The three parts of the book American Son, by Brian Ascalon Roley, are titled Balikbayan, American Son, and A Dirty Penance, respectively. A balikbayan box is a colloquial Filipino term for a package of keepsakes sent to relatives overseas. It is also used to refer to expatriates. Balikbayans are still Filipino, but also are not. Gabe, the narrator of the book, is a half-white, half-Filipino kid who doesn’t know his place in the world because he doesn’t yet know who he is culturally. It’s an existential crisis at a time when most others his age are stressed enough about school or work.
In 1982, my parents and four older siblings packed their bags and immigrated to the U.S. from the Azores, Portugal. I was born a few years later. I asked myself a lot of questions growing up about what I identified as. I grew up in America, spoke English, liked baseball, and looked white. I looked like Mai, fair skinned with blue eyes. The rest of my siblings resembled Pai more, with olive complexions and hazel eyes. I went through early life easily enough. My brothers, with names like Miguel and Carlos and looking like they do, met more difficulties growing up than I did. This left an indelible impression on me that I often reflect on still. Beyond that, my white appearance would fizzle away once I got home from school, walking out of America and into a Portuguese household, enshrining the customs of our culture in a way only expatriates can. This must be how Gabe feels. Or worse. I went from one culture to another. Gabe goes into a household with three competing cultures.
Gabe’s older brother, Tomas, is also trying to be something he’s not. It’s unclear of the ages of the brothers. At times, it seems Tomas is maybe 18 or 20 and Gabe is around 16. Other times they seem older than that. Regardless, Tomas wants to be Mexican, “his muscles covered in gangster tattoos and his head shaved down to stubble and his eyes bloodshot from pot, (Roley 15). They live in L.A. in the early 90's, surrounded by gang culture at it’s peak. Tomas has adapted to the culture that he thinks will benefit him the most. He gives no indication that he even thinks of his Filipino heritage. He’s violent and abusive to his mother and brother, like his American father was, like his adopted gang culture insists he be. Gabe seems put-off by this, contemplating on Tomas being an asshole and, “beginning to wonder if he has actually become one,” (44). Gabe won’t pretend to be Mexican, like Tomas.
The second part of the book finds Gabe still searching for a cultural identity, but he’s taken his search on the road. Some time has passed since the first part. He’s stolen his brother’s car and, with the money he’s made selling Tomas’ dog, seems to be aimlessly driving north through California’s deserts. Gabe finally finds himself in the countryside. It’s rural and pastoral and white. A far cry from L.A.’s glitz and crime and Mexicans. His car breaks down and he begins walking while noting: “Sometimes kids run by me, always white and unattended by adults…Two boys who stop me and ask for advice on baseball cards even though I am a stranger,” (75). He eventually finds himself in the company of a tow truck driver, Stone, who surprisingly thinks Gabe is white. While Stone denigrates Mexicans and Asians in an uncomfortably trusting way to someone he’s just met, Gabe begins to feel he needs to keep up this ruse that he is white. The neighborhood kids thought he was white. Stone thinks he’s white. He doubles down.
It’s revealed later that Stone has been in contact with Gabe’s mother and has arranged to meet her at a motel in Meridan, Oregon, to reunite her with her son. Gabe’s white facade comes crumbling away as Stone discovers the person Gabe said was their “maid” is actually his mother. Stone feels uncomfortable and Gabe feels shame: “He stares at me and I look down. Mom sits there beside him. Suddenly his neck and cheeks turn red, (126). First, Gabe didn’t want to pretend to be Mexican. This time, he can’t pretend to be white.
In the end of part two, Gabe sits with his mother in the motel room. As Gabe begins to explain away his behavior, his mother begins to cry. This woman, this balikbayan, has never had the privilege of being mistaken for another ethnicity. Gabe begins to regret his actions, literally reaching out to his Filipino heritage, to the one culture that is accepting of him: “Finally I sit timidly on the bed beside her. My arm just barely touches hers. Still, she doesn’t move. Mom? I lift my arm and wrap it awkwardly over her shoulder, and though she does not pull back, neither does she respond. I let it stay there for a moment, limp like a fish,” (129). Perhaps Gabe has found an identity that doesn’t require any pretending.
Whether this plays out in the final part of the book or not, I can’t say. In the first two parts, Gabe has shunned his brother’s adopted culture and realized that the country’s opinion of him changes with his cultural identity. I hope Gabe can find some answers with his mother.