The Liang family lunch is far from the ideal setting to celebrate my dream coming true.
Unless you're abroad or on your deathbed, attendance at Sunday lunch is mandatory. When my cousin Peter got his wisdom teeth pulled out, Auntie Queenie still brought him to the same Chinese restaurant our family has been going to since the beginning of time. So when I tried asking Pa if I could sit this one out, he gave me his go-to answer: "If Peter can make it to the restaurant with cheeks as swollen as tennis balls, you can too."
Things would be more bearable if Pa hadn't already broken the news about USC to my aunties. I begged him not to post anything after I told him that I got off the wait list. He stayed silent on Instagram, but I'd completely forgotten about the Liang family group chat.
His photo series went like this: a picture of my USC wait-list letter, me frowning, my acceptance letter, me smiling. All the photos had the accompanying hashtags #FromWaitListToYesList #CantGoLowyWithChloe
Pa is weirdly obsessed with hashtags and adds them at the end of every message. He once spammed the groupchat with dozens of them, and I messaged him separately that they don't work that way. Auntie Queenie proceeded to reply with more hashtags and renamed the group #LiangFamGang
In terms of USC, it's not that I want to keep secrets from my family. It's more that I already know what my aunties have to say.
"Chloe, I don't understand why you're considering going to America to study cartoons." Auntie Rita says "cartoons" like it's a dirty word. When my aunties first heard that I'd applied to a college in the US, they were shell-shocked. When they found out I wanted to study animation, they were downright offended. "How are you going to support yourself? You should choose a major that's practical. Something that you can build here." She turns to Pa. "Ahia, your daughter is getting too Americanized."
I bite my tongue and flash my polite smile, the one where I keep my mouth shut and lift the corners of my lips. It's the secret weapon I deploy when my relatives make me want to say what I actually think.
Americanized has become my aunties' favorite word around me. Just last week, Auntie Queenie shared an old picture of me wearing a crop top at the beach on our family groupchat with the message Look at Chloe. She's so #Americanized!
I shit you not, a crop top turned me American.
The thing is, I don't get why being Americanized is bad. Just because I like some parts of American culture doesn't mean I'm rejecting who I am. And I'm still trying to figure out who I really am in the first place. What do you call a Chinese girl who grows up in the Philippines and whose mom lives in the US? I don't really know.
"You don't want to be a school's second choice, Chloe," Auntie Queenie chimes in. "Every woman who settles for being the second choice gets cheated on."
I can always count on Auntie Queenie for words of wisdom.
"No more hunting the Pokémon!" Auntie Rita scolds the kids' table. I peek at the smaller (and more fun) table behind us. Whenever my cousins' kids are on their iPads, Auntie Rita just assumes they're doing something Pokémon related. During my days at the kids' table, all I had to worry about was listening to my perfect cousin Peter enumerate his list of accomplishments. Once I moved to the adults' table, I had to put up with my aunties and more recently . . . Jobert.
"Ah, Chloe is still young," Jobert, of course, pitches in. "She'll move on from her cute little cartoons." Jobert winks at me like he's done me the favor of standing up for me in front of my family.
Ever since my cousin Claudia started dating Jobert, he's been a constant presence at Liang family gatherings. And from the first time I met him, he's treated me like a six-year-old. Don't get me wrong, I don't hate Jobert. The way I feel about him is the way I feel about flies.
Do I hate flies? No.
Do I get the urge to smack them whenever they come near me? Little bit.
Auntie Queenie clicks her tongue while we pass her our chopsticks so she can soak them in hot tea. She does this in every restaurant. The ramen place we go to automatically serves her a glass of hot water after she once lectured the staff on proper disinfecting practices. "It's all your festival talk," she tells Pa. "Their generation is obsessed with festivals."
While my dad did keep his promise to leave the USC news off social media, he still had his scheduled festival post. It's the same badly cropped screenshot of the Philippine Animation Festival website with the caption Two months until baby girl's work is shown alongside the top animators in the country! #ProudDad #AnimationDomination
It wasn't supposed to be a big deal. When I first heard about the wait-list decision and thought USC was a lost cause, my best friend, Cia, convinced me to submit to this student showcase so I could still put my work out there. But Pa overheard our conversation and proceeded to report every single detail on Instagram. They haven't even started judging the applicants yet, and Pa's posts are building me up like I'm about to win an Oscar. I'm worried he might crash Instagram if I actually do make it.
"How were last week's numbers, Queenie?" Pa naturally segues the conversation to business talk when she hands him back his chopsticks.
If I were an outsider looking in, seeing a father post a photo collage of his daughter getting into her dream school and use hashtags like #AnimationDomination
would make me think, Wow, look at that proud dad
. But even though he could pass for my social media manager, Pa has hardly said a word to me about USC. With my art, he's always been proud on social media and indifferent in real life. Every time I try bringing up that I'm going abroad, he suddenly remembers some urgent Zip and Lock matter.
