My family made the trip to America two weeks shy of my eighth birthday. I can vividly remember the last meal my family and I had at the Jollibee in the airport terminal in Manila. My mom was already in California, she had left early to start her new job—the job that would forge the path for us to eventually become citizens of the United States. So the last meal consisted of me and my brothers (Benji and Jerald), my father, his sister (Tita Ot), my grandma who we call Nanay, and my mom’s younger sister (Ninang Mary-Anne). I remember a feeling of bewilderment, mostly because of the anxiety I had in that this would be my first plane ride, but also that the rest of my life was to soon start. This story, however, is not about me. This story is about my parents. After all, even though I had experienced a glimpse of life in the Philippines, I would hardly call my first eight years to have been the most transformative, not when I compare it to the three decades of life that my parents had lived in their home before seeking a new haven in America.
This story focuses in on the journey that my parents have faced regarding food justice. It is reflective of an immigrant story and offers a wide variety of insights regarding their battles with food justice. We start first where it all began, the local markets of the Philippines that we know as palengke and then navigate through the system that affords sustenance to Filipinos back in the Philippines. The story then moves forward to the challenge of navigating through the American grocery stores and the task of feeding four, very picky children, one of whom will develop a serious food allergy that makes eating healthy and adopting a special diet compulsory. Finally, the story ends with a bleak retrospective reflection on deteriorating health, persistent old habits, and a realization of the subtle, but dangerous, effects of post-colonialism on Filipino-American immigrants.
The Pearl of the Orient Seas
I began this project asking about a place that was simultaneously familiar and foreign to me, something that I knew as the palengke. “Palengke means wet market,” my mom tells me, “It’s called wet market because of how wet the conditions are in these places. The vendors at the palengke use ice to keep their meats fresh, and because these are usually open-air markets, the hot weather melts the ice and the floors are always wet.” This explanation naturally had me wondering, if there were wet markets, did that mean that there were dry markets? My dad responded to this inquiry, “Dry markets are places where we would sometimes get things like fresh produce, or dried meats and fish, but because palengkes usually have produce as well, we would just go there. Dry markets are usually more common in the provinces where there isn’t always a constant supply of fresh meats and in more inland places, seafood, so the meats and fish there are dried out using either salt or sugar so that they last longer. You can imagine though, that because this was such common practice, there are, often times, a lot of health issues regarding high sodium or high sugar intake because of preparing food this way.” As it is, the Philippines is in the top 15 countries in the world where diabetes is prevalent. We will explore this issue a bit deeper later on, but it is important to recognize that the issues of health complications regarding food are hot topics in the Philippines. “You know, your Nanay is diabetic, and just about all of her siblings are as well. And your Lola (Grandmother) on your Dad’s side was too, and all of his siblings, you guys need to be careful,” my mom warns my sister and me. This was a very harrowing warning, especially considering that Tita Ot, my dad’s sister, was recently brought to the hospital because of health complications regarding diabetes; Tito Jun, my dad’s brother in law, had passed away last year at the age of 52 because of diabetes; and that both of my parents were unsurprisingly, but no less distressingly, diagnosed as diabetic early last year.
Before asking my parents to dive deeper into the health issues regarding food, I wanted to ask a bit more about their lived experiences regarding the palengke. My mom told me about the weekly practice of going to the palengke with Nanay when she was younger, and then her weekly trips with our live-in maid, Yaya Chit, when she had a family of her own. “We would go to the palengke about once a week. We normally bought a lot of vegetables because meat was more of a luxury product and we couldn’t afford to buy it too often when I was growing up. When your dad and I were working, though, we had a little bit more means to buy meat regularly, but nothing special, usually just pork and chicken, and beef if it was a very very special occasion.” I never thought about meat being a luxury, I expressed to my parents. “I would say that less than 40% of people in the Philippines can buy meat regularly,” my mom told me, but not before my dad interrupted with, “40%?! No, it’s more like around 10%. Meat was very expensive, most people relied on vegetable and rice, and they’d be lucky if they could but meat every now and then.”
My dad then opened up about his experience helping out in his dad’s farm in Lubang, a province in the Visayas region of the Philippines. “Farmers don’t make a lot of money. Actually, I remember that a lot of times, you don’t even get paid cash for labor. It’s more like an exchange of services, like I would work for you and help you in this harvest, and then when I have to harvest my crops, you would come help me too. As far as eating, I remember some farmers being so poor that all they could afford to eat was rice and salt.” Were you ever that poor? I asked my dad. “No, not really, but because I would spend my summers at the farm, I would live like how they lived, and it was the hardest work I think I’ve ever had to do. The worst thing is that it’s not like here were farms have a certain amount of insurance. There they have nothing as far as assistance or any help, if their crop fails, they lose everything. I also gained a lot of respect for that craft because there’s a lot of science and strategy as far as being a good farmer goes. There’s also a fair amount of just having good instincts and knowledge that comes from having been a farmer for a long time. People really knew when it was right to till their land, when it was right to plant, when it was right to harvest. These things were important to having a successful season.” So farming was difficult, and I could only imagine that local farming here might face the same fears and anxieties regarding the yield of their crop and what it means for business. This thought made me wonder about the presence of big agriculture in the Philippines and if the infrastructure was something like that here in the States.
