By David Wonpu
Layla’s graduation was only two days away and I was absolutely unprepared. I’d been busy moving out of my dorm, cranking out final papers at the eleventh hour, and worrying about what I was going to do for her this weekend. So busy I forgot the most important event of this artificially momentous occasion: meeting her family. Just like me, I thought, about five paragraphs away from finishing Ratliff’s arduous twenty-page take-home. Always obsessed with minor details and never failing to forget the big picture. Call me Howard Hughes with $135.27 in my checking account. God, how do I even know the cents?
Our families never used to be a problem because of that wondrous bubble known as college. In hindsight (which shared space with logic and common sense in my personal rogue’s gallery), we should’ve planned for this day when we first got together. And I think she probably did. Being that rare breed of underachieving, liberal-arts-degree-pursuing Asian kid, however, I neglected to consider what could’ve very well been the unceremonious halting of my existence.
They’re gonna hate me, I thought. Of course they are, and they have every reason to. The Philippines is dominated by unscrupulous Chinese industrialists who send their kids to segregated schools and employ much of the indigenous population as factory workers and maids. So what if I’m from Cleveland and my dad sells hormone replacement pills over the phone? I have no right to have rights when I’m dating someone’s daughter. Someone’s only daughter. Prodigal, summa cum laude, soon-to-receive-not-one-but-two-degrees daughter. And even if they’re able to distinguish me from my exploitative distant cousins, there’s still the greater issue of me being a scrubby English major with no future, poor time management, and hardly any anglo-ish physical features to speak of save for, maybe, a slightly-sharper-than-usual nose.
Graduation began at 8:30 am sharp, with 5,000 smug Californians piled into an outdated outdoor baseball stadium. An hour later, the smugness became pure, unadulterated annoyance. They still hadn’t given us what we wanted: the chance to applaud for our respective graduate and leave immediately thereafter. The commencement speaker criticized Bush, which would have put him in good graces with most Californians, except at this college. Damn private school families. Tell them going to war and cutting taxes simultaneously is a bad idea and they turn on you.
Layla had her very own cheering section comprised of a veritable cavalcade of Titas, Lolos, and someone whose name was apparently "Baby." I guess there’s supposed to be one in every family. There were also Lances, Danicas, and even a kid named "Abcde." Amongst them was a Chinese kid from Cleveland, being interrogated by so many older people you would’ve thought I worked for the claims department at Kaiser-Permanente.
Tita something-or-other asked me what my major was. I told her I switched from Accounting to English during my sophomore year. Slack-jawed and with the fire of Jericho encapsulated in her worn gray eyes, she turned to me, looked me straight in the slants and said, "So, Accounting was too hard for you, huh?" Before I could answer, Layla’s name was called, and she glided across the stage in that graceful way exclusive to her alone. I’d never been so proud in my life, as well as relieved. Tita Private Eye was too busy screaming something in Tagalog at Layla’s general direction to remember I never answered her question. I love that girl.
By the time the reception, which was held at one of only a billion Chinese restaurants named "Dynasty," rolled around, word had circulated through the family. I could just imagine what they were saying to each other in the car on the way there: "An Asian kid not majoring in Business?" "Does he actually think he’s an artist or something?" "Isn’t he kind of fat?"
Another agent, this one a Tita Bertha Layla had only met once as an adolescent, was dispatched by the familial high command. She saddled up to me, reeking of the kind of cheap perfume one purchases in the hopes of smelling expensive, and pretended to be interested in not information, but walnut shrimp. A few feigned bites later, her operation commenced. "So, Tony, I hear you’re an English major," she intoned. "Yes, that’s correct," I replied, already knowing what was coming next. "So, what are you planning on doing after school?" "Well, my friend, who’s also an English major, got a job at a bank, so maybe I’ll…" "A bank? Isn’t that out of your area of study?" "Well, actually, English majors are qualified for a wide variety of…" "It’s not even a major, it’s just a language." It was all I could do to smile and say thank you.
