‘MY MUM IS pretty devastated about it, you know,’ my friend says. ‘She completely trusted this man and then he goes and cheats on her.’ Her hands ball into fists and the strain in her neck reaches her eyes.
‘You know, if your mum needs to talk to someone, my mum can talk to her,’ I say. ‘She went through something similar and she might be able to help.’
My friend looks at me as if I’ve just offered her a slice of sunshine. ‘That would be fantastic. You know, my mum had such a hard time with my dad, and then she marries that lying cheating bastard…’ Her voice trails off and she looks at me askance. She goes on. ‘But, I don’t know if your mum can really relate. Isn’t it common for men to cheat on their wives where you’re from? Aren’t mistresses common there?’
Where You’re From. I’d often heard those words concluded with a question mark by strangers and colleagues. Where are you from? Replying that I am from Australia is never enough to quell curiosity. Only when I respond that I’m ‘from the Philippines’ do people stop questioning. In fact, I could say I am ‘from China’ or ‘from Japan’, and they would believe this more readily than ‘from Australia’.
The idea of me coming from elsewhere is narrated through the chromatic surface of my skin and the presumptions of those who think that Australia is simply a white space. There are many who implicitly believe in the ubiquitous whiteness of Australia. And those who think to question me about my origins are as common as the mosquitoes that suck on my flesh. So this phrase is common enough, but I never expected to hear it from a friend, especially in the way she was saying it.
Even if cheating, lying bastards are supposedly common where I’m from, the pain of being betrayed aches in the same ways. The heart still beats, breaks and shudders wherever you’re from and however ‘common’ misfortune is. Besides, my friend didn’t have the whole truth. Yes, my mum was cheated on, but she had also been ‘the other woman’. Her heart had lived through the two sides of the story, with me as its epilogue.
I knew about my father early on. It’s one of my earliest memories, seared into my mind because of the worry sutured into my mum’s eyebrows when she told me. This worry snaked into her voice as she revealed that she wasn’t married to my father. He was married to someone else. She asked me if this was okay. I wasn’t in a position to offer absolution, but I felt her anxiousness drip from her like sweat. I remember reassuring her that it was okay. I explained to her that, for me, her relationship was just like the soap operas my yayas (nannies) watched during their merienda (snack break). In my five-year-old brain, soap operas were a flurry of shoulder-pads, glamorous permed hair and lingering looks passed from one character to the next. Melodrama and overacting were fairy dust to me.
I saw the worry lift from my mum’s face. I felt proud at easing her conscience, but I started to obsess over my papa’s intermittent visits. Before he arrived, the mood in our house would swirl with anticipation. My mum dressed in her best clothes, as if she were going for a job interview. She would set her hair in big curlers and apply flawless makeup. She would take time off work and wait for him, with an inane smile plastered across her face.
I was made to dress up as well. My mum and my yayas would transform me from a grubby kid to a facsimile princess in an ironed floral gown, ribbons in my hair and my cheeks pinched to make me look as doll-like as possible. It wasn’t me. I always felt like a fraud when seeing him. He saw only sanitised versions of me and my mum, never who we were in tired everyday moments. He experienced the gloss, not the substance. At least, that’s how I felt. I was my illegitimate self whenever my papa was around.
My father wore particular scents when he was visiting us – soaps, shampoo, conditioner and aftershave. Looking back, my mum suspects he probably had the same scents in his wife’s home, and with his other mistresses. He was smart. He would have made sure that he smelt the same wherever he was to avoid questions about where he had been. He called my mum ‘darling’, in his strong accent that made the word sound like ‘dul-ling’. But mum guesses that the endearment was not so personal. Perhaps he called each one of his women the same name to make sure he didn’t blurt out the wrong one.
But he was at my baptism. My mum often tells me this, as if to overcompensate for his absence at other important moments of my life. His signature also inked my birth certificate and claimed me as his blood. There were two pages to this certificate, and on the second page the word illegitimate was scrawled in black ink.
