-Lola.”
So Mama told me everything she knew. How my great-Lola grew up on a remote island in Eastern Samar and dropped out of school when she was 10. How she didn’t know how to read. How when she was only 13, she left her family and somehow made the long journey all the way to Manila. And how when she was older, she opened a boarding house and raised my Lola all by herself.
“But what about her husband? My great-Lolo?” I asked.
“He was out of the picture,” Mama replied. “All we know about him was that he was a paramedic during World War II. He died when your Lola was only 13.”
“And his name?” I asked. “Is Ganzon a Chinese name?”
“He probably changed it at some point,” Mama said. “Adding ‘zon’ to the ‘Gan.’”
But that was all we knew about him. This stranger, the shadow that was my great-Lolo, who passed on a piece of my heritage, who makes up an eighth of my DNA and a quarter of Mama’s DNA. And even more surprisingly, my great-Lola wasn’t just some poor Filipino girl from Eastern Samar who climbed the almost impossibly restrictive social hierarchy of the Philippines; she was a poor Chinese girl from Eastern Samar who knew her place in society but refused to accept it. She was brave. She had determination. Her blood is our blood. Her strength lives on with us.
When she raised her only child, she passed on all her strength and values. She was incredibly strict: kneeling for hours on rice was common, and my Lola could never go outside in the sun as her fairnaturally light skin had to be preserved. She had a dream that her daughter would become a world-class pianist, one who would be respected by everyone.
“Eight hours a day,” my Lola would say. “That’s how long I would practice piano: eight hours a day.”
And the practice paid off. By the time she was a teenager, she was one of the best young pianists in the Philippines. She continued on to music school and improved even more, but it wasn’t enough. She didn’t have a career in music, not one that could live up to her mother’s expectations.
“Elevate yourself,” my Lola said. “That’s what my mom always told me. Elevate yourself and you’ll live a better life.”
And that’s what she wanted as well.
My great-Lola’s dream for her daughter pivoted, and her new goal was for my Lola to go to medical school. So after Lola became a doctor, met my Lolo, and had Mama, she moved to Hawaii for a better life. She elevated herself.
“So is that why you became a doctor?” I asked Mama. “Did Lola have the same dream for you too?”
“Yeah,” Mama replied. “She told me, ‘I want you to become a world-famous doctor and cure aging. And I want to be the first person you treat.’”
So that was the story of my great-Lola and her daughter. Both Chinese women who had always identified as Filipino. Who both said, “I may have Chinese blood, but God knows I’m Filipino.”
After Mama finished telling me Lola’s story, we finished catching up and she left my room. I was left with my computer sitting in my lap, showing me my Lola’s DNA results and the solid red pie graph which indicated her Chinese heritage.
“I guess I can’t tell anyone I’m full Filipino anymore,” I whispered to myself.
Then again, I still could. After all, that’s what my great-Lola did her entire life. Her own family had no idea, and by now, her daughter had reached a point in her life where new discoveries could no longer be made. But her culture, her determination, her bravery, and her wit all carried over to posterity, even if the truth about her race did not. She passed her courage down to her only daughter, my Mama, who elevated herself and made it to a land of opportunity. In America, as an Asian-American living in the predominantly Asian-American state of Hawaii, Lola found her place in society and continued to climb.
“Never be complacent,” she would say. “You can always do better for yourself.”
Maybe I’m not a full, 100 percent Filipino-American; I’m proud of my Chinese heritage, even though it was completely unknown to me for so long. This is my ancestry, my identity. I choose to embrace this side of me that I have yet to fully discover.