When my great-grandfather moved to the Philippines from China, he survived by selling buttons and zippers. My grandfather then turned it into a business, and the practice got passed down to my dad and his siblings. It's now evolved into the Liang Zip and Lock company. Pa even started a branch that manufactures denim cloth. I always wonder how he came up with the idea. Like, was he wearing jeans one day and suddenly thought, These pants are so great! Why don't I sell the great material that makes these great pants?
All my cousins have gladly accepted their fate and taken their seats in the empire.
Enter Chloe Liang. Instead of an obedient successor, Pa got a daughter who fantasized about becoming an animator.
When I first got the wait-list notice from USC months ago, I accepted that I was going to stay in Manila, study business management, and become a Liang dream daughter. But just as I had made peace with this vision of my future, USC popped out of nowhere and decided to accept me after all.
It's not like I want
to be different. I would have no problem following Pa's path if I had a passion for selling zippers and jeans. I like wearing jeans, and I'm aware that zippers are very useful, but I never felt the calling to make a career out of that practical knowledge. When I think about choosing between studying business in the Philippines or going to USC for animation, I can practically hear my heartbeat pounding out animation, animation, animation
. But the idea that I might be disappointing Pa gives me this feeling in my gut . . . It's like the guilt comes alive and slowly eats me piece by piece.
The best way to deal with guilt is to stuff myself with fried rice. The thought of tender, juicy sweet-and-sour pork mixed with Yang Chow fried rice makes sitting through my aunties' Americanized
comments bearable. But instead of a beautiful, shimmering plate of pork, the waiter drops a bowl of tofu on the turntable. Unlike the usual spicy mapo tofu we order, this dish looks like it has zero seasoning. Right next to it, the waiter sets down equally bland-looking platters of bok choy, spinach, and eggplant.
WHERE IS THE RICE?
I turn to Auntie Queenie, who's seated beside me. "Is more food coming?"
Auntie Queenie tells me in Hokkien that those are all the orders.
"We didn't order fried rice?" I ask in English.
Auntie Queenie then looks at me sadly. "Di bwe-hiao kong lan-lang-ue ba?"
I don't get why she thinks asking me "Can't you speak Hokkien?" in
Hokkien makes sense. First, a person who actually doesn't understand Hokkien would have no idea how to respond. Second, she knows
I can understand Hokkien perfectly. I just don't speak it.
"I'm trying out a new diet," Auntie Queenie says, switching back to English. "No red meat, no sodium, no carbs, and plenty of wonderful leafy vegetables. It's supposed to be good for the heart."
"So not even plain rice?"
I sneak a glance at Pa, whose face looks like his
heart is breaking. He and I both identify as carbohydrate enthusiasts.
"Here you go, Shobe." Jobert scoops up a giant serving of eggplant.
"It's okay, Ahia Jobert. I don't eat eggplant."
He ignores me and puts a bit of everything on my plate before facing Pa. "I was a picky eater when I was a kid too. She'll grow out of it."
Pa nods at Jobert, but he skips the eggplant dish when it reaches him. My father never grew out of his eggplant aversion.
"We can serve these dishes at your debut," Auntie Queenie says, "winking" at me. Auntie Queenie can't really wink, so she ends up closing both her eyes at the same time.
Aside from my Americanized crop tops, Auntie Queenie's favorite conversation topic is my eighteenth birthday party at the end of summer break.
"Debut planning was so easy with Auntie," Claudia adds.
Jobert nods. "Claudia had the perfect program for her debut."You weren't even invited to that debut, Jobert.
Seriously. Claudia turned eighteen over a decade ago, and Jobert only met her last year.
I would most likely pass out from stage fright if I had the same debut as Claudia. For Claudia's Dazzling Eighteenth Birthday Bash (that's what Auntie Queenie called it on the invites), Auntie Queenie rented a hotel ballroom and decorated it like a winter wonderland. There was actual snow onstage. I still have no idea how Auntie Queenie found snow in the Philippines.
The standard debut includes the eighteen "roses," which are the closest guys in the celebrant's life, and eighteen "candles," the closest girls. The celebrant slow dances with each of the roses, and the candles take turns delivering prepared speeches.
As per Auntie Queenie's usual extra-ness, Claudia's program also included her eighteen roses serenading her one by one. That meant sitting through eighteen very bad renditions of Taylor Swift songs. I still can't listen to "You Belong with Me" without cringing.
Having a party that gathers all my friends and family together actually sounds like the perfect send-off before I leave for college. I just wish it weren't an Auntie Queenie grand production.
"Can we not make the debut a big deal?" I ask.
Auntie Queenie laughs like I just said the most preposterous thing she ever heard. "When do I make things a big deal?"All the time.
"Oh!" Auntie Queenie whips her head to the restaurant entrance. "There's Peter and his girlfriend
Thank god for Perfect Peter. Hopefully my cousin can distract Auntie Queenie from further debut planning.
