Emily Timbol

Home is Food

Mar
10

I wrote and submitted (a modified version of) this essay for an Asian American Writers Workshop workshop anthology, about the concept of “home.” The essay ultimately wasn’t chosen for the anthology, but after spending a weekend with my sister and talking a lot about our childhood, I wanted to put it out into the world anyway. Enjoy.

 

My childhood is most easily defined by food. Not just because I was a round, soft adolescent, more likely to be found inside reading a book with my hand inside a bag of chips instead of outside getting dirty. Food wasn’t just something I enjoyed, that gave me pleasure. It was the bridge between my two very different, yet normal to me, familial worlds. Food was home.

It is not hard to think of the single food that best defines my racial make-up. We had a name for it, growing up. A name I only realized as a teen was made up by my grandfather, Lope Timbol. It was what he called “Filipino Spaghetti” (which I now know is just Pancit) and it was served weekly alongside heaping dishes of Baked Ziti and steaming piles of handmade Lumpia.

My grandfather and grandmother met soon after WWII ended. When I was a child, he would regale me with his tales of life in the Philippines, which I always pictured as a lush, frightening jungle. He told me about his brother the Guerilla fighter, who tried to sneak food to the American men being marched to their death by Japanese soldiers. If Filipinos were caught trying to aid the Americans they were shot on site. He told me how he lied about his age and joined the American Navy, crying and begging for his mother once his home island faded into the distance, and he understood what he’d done. As I got older he told me how he was separated, segregated, I realized later, with the other “colored” naval men who all served as cooks or in lower ranking service positions.

There’s a lot of family myth in how my Italian grandmother and Filipino grandfather got together. Some of it salacious, some too far-fetched to ring true. But what I do know is they wed, had children, and when my father was ten years old moved from Naples, Italy to the States.

When you’re a child, you don’t always question the world as it’s presented to you. I never questioned why there were three languages spoken at family dinners and get togethers. Italian, Tagalog, and English, all sometimes spoken in the same sentence, was normal. As was the fact my Nona and Zia’s had all married Filipino men, resulting in a large family that could be easily visually divided.

It didn’t seem odd to me at all, until the rare occasions I’d bring a friend over.

My excitable Nona would hand them a slice of toast with Nutella on it and they’d stare at it, whispering to me, “what did she say?” Or they’d look with furrowed brows at my grandfather, then back at me, confused.

I look white. To most people. And since most of my friends in northern Florida were white, black,  or non-Asian, I just kind of grew up thinking I was white, with a mixed race family. It was confusing, when I’d try out saying I was Asian, and my white family members would make sure to remind me that I was “mostly” German. Plus my sister, who more resembled our father, was the only one people said had “exotic” features (something I later found out wasn’t really a compliment.) I was just Emily. A white girl who tanned really easily.

My racial identity had always been complicated. But it wasn’t until I began supporting the Black Lives Matter movement that I started to question my honesty when identifying myself. For a year or two I self-identified as a “white ally.” Once joking in a rough draft of an essay that I was white (mostly), until my Latinx friend reading over it stopped me. He said that this might confuse people. It wasn’t until he said this that I realized I too, was confused.

Quite honestly, I didn’t know what I should consider myself.

It seems way too easy to claim an identity that doesn’t seem mine; mixed race. My nephews are mixed race, half black and half white, and they face prejudices I never have. They’re teased by black peers for their light skin, and looked at with suspicion by white people who are wary of tall teens with textured hair wearing hoodies and basketball shoes. But no one ever commented negatively on my skin tone. I’ve never questioned if I was denied a job, date, or apartment because of my race.

While writing a novel that dealt heavily with racial prejudice, I started to think about the deeper things that separate white people from people of color. The psychological burden that comes with knowing your ancestors, maybe only a couple generations removed, were subjugated and discriminated against because of the color of their skin. Racism and discrimination don’t just breed injustice and anger, but shame too. White children have to learn about racism. It’s a subject taught at home or in school, something they have to work to conceptualize. But children of color know it more deeply. It’s in the way their grandparents avoid certain parts of town, the way their parents teach them to deal with police before they ever sit behind a steering wheel.

When my grandfather left the Navy, he worked as a janitor for the local newspaper. For over twenty years he cleaned up after people who mostly ignored him. Reporters, photographers, writers. He picked up their trash.

My father graduated from FIT, marrying my mother, who tells me stories of how people looked at them strangely when they moved to the south. He got the education my grandfather never could, and worked in technical fields, even for a time for NASA. Growing up he liked to joke that he could handle anything hard, because he was indeed a rocket scientist.

I honestly don’t think my parents wondered how race would affect their eldest daughter. I was just Emily. Their well behaved baby who turned into a defiant, loud child and adult. It wasn’t until my sister came along six years after I was born that women would stop my mother on the street, asking in hushed voices if she was adopted. With jet black hair, dark skin, and a fondness for running around in a diaper, my sister’s childhood nickname was “Mowgli.” Every year on Halloween her friends would convince her to dress up as Jasmine or Pocahontas. Me all the while fondly remembering dressing up as Belle. It didn’t help that my sister’s best friend growing up was Chinese-American, and people would often comment  that they looked just like sisters. This hurt me, every time. Because I always heard the unsaid in that comment. Her and I looked nothing alike.

