I weave around Mom and grab a piece of jackfruit, then bite into its sticky flesh, letting the sweet juice linger on my tongue. She shoos me away from the kitchen, pretending she’s annoyed at me. I can’t wait to tell everyone my big announcement but decide to hold off until dinner is over so I have everyone’s full attention. I want my brothers to hear too. I love them almost like they’re my kids and not just my brothers. It’s funny. When they were really little, when we first moved to America, my mother’s pinay—and closest—girlfriends would call me maliit na ina—little mother—because I was so protective of the boys.
My brothers and I are very different though. Not only because I’m a girl. It goes deeper. Since I’m the oldest, I’ve always felt more pressure to be successful. I have to show them the way. And I also have to act like a bridge between them and my parents. Danny and Isko are pretty much 100 percent American. It’s as if my parents are first-generation immigrants and they’re second generation. But I’m stuck somewhere between both of them, trying to figure out how to help them understand each other.
The sounds of my brothers playing video games in the back of the house float down the hallway. Dad is watching the local news. I kiss him hello on the cheek and sit on the couch to watch with him. The anchor introduces a video clip of a politician from Los Angeles slamming an immigration reform bill that’s just been introduced in the Senate.
Suddenly, I recognize the man on-screen from the hospital.
It’s Congressman Blakely. Royce’s father. He’s talking about how a path to citizenship shouldn’t be granted to undocumented immigrants at all. If they entered the country illegally, he says, then they don’t deserve to be Americans. Oh great, he’s one of those politicians who think illegal aliens are as good as criminals, and deserve punishment rather than mercy. I shift in my seat, thinking of Royce, and wonder if he agrees with his father. I sort of hope not.
My family got their green cards when we moved to America, but none of us are American citizens yet. I don’t think I can apply to become a citizen until I turn eighteen next year. But the minute I do, you can bet I’m taking the oath. I can’t wait to vote.
Dad shakes his head and starts pontificating to the air. “If that congressman had to grow up in a different country, he would understand better why people come here. These politicians know nothing of true hardship.”
“Easy lang, Dad,” I say, meaning take it easy. “Don’t get too riled up. It’s bad for your heart.”
He looks up at me and clicks his tongue. “O-o na. Have you done your homework yet?”
“I just got home! You know I do my homework after dinner.” My parents. I swear, school is all they care about. They never ask about Kayla, or cheer, or my hospital project. It’s always, how did you do on your test, did you get an A, did you get all your work done?
Dad turns off the television. “As long as you know your job. You’re lucky to not have to get up at five in the morning to do chores, then walk three miles to school or swim half a mile in the monsoon season like I did when I was a boy.” This is my Filipino dad’s version of the classic American dad tale of “walking home for miles in the snow uphill.”
Before I can tease him for repeating the same story over and over again, Mom yells at me, “Neneng! Take your shower and tell your brothers to set the table. The adobo’s almost ready.”
I walk down to my room, toss my backpack onto the ground, and flop onto the bedspread. It’s fluffy and off-white with textured fabric in the shapes of flowers. It looks like a bed for a princess without the fussiness. Mom and Dad let me redecorate my room for my birthday present one year. I researched what I wanted for months. Dad complained about how long I took to choose everything, but I think Mom enjoyed the redecorating. She never had her own room in Manila, so I didn’t mind letting her give me her opinion on just about everything. Even though there were times when she drove me completely crazy.
No, Mom, I know it’s hard to believe, but I don’t want yellow bamboo floor mats to go on top of the carpet.
Anything we couldn’t afford to buy, Mom either made herself or got help from her crafty girlfriends. I decided on a creamy light pink and off-white color scheme with black accents. I hung pictures of my family’s last vacation to the Philippines, and shadow boxes with pretty colored-glass bottles inside them on the walls. I keep my sand and rock collection inside the bottles. They’re filled with little pieces of places I’ve been since I was a young girl. There are red lava rocks from Taal Volcano near Manila, where Dad and I fished for giant maliputo. In a light pink bottle, there’s a clump of regular everyday dirt, the first soil I stepped on in California. The newest one, a turquoise green bottle, holds white sand from Boracay Island.
Dad didn’t want to spend the money to go to the fancy beach, one of the most popular in the Philippines, but Mom insisted that all of us go for a few days the last time we were there. I remember her making a big deal about the trip, almost like she thought we would never get the chance to go again.
Then I have a pin board where I write down inspirational quotes I’ve discovered in books or online. My favorite is the one from President Roosevelt about how we’re all descended from immigrants and revolutionaries.
