This cook-out wasn’t in Jersey City. It wasn’t at one of the pigeon-poop-addled picnic tables at Liberty State Park, where wafts of the Hudson River’s salty wind slapped my ten-year-old face awake. There were no lumpias or pancit in old, greasy, triple-used Reynold’s aluminium roast pans that beckoned for my mouth to devour. There were no hunks of lechon, the oil on its crispy skin glistening under the late morning sun. There were no kids trying to tag and freeze their friends, who weren’t really paying attention because they were too busy looking up at the kites that stamped the sky. My Ma wasn’t there yapping away in Tagalog slang I half understood but made my best guess at what she meant. Her fellow Filipino com-madres weren’t there to laugh heartily at what I assumed to be another corny, but believably funny, joke. My brother wasn’t there grinning with hunger, ready to eat yet another plate of meat, maybe skewers of pork barbecue with a Jufran-infused sauce smothered all over it. My sister wasn’t there staring at how us folks can be so loud, playful, and cheesy all at the same time while she herself nibbled on some turon.
No, I wasn’t in Jersey. I was on a modest, private patch of land hugging the Hocking River outside of Athens, Ohio, at an age much after the time when childhood met with felled innocence. Though I was the only person whose birth country was in southeast Asia, I felt like I was here before. The bevy of home-cooked food sitting side by side with half-eaten bags of chips, sweating cans of drinks, and a tower of table napkins ready to fall over at the slightest nudge of a breeze. Kids laughing while the adults sat around and chatted. I sat there on top of a closed cooler lid, this time with a beer and not a cup of juice in my hand, and panned my head around to take in what I felt was the closest thing to home in a long time. If I closed my eyes real tight, I swore I was back in Jersey City.
I didn’t expect to be struck with nostalgia in a modest country nook shaded by an old sugar maple and surrounded by sycamores and black walnuts, with the rolling hills of Athens County in the distance. I didn’t expect to be touched by a setting that has been opposite from what I experienced in my urban childhood, much less by a group of new neighbors who didn’t look like me. But I think that was the key ingredient: contrast.
Without contrast, I wouldn’t have been able to readily notice and reflect on the variety and breadth of my experiences between Jersey City and Appalachian, Ohio and everywhere else I have been in between. I wouldn’t have been able to connect these familiar dots that crossed beyond borders of ethnicity, culture, and upbringing. I wouldn’t have been able to find the familiarities within the contrast and thus, appreciate where I am from and where I am today. It didn’t matter that I was the only brown girl whose city roots pulsated with every move I made. I was welcomed and felt welcomed. I was handed a paper plate to fill with home cooking and a space to sit and enjoy what amounted to be just a regular extended family gathering.
If you liked this piece, be sure you check out, “Be Encouraged.“