Note: this post may contain triggering content, particularly around relationships with food. If you are someone who needs help, there are resources. While cultural options are, in my opinion, still quite limited and sometimes difficult to access, there are some places to start if you’re from B.C., including here.
When you first get to know me, you will realize a few things: I prefer to listen more than talk, I like to nod my head a lot…and if I’m not holding a can of soda in my hand (a trait I inherited from my lola, who died at the ripe old age of 101, bless her soul) then I’m probably holding food.
If I had it my way, I’d be holding barbecued banana on a stick, or even a slice of cassava cake. I struggle to resist desserts like palitaw and brazo de mercedes. I’ll never say ‘no’ to lechon or adobo, because only a fool would do that. At work, I have a drawer full of Sunflower cracker sandwiches (they are all mango and strawberry flavours, thank you very much) so that if I start to get hungry while I edit — and can’t leave my desk — I can survive to the end of the home stretch.
You may not have heard of some of these foods, but they are common — and celebrated — in the Philippines. Adobo and lechon are basically part of the Filipinx fabric; if you go to one of our parties, you’d probably at least see these two food items spread out on a table. We are all about hospitality, and we show that in the way we feed people coming into our home. One of my favourite stories I have heard from a friend is how she went to school with a plethora of Pinoys. The school hosted a World Food Day and the students of Philippine descent had to have multiple tables because they brought so much food.
Food is such an important part of the fabric, so much so that when you can’t go back home, you have to rely on the tastes made available to you here. And yes, they are not the same, but in my mind, it is enough to appease me until the next moment I can visit.
I was in the Philippines for a bit and, hilariously, it wasn’t the Filipino spaghetti or the lumpia that reeled me in. It was actually the memories involving the desserts, particularly a cookie we call the chocolate crinkle. I grew up Roman Catholic, and that meant when we were in my home province at Christmas time, you’d go to mass over multiple nights. It’s called simbang gabi; you usually go for nine days.
In the village where I have ancestral ties to, there is a tiny bakery before you turn the corner to get to our old place, which was on the mountains. Mass would be over at 2:30 or 3 in the morning and we had to walk by because that was the only route to get home. Like clockwork, the woman running the spot would put this amazing pineapple pie in her tiny display. I can’t even do justice describing it; it was like a custard, but it wasn’t. It was sweet, but not too sweet. The crust flaked just enough; there is nothing worse for me than when I take a bite into any kind of pie and the structural integrity of the crust just pathetically flakes into dust.
Even the commercially baked goods are incredible. When I can eventually take my husband to the Philippines, one of the first things I’m going to do is take him to a Red Ribbon Bakery. I don’t know why, but I love their chocolate cakes so much.
I have learned a lot of lessons about being half Filipina over food. Patis (fish sauce) is delicious, but you can’t really take anything that has it to school or work because people will ask, “what is that smell?” (Trust me, it is like putting salmon in the microwave.) Banana leaves are hard to unwrap sometimes if you’re having suman for a quick snack. Most importantly, don’t be dainty when you eat, because you’re eating to survive, and not be a princess.
Unfortunately, the culture of Filipino food, in my opinion, is a double-edged sword.
Food as a ‘frenemy’
There is this bizarre juxtaposition in Philippine culture: as a child, I was told to finish all my food; I didn’t have a choice. My mother’s favourite line — and fair enough, we really didn’t have all that much — was, “if you don’t finish all your food, the aswang (in her case, she meant witch, but it can refer to any kind of creepy creature of lore) will come and eat you/devour your soul/insert whatever terrible plight here.” You’d see the same thing at gatherings with her family and friends. You were told to eat, eat, eat. Have more food. Don’t let it go to waste.
Where it gets interesting: in my childhood, there had been very few get-togethers where I was not pulled aside and told to watch what I eat. And I know it still goes on today.
I don’t know what prompted it. I don’t know the history behind it. Maybe at one point it was a survival tactic; maybe someone’s tsimis (gossip) spurred it. From the ages of five to…well, basically the last time I went to a Filipino gathering, which was probably before I started journalism school in 2013, greetings would be replaced by my name being shout-whispered by a tita or an auntie. “Ria! Hey, come here.”
Obediently, I’d go to them; they’d open one of their arms so that I would walk right into it, and then they’d really lower their voice. It was almost like they were trying to be friendly but serious at the same time. I never liked this kind of diction, and even as I write this, my anxiety is actually starting to increase. The conversation always had three participants: the tita offering ‘advice,’ me — my physical self — and my brain. Of these three, my physical self would get the fewest words in.
“You have to watch what you’re eating, okay?”
“Oh my gosh is she watching what I’m eating?!”
“You don’t want to become fat and ugly and lose your beauty, right?”
“I mean, I thought I was fine the way I was, I’m pretty proud of my body, but maybe there is something wrong with me…”
“Don’t you want to be successful? Don’t you want to get a job? People will pay more attention if you look healthy.”
“Again, personally, I thought I was healthy, but when I get home I’ll need to spend a good hour or two in the mirror double checking that because clearly she thinks I don’t look healthy and if she’s pointing it out then clearly other people in this room think that way, too. Also look at all that food that I won’t be able to eat, damn it.”
“Are you hungry? Go! There’s some food over there. Make sure you eat!”
“Well yeah, I want to eat but now you’ve made me not want to and this is so incredibly confusing.”
Food for thought
I have to say, one of the things I have come to love about social media is all of the honest conversations I am seeing about this. I had no clue who to turn to as a pre-teen or teen, and a lot of these unwarranted pieces of advice plagued me through the early 2000s. Along with going to therapy, Instagram has been a saving grace for me, because there are words that appear in my feed that reinforce that it’s okay to enjoy your food; it’s okay to learn through it and be who you are. It has been a place to find power, and I wish I had access to more of it when I would try and find a solution to these comments.
While everyone has a role to play — especially the titas (and I am sure there are titos and others out there who do this, too) who deliberately or inadvertently body shame people through their consumption of food, it’s up to our generation to continue to fight back, educate, and speak out. It is absolutely disappointing that these are still conversations that are taking place, but I’ve found that the majority of people I respond to about this are willing to change.
That conversation I cited in the last section was, of course, a conversation that actually happened. A while back I was at the mall when I ran into that same tita.
I hadn’t even said anything when she said she wanted to apologize.
Turned out that she had been having these conversations with a lot of friends my age, and, after more than twenty years, someone finally stood up to her and told her how they felt. She had never realized what she was doing.
I do believe most of us speak with good intentions; for the most part, we aren’t firing words to hit people like bullets. We mean well and we try to do our best each time we talk. This tita wasn’t evil, she just didn’t know, and didn’t have access to the kind of resources we do today.
If you are someone who has gone through this, please don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself. You are stronger than you know. And, if you are someone who is older and may have made these kinds of comments, it’s not too late to change how you encourage us to explore and understand our culture. While it would be wonderful for the former to not have to say anything, I’m taking the stance of how important it is to learn from one another. The older Filipinos/Filipinas/Filipinx have taught us so much and paved the way for us…hopefully, we can teach you something, too.