Pa, my father, has a constellation of freckles on his back. They’re tan, brown, and nothing like his pale skin. Some speckle his face, and as a child, I’d point out the island of spots above his shoulder blade. Pa would say it’s a map of the Philippines. It honestly looked like it. The hair on his head, when he doesn’t shave, is dark brown. The beard on his face is ginger, and the hair on his arms reflects gold in the sun.
These aren’t features of a man with two Filipino biological parents.
His parents, who I call Lolo and Lola, told him the “good lie” that he was theirs by blood. Lola was pale for a Filipino, and her hair and eyes were a close enough shade of dark brown. The physical similarities ended at those shades. If you stared at Lola closer than a couple of houses away, you could tell her nose and lips were wider than Pa’s. If you stared at Lolo, you’d realize his eyes were more downturned and his skin a deeper shade of brown altogether. The lie worked until time developed Pa’s white features.
A child standing out in the ‘70s was a bullied child, and Pa’s appearance caught the attention of other kids. He began to question his roots because kids teased him and accused him of being adopted. But each time Pa asked what “adoption” meant, every family member found a way to dodge the question. Grandparents, aunts, and uncles used a shield of protection – avoidance.
His family valued the preservation of peace, and they encouraged him to ignore the kids who pointed out his whiteness.
“They told me don’t even mind them; those kids don’t know what they’re talking about. Don’t let people like that bother you. Okay … so I ignored it, but later on, I’d hear accusations all the time,” Pa said.
In Filipino culture, tiwala sa sarili, or self-esteem, plays a role in social harmony. A study by geographer Ronald E. Dolan notes the equal importance of acknowledging others’ self-esteem in Filipino culture if you want to preserve relationships. This means skirting around issues with more lies for the sake of harmony and preventing confrontation.
To Pa, something didn’t feel right. He insisted on the truth from his grandparents as Lolo and Lola were the most unreceptive.
“They didn’t want to tell me. They told me I was the son of another woman, and your Lolo took me home, but that wasn’t true. They didn’t want me to feel like I wasn’t theirs,” he said over our lunch. He paused between bites of his Korean pork belly lettuce wrap while the grill in the kitchen sizzled. “I guess because [your Lolo] was afraid. He couldn’t accept it.”
Lolo travelled overseas as a welder, so he told Pa he came from a fling somewhere in Europe. Through this story, Lolo had a biological son and relieved Pa from wondering why he looked so different.
I look back at photos of Lolo. In them, he’s surrounded by men from all around the world, and to me, he looks like the ideal male figure. Whether he was posing with armed men in Nigeria or wearing business suits in Okinawa, he was the tough man everyone needed to be. His expressions were always so cool, an obvious acknowledgment of the kind of swagger it takes to be hard at work and still have your jet-black hair in place.
With all this pride on his shoulders, I imagine the inability to have kids would take a toll on how he viewed himself. I imagine how shame would create secrets. After all, many Filipino men believe there’s great honour in having a boy carry out your bloodline.
The conservative Filipino society saw infertility at the time as an issue for women. Though a recent World Health Organization report says men are responsible for almost half of all infertility cases, men considered the topic taboo. Not many were willing to discuss or resolve the issue.
For a long time, Pa didn’t know that a woman, who couldn’t take care of him, had dropped him off. Pa didn’t know Lolo couldn’t have kids. At the death of the “good lie,” which withered rather than exploded, Pa and his family silently agreed that biologically, he was not their son.
Piece by piece, when his origin stories failed to match up, and a new adopted sister entered his life, he figured it out himself. Pa doesn’t recall discussing his and Josie’s adoptions together.
Instead of telling Pa what they thought he wanted to hear, Lolo and Lola stopped lying, but without explaining why.
Lolo and Pa have not discussed the adoptions to this day, and the exact details of it are blurry. The social stigma surrounding adoption in the Philippines left little room for truth. Lola, years later, spoke to Pa about his adoption and said she didn’t buy him. Some Filipino mothers in poverty who can’t support a child sell their children in the illegal trade of child adoption.
Pa revisited the Philippines after 15 years of living in Canada. I was seven when he brought me on the trip. I wasn’t aware at the time, but he recalls having the big discussion with Lola one night. He said she cried and apologized profusely. They carried on the next day normally, and I hadn’t detected a thing. I only knew peace at their home. I knew fresh coconut juice, sliced mangos, and a full belly. I realize I remember it all so fondly because Lola and Lolo worked hard to make everything about my visit perfect.
My grandparents figured there would be a disruption of peace if the truth of Pa’s adoption came out. In some ways, this came true. Starting at 15, Pa ran away often. He would disappear to work and live with others. If he wasn’t staying with his grandparents in a small town called Sucat, he was sleeping in the material scraps of the garment factory he worked at or in his workplace’s Jeepney, a kind of transporting bus.
“Your Lolo came home to Sucat one time, and he was crying. He said he wanted me to go back home with him,” Pa said. At the time, Pa was already focused on his career and had a pattern of leaving home. This career-focused hustle created distance between himself and his family, so emigrating came naturally.