All my aunties crane their necks, hoping to catch an early glimpse of the famous girlfriend. Auntie Queenie won't stop talking about how her golden boy is dating a girl who's next in line to inherit her family's giant grocery business. To rub it in the other aunties' faces even more, Auntie Queenie sends pictures to the family groupchat whenever she's in one of the grocery stores. The last one was of her posing next to a shopping cart with the message Supporting Peter's future in-laws? Hehe #MeantToBe
Auntie Queenie gets up and hugs the girl next to Peter. The Girlfriend is carrying a box that Auntie Queenie takes outside.
I watch Peter do the beso rounds-kissing all our aunties on the cheek. Through it all, he has the Girlfriend on his arm.
Everyone practically glows when they see Peter. Even Pa stands up and pats him on the back. Peter to my family is what Beyoncé is to everyone else.
Peter was his class valedictorian and part of this dance crew that competed around the world. A milk company even hired him for a commercial for a line of powdered milk that's supposed to boost brain power. The commercial showed a little boy struggling with his multiplication homework . . . until he starts drinking the vitamin-boosted milk. Cue a dance number where the multiplication kid grows up to be math whiz Perfect Peter. That final shot of Peter cradling a glass of milk has been Auntie Queenie's phone wallpaper for the last five years.
None of my angst about Perfect Peter has to do with Peter himself. Being around him just makes me feel like the multiplication kid, minus the magical milk. While I have to wonder what Pa thinks about my major, he has regular heart-to-hearts with Peter about Zip and Lock. While my aunties were all whispering about me being wait-listed at USC, they were gushing over Peter being an Oblation scholar at the University of the Philippines.
After the school released the list of scholarship recipients, Auntie Queenie posted Peter's graduation photo with the caption #FreeTuition #BestOfTheBest #HeGotItFromHisMama
Lately I've been keeping a mental count of how many times he "mentions" that he's a scholar.
When Peter reaches me, I stand to greet him, and he pecks me on the cheek. "Sorry we're late. I picked up Pauline from the airport, then we had to make a detour to UP. Grabe! They make the scholars sign so many papers."
Scholar-mention tally: 1.
He pauses. "Oh! I don't think you've met my girlfriend. Chloe, Pauline. Pauline, Chloe."
The Girlfriend releases Peter's hand and leans in to beso. "It's so great to finally meet you!"
"Uh . . . you too."
No person should look this good coming off a flight. In normal non-airplane circumstances, I keep my hair tied up, since it lashes out at any sign of humidity. Her hair looks fresh from a straightener. She's like a Chinese Filipino Barbie doll. After a flight, I look like a pink troll.
I sit back down, and Peter pulls out a chair for Pauline. All my aunties' eyes are laser-focused on them.
"You know, this year, I'm celebrating fifteen years of marriage with my husband," Auntie Sandy shares. She gestures to Peter and Pauline. "How long have you two been dating?"
While Auntie Queenie is straightforward when prying into our personal lives, Auntie Sandy prefers a more indirect (yet equally obvious) approach.
Peter says ten months and Pauline says five. They look at each other and erupt into giggles. In all my life, I never knew my cousin was capable of giggling
"Sorry, Peter thinks our relationship started the day we met at the UPCAT," Pauline explains.
"That's because I knew my honey dumpling was the one the moment I laid eyes on her." Peter kisses Pauline's hand. "When I saw that we were both
Oblation scholars . . . It felt like destiny."
Scholar-mention tally: 2.
Pauline giggles. "You're too sweet, honey dumpling."
"How cute," Auntie Rita gushes. She doesn't even mind when her grandson asks for more time on his iPad. Jobert puts his arm around Achi Claudia.
Who takes a college entrance exam and comes out with a girlfriend?
And what in the world is a honey dumpling?!
"Pauline!" I hear Auntie Queenie call out as she walks back to the table. She holds up a perfect pink fruit that looks exactly like the peach emoji. "Where did you get these peaches?"
"My uncle goes to Japan a lot to meet with buyers in stores there, Auntie. He always sends us peaches," Pauline says.
"Look at how big this peach is!" Auntie Queenie shoves the butt-looking fruit in my face. "Isn't Peter's girlfriend amazing? She brought the whole family a box of peaches! Imported peaches!"
Note to self: The key to Auntie Queenie's heart is imported fruit.
"It's the least I could do," Pauline replies. "I really appreciate you letting me join your family lunch." She smiles, and Peter kisses her for the millionth time.
"Ah, you're always welcome here. The more isko the merrier!" Auntie Queenie turns to me. "UP only awards the Oblation scholarship to the top fifty freshman applicants. Isn't it amazing that two of them are right here?"
"Amazing," I answer with my polite smile on.
"Toh-sia, Auntie," Pauline says, and Auntie Queenie looks like she's about to cry from happiness. The two of them proceed to have a full-blown conversation in Hokkien. It's like this girl was born to be the ultimate Chinese Filipino girlfriend.
My god. Perfect Peter found a Perfect Pauline.
Copyright © 2023 by Mae Coyiuto. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.