“I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so there is room for paradoxes.” – Maxine Hong Kingston
When you camp in cultural medians you live in a state of perpetual impermanence. Straying from cultural expectations and traditions leaves you suspended in gray area – homeless, in a tug of war with identities. But for some of us, chronic turmoil is preferable over resigning to one side completely. For some of us, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Close to a century ago, my great-grandmother broke conservative Catholic-Filipino standards by having a child out of wedlock. This child, my grandmother, was raised by a reluctant single mother and half-hearted relatives, often subject to abuse and ostracism. My grandmother’s heavily frowned upon life situation (and existence) left her craving traditional stability. She married at seventeen, had eleven babies over the course of two decades, held two of those babies when they died, and raised the other nine to adulthood. Life was painful in post-WWII Philippines, but my grandmother clung to Catholicism and collectivistic practicalities.
However, brewing underneath that façade of worshipping tradition was yearning for something else. My grandmother was one of the few women in her poor farming community who completed grade school. She secretly wanted more education. She knew it would be impossible with limited resources and a fast-growing family, so she decided to go the route that some parents choose when they defer dreams – living vicariously through children. My grandmother ignored my grandfather’s opinion that school should be reserved for their three sons. She didn’t mince words when she dragged her young daughters, my mother included, out of bed at 4 AM to make and sell pastries to fund their school expenses.
After my mother completed college, the general dissatisfaction with something in life that plagued my great-grandmother and grandmother settled in the pit of her stomach. She was looking for something different. She came across Mormon missionaries and decided that she liked this religion more than Catholicism, so she converted. She was disowned by her parents and siblings. My mother’s immediate family mourned her figurative death as she plunged head-first into her new life by leaving to do missionary work for her new church. Her life would play in fast-forward as she later gets married, has children, and then moves to the United States.
When my family and I were new immigrants, assimilation was tough and traumatic. We lived in a basement apartment that flooded, and once the furnace broke so my mother had to heat the apartment with the stove on a rough Jersey winter. When things like that happened she wondered if it was a curse for switching religions or a blessing because it was at least happening in America. Other Filipinos don’t understand our Mormonism. I don’t think I understood how isolated my mother felt. At church we would hear about mothers being responsible for nurturing their children, with women encouraged to be full-time homemakers. Despite chronic guilt for filling non-traditional parental roles, she worked to financially support the family, remembering why she got up at 4 AM all those years as a child.
Fast forward about a decade later and I’m sitting in a tent at Mormon girls camp, boiling in the Florida heat and bitten up by mosquitoes. We learn about our divine roles and purpose as mothers and nurturers, about what to look for in eternal companions. I tell people I want to become a doctor, and they think it’s cute. Maybe being Southeast Asian cancels out the prescription for Mormon gender roles. My stomach begins to knot. Several years later I’m wearing a missionary tag, cutting up carrots at Meals on Wheels during a zone activity, not having the words or courage yet to say that I was more interested in liberation theologies than family proclamations. I dump the vegetables into a tub of water, joking with another missionary that I was baptizing carrots – he laughs, then points out that I would never have the proper authority to do that. The knots in my stomach tighten.
Somehow I find myself at BYU, finishing up my undergrad and overly inundated with Mormonism and white people. My own Mormon background sifts through, straining out the appearance of my brown skin. One day I spent time with my roommate and her family. Her niece went around giving everyone hugs, but stopped at me and ran away. This tiny girl whispered that I had scary black hair, and she stared at me with wonder and horror. I laughed nervously because I knew I couldn’t hide being a different race, not the same way I could hide being a feminist. Later that night I sadly thought about how our only commonality of religion was a poor balm for addressing disparities. By now the knots in my stomach have grown into lumps in my throat. I grappled with never being Filipino enough, American enough, Mormon enough, or feminist enough to appease each identity.
The wisest advice that anyone has shared with me is that testimonies ebb and flow. Now, living in the Pacific Northwest, I think about that visual often when I’m bundled up, staring at cold waves crash into rocks when I visit the coast. I’ve detangled and cut away some knots and lumps – people and policies that I no longer rent space to in my existence. Dissatisfied and unsettled feelings flow freely. This is the life and legacy of the women that came before me. I wish I could say I have my identity figured out by now, but the complexities change, grow or expand. Cultural medians are the only safe zones for now, even if it’s emotionally and mentally nomadic and tiring. I will continue to make my mind large – to make room for paradoxes.