By Louise Baterna
The primordial question, at the time when we felt she could expect or want a gift, was whether it should be Santa Claus or St. Nicholas. I was surprised at myself for not having created a domestic row. I followed suit like a young ewe raising a yearling in another pasture where rules and traditions are “kinda” different. Perhaps, there was no choice. There was no way to escape it, go around it, ignore that Dec. 6 is St. Nicholas Day, a day when children get jittery, toy and candy stores are mobbed, and every bakery would fill their shelves of the caramelized, spiced Speculoos biscuits in the shape of the patron saint of children and students.
Simone would never know that Santa Claus existed nor experience the tragic revelation that he didn’t. But the roots of gift-giving would be Christian-based, where good behavior (at least a few days before Dec. 6) is a paradigm of rewards. St. Nicolas, who is also the patron saint of pawnbrokers and repentant thieves, after all, inspired the creation of the western tradition of Santa Claus.
Simone was born into our religion and all the rituals that come with it. François and I are both Catholics and so there were no discussions on the practice of a common faith, though as Simone grew older, we will have discussions with her in her personal search for a “greater being.” I always wondered whether the school had something to do with it or it’s a western habit to constantly question and analyze. Or perhaps, we didn’t go to Church often enough, but Simone, during her teens, decided that she herself has to choose her religion and not feel compelled to follow ours. Of course, even if she was enrolled in a Catholic school, there were very few pure religion classes that might have helped her build a stronger foundation in the Catholic faith, but we are in a country where there is “freedom of religion,” a place where they teach morality instead of spirituality. Obviously, the way I look at her now, that education didn’t make her a person less than good, for love and respect of others are the foundations of these teachings.
Filipino or Belgian way
These are the very same teachings we have at home. I have never at one moment, reflected whether I should raise her the Filipino or the Belgian way, which would have come naturally since we are a mixed-culture household. But there was no need to. After all, the fundamental values are the same: respect, hard work, generosity, compassion, family ties. I have veered from being an “Asian tiger mom,” however, detesting the idea of aiming for excellence for the sake of excellence. Instead, I have insisted that she pursue whatever makes her happy and that her achievements, big or small, whether it’s making delicious red velvet cupcakes or a 20-over-20 science report, will be a source of parental pride but will remain her own personal medals. Perhaps, it comes from our own backgrounds, a semi-bohemian attitude toward life and work, preferring artistic and non-monetary pursuits, choosing travel over the latest car model, and allowing the maximum of time for dreaming.
This has nothing to do with being Filipino or Belgian. But exaggerated food quantities, gift-giving, hospitality, good humor, and voice volumes, yes, it’s being Filipino. Simone loves rice as much as she adores French fries. Unlike her father, she has come to understand why her mother prepares for 20 people when there are only six guests; grumpily accepts and remains courteous when the house is filled with relatives, friends, and their dogs; and has adopted the concept and practiced with gusto the art of pasalubong.
Through the years, we made sure she traveled regularly to the Philippines to spend time with her cousins, get spoiled by her grandmother, visit, and discover places with more than just an eye of a tourist, know the country’s mechanics, try all the food, and understand the cultural sensitivities. Our trip last July was an emotional one, witnessing the screening of my father’s first full-length movie in Hiligaynon, which was restored in Paris and is now archived as one of the Philippine classics. She saw me as a child actress in the movie. She saw me as my father’s daughter. She saw me as a child, that brown child who has become her middle-aged mother.
The high decibels in any Filipino conversation are something, however, that Simone will never understand. I wonder, too, where that is coming from, but remains unconscious that a tête-à-tête with my Filipino girlfriends or a long-distance call to my mother becomes a public declamation. Perhaps, it’s the result of having grown up in a country where there is constant noise and one has to simply speak out loud to be heard.
This is exactly what the children of my Filipino girlfriends complain about. “Mama talks too loud,” say the boys of Benilda, whose Filipino-style hospitality, has served her well in her managerial work at a travel agency. Benilda’s boys and her Belgian husband Bruno adore her cooking and feel privileged of their Asian trained-tongue at the table. Benilda admits to have become “Belgianized” herself. The couple didn’t define the nationality of their child-rearing, but placed importance on family unity. It came naturally and like most children raised and educated in Belgium, they turned out more Belgian than Filipino, without denying the nuances that are part of their mother’s origins, which have become their own. When there is no extreme pressure to be one or the other, the child’s integration into the society that they grow up in becomes stress-free and easy. There is no identity crisis, they simply accept they are both.
These are exactly the sentiments of the Marquita boys. While strict parental authority, religion, and very Filipino breeding play important roles at the home of Filipinos Ronald and Sheila, their boys have managed to strike a balance of both worlds, adapting to their advantage their Filipino traits to every Belgian situation and the other way around: friendliness, independence, sociability, open-mindedness, academic excellence, and fairplay. Ronald said that sometimes his deep Tagalog words have no translation equivalents in Belgian terms and Sheila comes to the rescue by creating a very open communication between parents and children to make sure that nothing is lost in translation.
Sheila said that her children, who were exposed early on to the challenges of fending for themselves (preparing their meals, going to school on their own, looking for student jobs, etc.) and who have to interact in a multi-cultural community have made them mature and independent at a young age.
Most of these children raised here are multi-lingual (Belgium has three official languages), adapt easily to changes, proud of their origins and yet consider themselves Belgian, even if their parents are both Filipinos.
Vignettes of Filipino lives
Lisa, 19, has more difficulty than the others. She grew up alone with her Filipina mother. A shocking reality check of how alone she is happened recently when she got a call that announced her mother was shot in the abdomen. A stray bullet hit Teresa (not her real name), as policemen tried to stop her when she lost her mind in a bus and started a stabbing spree that injured at least three people. If Teresa dies, Lisa will be an orphan, a probability in which this child of mixed beautiful genes had to live with since her father, of African origins, left them without a word before she was born and when her mother started to retreat in her own imaginary world. Teresa spoiled the child born of love, of desperation, of not wanting to be alone in a country where she was cleaning the houses of strangers. It is difficult to be a single mother, frightening even, in a country where emotional support was limited to sympathetic neighbors. Lisa was cocooned in a Filipino home, went to Belgian schools, but had been excluded from her father’s cultural roots.
There are a thousand Mother Teresas who have raised their children on their own, children they bore with husbands or partners who left them or children who have finally joined an immigrant parent in Belgium to salvage them from an irresponsible spouse or aging grandparents.
Nestor, on the other hand, decided to leave his wife and two children for a job he hoped could provide them financial security. It took him several years before becoming “legal” and getting a job. Those years, however, tested his courage, his loyalty to his wife, his role as a father. Paternal advises were passed on via Skype, text messages, and FaceTime. Slowly, the conversations became mundane and the links weakened as parenthood became more and more virtual. The years passed and raising a family from abroad was defined by the amount of money he sends to spoil them. There was no recognition in the eyes of the toddler he left as an infant. He could not ignore the reproachful tone of a college student whom he left as a teenager. He was almost sure his wife had a lover. But he is ready to make the same choice all over again, assuming the role and the consequences of an absentee father and long-distance parenting in exchange for their material comfort.
My choices were easy and guided by the same yearnings of all mothers, to raise a happy child. But the merits of parenting are not mine alone. There’s a very loving, attentive, understanding Belgian father who ate rice and adobo when all he wanted was French fries, who welcomed all my Filipino friends and relatives at home, and who simply smiled when I pinned a small piece of ginger on his baby girl’s tiny shirt to prevent the manananggal from taking her away.