About the episode
Gabe's always felt distant from his parents: not Filipino enough for his dad, not affectionate enough for his mom. But when he moves back to his white-bread hometown to donate a kidney to his dad and work alongside him at the “Fiesta in America,” Gabe is forced to rethink the way he's seen his family, his heritage, and his lifelong struggle to belong.
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Resources and Recommended Reading:
The 21st annual Fiesta in America takes place on August 10-11, 2019 at the Meadowlands Expo Center in Seacaucus, NJ
“Don’t Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation About Mental Health,” a diverse collection of essays, lists, comics, and illustrations exploring the meaning and lived experience of mental illness and mental health today
“Overcoming Challenges to Mental Health Services for Asian New Yorkers,” a local study on lack of access to mental health services and cultural competence within those services, released in 2017 by the Asian American Federation
“We’re Fine: What’s Stopping Asian American Millennials From Talking About Mental Health” by Kimberly Truong, for Refinery29
This story began when Gabe wrote to us to share his deeply personal story and his determination to find meaning in it. Thanks to Gabe, his family, and his friends for allowing us to record these important conversations.
This episode was made possible by the generous support of Cheny Milholand and the rest of our 1,004 crowdfund backers.
Produced by James Boo and Gabriel Mara
Edited by Julia Shu and Cheryl Devall
Production support and fact checking by Katherine Jinyi Li
Sound Engineering by Timothy Lou Ly
Theme Music by Dorian Love
Music by Blue Dot Sessions and Epidemic Sound
Sound effects by Soundsnap
Self Evident is a Studitobe production. Season 1 is presented by the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), the Ford Foundation, and our listener community. Our show was incubated at the Made in New York Media Center by IFP.
About CAAM: CAAM (Center for Asian American Media) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to presenting stories that convey the richness and diversity of Asian American experiences to the broadest audience possible. CAAM does this by funding, producing, distributing, and exhibiting works in film, television, and digital media. For more information on CAAM, please visit www.caamedia.org. With support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, CAAM provides production funding to independent producers who make engaging Asian American works for public media.
CATHY: Hey, it’s Cathy. If you haven’t left a rating or review for Self Evident, please take a minute to do that now — on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening.
CATHY: Rating the show and sharing these stories with your friends and family really, truly, helps.
CATHY: Also, just so you know? Today’s show has some four-letter words in it… and they’re NOT beeped.
CATHY: OK! Onto the show.
MUSIC: An old-timey piano sample begin
CATHY: Hey James!
JAMES: What up Cathy!
CATHY: Are you excited about the story you produced for today’s episode?
JAMES: Hell yeah! Gabe, this dude who wrote to us from Pennsylvania, got in touch with us a year ago, and we’ve been working on this piece ever since.
MUSIC: Drums and bass join the sample to form a hip-hop beat
JAMES: And because we pulled off a really fun live version of this story at CAAMFest, during APA Heritage Month… I’m pretty sure this story is not wack.
CATHY: And that’s something I wanted to follow up on.
CATHY: When we were out in Oakland for CAAMFest (with Gabe) you also spoke on a panel for APA month.
JAMES: Right. I was asked to speak on behalf of Self Evident.
JAMES: I think the idea was to bring in a bunch of successful Asian Americans — I have NO IDEA, why I was invited to this thing, by the way...
JAMES: ...but the guests show up, and… everyone is kinda hearing their success story, in a way. And asking questions so they can, you know, move their own career along. And it’s like a motivational thing.
CATHY: Right, and I’ve been to that kind of Q&A before, but I heard your experience was kind of different, right?
JAMES: Well, at first, the moderator was asking us, “How did you get to where you were?” and “How does being Asian affect your work?”
JAMES: And then… a woman attending raised her hand and asked:
JAMES “What do we do with all of the guilt and pressure that we feel whenever we think about our parents.”
CATHY: Haha, that’s intense!
JAMES: I was like, holy shit lady, you wanna talk to me about your parents?
JAMES: But it was cool. I really appreciated that she broke open the conversation and took it to this other place.
JAMES: And it reminded me that this is the same thing that we see when people write into the show.
CATHY: Yeah. We asked people what they want us to cover, listeners wrote in with really personal stories, and sometimes painful stuff that they’re going through — especially with their own families.
CATHY: I think for a lot of folks, there’s a lot of internal struggle and work that we have to take on within ourselves before, you know, taking on the world.
MUSIC: Self Evident theme music begins
CATHY: So coming back to the story you worked on…
CATHY: Today we’re gonna hand the mic to Gabriel Mara.
CATHY: Who wrote to us at a time in his life when he was taking some kind of dramatic steps to get in touch with his family and reconnect with his heritage.
CATHY: This is Self Evident, where we challenge the narratives about where we’re from, where we belong, and where we’re going — by telling Asian America’s stories. This season is presented by the Center for Asian American Media.
CATHY: And I’m your host, Cathy Erway.
CATHY: Here’s Gabe, with the story.
MUSIC: Self Evident theme music fades out as Gabe begins to narrate
GABE: When I was 28, I moved back into my parents’ house in Allentown, Pennsylvania. To give my dad a kidney.
GABE: Our family moved to Allentown from Brooklyn in 1995, because my parents wanted to buy a house. Allentown wasn’t really a factory town anymore, but the suburbs were still growing, and had good schools. So they found a fixer-upper.