It was writing that made me finally confront the issue of my racial identity head-on. There’s a movement among the literary community to lift up writers of color. The whitewashing in publishing is being exposed, talked about, and critiqued by people both inside and outside the industry. Discussions revolving the issues of appropriation vs. appreciation, the importance of own voices telling stories, and fighting the idea of diversity as a trend have dominated literary Twitter. And while I enthusiastically share the links and nod my head, I feel even more unsure of what to say. 

If the man who raised the man who raised me was segregated, then it stands to reason that the poison of racism is at least sprinkled throughout my blood. Yet claiming this marginalization feels wrong, especially in light of the white blood mingling with my grandfather’sblood that has faced no such struggle. So each time a contest or blog post or thread pops up that creates a line between marginalized and non-marginalized writers, I dutifully place myself on the side opposite the oppressed, but with maybe a toe, a foot, or a hand reaching across the line. “I kind of get it”, I want to say. “I’m here for you, but also maybe sort of like you?”

During the most unsettling of these moments, I find myself returning to an old comfort. There’s nothing like biting into a warm, golden fried “Filipino egg roll,” as my grandfather called them, to make me feel at home. Food is one part of my identity I never question. Because it’s impossible for me to eat Lumpia without picturing all the birthday parties and holidays when I was too young to worry about what I was, really. So is walking into my parent’s house after my father has spent all day cooking chicken cacciatore, the scent of garlic and marina bringing back memories of long weekends visiting home during college. Remembering feeling that first stretch of independence. How it ached, yet I still leaned into it. Food is a huge part of who I am. Who I’ll always be. My mother taught me to love my faith, but my father and his family taught me to love food. And now, when I can’t decide where on the spectrum I fall, it’s food I use to orient myself (no pun intended.)

Fusion. If I had to pick a way to describe my racial identity to a stranger, I’d use this term. A working of two or more flavors that are different, yet complementary, that creates something unique. I’m like that restaurant on the corner of the neighborhood that you peer into, face cupped in your hands. Something you might not have encountered before, but exists nonetheless. Most people probably have no idea what it is. They might not like it. Fusion isn’t for everyone. But I’m here, and I have a voice, and I hope to use it to say that there are lots of other people like me out there. And we’re not going anywhere. 

Land That I Love

Nov
09

I keep crying at my desk.

When I was 19, my then-fiance called me over the phone to end our engagement, telling me he never loved me. I was young, naive, and had never had my heart broken. The idea he could betray me, hurt me, leave me, had honestly never crossed my mind. The grief was so intense I felt it as physical pain, stabbing daggers in my chest. My sister tells me I was screaming more than crying, but I don’t remember this. The pain was so severe, I felt disconnected from my body. It was the closest to a mental breakdown I ever had.

This morning I had that same disconnect, the same kind of grief that manifests as physical pain. I felt disconnected from my body, my mind, as if my psyche was trying to protect me from the reality I woke up to. Donald Trump is president. The man who began his campaign calling Mexican’s rapists, who hasamerica zero public service experience, who has said, on record, you have to treat women like shit. He is the president elect.

I’m grieving. Not a Republican winning the presidency. I’m not even grieving the failure of America to elect it’s first female president (although I’m sure I will soon enough.) I’m grieving the fact that millions of Americans voted for pure, unadulterated hate. My country elected hate to the highest office of the land. The leader of the free world is now a man who hates immigrants, women, Muslims, war-veterans, the disabled, and anyone who does not bow down and give him the glory and honor he so craves. Despite his ignorance, his complete and total lack of qualifications for this most precious responsibility, millions of white Americans said, “No matter. He’s better than her.”

It’s shocking and it’s not. That this country has this many people willing to vote for hate shocks me, but not that hate runs through so many of our veins. That ignorance and inexperience and utter incompetence could prevail – that Republicans wouldn’t stop it, that the media treated it as entertainment, that emails were made an issue on the same scale as sexual assault….this is America. This is the land that I….love? No. This is the land that never loved me.

I can’t stop crying at my desk. I sit in an open concept floor plan, no cubicles, no wall dividers. My co-workers can all see and hear me. I can’t meet the eyes of the white ones, can’t look at them, wondering if they were part of who did this. The first person who asked me if I was alright, acknowledged my tears, was my black female co-worker, who sits a few desks away.

“Are you okay?” She sent me a message via Lync.

“No. Not really,” I typed.

“Let’s talk outside.”

Together we lamented. I cried. We both expressed our disbelief that 66% of white women voted for a man who has, on camera, said he doesn’t respect women, and bragged about committing sexual assault. We talked some more and my tears eventually stopped. Her kindness was the first thing since last night that has given me hope.

I am grieving. I will be grieving for some time. But once I am able to pull myself up, to go on, like I did before the last time my heart was broken like this, I will not forget this pain. Or the kindness of people like my co-worker.