UNLAWFUL, ILLEGAL, ILLICIT, dishonest, prohibited, criminal, banned, proscribed: these are the words that Microsoft Word Thesaurus deems synonyms of illegitimate. They are such ugly words that don’t readily describe how I feel. But they are not a complete mismatch. I can feel the rawness of these synonyms in the way my family remark on my ‘goodness’, as if they expected something different. I feel the criminality of being a bastard child when I see my mum refuse to take communion during church mass because she imagines God’s wrath for her actions. Instead of accepting communion, her eyes fixate on the ground, as if searching for Him in the floor’s grooves and creases.
Illegitimate. The word haunted me. I was my parents’ illegitimate child. We were our own illegitimate family that my papa visited in secret moments. He loved us in snatches that couldn’t be measured in the ‘real time’ he spent with his ‘real’ family, his legitimate one. In this family, he had another daughter. She was supposedly like me in personality and appearance, but I had never met her.
On my sixth birthday, my papa was due to make an appearance at the bakery where I was having a birthday treat. When he arrived, he wasn’t alone. A tall, beautiful woman was hanging on his arm. Her blush was overly pink and her laugh garish.. She seemed happy but there was a glint in her eyes that made me draw back from her. My papa didn’t hug me that day. Even when he gave me my present, he handed it over while trying to keep as much physical distance from me as possible. As my confusion grew, the woman’s laugh got even louder. It sliced through my ears as I opened my present – a charm bracelet with pieces of golden fruit hanging from it. I held out my wrist for my papa so he could clasp the bracelet on, but he waved me off as he said goodbye. I’ve never worn that bracelet.
Spurned by my papa’s deceit and his new girlfriend, my mum’s vulnerable heart fell for another man; a man who could give her security and, most importantly, a way to leave her life behind. We both felt like we had become even more illegitimate than ever before: the cheater was being cheated on.
So, my mother married her new man and we migrated to the USA: the land of opportunity and fresh dreams. But this land was not the blank slate my mum and stepfather craved, so they applied to migrate to Australia. This was a place I’d heard nothing about until my mum showed me touristy pictures of a shiny continent full of furry koalas and elegant looking kangaroos. I imagined I would have a koala as a pet and a kangaroo as my best friend. I began to count down the days until we could move to this magical place.
I was sorely disappointed. Disembarking at Sydney International Airport, my mum, my stepfather and I took a taxi towards our new home. The white sails of the Opera House did nothing for me. Where were the large stretches of red land I had seen in happy snaps of Australia? Why were there no kangaroos or koalas bounding over to me and wanting to be my friend? This was just like any other city. But it was a city that didn’t have my papa in it. I was seeing Sydney through the lens of a disappointed child who had left her papa behind.
But my mum made sure that I didn’t leave everything in the past. She encouraged me to write letters to my papa. I filled these letters with updates about my new life and the home I was beginning to love: the glorious purple of the jacaranda trees, the surprising cries of the kookaburras, the funny lilting accents of the locals and the crunchiness of hot chips. Being raised on a diet of rice, rice and more rice, hot chips were an exotic culinary treat.
I also wrote to him of the way people asked me, ‘can you speak English?’ in a loud, slow voice. I thought these people were all touched in the head and wondered why they spoke so hesitantly. I wrote to him of being the only brown child in my primary school. I was an anomaly in the world of the Northern Beaches: a brown child with an American accent who brought in lunches of rice or peanut butter and jelly (not jam) sandwiches. My fellow classmates were impressed that I had just arrived from California and they dismissed my past in the Philippines. I emphasised my ‘Americanness’ to stand out while trying to fit in. I also wrote to my papa about the television advertisements that were blasting on every commercial channel. The advertisement began with a picture of a barren Australian continent that was rapidly being taken over by angry red dots. This red rash spread, chickenpox-like, over the pristine space. As the invasion of red dots stained the country, a booming voice said: ‘your land could be next.’ This was the time of the Native Title Act. Supposedly the ‘abo-ree-gi-nees’ were taking over people’s backyards. I was aghast. I had just moved here and now we were being taken over? I felt the forceful push of assimilation that demanded that everyone saw Indigenous people as the shadow-beasts that threatened Anglo supremacy. While I wasn’t an Anglo-Australian myself, I was co-opted into this message and made to feel as if my home were being attacked. I soon learnt that others saw me, too, as an interloper who had trespassed on their land.