My next questions revolved around one simple question: do you know where your food comes from? My parents do not necessarily know the specifics and the jargon that is centered on food justice, but from the accounts that they tell me about their experiences with food, in both the Philippines and in America, they most certainly have the lived experience of dealing with issues centered on food equity. One way they illustrated this was with their refreshing knowledge of where their food is sourced and the process that occurs which takes their food from the farms to their dinner plate. When asked if they knew where their food came from my mom replied, “You know, unless we’re at the farmer’s market in town, we have no relationship to where our food comes from and the people who grow what we eat. That’s here though, it’s a little different in the Philippines. Especially with the produce, we know about the farms nearby the Baguio foothills, that’s where the majority of the produce comes from, and they’re all usually family owned farms, not like here where the majority are operated by big corporations. From those farms there are people whose jobs are solely to buy from those big farms and then distribute them to different localities, where they go to large palengkes but because Manila is so dense and so big, there are then even smaller distributors that buy from large palengkes and bring them to smaller ones that are within neighborhoods. Like the one in Hulo for example, nearby Nanay’s house there’s a palengke called Talipapa.”
I found this knowledge to be refreshing and really indicative of the culture that we have around food, and specifically how American food culture contrasts with food cultures in other places. The fact that many Americans would not be able to source where their food comes from or the process that it takes from farm to table speaks of our relationship with food and our relationship to the land, or perhaps the lack thereof.
My mom elaborated on this process, “It’s not enough to have something like a supermarket or a grocery store, and while those do exists, and they do sell produce, they’re not places that people are always able to reach easily. The smaller, much more local palengkes allow people to get to their food a lot more easily than having to trek it to the grocery store which can be more than an hour away considering how heavy the traffic usually is at any given time of the day. I think that this system continues to exist because it’s the best way to serve food in a place that’s so heavily dense like Manila. That’s why we have places like Talipapa.”
The Land of the Free
“Moving to America gave us so much more opportunity,” my mom says to my sister and I, “there are so many more things that are available and free to us now that we’re here.” My family moved to America late September of 1998, as I remember my youngest brother’s first statement as he stepped out of the airport terminal at SFO, “Mom, bakit naninginig ang ipin ko?” asking why his teeth were shivering in the newfound coldness of a San Francisco evening. We initially moved here because my brother had a pretty serious health condition that required more specialization than the Philippines could offer. My mom had landed a job that offered to sponsor our family’s immigration, and everything fell into place from there.
There were new challenges to navigate after having moved to America. One of which was figuring out how to feed a family, when my parents had opposite work schedules (my mother worked the normal 9-5, while my father worked at a restaurant in the evenings), no live-in maid, and unfamiliar food choices. It also did not help that my siblings and I were extremely picky when we were younger and feeding us anything that was unfamiliar or unsavory to our palettes was an almost futile attempt. A busy working schedule, a plethora of new and unfamiliar food choices, and the new freedom of having more income that can go towards food created a new problem for my parents. As my dad eloquently stated, “We got here and we were left wondering, ‘What the hell do we feed our kids?’”
“Here the selections is a lot, and the prices were reasonable,” my dad said to me, “We’re able to afford just about anything we want to eat. Steak, those ‘good’ foods that in the Philippines we wouldn’t have been able to afford or access, unless it was a really special occasion, but here you could have it whenever. Back in the Philippines, we could afford things like chicken or pork, but we’ve never had steak. The wet market always had what was locally available. Beef was a luxury, we could only have that once in awhile, and cuts like t-bone, or rib-eye, those weren’t even available. What was available were the cuts that were easy for stew, or things that were cheap, like oxtail, feet, tongue, the scraps basically.” My parents recounted the numerous occasions that they would order take out from the Filipino or Chinese food from the nearby restaurants in the area. “Ordering food was the easiest way to handle everything. Your dad had work in the evenings and spent the day running errands like driving me to and from the BART station, walking you guys to and from school, and keeping the place together.
