Are you trying to tell me something?

Updated: Jul 3

Ridden with financial anxieties from her life in the Philippines, my grandma would swipe our empty bottles, then exchange them for a few bucks at the depot. As she watched TV, she would celebrate Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune wins with such enthusiasm that you’d think she was a contestant herself. She barely spoke a word of English, and the only word she could write was her name—the questions flashing across the screen meant nothing to her, but she found joy in witnessing someone’s life change as they heard the prize money was theirs to keep. To entertain herself, she would scratch lottery tickets, praying that one day she would hit the jackpot and could give us everything that she never had.

As a fish vendor, she made just enough money to support her seven kids. Since she was constantly working, however, her parenting responsibilities fell into the hands of my own mother, her eldest daughter. Money is freedom—an option that doesn’t exist for disenfranchised communities. White people are inherently free from the systems of oppression that they’ve created. They don’t understand how everyone around them doesn’t have the same liberties. Growing up in a predominantly white region, I learned to identify the expressions of love that my white peers got from their families, which I quickly realised that I would never share.

My grandmother was no stranger to starvation, but my relationship with food and my body was one that she would never understand. One morning before school, she slipped a five dollar bill between my hands, then clasped them together with her own. I was to use the money to buy myself lunch, she explained. I had never seen her cry before then. Her voice broke as she called me apo—“grandchild” in the Filipino dialect she had taught me when I was young. It took me a while to realise that she was actually attempting to tell me how much she cared, but not in a language that I understood.

The world revolves around my white friends, who only know what they are told, but will never fully grasp the extent of non-white suffering. I wish I could show them. I wish I could neatly fold my life into a package and hand it to them, just as my grandmother does with possessions that she gifts to me as her substitute for the words of love left unsaid.

Like the generations before me, I grew up in a culture where praise was scarce and love went unexpressed. When people actually noticed me, they were living vicariously through me—my mother never failed to remind me just how lucky I was—but, just once, I wanted to hear someone say they were proud of me. Compliment my drive, instead of taking credit for being the reason I could thrive in this land abundant with opportunities. I don’t have the privilege to do whatever I want, because as soon as I slip up, I’m getting knocked down the social ladder. White children are allowed to deviate from a guaranteed path of success in a way that children of colour cannot, because they aren’t facing a system that was built to see them fail.