OFTEN, MY GRADE five class would play Pictionary – one student drew a picture on the blackboard and the rest of the class had to guess what the picture was. During one particular game, nobody could guess the right answer. One of my classmates had drawn an army tank with guns pointed towards stick figures. We called out ‘war’ and ‘army’, but none of those answers were correct. After collectively agreeing that we had given up, my classmate revealed that he had drawn a picture of Australians killing ‘all Asians’. He spat out the word ‘Asians’ like a bullet aimed straight between my eyes. I was stunned. The class was stunned. My teacher was stunned. We had all been hit.
So, I wrote to my papa about loving my new home but also about suffering from the pain of being different. I never mentioned the pain of missing him. I never mentioned my sadness about failing to receive a reply from him, even though I always ended the letters pleading with him to write back.
Eventually, my letters grew perfunctory. They were like reports about the minutiae of my life: my favourite colour, the names of my best friends, my favourite food, and so on. My letters spoke of how we were rapidly becoming strangers.
Twelve years went by without any correspondence from him. I filled his silence with dying hope until, one day, my mobile phone rang and I saw an unfamiliar number on the screen. The voice that answered had a strong Filipino accent that didn’t match what he said: ‘Hello Elaine, this is your dad.’ My stepdad had a British accent and this ‘dad’ on the other end of the line sounded nothing like him. I didn’t catch on until we hung up, and I cried like never before. The person I called ‘my papa’ called himself ‘my dad’. The way that we referred to his role in my life didn’t even hold the same title. The phone call confirmed everything I already knew. My dad and I were strangers to one another.
But, I still sent letters in a futile attempt to pretend we had a connection. I thought this bond had become a reality when I found a letter from him in my mailbox. I carried the letter carefully into my home as if it were a fragile package. I showed it to my mum and we opened it slowly, teasing the lip of the envelope away from its glue. I lifted out the contents reverently and pieces of scissored photographs drifted onto the floor. I picked them up and saw my mum’s face diced into shards. Inside was a terse letter specifying that my papa would no longer accept letters from me.
Accompanying this letter was a signed ‘contract’ specifying that my papa agreed letters from me were no longer welcome. His signature was evidence of his rejection. My mum was furious. She knew that this was the work of his mistress, the same woman whose shrill laugh and sneaky eyes I could still recall. She was now my papa’s wife, married to him soon after his first wife breathed her last breath. As my mum cried for me, my heart turned stone cold. I looked at the letter written by the jealous mistress and laughed at its typos, grammatical errors and awkward formatting. But my mum could hear through my forced laughter and into my sadness. She assured me that his signature had been forged, but in my heart I didn’t believe her.
So I turned away from thinking about my father. I stopped admitting that I loved him. I focused instead on trying to forge a new link. I always knew I had an older sister, the legitimate child born into the legitimate family, and from my mum I knew her name, though not how it was spelled. I searched for her on the internet, trying different variations of the name. I wanted to see a picture of her, print it out and sketch it onto my heart. I started my search for her in my early twenties and, as I approached my thirtieth birthday, I found her.
I found her Facebook profile page. We look alike: the same round face, the wide smile, the almond eyes. She is the image of the future me. I saved the web address for her page and visited it frequently. This miniscule peek into her life was tantamount to the greatest gift I could have received.
I also discovered I have another sister. She is the daughter of the woman who sent the shredded photos of my mother’s face. Her name is similar to mine and she is only a few years younger. I treasured the knowledge of my two sisters and pray that I meet them one day.