GABE: They saw an opportunity for their kids, but I was 8 years old — and all I saw was a suburban sea of whiteness.
MUSIC: Awkward jazz beat with saxophone and trombone ends
GABE: Allentown was being told eating fish is disgusting. Allentown was people’s weird assumption that I must know karate. Allentown was my so-called friends calling me...
Captain Hook from Hook: RU-FI-O! RU-FI-O! RU-FI-OOOOOO!
GABE: “Rufio.” You know, after the Filipino kid in the movie Hook.
GABE: So I never felt white enough for the kids at school. And at the same time, I never felt Filipino enough for my parents.
GABE: In Tagalog, the word for “father” is “tatay.” And “tay” basically means “dad.”
GABE: When I was a kid, if I said anything to Tay in English, he would stop me and tell me exactly how to say it in Tagalog. Then make me repeat it.
GABE: I was really not good at this. I fumbled through my awkward-as-hell Tag-lish for years.
MUSIC: Awkward jazz beat with saxophone and trombone ends
GABE: He stopped trying to force it, and I decided it was just better not to speak to him at all.
GABE: Ma was kind, but she always seemed distant.
GABE: So by the time I was thirteen, I would sit at the dinner table every night, pass the rice, and eat without saying a word.
SOUND: Quiet dinner sounds, awkward chewing, coughing
MUSIC: Sparse, muted spring music
GABE: That’s basically how I grew up. And it’s the family I came home to when I moved back in with my parents.
GABE: When Ma asked me to donate one of my kidneys to Tay... I was happy to do it. I mean. I could never ask Tay for dating advice as one of four Asian guys at school… or turn to Ma. When my crippling anxiety would make me lie on the roof with my Sony Discman, alone, for hours at a time.
GABE: But I know my parents would take a bullet for me. And I’d give up a spare vital organ for them.
SOUND: Hospital waiting room
GABE: About a month after I settled into my childhood bedroom, Tay drove us to the hospital before the sun came up, for the surgery. The quiet from our family dinners followed us into the waiting room. A few hours later, we went under the knife.
GABE: I woke up in the dark. Drugged up and confused. A nurse nearby told me to take it easy, so I lay back and passed out. And the next time I came to, I was in my own hospital room.
GABE: I thought this was the moment we’d hug it all out. Like all the white families I grew up watching on TV. Instead, we recovered slowly. In separate rooms.
GABE: I was discharged a few days before Tay. And went home without him. I remember feeling relieved to watch TV alone in the attic, with no one else in the house to remind me I didn’t fit in with my own family.
MUSIC: Sparse, muted string music returns
GABE: Life went on. First with bandages and painkillers, then without.
SOUND: Recording of a TV set playing Jeopardy as a contestant finds the “daily double”
GABE: Jeopardy at 7.
SOUND: Quiet dinner sounds, awkward chewing, coughing
GABE: More quiet dinners.
GABE: All of a sudden, I was 30. A grown man, living with two strangers I called Ma and Tay, working as a bartender in the white bread town I’d spent so much of my life wanting to escape.
MUSIC: Sparse, muted string music ends
GABE: I figured: this was it.
GABE: Then one day, on his way out the door, Tay asked me to come work with him at the Fiesta in America. A 90-minute drive and a world away from Allentown.
Male MC: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the official opening of this year's Fiesta in America.
Male MC: I'm Vinnie Medina of Virginia Beach, Virginia!
Male MC: A Hardy Mabuhay to -- on this historic 20th anniversary of the fiesta.
MUSIC: Live brass band performance from the Fiesta in America
GABE: For Filpino American families in the Midatlantic, the Fiesta is a celebration of home. Every summer, over 5,000 people make a pilgrimage to the Meadowlands Expo Center in Secaucus, New Jersey — for 61,000 square feet of homemade crafts, rare exports from the islands, a variety show featuring performers from the Philippines and the States... and a food court with every Filipino dish you could ever ask for.
MUSIC: Live brass band performance falls out with an echo
GABE: The Fiesta in America is ALSO something my Tatay has worked for since it started, twenty years ago. He helped build this culture show into the biggest Asian American expo on the East Coast.
GABE: When I was a 12-year-old kid, unironically listening to Limp Bizkit and Korn, the Fiesta was the last place I ever wanted to be. But when Tay pulled me off the couch and told me the Fiesta needed a social media manager, it hit me:
GABE: This was the perfect way for me to redeem myself as a son.
MUSIC: Funky, bass-driven groove begins
GABE: I didn’t know anything about the Philippines. Or Filipino Americans. Or social media. Or jobs involving computers. Or my dad.
GABE: What I DID know was that grand gestures always worked for John Cusak. If I could transform myself into THE Instagram hype man for Filipino culture? Then surely, I could bridge this gulf between my parents and me.
GABE: So I took the job. And the first person I told was my girlfriend, Fran.
MUSIC: Funky basslines fades out under tape of Fran and Gabe
Fran: I had a question for you.
Gabe: Oh, sure.
Fran: So did you go to this as a kid?
Gabe: I did only twice ever once as a really bored little kid. And once I worked it selling T-shirts.
Gabe: I was 12 with my bowl haircut, my ill-fitting non, v-neck t-shirt
Fran: Oh, no, you've corrected that. Allll v-necks!
Gabe and Fran in unison: All the time.
GABE: Fran and I met because she lives next door to one of my coworkers at the bar.