Pa’s origins weren’t his focus as he navigated a brand-new world in Canada with my mom and older sister. Whiteness wasn’t a burden anymore as he became a part of the racial majority. Life became about adjusting again in the 1990s, so his attention continued on growing his career and family.
To everyone under his roof, Pa was a white Filipino Canadian with two Filipino parents who loved him. The only thing left was curiosity.
My siblings and I would bring up the idea of our dad doing a DNA test here and there. The test became more accessible in 2015. With the DNA test kit in his hands five years later, I couldn’t sense any fear in him. I guess when it came down to it, he was just collecting a gross amount of spit in a tube.
AncestryDNA describes the process as looking at 700,000 tiny mutations in his DNA and comparing them to worldwide samples. That morning on October 13th, with the tube in his hand, he joked his results were going to say Taiwanese because of the bubble tea he drank the night before.
I expected half of Pa to be an assortment of different European fractions. Still, this broad view of his DNA would also identify matches throughout his family tree’s paternal and maternal sides. It meant a great deal to Pa to begin finding out who his biological parents were, where his roots led by blood, and the missing story Lolo and Lola withheld.
I’ve never thought to compare my future with my pa’s past. As a gay man who wants kids, adoption will find another way into my life. While manual work calluses Pa’s hands and dirties them with car grease, gouache paint covers mine or they’re clean entirely. Differences aside, I look into Pa’s life to understand where our fear of vulnerability comes from.
I looked into the ideas of toughness and masculinity in traditional Filipino men – the most traditional of them all, Lolo.
I was seven years old when Lolo told me about his encounter with the devil. The story begins with his walk home after a long day at work. The tropics in his province were pitch black at night, with no streetlights to guide him through rice fields but instead instinct and memory.
He described seeing the silhouette of a human-like beast with long horns against the moon as it sat on a bridge. The devil turned its head and placed its glowing red eyes on him. It taunted him as he walked, but Lolo stood his ground and shouted at the figure to back off. Lolo showed zero signs of fear or panic, which made the devil flee.
“Lolo is not scared,” he said, sprawled on a mattress in the living room where Pa and I slept. He propped himself on his elbow to speak to me while an oscillating fan blew the tufts of hair that weren’t sticking to his sweaty forehead in the tropical heat. “Lolo is fearless.”
The chance to be vulnerable or soft was rare. Pa and Lolo were both tradesmen, so weakness didn’t serve them if their job was to get up and get shit done. I can’t remember many times Pa has cried. He cried when our family dog died or times saying goodbye to my sister when she moved to Saskatoon. When he cries, he’s always silent and quick to swipe tears off his poker face.
I was ashamed when I realized I was gay while two older brothers were already the stoic examples of the men Pa and Lolo wanted them to be: ladies’ men built on wrestling and basketball. Pa had to tell my brother’s basketball coach I wouldn’t be joining the team anytime soon because I liked art and painting more … and then a second and third time for the basketball seasons after their coach kept asking.
Because I sometimes wonder where I belong, I question if my adopted children would feel the same way Pa or I did. I wonder whether my child would look at their surface-level differences and feel estranged. I don’t plan on claiming my adopted child is biologically mine, so I expect them to ask me questions about their roots when the time comes. Pa wished his parents had a similar course of communication with him from the start.
I know there will be a lot of work and thought put into the adoption process. Will the adoption be open or closed? Do I want to involve a surrogate mother for the sake of my DNA? Why does DNA matter so much?
I see my parents impatiently wait for my older siblings to give them grandbabies. So far, they’ve settled for the chocolate Labrador my brother adopted last year. My parents’ dreams are infectious because I also can’t wait to be an uncle. My parents’ love for little kids has more to do with my want for children than the passing of genes.
Through surrogacy and a genetic bond, I’d get a mini-me with my hair colour and eyes. I don’t think I need to see a version of my face to feel love for my child, but maybe it’s a preference that changes over time.
I picture a holiday, Christmas maybe. The next generation of kids surrounding my parents and creating a storm in the living room. They’re high on sugar cookies, running in circles, and repeating Tagalog words like susmaryosep or tanga; expressions of frustration I’ve also taken from my parents.
I picture the kids dressed in Sears discount clothing from Ma and Pa. The usually quiet occasion livens up tenfold through all the noise and commotion. You can hear the laughter, the screaming, the crying.
I can see the appeal of kids for bringing my family closer together and allowing a space to swell with love. I’d see a reflection of the goodness me and my siblings want to nurture and instill. Their appearance would be secondary to their actions.
When I asked Pa if my choice to adopt children made him nervous, he didn’t flinch like I expected him to. I expected him to verbalize his shock or ask me questions.
I imagined he thought I was still a masculine straight man for a while in my head just because I never said otherwise aloud. As if my voice, mannerisms, or all-girl friend groups didn’t already give it away.
This situation was another silent acknowledgment. Even at this moment, I played the same game — saving both Pa’s and my tiwala sa sarili. My voice lost its confidence when I asked for advice, and my eyes shot straight to the floor.
Speaking to Pa was my trying to shed my own shame and overcome my fear of vulnerability with him. I wanted to regain a sense of acceptance. I wanted to hear his concrete advice instead of clinging to the imaginary hope he’d make me feel like nothing’s wrong.
