My parents spent the week before my college graduation driving around the Chicagoland area, with my aunts yet without me. They skipped out on tours of campus and the opportunity to meet the professors I hadn’t managed to alienate during my four years at school.
I thought they would at least show up for the massive pre-graduation party at the Museum of Science and Industry which the University hosted for graduates and their families. Instead, they went to somebody’s house in the suburbs to watch the Bulls play the Jazz in the NBA Finals.
I can’t say that I blame them now but at the time I could have done without the awkwardness of explaining to my friends’ parents why my parents weren’t there to make small talk over hot hors d’oeuvres.
And it’s not like I graduated with honors. I hadn’t done anything special like be appointed a student marshal, or get elected class speaker. I wasn’t even graduating early. But I was still excited to see good old Jose and Arline Davila turn up on that sunny second Saturday of June 1998 just in time to complain about the location of their seats.
When I introduced them to my beloved friend Andrew, my mother pulled me aside and whisper-shouted “IS THAT THE JEWISH?” before giggling nervously and slapping my arm.
Like I was the one who had said something borderline offensive.
I had actually warned Andrew that something like this might actually happen, because my parents have this tendency to categorize my friends as FILIPINO and EVERYBODY ELSE. So I wasn’t at all surprised when he grinned at my mother and said “YES!” in a conspiratorial stage whisper.
I should have been magnanimous when it came to my parents and their shenanigans… I mean, behavior. Been less bitter about not being taken out for fancy celebratory dinners to Charlie Trotter’s like my classmates with more considerate — and when I say “more considerate” you know I mean “richer” — parents. But like any good middle child, I was always searching for, and often missing, those rare occasions when I had my parent’s undivided attention. Surely something like a college graduation would anoint me somehow, especially since my older sister had dropped out of school a few months into her first year at Emerson.
Also! I had a very pretty, thin cousin back in the Philippines, the only child of my Uncle Butch and Tita Cynthia. And despite the fact that I went to the U of C and she matriculated at what I was given to understand was the Harvard of the Philippines, I still managed to have an edge.
But how to cement my status as favored cousin, number one grandchild? I had no idea. I was in trouble because I didn’t have a real job lined up, and I didn’t have nearly enough Filipino friends for my parents’ satisfaction. I didn’t speak Tagalog, nor did I know by heart the names of the dozens of uncles and aunties and cousins and godbrothers and godsisters who I had never met but, because of my parents’ exaggerations knew everything there was to know about me.
My mother’s solution lay in the stack of graduation programs she had stolen off the chairs of unsuspecting white people once the ceremony was over. She handed me a fistful of dried up pens from her handbag and instructed me to look through the hundreds of names of graduates in the program, locate my name, then sign next to it with a custom inscription to every single uncle and auntie and cousin and godbrother and godsister and the guy who sold taho out of a bucket on my grandma’s street in Quezon City and the priest who baptized me, as well as all of my mothers frenemies.
I wasn’t famous but I was a college graduate with a degree from what people still refer to as the Harvard of the Midwest (sorry, Northwestern) and dammit if these people weren’t going to get my autograph.
I was twenty two, dying for a cigarette, and wearing uncomfortable platform sandals that despite their chunky heels still sank into the damp grass of the quad. I thought, This is stupid and my hand is going to cramp, but also I thought Maybe they’ll take me to the bougie restaurant in Chinatown with fabric tablecloths and let me order something with lobster, not just lobster sauce.
Sixty two programs, and I’d give my parents ammunition that in the battle of who had the superior offspring would eventually see them victorious.
My friends wandered off, leaving me alone with my parents, and my aunts, as they watched me sign each and every one. I drew the line at custom inscriptions, and sometimes my signature was so illegible it was obscene, but I did it. Sweating away in my rented polyester graduation gown while my mother fiddled with the Class of ’98 tassel on my mortarboard.
Programs signed, they walked me back to my apartment. I was about to tell them to wait while I ran upstairs to change into more comfortable shoes when they declared that we were expected at a child’s birthday party in Downers Grove. The great grand nephew of someone I didn’t know but my aunts wanted to impress was turning five, and my parents had already bought him a present.
And I said no. I wouldn’t say that I was heartbroken, but I was definitely disappointed. Bummed out. Not surprised to have the Filipino parental rug pulled out from underneath my ill-fitting platform sandals. I ignored them screaming at me, and was rewarded with a re-gifted basket of crap from Bath & Body Works that was my actual graduation present. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but that was some tall bullshit. And as much as a free ride in a cramped BMW hatchback to the suburbs where I would come in second to a five year old child appealed to me, I refused the invitation.
My family had just pulled away when my friend Jacinda, who was moving out of the dorms and into my place, arrived with her stuff. While I helped Jacinda and her mother unload the car, I explained what had just happened because there had to have been a reason why I was there, sweaty and sad and standing on the sidewalk still wearing my graduation outfit while holding a wire basket from Bath & Body Works. Jacinda’s mom narrowed her eyes, sucked air through her teeth, which means “That is some tall bullshit” in any language you may speak, then proceeded to order a shitload of pizza and mozzarella sticks from Edwardo’s.
I didn’t have a fancy celebratory lunch but I did have pizza to eat and cigarettes to smoke as soon as Jacinda’s mom drove on home.
I didn’t have the only acceptable graduation gift, a shitload of cash, but I did have a college degree (that might one day be paid for — thanks, student loans).
My family had gone and left me, but I still had Jacinda (still do), and her mom (still do), and Andrew (forever and ever), about whom my parents, to this day, still ask “IS THAT THE JEWISH?”
Yes, Mom. Yes. He. Is.
This is a revised version of a piece I read at Miss Spoken’s “Family Feud” show at the Gallery Cabaret in Chicago on November 28, 2018.