I couldn’t believe these people. Sure, I knew I was the one up for evaluation, but this was bordering on belligerent. I know we’re supposed to respect our elders and everything, but what if they don’t show us any respect?
All these questions were proving too much for my slacker brain to handle, but I couldn’t stop. Did I really want to become a part of this materialistic, short-sighted family who named their kids after the alphabet and Eric Clapton songs? I mean, I converted to Catholicism from devout Jedi-ism about a year ago, and I always told my friends I did it for her family. If you date a Filipino, you gotta make with the rosary, I told them. I really do believe in God, but I will forever have to tow a thin line between my persona and my personality. The truth is I don’t really fit anywhere, except with Layla. I was sure a quick profession of faith, something like "Jesus appeared to me on a piece of toast and told me to bring back novellas to the public consciousness," would’ve worked on her family. But why did I even have to do that?
As plates of chow mein and peking duck were devoured (they loved Chinese food for some reason), Layla finally made her way to my table. I was the only one sitting there.
"Hey, Hot Pants," she said (don’t ask about the nickname. I don’t even know). "How ya holdin’ up?" "Well, I’m a worthless bum and they would probably rather see you with a black guy than me," I said. "Oh yeah, didn’t they used to tell you to never date a black guy?" Layla laid her deep sunset hand on my shoulder and whispered, "I guess I forgot to tell them about Darrell Thomas when I was in the eighth grade." She bent down close and pierced me with those caramel eyes of hers, squinting imperatively once. You know I love you, so just please get through this. Who gives a fuck about what they think? That’s all I needed to get through a final round of respecting my elders.
A caravan of Toyotas and Hondas accompanied us back to her apartment. Officially, I was to help her with packing and go back to my dorm, except my dorm closed three days ago and I’d been staying at her place ever since. Goodbyes were dispensed with Layla receiving bear hugs and me the recipient of a few half-assed pats on the side. Abcde complimented me on my shoes, but I think she was just trying to make up for unconsciously staring at my man boobs all day. A few final proclamations in Tagalog and they were gone.
It was around midnight by that time and we had to sneak into her place, just as we’d done the past three nights. Her roommate was ethnically Chinese but from the Philippines, a "Chinoy." Her family was not only in town but staying at the apartment as well. They would never let a guy sleep on the same plane of existence as their daughter and would probably think Layla quite the slut if they knew we slept in the same bed. We had to climb the trellis to the balcony and get in through the window in her room.
We were both exhausted. Between moving, finals, and, for me, weathering doubts about my worth as a human being, we’d gotten about ten hours of sleep collectively. We were both due for a long, satisfying slumber on her Aerobed, and were about to cash in when I remembered her present. "Silly Buns," I said (again, don’t ask). "I just wanted you to know how proud I am of you, so I got you these." They were two disgustingly overpriced plushies imported from Japan, one a seal with a CD player for a face and the other made of burnt bread (or something like that). "Oh my god! I love them," she squealed. Then she looked at the accompanying price tags (I forgot to take them off) and her elation quickly became concern. "You shouldn’t have bought these! They’re so expensive. I’m gonna return them tomorrow." "No, please," I insisted. "You deserve so much more. I better get started on that banal chick-lit novel if I really wanna spoil you." She smiled, lips perfectly pink, and said, "Well, you better get writing then."
Before falling asleep, I made a mental note to call my dad in the morning. I had to remember to lie about changing my major, as well as continue to emphasize, three years into our relationship, that Layla was indeed Filipino, and Filipinos are indeed Asian. I wonder how he’d react if I told him he’s actually the same as "them," because I don’t think there is a single breed of human more racist and incredulous than old Asian people. No wonder we’re so self-conscious.
I took one last glimpse of Layla’s heart-shaped face, knowing it would be the same one I would wake up to, and closed my eyes. I hope I never get old, I thought.