That’s before he picked up a second job to help out some more, which gave him even less time to be able to worry about making dinner. By the time I got back home from work, you guys would already be hungry and needed to eat, so I didn’t really have the time to fix you guys a proper meal. Take out was the easiest, and it was always readily available, and because you guys were so makulit and picky back then, we would always buy the same things which were always meat heavy and not exactly the most healthy.”
“That kind of led to a little overconsumption because of the newly found freedom. In the Philippines, we would have more vegetables because of necessity, but here we didn’t have that restriction. I guess you could say we bought into the hype; we got into this cycle of overbuying and over-consuming food. In the Philippines, you tend to order just enough, just what you need, but here there’s this tendency to over-consume.” Fair enough, I thought. Even to this day, there is never really a time that I visit my parents’ house and Filipino take out is not present in my parents’ refrigerator. My mom expressed her regret regarding these food choices, “You know, I wish I could’ve done better, I wish that I knew better than to just feed you guys whatever just for the sake of what was convenient. I feel lacking in that sense, especially when you take into account that our family doesn’t exactly have the best health history.” I comforted her, reassuring her that to have had the awareness that she has now regarding being able to provide nutritious food was something that takes experience and a different set of knowledge. It was natural to indulge in foods that were previously restricted to you, and very easy to find (unnecessary) blame when you look in hindsight. After reassuring my mom that my siblings and I are doing fine regarding being able to eat healthily, at least for the most part, my mom surprised me with the kind of knowledge that was right in the sphere of my studies. That is to say that I was smiling from ear-to-ear as she said, “You know, anak, I think it has something to do with colonial mentality.”
“Colonial mentality, it’s how we adopted the ways of those who came to colonize us, it’s not like it was always our nature to consume at this rate all the time, but what we learned has persisted. It’s only when we started adopting the cuisines and being told that this particular cuisine or taste is good that the sickness (diabetes) came along,” my mom said with a bit of conviction in her voice. I thought it was rather interesting that my mom already had this idea and was ready to discuss the effects of post-colonialism as a Filipino-American immigrant. “You know what I think about is all the first generation immigrants, and how we have all have the same set of problems and habits that lead to those problems. A lot of your older Titas and Titos have health problems like diabetes, or high blood pressure, or have had a stroke, but a lot of their kids, mga pinsan ko (my cousins), their families are healthier and have a completely different diet than their parents had. I think in the Philippines, we have this concept of America as a place of abundance, where we readily take advantage of the fact that we can make or buy whatever food we want, but don’t really have the knowledge, at least for a while, that a lot of the food choices we’re making are bad for our long-term health. So the immigrants coming in, they’re at a lost, but the second-generation and so on, have a little more knowledge as far as making better and healthier choices.”
Healthy eating is an option that my parents both admitted they now have, but I wondered if it was something that was available in the Philippines. My dad’s response was perfect, “Eating healthy there? No.” He talked a little bit more about his current habits, “I want to try to eat healthy, but it’s hard to change old habits. But when you’re sick, you don’t really have an option. If you want to live longer, you have to eat healthy. You know, like your Tita Ot, she will only eat healthy when something’s wrong, like right now, but by then it’s already too late. The problem in the Philippines is that it’s expensive to eat healthy, so for people who are poor, they’re stuck with unhealthy choices.”
Something changed for me and my family, however, when Benji, my youngest brother, was diagnosed with a severe gluten, dairy, soy, and nut allergy that would send him to the hospital for weeks early in 2012. It was a mystery diagnosis, in that it came as a surprise and out of nowhere, and was rather severe causing him to not be able to eat solid food for a month, and a complete inflammation of his GI tract. When he returned home, my parents were faced with the challenge of feeding him food that satisfied his special dietary needs, as my mom recalled, “When Benji was having food restrictions, it was hard, but we didn’t really have an option. With that, we thought we had no choice but to buy food from Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, and we had to cook a lot more. It was expensive, to keep on having to shop at these places, and it was also time consuming, because we don’t have those stores or an equivalent in Vallejo, so we would have to make the trip out of town in order to get the right foods. Eventually, we found out that the Ralph’s in town had a gluten-free section, it was small, but it was better than nothing. That helped to alleviate the trips we had to make out of town, so instead of having to make a weekly trip to Whole Foods, we’d only have to go maybe once or twice a month for special products.” “I think that experience really summed up what was wrong. We had to spend more money, spend more time, in order to get food that was healthy and better for us, which was a process that we wouldn’t have undergone if it weren’t for your brother. I think it was that process that made me question why it was that the food that was easy for us to access and was affordable weren’t that good for us,” said my mother, a newfound fighter for food justice.
Palengke to Whole Foods Market:
Eating Your Way Towards the American Dream
Words by Francis Yu