MY DESIRE TO meet my sisters was heightened on the eve of my wedding. My fiancé and I had been together for twelve years and getting married felt like something we had done five years prior. He knew the sorrow I felt at not having anyone from my father’s side of the family at our wedding. I didn’t know if my father’s family even knew about me, or whether my papa was aware that I was getting married. I didn’t write to tell him as I was done with putting my heart on the line.
A month later, my mum and I chatted about whether it would have been a good idea to inform my papa about my wedding. My aunt was visiting from the Philippines and she asked me how I felt about him. Flippantly, I replied: ‘I have no idea. I don’t know anything about him. For all I know he might be dead.’ My aunt and mum exchanged glances. I told them I sometimes searched for my two sisters online and that I used to search for news about my papa in the same way. My aunt urged me to do that now and pulled out her iPad for me to check. I typed my father’s name into Google, not expecting to see anything new. But there it was: a tweet from someone sending their condolences to my papa’s family. He had died a few days before my wedding.
My whole family already knew about his death but had kept it secret from me to make way for the happiness of my wedding. I stared at the tweet on the bright screen in disbelief. My aunt and mum didn’t say a word.
This silence continued up to Christmas. I was angry at the way I found out and I hated how my papa continued to dominate the sadness in my life, even when he was no longer alive to reject me. But it was Christmas and we dressed up our regrets in tinsel, glittering Christmas baubles and paper crowns from popped Christmas crackers. It was a delicious Christmas. We spent it with my husband’s family eating fresh prawns, salmon smoked over wood chips and steamed Christmas pudding with sherry-soaked sultanas peeking enticingly from thickly cut slices. After eating more than my fill, I was dozily using my mum’s iPad to check on my older sister’s Facebook page. There was nothing I hadn’t seen before, so I checked my email. In my inbox was an unfamiliar email address. I clicked on the message and realised that this message was not meant for me, but was addressed to my mother. Even though I knew I shouldn’t read on, I greedily scoured over the email.. It was an email from my eldest sister.
She wrote about wanting to form a relationship with me. She asked my mum if it was appropriate to contact me directly. She said she had asked our father if she could ‘make things right’ with me and our brother.
Brother? I speedily hit ‘reply’ and began agonising over my wording. I asked my husband to read it over, then clicked ‘send’ just as the iPad shut down. Its waning light winked at me maliciously: the battery had run out. I scurried over to a charger, but as I’d pored over the worthiness of each word, it wasn’t long until I again wrote out exactly what I wanted to say to my sister. I breathed out a sigh I didn’t know I was holding as I sent the email.
A reply came a few hours later. I read her email hungrily, devouring her words and relishing them. She writes about our brother. He is five years older than me and is the son of one of my father’s former mistresses. I cringe as I read this and think how tiring it must have been to maintain multiple lives and multiple families. She tells me about our younger sister, whose mother married our father before he died. Her email was the reply I had always yearned for from my papa. My sister had known about me and searched for me as well. She accepted me as her sister and wanted to know more about me – not pretend I didn’t exist.
Since then, we have exchanged many emails and Facebook messages. With each one, we discover how uncannily alike we are. Our outlooks on life and the ways in which we express ourselves are similar. We even chance upon the same things and ideas at the same time. Even though we weren’t raised together and there is an age gap between us, the blood we share courses through our veins and forms a bond we had always searched for. I am also in contact with my brother. My younger sister is still a mystery. I don’t think she wants to know me.
I have yet to meet my older sister and brother face-to-face. It has been one year since our online reunion and we’re both waiting to open a new chapter in our lives. We all reside in different continents, but we try to close this gap through frequent contact.
Through forging a connection with my siblings, my bastard self doesn’t feel quite as ‘unlawful, illegal, illicit, dishonest, prohibited, criminal, banned and proscribed’ as it once did. I may still be the bastard child of my mum and papa, but I am also the child of renewed beginnings and hope.