“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I was only one of two girls in my first-grade classroom that said nothing about marriage or children. Standing in front of the green chalkboard, holding her eight and a half by eleven sheets of paper, I remember fiddling with my white uniform polo shirt before I worked up the courage to say the following sentence out loud.
“When I grow up, I want to be a doctor and a fashion designer. I want to see all seven continents before I turn thirty and then get two dogs and a cat to live with me in the penthouse suite in New York….”
I looked out to see a mixture of stifled giggles and dropped jaws amongst my classmates and even my teacher.
“That’s quite a list,” the teacher said, a slow smile creeping along her thin lips. “Don’t you think that may be a lot? I mean, doesn’t it seem like it could be a lot to do for anyone?”
My brows furrowed as my face fell, mouth turning down as the teacher continued on. I clenched my fingers into a fist, almost stomping my feet in place on the speckled tile floor to interrupt her.
“- I don’t really care how long it’s going to take,” I cut in, staring directly at her. “I am going to be great at it. My grandma says that we aren’t made for monotony….”
The same patronizing smile swept across her face as she waved for me to take my seat. I remember I was still clenching the sheet of paper in my hand, crinkling the edges from the pressure my fingers bent into my report.
I huffed and scowled as I took my seat, trying not to roll my eyes as the next classmate walked up to talk about their dull vision.
Boring. Monotonous. Forgettable.
While I may not have had the vocabulary to vocalize those thoughts and feelings at that age, the fear of what I saw that life to be followed me around. My classmates talked about owning homes and raising children, a future I had as much passion about as when I’d have described my dental appointments. What I could not fathom was how this humdrum “normal” existence appealed to anyone?
Here I was, the Asian-Pacific Islander girl whose house and family were a treasure trove of secrets. Both my parents worked full-time jobs, leaving me often in the care of my grandmothers — two women on the exact opposite sides of a dictator’s oppressive regime. One grandma would regale me with the stories of her and my grandfather’s escape from the islands, the need to abandon their homeland because my grandfather served in the nation’s navy and was believed to be aiding the Americans as a spy against the rising dictator.
“We each left separately,” she said, tucking me in after a long day of dance practice. “Your father and his sister. We had to leave them in their teens because we didn’t want to endanger them. I went to Florida to get my Master’s in Education while your grandfather sought asylum here in Los Angeles….”
“When did everyone get back together….” I’d ask, eyes wide at the thought of the four of them scattered to the winds.
My grandmother let out a big sign before answering me. “Probably not until your father got accepted into his engineering program at Cal State Long Beach…He was so funny. The only six-year-old boy I ever met who knew he wanted to build airplanes and stuck to it….”
“What did you want to do, Grandma?” I asked.
I’ll never forget the wistful look in her coffee brown eyes, just a momentary flicker before a sharpness set in her jaw.
“I can’t say I remember what I really wanted before. And since we had to flee the way we did, it doesn’t really matter, does it? But I know that whatever I do with my life, with my work, it has to be for me. It has to be worth the blood that’s been spilled….”
I didn’t understand what she meant until my Lola came to live with us just a few years later. She tucked me in talking about her home on the same islands, watching as my grandmother’s and father’s village collapsed under volcanic ash from an unexpected eruption.
“You can only see the steeple from the church!” My Lola’s eyes widened as she told me about the lahar left afterward, roads that fell off into giant, white sandy ash pits of death. “You used to eat at the market next to that church….”
“Is that why grandma said I need to be sure whatever I do is worth it?” I asked, lip trembling.
My Lola’s cheeks turned red from the heat rising to her face.
“Your grandma wasn’t as lucky as your mother and I. Your Lolo made sure that we were taken care of when they had to flee for the U.S…And she’d lost one of her closest sisters earlier… she’d gotten involved in a difficult relationship….”
My stomach dropped when I heard her say that, biting the inside of my cheek as I nodded quietly, careful to avoid looking at her as I changed the subject. Somehow, even at that young age, I knew something didn’t sit right with that explanation. It would take tip-toeing through our house’s dark hallways and crouching behind velvet couches and mahogany side tables to eavesdrop on the truth of it.
My Lolo had set my mother’s side up by working with the dictator, lining their coffers while millions fled or died. Lola learned to bake three-layered sponge cakes, pipe, and fry her own churros con chocolate and treated my mother to diamond earrings and a trip around the world while my father made his way through another land with no idea when he’d see his parents again. And my grandmother’s sister fell in love with a man that treated her with the ends of his fists, bruised handprints on her neck, and eventually, complete erasure from this world.
Like many other first-generation Americans, my grandmothers’ stories served as an unspoken legacy and influence, be it good or bad. They both died within a year of each other. Their deaths were just as much in opposition as their lives had been. My Lola experienced the thrills of being a millionaire from whatever blood money came from the era in her country was torn apart by martial law and shady dealings. My Lola died early enough that she lived alone for the rest of her life, frivolously spending through that fortune until my family realized too late that she’d be penniless and at the whim of Medicare for the last few years of her life.
My grandmother became a senior rights activist and served on the California Senior Legislature for seven terms. She’d hide brand new, crisp green bundles of hundred-dollar bills throughout her house while investing well enough to retire a millionaire. That money would pay for her at-home care once they diagnosed her with Alzheimer’s, able to spend her waning years in the comfort of a familiar home with live-in caregivers. Every college holiday, I sent her letters, postcards, and mementos to engage her mind, to give back to the figurehead that gave me so much strength and grace. Somehow, my grandma made it through to even attend my college graduation.
Sitting in her wheelchair on a sunny June morning overlooking a Greek amphitheater, I ran to my grandma, holding my blank rolled-up piece of parchment, chunky black heels clicking against the concrete.
“You made it, Grandma! You came!” I said as I bent down in the long black, billowy robe, the scent of the flowers from the layers of Hawaiian lei flowers crushing against her black dress.
“Of course, my love,” she whispered in my ear, “And I will be at your next big win… remember — our ancestors made us for more than monotony.”
I didn’t know it would be the last proper conversation I would get to have with her. She died less than eight months after that ceremony. The salty taste of my tears as I gripped the cold, bronzed medal as I delivered my eulogy, black ink smearing as my vision blurred between words that never seemed to gel into enough of a glorification of her. Trudging to her open casket, my hands wrapping the thick-ribbed blue ribbon around this medal, the first I’d won in some academic achievement from childhood. It was the first time both my grandmothers witnessed me winning an award, the culmination of two opposite sides of a war that exemplified government corruption, post-colonial atrocities, and losing a home. I tucked that medal into my grandmother’s mahogany casket, tearfully mumbling a thank you that never seemed to be enough.
My Lola would pass away less than a year later, her fortunes gone, nothing left other than a few knickknacks and piles of paperwork from MediCal. She had sold off the land properties left to her years prior, the slow, painful realization that her husband had left her with money. Still, her upbringing meant they had never taught her any kind of financial acumen or investing strategy. Like most island girls, she was told to look pretty and sit dutifully next to a man who would “take care of her ‘’ while she gave them heirs. By the time she passed, she was cognizant enough to know she could not afford the entire Roman Catholic burial with a full casket. Instead, we stood in black, picking the most unornate urn to hold her ashes.
Their legacy to me isn’t pretty or pleasant to talk about. It would be easier to sweep a lot of the details away to give the bland “first-generation” story. Some could look at their lives and see the touches of karma or even poetic justice that they ended up experiencing death on opposite financial spectrums. But as bloody or painful as their paths were, as different as their influence on me was, they still both carried the same energy with their lives, the same message that I plan to take forward.
“They did not make us for monotony….”