I REMEMBER the first time I noticed someone staring at me. I was 7, standing with my parents on the side of a road waiting for the traffic to clear in Lidcombe, the Sydney suburb where I grew up.
When I finished looking to my left and right, just like my parents had taught me, I locked eyes with a woman. She was middle-aged and had light skin, just like my father. She stared at me as I held hands with two people of different colour, one Caucasian and the other not. The other was my mother, who is Filipino.
That look told me all I needed to know: In the eyes of some, I am different.
That same year, at my school’s end-of-year concert, I discovered that my classmate with a Filipino father and white Australian mother didn’t receive the same looks. Her mother was plump, and light-skinned like my father, and her father was short, and melanin-rich like my mother. My friend looked just like me – a perfect blend of the two – yet because the genders of the Asian partner were reversed, her parents’ relationship wasn’t judged.
As I grew older, I became even more aware of people’s reactions. I heard judgment in the inflection of the “oh” someone muttered when I let them know of my mixed race. It was in the confident prediction of “I bet your mum’s the Filipino one”. And it was in the sting of the taunts of, “Well, at least my mother isn’t a gold-digger.”
People don’t seem to be aware they’re doing it. It’s the kind of reaction that Australians make without thinking – if your mother is Filipino and is married to an Australian, their marriage is a sham. It comes as naturally as learning to walk and talk.
When you’re the product of two people, one from a prosperous country and the other from a developing country, you’re often labelled as different in the playground and beyond. If your mum is from the Philippines that label pretty much screams child of a loveless marriage.
SINCE I can remember, this stereotype has been projected back at me in screen portrayals of Filipino women.
The iconic Australian film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was celebrated for its accepting and tolerant portrayal of the gay and lesbian community. Yet “my” character was Cynthia – an angry, crazed, attention-seeking, money-hungry, gold-digging Filipino woman who popped ping pong balls out of her vagina for show.
A decade prior another Filipino woman had captured the nation’s attention – Rose Hancock Porteous, the wife of the late mining magnate Lang Hancock.
Despite having a career before their marriage, she was reduced to being a “former-pantyhose model” and a “bitch”. Her daughter even described her as a “gold-digger” and “mail-order bride” on national television.
Judgment and whispers follow Filipino women in Australia wherever they go.
My mother once told me that in her home country a woman’s chance of building a life in which she’s not constantly worrying where the next meal will come from is limited, no matter how hard she works.
She may be a smart college graduate but it makes little difference. My mum was not alone in seeking opportunity elsewhere.
Nearly 2 million Filipino immigrants live and work in the US; over 1 million are in Saudi Arabia; and Australia is home to more than 200,000. They raise other people’s children, become live-in workers, and often send the majority of what they earn back to family in the Philippines.
After she met my dad, my mum was offered a new life in Australia for her and her son from an earlier relationship. And she took it.
I AM my mother’s daughter not in skin tone, but in other ways. We share a flat button nose and a sarcastic sense of humour. She gave me her thick, coarse hair, which often needs to be tamed into braids before it becomes wildly unmanageable. And I inherited from her a bunch of facial freckles, with three firmly planting themselves on to my top lip.
I may have spent a lot of time defending the legitimacy of my mother’s marriage to my father, but only recently did I learn the story of how they came to be together.
I gathered my family in our living room, sat them down and nervously asked them a bunch of awkward questions. My dad immediately rested his head in his hands.
“In all my life I’ve never seen dad so stressed,” my older brother joked to me, as we watched Dad pull at his bushy eyebrows. It’s something he only does when he’s stressed or bored, and it’s a habit I’ve inherited from him.
The more I probed, the more uncomfortable he became, and after about five minutes of recounting his story he left the room for his garage-cum-man-cave.
As he retreated I followed: “I’m not finished with you.”
“But I don’t want to,” he muttered, continuing to walk away.
My dad is one of the most generous people I know, but good people don’t always talk about their good deeds. As much as my dad doesn’t like to think about it, he gave my mum an opportunity to be something other than a housemaid and a single mother.
As it turns out they had met at my dad’s best friend’s wedding in Silay, a town near Bacolod, Philippines, in 1990. His mate was marrying my aunty and dad was the best man.
Before the wedding they’d stayed for four weeks at my mum’s family home. Other than my mum, no one really spoke to my dad when he was there – it wasn’t a language barrier, as English is widely spoken in the Philippines, but more about the fact that they inhabited such different worlds.
Mum and Dad spent every day of that month together. They became friends and the friendship developed into something more. At the end of the month my mum caught her sister's bouquet, and my dad presented her with a ring. They were not in love, but he asked her if she wanted to come to Australia. He said he would marry her and bring her over, and if it worked between them, great; if not, he promised he would still help her immigrate.
She accepted his offer and came to Australia after the designated six-month fiancé visa waiting period.
They stayed together. But life for my mum and dad came with constant judgment. People whispered when they entered rooms together. Some questioned how two people could be engaged after knowing each other for such a short time.
My grandma had her doubts, too. My dad’s response to her concerns was stern but respectful: If she didn’t like it, they simply wouldn’t visit. But that didn’t stop Grandma’s friends from gossiping, constantly checking in for updates, and asking whether her son was separated yet, or if his Asian fiancé had received her visa and left him already.
MY PARENTS' story was not one that started with love. They slowly fell for each other as time passed.
When they first met, my mum told my dad she hated facial hair. The next day he came out of his room freshly shaven, with the remnants of his thick beard piled in the bathroom sink. He’s not let it grow back in the 26 years they’ve been together.
One time my dad’s mate (the same friend who married my mum’s sister) told my mum that her life would be worthless with her husband. My dad never spoke to him again.
Now my father can’t sleep until he’s given my mother a foot massage with the coloured foot reflexology charts he found online and printed. Even when they argue about how much chilli mum puts in her chilli basil chicken, or the fact dad wears sweatpants to the shop, their love is evident.
I’ve persevered through the taunts and sly digs about what it seemingly means to have a Filipino mother and Australian father, because I’ve seen things that the middle-aged, white woman on the street in Lidcombe hasn’t. And that’s a relationship sustained by a strong love. I’ve seen a lot. And now I can see that it’s time for everyone else to open their eyes, stop judging, and catch up.