Dear Asian Youth,
As a kid, did you ever forget the importance of Mother's Day?
I know I did.
I recall a time in 5th grade when we were assigned to make a gift for Mother’s Day. Our teacher didn’t want us to create anything cliché, so that meant no cheesy Mother’s Day cards or paper hearts decorated with drawings. She wanted us to dig deep into what we knew about our mothers. For me, food was the first thing that came to mind. Making food with my mom was a time when we could talk about anything: we could gush over our favorite TV show characters or tell each other about our days. Determined to create a gift that accurately represented the importance of food in our relationship, I grabbed the glue and scissors from a plastic tub and busted out my (arguably nonexistent!) artistic skills. After what seemed like a hundred hours of working, my glitter-covered hands wiped the sweat off my forehead and I stared in admiration at my greatest creation ever: a recipe book with “love” as the only meal. I remember getting creative with how I crafted the recipes, using ingredients like a pint of kisses and a sprinkle of hugs. That day, I went home with a huge grin plastered on my face, putting a little extra pep in every single step and a little extra groove in every single move. When I presented my mother the masterpiece, she smiled with joy and embraced me with tears in her eyes. I felt comforted and safe as she held me in her arms, and my heart tingled with a warm feeling I knew I could never get anywhere else.
The Sunday of Mother’s Day, we made Spam sandwiches with our own little Filipino twist to them and cut them into adorable heart shapes. I munched down a couple and saved a few for Monday’s lunch. All giddy and excited, I couldn’t wait to show off my meal to all my friends.
That Monday morning, I sprung out of my bed and for once felt excited to get up for school. I daydreamed about lunch during the entirety of class time and as soon as the lunch bell rang, I rushed out of the classroom and ran to the lunch tables. Plopping down next to my friends, they looked at me as if I was some sort of crazy person. I didn’t care. This was the moment I had been waiting for all day!
My hands scrambled to unwrap my heart-shaped food, but as soon as I did, I was met with disgust and crinkled noses. “What’s wrong?” I asked. Everyone exchanged glances at once. Awkward silence consumed the table. I sat, dumbfounded. Finally, my friend interrupted the silence.
“There’s a smell, and it’s coming from you.”
What? A smell, coming from me? A million questions ran through my mind at that moment. Did I shower well enough last night? Did my breath stink? Do my clothes need to be washed again?
Suddenly, the boy sitting across from me grabbed my lunch with pinched fingers, as if it was some sort of roadkill. It finally dawned upon me that it was my food that was making them feel queasy.
I felt as if I was going to explode. Flailing my arms to take it back, I desperately yelled at him to stop. My heart was racing uncontrollably and I could feel my face getting hot as he continued to taunt me. After having a laugh with his friends, he finally tossed my lunch back to me. I couldn’t believe it. The Filipino meal that I was so looking forward to eating had been ridiculed, tossed around, treated like garbage. All I wanted to do was curl up into a ball and cry. I balled up the sandwich with my fists and chucked it into the trash can, running to the bathroom in tears.
When I came home that day, my mom asked, “Did you enjoy your lunch?”
I didn’t even want to open my mouth to respond. My eyes were visibly bloodshot, and my face was still fresh with tears. The silence was deafening, and my mom knew something was wrong. The look on her face at that moment was unforgettable: her skin paled, her eyes narrowed, her mouth agape. She realized what had happened. It was then, when I decided that I would completely renounce my Filipino culture.
My efforts began immediately. I would beg my mom to stop packing leftovers for lunch. As soon as dinner ended, I would immediately pipe up and ask if I could have lunch money, instead of scooping my food into a container like before. There were some days when I would “accidentally” forget my lunch at home, so that my only option was to buy food from the cafeteria. Slowly but surely, pizza was the only lunch I had and I no longer ate adobo or tinola. When Mother’s Day came around the next year, I refused to have anything to do with Asian food and asked if we could have something else. It broke my mother’s heart, and when I realized what I’d done, it broke mine too. I hid my fear with hatred, and those whom I loved paid the consequences.
Today, I am a freshman in highschool, and it has been 5 years since this incident occurred. I have been able to move past my ignorance and grow into who I am today. My mother and I have rekindled our relationship throughout the years, but I still feel immense heartache for the pain I caused her.
However, I realize today that there is a silver lining to this. At the time, those whom I called friends laughed along with the joke, and those who didn’t sat there in silence. The supervisors who were supposed to keep us safe from discrimination promptly ignored the incident despite having witnessed it all. If someone, anyone, was brave enough to speak up, maybe I wouldn’t have felt as damaged. I learned that it is crucial to stand my ground in the face of prejudicial behavior, and to not only remain proud for who I am, but also for those who sacrificed so much to give me this life of privilege and happiness.
With today being Mother’s Day and this month being Asian American/Pacific Islander Heritage month, we must stand united against the bigotry that tells us to abandon our cultures, and be thankful for the very mothers who stood by us when we were too blinded by our own self-hatred. Mom, thank you for giving me the recipe for loving, appreciating, and honoring my heritage, even when I spilled the pint of kisses on the ground and added too little hugs.
- Julianne Tenorio