GABE: Even though she’s not Filipina, she’d been really great at helping me unpack my anxieties about never fitting in.
GABE: And I still remember like shamefully and looking back now being like boy, this is real tacky. My people are tacky. We're tacky people.
GABE: I mean, I think I'm I was being ridiculous now, even if part of me still feels that. I don't know. I don't I don't imagine I'm going to go this year and be like, "Wow. My culture." (laughs)
GABE: I should, though, right? I don’t know. This is this is why I'm doing this whole thing.
Fran: I mean you realize all you have actually experienced in your life of being Filipino is within the context of your family.
Fran: And this Fiesta, right?
Gabe: That's true. That's 100% true.
Fran: Do you have any Filipino friends?
Gabe: No.One dude I met. Cool, chill millennial dude. And he and I could have we're able to like, share a little bit of that experience talk of yeah. "So we're Filipino, huh?" And he's like, “Yeah. Lumpia, am I right?” I'm like, “Totally.”
MUSIC: Playful and sparse jazz guitar tune begins
GABE: If you’ve never heard of lumpia, I’ll wait a minute while you look it up. I mean, I might feel disconnected from my culture, but I’m not a barbarian.
Fran: What you're putting your finger on here is a really important thing to keep in mind is because when you say you kind of talk about Filipino culture talking about it in some pretty broad strokes, yeah, from a pretty far distance.
Gabe: I mean, my parents did the best they could. This is not what they wanted for me. I think they would have been very happy if I had grown up being, like, let's only do Filipino things. And that's not this is just not how the way it worked out. I'm not that person.
Fran: Did your brother go more than you?
Gabe: Noooo, may-maybe. I don't know. I don't talk to that guy.
GABE: Oh yeah. I have a brother, Cesar — but we all call him Ces (SEYSS), or “kuya” — which is Tagalog for “older brother.”
GABE: I was born in the States. I was anxious and depressed as kid. I dropped out of community college, and ran away to New York to become a starving screenwriter the first chance I got.
GABE: Ces was born in the Philippines. He always seemed to do fine in Allentown. And after he graduated from Penn State, he lived with Ma and Tay for years, visited the Philippines, married a wonderful Filipina woman named Liza (LEE-zuh). They live in an apartment just six miles from our high school.
MUSIC: Playful and sparse jazz guitar tune ends
GABE: So I could never relate to Ces growing up. But I drove across town to see him and Liza after failing my first test of becoming a better Filipino.
MUSIC: “Mahal Kita Pero” by Janella Salvador begins
GABE: I was doing Instagram for the Fiesta in America, promoting one of our superstar pop singers, Janella Salvador. And somehow I screwed up so colossally that my dad’s boss changed the Instagram password and told me to take the rest of the week off.
MUSIC: “Mahal Kita Pero” by Janella Salvador fades out as Ces and Gabe talk about the song
Ces: Who are the actors again?
Gabe: Janella Salvador and Elmo Magalona.
Ces: Liza, you heard of these people? (laughs)
Gabe: I posted a video of Janella's hit single. I think it was Mahal Kita Pero. You know, it's her and this handsome guy and they're like dancing around and I'm like whatever it's her biggest hit I think. So I put it on Instagram. I get a huge slew of messages or it's all people being like, "How could you do this to Elmo? I hate —" what the guy other guy's name? Marlo. It's like " — I hate Marlo. Marlo is the worst. Elmo forever!"
Gabe: And the management was even like “Please take this down.” And apparently it's because I put up the wrong love team.
Gabe: And I was like what the fuck is a love team?
MUSIC: Humorous two-step shuffle begins
Gabe: This is ridiculous. It was all a bunch of like like middle-aged women yelling at me on and then Instagram because it was the wrong one.
Gabe: So what is a love team? What is what why was I in trouble that I do something really wrong?
SOUND: Liza speaks in the distance, and her voice fades out under Gabe’s narration
GABE: That’s Liza, sitting across the living room, explaining that a Filipino “love team” is like a 50’s era Hollywood studio couple, paired up in movies and promoted as if they’re dating in real life.
GABE: Now, combine that idea with, like, Disney Channel pop stars. That’s a love team. And EL-mo Magalona and Ja-NELLA Salvador, two of the Philippine’s biggest stars, were coming to perform at the Fiesta under the combined name: EL-NELLA.
GABE: Why isn't it Janellmo? Doesn't that make more sense? It's, that’s a, that's a really clumsy portmanteau, “El-Nella.” JANELLE-MO. It's there! It's in the name!
MUSIC: Humorous two-step shuffle fades out as Gabe continues
GABE: But that was the least of my worries, because I’d posted a video of Janella with her OLD love team partner, Marlo Mortel.
GABE: So apparently, step one of learning my culture was accidentally trolling teenagers and titas around the world.
GABE: Step two? Was asking Ces something I always wanted to know.
Gabe: So do have… Do you have you feel Pride as a Filipino?
Ces: Filipinos as a whole will stick up for other cultures because like we I we have an underdog kind of feel you know that in during World War II that while no other countries would we were at a first culture first country? I should say to allow Jewish refugees in during World War Two.
Gabe: That's nice.
Ces: So yeah, we're hospitable... to the point that I'm almost bragging that Americans don't do this that went on when we have people over, especially if it's just like a friend or two coming in, we always cook meals for him. Whereas, like, we go to just simply hang out at somebody else's house. They don't do that.
