by Luna Beller-Tadiar
In the quiet darkness of Northern California evenings, you could often find my dining room filled with a certain kind of light.
I grew up surrounded by academics. Queer, women, of color (Black, Indian, and Filipina), they wrote about race and class, sexuality and gender, the past and the present and would bring the echoes of their daily toils to the dinner table as they chatted and discussed. Warm scents suffused the air; hands glowed in the candlelight as dishes passed back and forth. It was at gatherings like these that I first heard of capitalism, of feminism, where I got my first taste of the depth of the history that came before me. I was too young to truly understand what they were fighting—or making—the true weight of the words that pulled mysteriously down at their shoulders, though emerged good-naturedly from their lips. As the candles burned low, I would see the imprints of their glowing faces on the insides of my closing eyelids, drift on the rise and fall of voices, the clink of dishes, the eruptions of laughter, rich as dark red wine. Thought bounced back and forth across the table; intimacy settled into the bones. Here, it seemed, their burdens were a little lighter. Here, they took a moment to set down their arms. As I was carried out, I waved goodnight to a table of smiling faces. I took my leave of something bright, warm, alive.
I’ve always been fond of these memories, but as I’ve gotten older they have concentrated, coalesced. This was not always my world, nor would it remain so. Growing up, I lived in America in spurts. I was born in the Philippines, sang nursery rhymes in Kyoto, learned the streets of central Madrid by my fifteen-year-old heart. The fairytales of my childhood took place by the blackberry brambles of Santa Cruz’s wave-cut cliffs. The discoveries of my adolescence rose from the grit of New York City streets and the quirks of Village rambles. My mother had never intended to stay in the US; while job searches took my parents and I across the country, something deeper propelled us around the world.
Still, I’ve lived the majority of my life in America. But am I American? In kindergarten, I learned to slouch. Back in the US, after a year in Japan, my body had not quite left; I sat in Japanese seiza, back straight, and watched the curved forms of my classmates curiously, learned from them to displace the perfectly stacked disks of my spine, to sit my chin on my hand, to roll my eyes. In first grade, the Pledge of Allegiance emerged sour from my mouth. I did not understand 9-11 or the “War on Terror,” but during the dinners where I brushed up against these women’s unknown burdens, I had absorbed enough to wonder about that “all” at the end of “liberty and justice for.”
BGD is a reader-funded, non-profit project. Please GIVE today and help amplify marginalized voices.
I spent my summers in the Philippines, peeling spiky rambutan with my fingers to pop the succulent flesh into my mouth, running barefoot over my lolo and lola’s sticky terracotta tiles, doing handstands on thick tropical grass to my indulgent family’s choruses of “ang galing mo!” But right outside our gate other children played; right outside our home the “squatters” had theirs: whole families packed into cinder block huts, mothers making a few pesos from front window sari-sari stores, children weaving excitedly between strutting roosters as they played ball.
When I returned to the clean boulevards of California, I carried other places in the little things: homemade lunches my classmates prodded at—Japanese onigiri, Filipino pancit. The seiza in my body; the doubt on my tongue. But soon, I begged for Lunchables, traded my strips of seaweed for brightly colored Gushers. When I moved to New York, the kids made faces at my “fishy green stuff”; my seaweed lost its currency, so I ate fewer Gushers and unlearned the taste of the sea.
Sometimes, the little things were too little to point to—too aqueous, perhaps, too vague. It was not until 6th grade when I learned that no American referred to summertime relief as “air-con” or that referring to your footwear as “flip-flops” was the only way to be understood when you meant slippers. I thought I spoke with my family in English, but it was not the language of my classmates. As I grew older, I had snacks, not merienda; I wore tanks, not spaghetti straps; I exchanged gifts, not pasalubongs. When, during the summer after 7th grade, I asked a friend to turn down the “AC,” I felt something tiny in me finally die.
If I have any home, it seems America should be it. I have lived here, learned here, loved here, sung beneath the California redwoods, walked confidently my New York city streets. If I am honest, I know nowhere the way I know here. America is the backdrop to my struggles, the ground from which I jump. Whether I like it or not, America is in my pores. But the America in the newspaper thinks itself right, and the rest of the world wrong. The America I learn about in school tells me it is not the conqueror of my family or the enslaver of my friends. The America I know believes itself to be the center of the world, and despite the location of my body my center of gravity is elsewhere, shifted so far west as to be east, caught between New York and Manila, Kyoto and Madrid, an anchor dropped deep somewhere in the Pacific, in no man’s land—at sea.
Where do I belong?
At 7:00 A.M., pressed against the subway doors, I ache for the endlessness of Madrid evenings. At night, when I flip through my thousand-page history textbook and find the Philippines mentioned twice, I crave mangos. There was a “Spanish-American War”; My classmates do not know a Philippine-American one followed it. Sometimes, the hallways of my school and bright eyes of my peers recall other eyes, other places, old eyes in thin faces, children threading through honks and exhaust selling sweet smelling sampaguitas, the highways of Metro Manila.
Who are my people, where is my home? I don’t know, but when I hear “them,” I see faces; “immigrants,” my mother. When the front page is plastered with the screams of our bombs, I see only the soft brown arms of my grandmother. During Hanukkah, I think of the walls of Gaza. Faced with pictures of prisoners, I recall the colors of the hands at my dinner table.
In recent years, I’ve begun to read the kind of words those hands wrote. I have been learning the language of analysis, criticism, and theory, unraveling this incongruent world concept-by-concept, word-by-word. I am thrilled by the sharpness of the critical edge, but more importantly the words hold still something I could previously only grasp at, articulate and explain what may have only been a feeling. As expressions of deeply-felt truths, these words provide not only elucidation but affirmation. As the labor of a questioning pen, they can be not only art but community.
These days, as I navigate the displacements and disruptions of my life, I am looking for the brightness of that dinner table. Those people shared—we share—the burden of hegemonies that incompletely describe our worlds, but also love, laughter, and the labor of creating a better one. As I discover both the joy and pain of knowledge, the beauty and suffering of this world, I have found in the inclusion, curiosity, and care of that table my own north star—a glowing expression of what I seek, not only in my community, but in my world.
All work published on BGD is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not republish anything from this site without express written permission from BGD. For more info, go here.
Luna Beller-Tadiar is a Filipina/Jewish-American mestiza and high school senior living and learning in NYC. She is currently navigating her own questions of identity, community, and solidarity, and only beginning to discover, jubilantly, the works—whether in the form of poetry, prose, comics, or theory—of other radical queer women of color.
Get BGD creator Mia McKenzie’s debut literary novel, The Summer We Got Free. It’s the winner of the Lambda Literary Award.
Follow us on Twitter: @blackgirldanger
LIKE us on Facebook