how we hold our families and ourselves together in a foreign land
This is part of a series called Margin Letters, where I write open letters to fictional characters of content I love.
Aunty Maja is one of the Nigerwives, an association of foreign women married to Nigerian men in The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi. She is a Filipina. Her daughter, Juju, is one of Vivek’s closest friends.
Dear Aunty Maja,
The first time I heard of you in this book, I stood with Vivek and Osita as they debated whether or not they would knock on your door and talk to your daughter Juju. You loved flowers, so your fence was covered with piles of pink and white bougainvilleas. Vivek and Osita were probably used to the flowers, thinking nothing of them but an easy way to find your house.
I am nothing but a ghostly presence in this book: someone who weaves in and out of Osita’s and Kavita’s minds in my efforts to string clues together and figure out the rest of the story. But if I had the arms and feet to move in your world, I would have run to your fence, stared at the bougainvilleas, and cried my heart out.
My wandering heart is home, at least for a moment.
Like Juju, I have grown up away from my relatives in the Philippines, namely in Bahrain and in Qatar. I barely saw flowers growing in the sandbox where we live, and the few splashes of color I see planted in roundabouts and center islands are just different varieties of petunias. Whenever we flew home to the Philippines, the landscape couldn’t be more different. Flowers grew even from the cracks on the sidewalk. Reds and yellows and pinks and whites were everywhere, and vines climbed all over gates. Bougainvilleas are a particular favorite, and I know of no other country that loves bougainvilleas like the Philippines.
Did you plant flowers simply because you like plants and bougainvilleas specifically because you miss home? Usually, when I see the rare bougainvillea shrubs abroad, they’re planted by Filipinos. I don’t think they’re common flowers in Nigeria, but I might be wrong.
I cried at the thought of bougainvillea-covered gates far away from our ancestral homes. How often do we Filipinos in diaspora mold our surroundings to have a semblance of familiarity? How much effort do we put into making a new landscape friendlier and more welcoming?
It’s this longing for home that I think characterizes the Filipino diaspora experience. I’ve long been used to cramming my luggage with random implements we couldn’t find abroad: a handheld coconut grater, kulikol or earwax remover, and tabo or dipper. It’s filling the alien spaces of our homes with knickknacks from home and hopefully, make it warmer and lessen the culture shock. It’s adapting this new environment to fit the way that we behave and move–in the kitchen, in the bathroom, in the sala, in our kapitbahay’s houses, and so much more. It’s in how we internally interact with the world and organize our external spaces to match. Sometimes we can find local substitutes, but sometimes, using what we are already familiar with–even if we have to sneak past customs.
Sadly, a lot of what counts as “Filipino representation” especially in Fil-Am works just focus on the external cultural icons. Nothing about the motives, practices, and beliefs are attached to it. To be more specific, it’s just food and karaoke. How many times do Filipino readers have to be treated to a scene of adobo eating and karaoke singing just so that we can see ourselves on the page? Do our thoughts not count? Are our beliefs not tied to tangible objects too incomprehensible? Are our ways of forming and maintaining relationships not considered Filipino? This boils my blood, because all we are is reduced to adobo and karaoke. Yes, we find comfort in them, but no one else bothers to ask why we do so. I hope someone does in the future.
As much comfort as we take from these familiar items, we are also derided for holding on to an “inferior” country. You might have delighted in buying lots of tourist shirts the way my parents did. You might have taken time in ensuring that each shirt and cap fit your loved ones and friends back in Nigeria. Sometimes I cringe whenever I receive another tourist shirt, but after all those shopping trips with my own parents, I find it humbling that someone thought of me and spent time and money in getting me one.
Sadly, they don’t take it the same way. The scene where Vivek wears a shirt that your husband rejected hurt my heart because of how familiar it is. Though I don’t hear it within the walls of my own home, I’ve seen it happen over and over again in acquaintances married to foreign men and even in conversations I overhear from strangers in the mall.
As much as we would want to command respect as equals, we both know the reality that Filipinos are always seen as less: less than white people like Aunty Ruby and less than locals like your husband. It’s hard to admit that even within the Nigerwives, a sisterhood who made Nigeria a second home, you are probably not viewed as equal with the others. We know for a bitter fact that love does not conquer all. Sometimes, years of racial prejudice and toxic masculinity are hard to unlearn. Sometimes, our wide-eyed hope and naive love are not enough to shield us from verbal and physical abuse. Sometimes, it is hard to step back and recognize that an association is built to help serve your husbands and be more comfortable with their culture, but no effort will be made to reach out to understand your own–even if it makes up a significant part of you.
When I was a kid, some women would knock on our door, purple with bruises and limping from pain. My mom would lock us in our room because “the adults need to talk”, and all I can hear from my side of the door is sniffling and muffled keening. Later on, when I got old enough to fly alone from/to the Philippines, I would get to sit beside the same kind of women and finally hear the same stories once whispered behind locked doors: confiscated passports, ignored wishes, and deep bruises–both physical and invisible. It’s heartbreaking to hear them conclude that it’s our lot in life simply because we’re Filipinos and because we’re women. Is this all there is to being a Filipino woman?
It’s hard to go back to the Philippines and face family members whose pabaon for you are the words “Sinasabi ko na nga ba ganyan talaga ang lahi nila.” No, for you, this is not the time to swallow I-told-you-so’s. It’s hard to admit that love fails. But Aunty Maja, love stops being love when it is turned against you by your own husband. Love isn’t a weapon to drive into your heart. Love isn’t a prison held together by legalities of permanent residence, husband-sponsor visas, and child custody. Love shouldn’t make one less than human.
Aunty Maja, we are not less of a human being simply because we’re Filipino. We are not punching bags simply because we’re women. We are not less than human for falling in love with someone who does not share our skin color and culture. We ourselves are valuable. And even though I’m aware that it’s stubborn pride keeping you in the house and in Nigeria, it still takes balls of steel to stand up to your husband and to fight with him on your own terms.
Aunty Maja, you are strong for bearing with it for too long. You are strong for insisting on your rights, even meeting them is nothing but the bare minimum. But Aunty, I’m so scared for you. Juju doesn’t see the whole picture and might not be able to help. But this doesn’t have to be the end of the road.
Other women would have cowered in the bathroom and stopped talking. To people from the outside looking in your life, it seems like utter foolishness to stay where there is nothing left for you. But you still have your life, your money, and your daughter. You still have two feet to run. You have the Nigerwives who can take you to the embassy, where you can seek legal options for fleeing the country.
No, it doesn’t take a miracle to get out. No, it is not failure to board a plane with Juju and go back to the Philippines. It just takes the strength that you already have and just channels it into a different goal: to live out the rest of your lives without the sting and shadow of pain.
I hope you’ll be okay, Aunty Maja. I hope I can sit with you on a flight back to the Philippines and cry with you as you recount your stories over and over and over again. I’m listening, Aunty Maja. I can be on the lookout for you when the flight attendants come rolling down the aisle for the next meal, and I’ll make sure that you have extra blankets and pillows to stash in your backpack as pasalubong. And when the pilot says we’re ready to land, I’ll clap with you and others who have escaped the same fate.
You are not alone, Aunty Maja. I hope that you find your peace in front of the bougainvillea-covered gate that you have tried your best to replicate in Nigeria. This time, you’re truly home.