Ces: Americans, I don't know why. I think it's stupid, quite frankly. It’s something that we, I'm definitely proud of and it's like it's almost like an egocentrism, you could say, that I have about that.
Gabe: An ethnocentrism.
Ces: An ethnocentrism. Sorry.
Gabe: If you had to make a guess as to why you think I felt embarrassed or why I think we're tacky, what would you guess?
Ces: It was forced upon you by Ma and Tay.
Gabe: The shame?
Gabe: The embarrassment?
Ces: No, like the pride itself. "You gotta love, be proud of your roots," blah blah blah, especially.
Gabe: And I’m, like, “great.”
Ces: (chuckles) Yeah.
Gabe: The thing I seek more than anything else is to be listened to.
Gabe: That's what I think I do well as a bartender, and offering that is a really big deal, because I feel like we did not have that in the family unit at all growing up. That was not a thing.
Gabe: If I wanted any kind of emotional reassurance or support it wasn't in the house.
Ces: What why do you think that was?
Gabe: I think... because... well, they weren't interested in doing that. I think that like Ma, maybe a little bit more so, but Tay was very adamantly like, "Yeah, I'm not supposed to be your friend."
Gabe: And yeah, as I got older it became a bigger and bigger wall.
Ces: You think so?
Gabe: Well for me anyway.
Ces: I forgot, I was like, "Yeah, whatever."
Gabe: That's why my hair is much greyer than yours.
Ces: Holy shit. You're I thought it, it was dye.
Gabe: No, this is real. This is my hair. I am, I am very very gray. It's all I think the stress and overthinking there ago.
Ces: Like I try not to stress myself out know that that's my recommendation to you. Just don't do that.
Gabe: Well, okay, if It's that easy.
MUSIC: Reflective jazz piano tune begins
GABE: My kuya, the therapist.
GABE: But, honestly? I was surprised by the Ces who was talking to me. He grew up with the same parents, in the same house, going to the same very white high school.
GABE: But this guy… he was… happy. Happy to see me, happy being a Filipino American in Allentown, driving around college kids for Uber on the weekends.
GABE: Talking to Ces left me wondering why it was so much harder for ME to connect with our heritage. So. I drove a couple hours out of town, to see my cousin Hannah.
SOUND: Wine glasses clinking and wine pouring, sauce bubbling, kitchen rummaging sounds
HANNAH: My name my full name sure is Hannah Juanita Marasigan Nicdao, taking the full Filipino lineage.
MUSIC: Reflective jazz piano tune ends
GABE: We were sitting in Hannah’s Brooklyn apartment, sharing a bottle of wine and chicken adobo, made from my Tita Jenny’s recipe.
Hannah: I don't really like I never cook Filipino food. By the way, this is complete circumstance. It turned out pretty good. I'm glad yeah, I tried to call my mom just so I could get the recipe. I'm usually actually —
Gabe: — Yeah, I was like, "You call your mom?"
Hannah: Just to clarify, just to get the recipe.
Gabe: Sure sure sure sure...
(Fade out under Gabe’s narration)
GABE: Hannah’s from New Jersey, where the Fiesta in America happens. She grew up in a Filipino community. I didn’t. She’s seen the Philippines. I haven’t.
GABE: So if there was anyone in the whole Manansala-Marasigan bloodline who could tell me how I fit in, it was Hannah.
Gabe: In my mind, you've always been the more Filipino cousin because I don't you know, you've been there and I haven't been there. You speak more of it.
Hannah: No, I don't.
Gabe: You sure?
Hannah: You grew up speaking Tagalog more than I did.
Gabe: But I deliberately stamped it out as an act of rebellion.
Gabe: So for me like the quite like what I find curious is that... well in my family, if there is a spectrum I was the whitest of the white bread —
Hannah: You look Latino, man. So —
Gabe: — (sarcastically) yeah, I look very Latino. Like, I drove over here listening like Yacht Rock like, "Michael MacDonald! Boy what a voice!"
GABE: OK. So it turned out Hannah WASN’T the world’s expert on being Filipino. And she fought her OWN battles as a teenager, even though she grew up surrounded by other Filipino Americans.
Hannah: When I entered high school when I had all my white friends from middle school — I found the Filipino clique. They saw me and they're just like, oh there's that whitewashed girl.
Gabe: Oh, really?
Hannah: Oh, yeah. I was — I was like given shit because I had so many white friends are like, oh you're the whitewashed bitch.
Gabe: Oh, that's wi — I didn't kn — that's WILD!
Hannah: Yeah —
Gabe: The Filipinos were REAL Filipinos and you weren't?
Hannah: They gave me shit and I felt so guilty that like, they're like, oh you're not in touch with your culture —
Gabe: — I'm still waiting for people to judge me…because I don't even remotely have any Filipino Pride. I'm like, we made the yo-yo!
Gabe: Yeah, we invented the yo-yo.
Gabe: You know do the number of times. I've been called fucking Rufio in my life. Oh God.
Hannah: Is it like a racial slur at this point?
Gabe: Well, no, I steered into it. I was him for Halloween two years in a row.
Hannah: I remember that.
Gabe: Yeah, I had to steer into it and I'm just like, you know, I would love to be proud to be Filipino, and I just haven't found it yet.
Hannah: It's not about having more pride or suddenly finding this sudden deep well of Pride for being Filipino, but I think it's about giving less fucks. Like you give less fucks about what other people think of your upbringing and like what happened to just be like, "Yep. This is me. This is what it is."