No matter where we go from here, America is no longer the land that I love. It’s the land that broke my heart.

Violence Isn’t The Answer

Sep
23

“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?…It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

—  Martin Luther King Jr. “The Other America,” 1968

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog post. I’ve been focusing on writing, and querying, and then once I signed with my agent, working on book edits. There’s a part of me too that’s been scared to be as vocal as I was before on my website. I could pretend then that no one would ever read my blog, besides friends and family. Things are a *teeny* bit different now.

I saw a post from a friend of mine yesterday on Facebook. It was a photo of Dr. King, with his words that I used as my high school senior quote, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” It gave me pause. Because while I’ve certainly not been silent recently, I have been reluctant to say something to my white friends and family, that has been weighing heavy on my heart.

This blog post is for them.

I’ve seen, over the past month, numerous reflections on patriotism, protest, the national anthem, and the current racial justice movement in America. Some of these reflections were from my friends and family, but a lot of them were from their friends, or their friends-friends—people I was a few steps removed from. The opinions varied of course, from commending what Colin Kaepernick was doing as laudable, to condemning him for disrespecting his country and, “going about it the wrong way.” The one thing that it seemed every person agreed on though, was that violence was not the answer. Violence against police, violence in the streets, peaceful protests turned into violent riots—the one line every white person I saw commenting drew was this.

Violence

Was

Not

The

Answer

I watched the governor of North Carolina say these words to a commentator on CNN, while I stood in the break room at work. I felt my palms sweat and my jaw clench. The governor of North Carolina has continued to support and defend one of the most discriminatory, hateful, and violent laws in decades, one that has directly and indirectly led to the slow or immediate death of countless trans citizens in this country. The message this law sends to trans people is clear: something is wrong with you, and we don’t want you. We wish you didn’t exist.

41% of trans people have contemplated or attempted suicide.

Violence isn’t the answer.

The trans people who are at the highest risk of violence (against them) are trans women of color. Women who aren’t safe anywhere. I thought about this when I got back to my desk, recalling two recent conversations I’d had with black friends of mine. Both were hurting, both were angry, both were scared. These women were decades apart in age, hundreds of miles away from each other, never having met, but dealing with almost the exact same pain and frustration. My friend “M” was dealing with the end of a decades long friendship with someone who had decided to choose support for Trump over a relationship with her, claiming that M was complaining too much about racism, since “plenty of other races have had it worse, and they’re not whining.” Words I saw with my own eyes. M’s friend messaged her privately, asking M to post something in defense of her, so that M’s other friends wouldn’t think she was racist. I talked about the absurdity of this with M, and the hurt of how many of our other mutual white friends have acted almost as badly, when it came to race.

My other friend was going through what so many black Americans are every day. The fear that the next hashtag, the next name trending on Twitter, could be them. Hoping and praying that their friends and family don’t have to see a video of them being shot splashed all over Facebook. Research has shown that frequent exposure to videos of police shootings can cause PTSD-like trauma in black-people. The kind that affects their jobs, relationships, and every-day lives.

But remember, violence isn’t the answer.

I was listening to the soundtrack to Hamilton while writing this, thinking about the history of our country while bopping my head along to the songs. So much war, so many deaths, fought for freedom. No taxation without representation, as the Tea Party likes to remind us. We praise our founding fathers for fighting with guns and ships and bayonets for our freedom from oppression. For the right to live.

But remember, violence isn’t the answer.

As (well-meaning?) white people like to bring up in every conversation on race, Martin Luther King Jr. urged for peaceful protests. I find these calls for peace hollow, since they rarely acknowledge the violence carried about against King and his community. We ask black people (still, fifty years later, fighting for their rights) to be peaceful, telling them to remember Martin. But do we remember? White people beat, spat, clawed, shot, and killed protesters who peacefully marched. While black people sat at lunch counters peacefully, white people pushed and shoved and punched, and when that didn’t work they poured mustard over their heads, rubbing it into their eyes. And when still, King marched, when still, he went on, a white person assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr., the man calling for peace.

Maybe, I wonder, if white violence hadn’t been used to shut Martin Luther King Jr. up, there’d be less protests that end in tear gas and broken store fronts today.

But maybe not.

Black-and-white photos can be deceiving. They give the illusion sometimes that the events depicted within are tucked far into the past. But if Martin Luther King Jr. had not been gunned down, he’d be 87 years old today. Only a few years older than my grandfather. The same age as many of the parents of the pundits on TV, begging the black people for peace.

Go back, if you have the stomach for it, and look through some of those black and white photographs of the “peaceful” protests in the past. Look at the clubs used by police to beat the black women whose hands are lifted up to protect their faces.

Photo credit: CNN

Study the teeth of the dogs, held back by the the fists of stone-faced officers. See who is bleeding, and who is not. See who is violent, and who is not.

87 years old.

Now turn the news back on. Look at the faces of the protesters, whose arms are up, eyes watering from the tear gas. See who’s on the ground bleeding, and who’s standing over them, gun raised.

Violence isn’t the answer.

So the question is, why do the police, the government, keep using it?