Having the DNA results ready for Pa made Christmas morning more exciting than it usually was. We all shared laughter as we guessed what the test would say. Maybe we’re Arabic. Maybe Scottish … look at Pa’s red beard!
The test results were my last gift of the day for him. He sat on our recliner drenched in sunlight, surrounded by our small family (sister’s video call streaming on the television) and brother’s dog tearing up a pile of wrapping paper on the floor. The atmosphere felt lighthearted as we all finished opening presents. Getting the results was the exciting part. The frightening part for Pa was deciding what to do with newfound relatives. He had to consider how this would make Lolo and Lola feel.
My two brothers and I crowded my dad in front of the laptop screen. On a countdown from three, we watched him open the tab.
31 per cent Southern Philippines
22 per cent England & Northwestern Europe
22 per cent Germanic Europe
18 per cent Northern Philippines
3 per cent Sweden
2 per cent Scotland
1 per cent Nigeria
1 per cent Vietnam
One DNA match for a father. One DNA match for a half-sister.
My siblings were excited to understand our ethnic background finally, but the kit’s more significant benefit was the DNA matches.
“If anyone messages me first, I’ll respond. I feel okay, but I also want to find my biological mom,” Pa said.
The tab revealed a list of DNA matches only from his paternal/European side. Not one person from his Asian mother’s side was registered. He contacted Lola and Lolo immediately the same Christmas night and discussed ways to track his birthmother through government census files somehow. Behind the closed door, he sounded positive as he told them the details of his test.
Pa had no sense of urgency to contact those who were accessible through Ancestry. His birth father hadn’t signed into their account since 2018.
Months later, and alone, I found Pa’s birth father after a short period of searching.
Pairing his half-sister and birth father’s name in a Google search brought a tribute for a deceased 67-year-old woman, a journalist who worked at CBS News in New York. The tribute linked to Pa’s birth father’s work.
I stared at the photo of the man, a government official somewhere in the state of Georgia. I panicked when I saw Pa’s eyes on this stranger’s face. They were icy and blue instead of warm brown.
The photos belonged to a 2015 article. The man sat in a council chamber’s booth following a unanimous vote to terminate him as county manager.
I cried at the thought of calling his listed phone number and learning whether Pa’s conception was traumatic. My sister reminded me this was Pa’s journey, and going rogue to contact this stranger wasn’t a good idea. The way he looked scared my sister and me.
I realized looking at the stranger with Pa’s eyes brought me nothing. Maybe questions and shock, but mostly a shell with no life, soul, or memories. A photograph of Lolo can remind me of the grand family foundation he created. In a picture, he squats in a garden, the back etched with a message to his family in 1978.
Picture taken during springtime, where flowers & grass start to bloom. Our camp is just ten minutes walk from jobsite the “Raffinerie de Skikda, Algeria.” May this picture fill the gap of my absence.... Tsup! Tsup! Tsup! Kisses from Tatay.
With love, Joe Ani
Lolo’s face takes me back to mornings with warm pandesal bread and small geckos on concrete walls. I can remember his arm around me as we rode a Jeepney through busy streets, his hand gripping the seat behind me. The wind coming through the open window made his downturned eyes squint. I felt safe.
Lolo and Lola attempted to build a world that made Pa feel accepted, but they closed him off from the truth.
Pa’s story makes me favour an open adoption over a closed one for my eventual children. The organization Considering Adoption says this arrangement would include exchanging information between family and birth mother, pre-placement meetings, and post-placement contact agreements.
In this situation, I see the opportunity to have an open discussion with a child, something Pa didn’t get. If a child has questions, answers are readily available. One can still find peace with transparency.
“If I would start again and decide to adopt, they would be treated the same. I would probably love them more because I know they didn’t come from me … That’s what I’d do. I know the feeling of being adopted. I’ve been there,” Pa said.
“As long as you love them and treat them equally and fair, there’s no sense of feeling wrong.”
These words meant a lot to me.
I asked Lola if she has any memories of Pa where she noticed he inherited her and Lolo’s behaviour. Here is her message roughly translated from Tagalog:
He didn’t just think of himself, but others always came before him. It was normal for your Pa to work hard and be independent. He didn’t understand me at times when he was young and would call me Saddam [Hussein] for telling him what to do. I was crying when he went to Canada because I love him so much. Lolo and I were so thankful Pa became a welder like your Lolo ... you guys grew up with great manners and a nice life.
I hope we can see each other again. Take care of yourself and thank you for remembering us here. Say hi to your siblings, your mama, and papa. God bless.
Where Lola and Lolo are in the Philippines, their sun rises when I sleep in Canada. Some nights I can hear Pa talking to his parents on the phone until three or four in the morning. He updates them on his life and learns about what they’ve been up to, their health, or the weather.
Almost 12,000 km away, their voices on a speakerphone in some corner of the house have become a familiar sound. Pa stays connected and can’t regard microscopic strands of DNA when his naked eye remembers a home. The search for his biological parents is ongoing; he takes his time, though. Mostly, he speaks of trips to the Philippines and seeing Lolo and Lola again.