Gabe: I mean, like, the most pride I have in being Filipino is how much I love spam. God, I love Spam. Spam is awesome.
Hannah: There's so much other Filipino foods too —
Gabe: — but SPAM! It’s WONDERFUL.
GABE: Hannah thought about this stuff just as much as I did. Wrestled with her identity just as much as I did. She just… didn’t beat herself up about it.
MUSIC: At the Fiesta in America, the very last line of the U.S. national anthem (...”and the hooooome of the braaaave”) swells beneath Gabe’s narration
GABE: As the days to the Fiesta started really counting down, I felt my anxiety about not being Filipino enough slowly but surely being replaced…
GABE: ...by my anxiety about having anxiety about not being Filipino enough.
MUSIC: The U.S. national anthem transitions into a rousing rendition of the Philippines national anthem
Gabe: We are at The Meadowlands Exposition Center.
Gabe: I don’t know! It's a bunch of Filipinos and I grew up in the town of really really white people. They were are all so white!
GABE: So I tried to stay focused on the job. After my epic love team fail, my dad’s boss cautiously reinstated me as the Fiesta’s photographer and Instagram hype man.
GABE: My friend Ibrahim was taking video with me for the Fiesta. So I turned to him for support.
Gabe: Ib, what's it like being around a bunch of Filipinos?
Ib: Awesome! This is dope. I love being immersed in a culture that I'm not very familiar with.
Gabe: I think this is a big deal because it's “my community” big deal, but you told me your friend is super all about it.
Ib: Yeah. my buddy Blake who lives in Jersey and he was like, “Oh my God, you're going to the Fiesta?” And I'm like, “Yea!” and I had no idea that it was a THING. I was expecting, like, a much smaller, you know, community center kind of thing.
Gabe: Like a small auditorium?
Ib: Yeah, we're at The Meadowlands! Like that’s big, you know? And there's all these bands playing —
MUSIC: Philippines national anthem ends
Gabe: Jerry Lewis' is son is here.
Ib: Gary Lewis and the News is here.
Gabe: The Playboys. That's Huey Lewis and the News.
GABE: By the way, Gary Lewis and the Playboys were excellent. So were the other musical performers, like legendary Filipino entertainer Ogie Alcasid...
MUSIC: Chill, nostalgic mid-tempo hip-hop beat begins
GABE: ...and even the Love Team I was almost fired over: JANELLMO
Ib: And yeah, I can't wait to eat the food, and eat the food.
GABE: So much food. We had pancit, fried rice with eggs, longanisa, entapa.... Kids were playing with bright balloons and crying over melted halo halo. People were haggling over homemade bowls, and jewelry, and seasoning packets, and imported coffee, and shirts, and beer, and chess boards, and insurance policies.
GABE: Yeah. Insurance.
GABE: You can have it alllllll at the Fiesta in America, people.
GABE: And then I saw my parents. They’d been working the Fiesta for 20 years, but this was the first time I really saw them in action. Smiling, laughing, and surrounded by thousands of people who came here to be a part of what we were doing.
MUSIC: Chill, nostalgic mid-tempo hip-hop beat fades out under tape of Gabe speaking with his parents
Gabe: Sure. Oh, hold on. There's my dad. Tay, hi! So this is my Dad.
Len: Hi! Very good to meet you.
Gabe: What's your position here?
Len: I'm... I'm vice president for marketing and Communications. Although I can barely communicate now.
Gabe: (laughs) How’s it going so far?
Len: It's crazy, but crazy good if it's if it's not it is not wild then it's a failure.
Gabe: So my mom is currently registering people and handing out wristbands.
Susan: I'm I'm doing so many things, you know (laughs), you know, because. It's it's really see there are lots of things to do because, you know, people are coming and you know, we have to take care of everybody. Yeah.
GABE: I thought: OK. This is it. We’re going to hug it out.
MUSIC: Cheesy music begins
GABE: But just like after the kidney operation, we went home, separately.
SOUND: Cheesy music is interrupted by the sound of someone changing the television channel
GABE: We all went back to our routines.
SOUND: Recording of a TV set playing Jeopardy as a contestant finds the “daily double”
GABE: Jeopardy at 7.
SOUND: Quiet dinner sounds, awkward chewing, coughing
GABE: More quiet dinners.
Gabe: I like my parents. I think they're good people. They're great people. they're smart and kind and decent. And whenever I have company around them, I see they're charming and funny and decent people. And then we eat, and it's silence and I wonder why.
Gabe: I want my mom's lumpia recipe. I'd like to read that play my dad wrote. I just don't know how to talk to him. And I've never known how to talk to him.
Fran: The alienation that you feel from Filipino culture from your Filipino heritage. And the alienation that you feel from your own parents.
Fran: And family. What do you think the relationship between those two is?
Gabe: I think I almost feel like they're the same thing.
Gabe: And I think it's my fault.
Gabe: I don't know. I want to find out if they're the same thing. I think that's what that's what I want to talk to my parents about. That's what I want. That's like the big question.
MUSIC: Ad music starts
CATHY: Hey, it’s Cathy.
CATHY: We’re working on our season finale, which is all about how we learn where we come from.
CATHY: What I mean by that is the ways that language classes, Saturday schools, religious community groups, summer camps, music lessons, and other alternative classrooms changed our lives... for better? or for worse.