But the most important thing in my room, the thing I could never travel anywhere without, my secret good-luck charm, my talisman, is a small piece of amber-colored glass my grandmother found inside a big balete tree when she was a young girl. She gave me the glass for good luck before I left for America. It was a secret between us, because Mom doesn’t like her mother’s superstitions. I love the story Dad tells about how Lola Baby demanded that Mom and her entire family travel to Dad’s village a whole month before their wedding because she was convinced that couples who are about to get married are prone to accidents, so they shouldn’t travel before the wedding.
I hear my brothers shouting, barely muffled by the thin walls. Rolling off my bed, I get up and walk into the hallway. They’re still yelling as I open the door to the room next to mine, which they’ve shared ever since we moved to California. They’re playing Call of Duty. The bullets are ripping through the television speakers. It’s so loud I can barely hear myself think.
They can’t hear me, or are pretending not to.
I quietly sneak up behind Isko and pinch his neck.
“Ack! Ate!” Isko complains. They both call me “big sister.” Mom and Dad do too—it’s another Filipino thing.
Not wanting to take his hands off the controller, Isko twists his neck to try to get me to stop while Danny laughs at him. On the screen, I watch Danny shoot Isko—his side of the screen turns red with blood. Isko throws down his controller, whining, “You made him kill me. He always wins anyway.”
Isko’s only nine years old. He’s the baby and the one who takes after Dad. He’s skinny and has little chicken arms and legs. Danny and I tease him sometimes, calling him our little runt, but Isko isn’t just short. He’s short even for a little pinoy boy. What he doesn’t have in height, Isko definitely makes up for in personality. If he enters or exits a room, you’ll always know. He’s louder and more dramatic than anybody else, which really means something when you come from a Filipino family.
“Thanks, Ate.” Danny grabs the controller from Isko. “You should do that more often.”
I smile at them with fake sweetness. “You guys need to help Mommy set the table. Dinner is ready.”
“I thought it was your turn.” Isko pouts.
“I still need a shower. Get going. She’s about to start calling for you.”
Danny switches off the television and both boys sulk down the hallway, pinching and punching each other, as they head to the kitchen.
Danny’s the classic middle child. I know he feels like he can’t live up to the same expectations my parents have for me. He’s smart, but Dad gets down on him because Danny’s always drawing and doodling instead of doing schoolwork. He’s really good though. Way better than you would expect. You’d never believe he’s only eleven years old by looking at his drawings.
“Ate! Go take your shower. I don’t want to wait for you to eat my dinner,” Dad shouts from down the hallway.
“All right! I’m going, Daddy!”
Heading toward the bathroom, I think about the day our family moved to California. We boarded a big jet plane at the Manila airport. Daddy was worried sick about our belongings not showing up in Los Angeles. It’s crazy how much our lives have changed since that day. I don’t remember much about life there now, mostly that we were hot all the time, and sweaty, since the Philippines is near the equator. I take my shower, washing off all the sweat from practice, letting the water fall over my face and shoulders, warming my skin, relaxing my muscles. The shower is my sanctuary, the one place I can be alone and think without interruptions.
I think about the National Scholarship, how it means I can most likely go to any college now—and the reception will be the first time I’m away from home and on my own. I’ve traveled with the cheer team, but we’re always together. I imagine Washington, D.C., and the fancy reception and all the people who will be there—diplomats, activists, congressmen and women, scientists, artists, the president and the first lady. I’ll be around people who actually run the country, people who influence history and who have the power to make other people’s lives better. I hope I’ll be one of them someday. I don’t really know what I want to do yet—something to do with medicine or law, but I’m still unsure.
I decide I’ll tell my parents my good news by showing them the letter and letting it speak for itself. Then I’ll ask them to fill out the acceptance form with me tonight, so that I can send my information back as soon as possible.
* * *
As I’m brushing my hair, my phone buzzes. It’s a text from Royce.
royceb: hey good-looking.
So cheesy! But I’m charmed anyway. I can’t help but grin as I text back. I forget about seeing his dad rail against illegal immigrants on TV.
jasmindls: Hey yourself.
royceb: are you around this weekend?
royceb: wanna hang out?
It’s not that I’m playing hard to get—I do have a lot of studying to do, and Kayla wants to go to Lo’s party, so that doesn’t really leave me with a lot of free time. I feel a flutter in my heart at the thought of seeing him again. Weekends are difficult, but maybe there’s another way.
royceb: did you google me or something?
royceb: i swear that wasn’t me in the angry bird costume scaring the children.
jasmindls: LOL are you sure?
royceb: Okay, okay, that was me. The pigs made me do it.