CATHY: So. If you have an outside-of school learning experience -- or teaching experience -- that defined who you are, then record a voice memo on your phone, and email it to community@ selfevidentshow.com.
CATHY: Please keep it to three minutes or less. It doesn’t have to be perfect. We also have step-by-step instructions to make it easy for you, at Self Evident Show Dot Com, Slash Participate.
CATHY: Thanks for being a part of Self Evident.
MUSIC: Ad music ends
GABE: It was two weeks after the Fiesta in America. Diving headfirst into Filipino culture didn’t bring me any closer to home. So my girlfriend, Fran, gave me another push.
Fran: You want your dad's perspective on your relationship.
Gabe: Yes. Right.
Fran: So like if you start with, "So Dad. Why do you think we aren't close?"
Fran: Okay. That's just going to set up a very awkward conversation. And also you don't know that your dad thinks that you're not close.
Gabe: That was like that weird things my brother. My brother was like, "What? We have a great relationship." Exactly. "What the fuck are you talking about?"
Fran: Exactly. YOU think you're not close.
Gabe: I'm terrified of asking my parents these questions.
Fran: I know. I know you would probably would have pulled the plug.
Gabe: I'd rather run
Fran: You've been running.
Gabe: I've been running. My whole life, I've been running. I was genuinely prepared for my parents to die and me be like, "Well, never got a chance! Couldn't do it."
Fran: What do you think you lose if that happens?
Gabe: This comfortable status quo I have.
Gabe: I... I've been very comfortable feeling that my parents are unfeeling.
Gabe: I don't particularly want to be closer to my parents, because it's fine. It's been fine. And being closer to them now. I don't know what that would mean. I don't know what that would look like. What if that means more responsibility?
MUSIC: Melancholy finger-picked guitar tune begins
Fran: Gabe, you're not —
Gabe: Yeah, I'm pretty sure I gave a kidney so I won't have to bother with it anymore.
I'm pretty sure I was like, here you go. We're good now, right?
GABE: Donating a kidney, working for the Fiesta, recording hours of conversations about being Filipino American — they were just ways to avoid the thing I kept TELLING myself I wanted: A closer relationship with my family.
GABE: I thought about all those childhood experiences I was holding onto... The ones my brother and my cousin let go of a long time ago. The idea of a foreign family that I couldn’t seem to grow out of. All the work I’d have to do if I really opened up to my parents.
GABE: And I finally felt ready for their side of the story.
Gabe: So did you give up anything when you became a mother?
Susan: Oh, yes! I stopped seeing my friends.
GABE: That’s my Ma, Susan.
Gabe: That's a bummer.
Susan: Yeah, you know because at the time, most of my friends were still single. And I also stopped working when I had your brother.
Gabe: Is that what you wanted? Were you okay with that?
Susan: No, of course, not...but it's OK. I have no regrets.
MUSIC: Melancholy bass tones fade out under Gabe’s narration
GABE: I’d always felt like I was the one trapped in Allentown. But sitting with Ma, I remembered something she’d mentioned casually to me. An interaction that I’d buried completely.
GABE: She saw me once, when I was a teenager, lying on the roof with my discman. And she recognized something happening there that she saw in her own father.
Gabe: You told me that before that your dad, Lolo Cesar, he had struggles with his mental health, like, like depression and anxiety so. Did you, did you realize that that was in me as well? Like this this anxious depressive kinda streak to it? How early did you recognize it in me?
Susan: I always recognize it, because I had the same problem. I don't call it a problem.
Susan: It's just what I am, you know. I don't make other peoples miserable, you know, when I'm in a bad mood. I always keep it to myself.
Gabe: ‘Cause, 'cause we have learned to internalize it.
Susan: Yeah. I don't know, if you ever notice it... when we were living here in Pennsylvania. I had those bouts of…
Susan: I think when, when you were in school, I would go up in the attic and stayed there. Close all the windows and lie down in the bed, and then I was, I was so sad.
Gabe: I had no idea.
Susan: I had, I had those episodes…
Gabe: I had no idea.
Susan: We are not the happy type like — yeah — your kuya.
Susan: Or your tatay.
Gabe: I didn't know you suffered like that.
Susan: I did.
Gabe: That's, that's exactly how I am as well. So it's nice to know it's not out of nowhere, as you know that I'm not alone in it.
MUSIC: Melancholy guitar and bass tones return
GABE: I don’t think I was ever really alone. Growing up in Allentown, I thought I couldn’t talk to my parents because they were Filipino, and I was a disappointment. But that whole time, Ma felt just as anxious as I did.
GABE: It wasn’t because of our failures. Or the dreams that never came true. And it wasn’t because of our culture.
MUSIC: Melancholy guitar and bass tones fade out under the tape of Gabe’s mother
Gabe: What does an, what does an ideal mother-child relationship look to you?
Susan: When you can... tell me your problems, you know, problems that you know that I will be hurt, or I will be angry, but still, you'll tell me.
Susan: Don't, don't shut me out. That's one of the things I want. My relationship with my children. Because no matter what, I will understand them
Gabe: Are there any questions you've wanted to candidly ask me before, that you want to ask me now?
Susan: I know you, you know. I don't need to ask.
SOUND: Gabe’s family begins to sing the “happy birthday” song
Family: Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Gabe… happy birthday to you!
Gabe: I’m ONE! I made it!
SOUND: Gabe’s family cheers and laughs
GABE: I was 31. Three years after going into the hospital with Tay, I was getting ready to move to LA, where I’d finally landed a job involving computers.
GABE: I started packing up my things, planning the long drive across the country, and thinking about life after Allentown.
GABE: I was out of grand gestures. I was out of fucks to give. I was out of time.
SOUND: Bottle cap comes off a bottle
SOUND: Gabe takes a drink out of the bottle
SOUND: Gabe walks down creaking stairs
GABE: So I took a swig of bourbon, went downstairs, and sat down with Tay at the dinner table.
Gabe: When you got sick, did you expect me to move home, or did you anticipate, did you anticipate me donating? Or was that just was that something you were actively against?
Len: I was really against it, because I felt that it might harm your health, But your mom was insisting that I asked you or your kuya to volunteer, and it was really it was really very hard for me. But when I asked the nephrologist if it'll impact your health at all, he said not at all not at all.
Gabe: Um, uh… Would you say that you and I are close?
Len: Not really. And, well... Especially, well... when you were growing up, when you were in your teenage years, but... I'm really extremely glad that wh-wh-when you returned, that we can... we can talk more, but you know, I think it's... just a matter of you maturing and being able to talk to me like an adult.
Len: I guess it was the same as with me and my father. Although your Lolo, your Lolo Nick, was really non-communicative. But I'm really glad that you came back, and we can reestablish our relationship.
GABE: I wasn’t expecting Tay to tell me we were close. But I’d never thought about how he related to HIS father. Or how he thought of our family.
Len: Closeness is really hard to define. Is it physical space? It, is it emotional space? I don't know. It's just a matter of doing things together.
Len: I can remember... when, after visiting your grandparents, your Lolo and your Lola, we always came back at night. And after parking the car several blocks away from the apartment.
Len: I used to carry you and your kuya the same time. You were both small, so I could, and I was pretty strong at that time. I could carry you both on my arms, in my arms, and we trudged back to the apartment in the cold of night, and we did that several times till you were too big for me to carry.
Gabe: (giggles nervously)
Gabe: Uh... does it bother you that Ces and I are so Americanized?
Len: Not really.
Gabe: Were you expecting it? Or was it the intention of moving?
Len: Well, we never really thought about what you've become in terms of what you will become in terms of a Filipino American. It's... It never really came up, but we're just... always expecting that you will at least understand Tagalog, and you’ll remember your… your heritage.
Len: Um, no, that never really bothered us.
MUSIC: Soft, reflective keyboard tune begins and slowly fades as Gabe continues
GABE: Where was the tatay who forced me to speak Tagalog? Where was the man who terrified me with his silence?
GABE: That version of Tay always felt so far away. But this Tay was sitting with me. Making up for all the conversations we’d never had
Len: Are you… Are you... upset? Are you, is it okay with you? Are you? Are you happy being Filipino American?
Gabe: Um… uh... I guess. It was an odd thing not having a... Being the only Filipino in white Pennsylvania. It, you know, I would never like the suggest or blame you guys for that. This is a good home and it was a great decision, but... It made me, it made me, vulnerable.
Gabe: Like, it gave me a small complex, I think, growing up here —
Len: I guess it's your loss. I guess everyone has a complex of their own. One of my complexes is, I'm short.
Gabe: Also the tallest one of my family, which is always funny.
Len: But that’s it.
Gabe: Um... Any other questions for me?
Len: When are you getting married?
Gabe: Um, I just had another difficult talk on the phone. It's why I was late for dinner.
Gabe: Um, well, you know, just about our future… and… she doesn't want to have children.
Gabe: And that's something I, that I do want to do. But... it's... it's…
Gabe: It’s never been this hard before. Cause it’s... I’ve never had, like, been in this good a relationship before, never had love this good before.
Len: It’s never easy. Just like falling in love is difficult, because you have to sacrifice many things. Most of all, you need to sacrifice your selfishness, your self-regard, for somebody else.
Gabe: Um, why did you want to start a family? Like, what was the — did you always want to start a family? Was that always in your plan?
Len: Actually marriage was not part of my plans (laughs), but it happened, and so it just came natural that we have to start a family.
Len: Actually, I was... I was planning to be... What do I call it? A hermit, a hobo, a poet. Who, who writes poetry in the mountains, living alone among the trees.
Gabe: You want to be a Hermit in the mountains?
Len: Yes, writing poetry, writing lyrics to love songs.
MUSIC: Soft, reflective keyboard tune returns
GABE: This was uncharted territory. I never thought I’d be getting relationship advice from a failed hobo poet, who was also my dad. Then again… I never asked.
Len: Was the fact that I gave up my dream of being a hermit poet worth it because I wanted to marry your mom? I don't know.
Len: Things turned out very well. I guess it's just a matter of... I don't know call it luck, call it... the luck of the... the dice, the roll of the dice.
Gabe: I thought you were gonna say the luck of the Filipinos, like "The luck of the Irish.”
Len: When I decided to ask your mom to marry me, I never sought the advice of anyone, never sought the advice of my parents, I never asked my friends. It was just between me and myself. Me and your mom. It's the crossroads. You can only cross that road yourself. No one will carry you.
MUSIC: Plaintive, ambient tones
GABE: I’d spent years feeling like I wasn’t Filipino enough for my Ma and Tay. But these conversations reminded me that they chose to raise my brother and me in the United States, and they never lost sleep over whether we liked the Fiesta in America.
GABE: For the first time, I could see my own dream of being a screenwriter in Tay’s dream of being a mountain poet. I could feel my own depression, lying on our roof, in Ma’s story about lying in the attic.
GABE: My parents never mentioned not knowing where they fit in. They fit in with us. And because of that, they fit into Allentown.
SOUND: Gabe finishes packing his car
Gabe: Okay, it is move day. December 30th.
Gabe: I forgot — almost lost my car keys. That would have been embarrassing. Okay boundary they were in the Campari bag.
Gabe: (to parents) I'll call you everyday in the road. Bye. I'll call you every day on the road. (walks in the snow to his car)
SOUND: “Door open” beeping sound. Gab’e car door closes.
SOUND: Gabe’s car drives along the highway.
MUSIC: Plaintive, ambient tones resume and fade out under Gabe
Gabe: Here we go! See you later, Allentown
GABE: It’s been three months since I left Allentown. I’m in North Hollywood with my roommate, in the parking lot of Seafood City. It’s a Filipino supermarket, and I’m here with a shopping list from my parents.
Gabe: I'm getting lumpia wrappers here. So basically I'm getting egg roll wrappers here. I Facebook Messaged my mom, like, “What do I need?” And she just said I need onion and carrots, I’ll get that…
Gabe: ...look at how many flavors of spam there are, Daniel. Spam with cheese, teriyaki spam, there's tocino spam. An unconscionable amount of spam.
Gabe: I have $59 and I have a dentist's appointment tomorrow. Let's hope the insurance covers it
GABE: When I get home, I get ready for my weekly call with Ma and Tay. Usually we’re just catching up. But today I’ve got the computer on the kitchen counter.
Susan: You want me to give you the instructions?
Susan: Maybe, maybe two pounds of pork. Okay. Then 1 medium size onion...
Susan’s voice ducks under Gabe’s narration
GABE: My Ma’s looking through the screen to tell me how I’m doing with her recipe.
GABE: So… we’re Filipino!
GABE: Lumpia! Amirite?
Crossfade up to next clip of Susan and Len
Susan: You did well.
Gabe: Good. I'm glad. I didn't realize it was it was as simple as that. I think I'm just gonna start making like this like every week.
Len: Make a lot.
Susan: Yes, make a lot, and then put it in the freezer.
Gabe: You know, I've been making like brownies for my neighbors. This is way better than brownies.
Len: Oh, they'll go crazy for the lumpia!
Gabe: Yeah, exactly. So I'm excited for that.
GABE: L.A. has more Filipino culture and history than I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s pretty cool.
GABE: But the thing that makes me feel at home is this call to my parents. In Allentown.
Gabe: Yeah, so basically all the, all the Home recipes, like send them to me. I’d love to try them.
Susan: Yeah, I mean, it's nice, and you can invite friends over, and serve them Filipino food.
Gabe: Yeah, definitely.
Gabe: Right. I'm so I'm gonna go eat now. Okay. So, yeah. Thanks for the recipe Ma.
Susan: All right.
Gabe: Thanks for the tips, Tay… Okay, love you Ma. I love you Tay.
Susan: All right.
MUSIC: Plaintive tones and piano merge into a heartfelt hip-hop beat
CATHY: Next time on Self Evident: What happens when you let go... of something that’s always defined who you are?
Patrick: So she sort of, like, refused to open the letter, or take it. It was sort of a defiant act of denial.
Patrick: So I was like, “OK. Whatever.” And I just emailed it to my dad.
CATHY: This episode was produced by James Boo and Gabriel Mara. With production support from Kat Li, Davey Kim, and me, Cathy Erway.
JAMES: We were edited by Julia Shu and Cheryl Devall, and mixed by Timothy Lou Ly. Our theme music is by Dorian Love.
CATHY: We’d like to give a very special thank you to Cheny Milholland and the 1,004 crowdfund backers whose support made this episode possible.
JAMES: And shout out to Gabe’s family and friends for working with us on today’s story.
CATHY: So what food or dish reminds YOU of home?
JAMES: Taco Doritos.
CATHY: I’m asking the listeners, here!
JAMES: And I’m still available for discussion panels.
CATHY: Let us know by writing, or sharing a photo, or even a recipe. On Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, @selfevidentshow, with the hashtag #WeAreSelfEvident. I’m definitely gonna share.
MUSIC: Plaintive hip-hop beat ends
MUSIC: Self Evident theme music begins
JAMES: Nice! You can also e-mail us at email@example.com. The whole team has really appreciated the feedback and personal experiences that y’all have been writing in to share, so please, please, keep it coming.
CATHY: Thanks to our amazing advisors and all the members of our community panel who gave us feedback on this episode before it aired. If you want to be a part of our storytelling process, OR if you want sneak peeks and behind-the-scenes content, sign up for our newsletter at selfevidentshow.com.
CATHY: Self Evident is a Studiotobe Production. This season is presented by the Center for Asian American Media, with support from the Ford Foundation, and you! Our listeners. Our show was incubated at the Made in New York Media Center by IFP.
CATHY: We’re managed by James Boo and Talisa Chang. Our Senior Producer is Julia Shu. Our Executive Producer is Ken Ikeda. Our Audience Team is Blair Matsuura, Joy Sampoonachot, Justine Lee, and Kira Wisniewski.
CATHY: I’m Cathy Erway. Let’s talk soon! And till then, keep on sharing Asian America’s stories.
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