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Marianne Chan

The Woman Who Fell Out the Window

 

ESSAY

 

Issue No. 6 || GRAVITY

IMMIGRATION STORIES ARE origin stories and, like many origin stories, ours begins with a fall. 



 

In the Philippines, my grandmother climbed out of a second-floor window and fell to the ground. It was 1967. She was in her thirties, healthy, several months pregnant with her tenth son. She was home alone, and a burglar was making his way inside. 

I often think about the young woman she was, having no other choice but to climb out of the window and fall hard.

When she lifted one leg over the windowsill, did she believe—for a single moment—that gravity did not apply to her, that history did not apply to her, that she could—for once—escape space and time?

Because of an injury from this fall, she went to the United States for medical care, leaving behind her nine sons, who were all under the age of thirteen. They awaited her return. But instead of returning home, she left her husband for a man she met: a U.S. airman named Rick, a white guy who drank and cheated. She’d met Rick while she was still in the Philippines at her then-husband’s restaurant, an establishment that catered to U.S. service members. She lived with Rick in Georgia until they divorced.

More than a decade later, after years of being away from her children, she petitioned to have each of her nine sons immigrate to the United States. And so they did. These sons of the woman who fell out the window. 

 


 

Lately, I’ve been thinking about that window. 

About thresholds as spaces of possibility, transformation. I’ve heard that the safest place during an earthquake is a doorway, but that isn’t true. Stories teach us that you should be careful standing in doorways or sitting on windowsills for you may be altered into something new.



 

The Philippines is a threshold. A country of cultural hybridity, a place where boundaries are crossed over and over. Where colonization follows colonization. A place of transformation.

The United States is not the only country with gravitational pull. There is much talk of the American Dream, but all places can be the center of the world. There is also the Filipino Dream, islands ripe with opportunity. 

 

My ancestors on my father’s side are from China. They came to the Philippines to start a business in the early 1900s. My father’s paternal grandfather was an orphan in search of a portal through which he might find money, a home, a family. My great-grandparents stopped using chopsticks, gave themselves new names, converted to Catholicism. Migration involves metamorphoses. In assimilation, you gain a certain degree of safety, and you lose a part of yourself—the self you once knew. 



 

Again, I think about my grandmother as she fell out the window. For a moment, suspended in air: was the U.S. already on her mind? 



 

When I think about thresholds, hybrid spaces, I think about the way Filipinos use the word mestizo. The Philippines was colonized by Spain for three centuries, but the Spanish word doesn’t only refer to Filipinos with mixed Spanish–native ancestry. 

Mestizo is not a fixed identity; the meaning of the term itself is continually changing. In the Philippines today, it refers to native Filipino people with Chinese, European, or American ancestry. 

I am often called mestiza because I’m Chinese and Filipino. My father is ethnically Chinese, though he is culturally Filipino, and my mother is Filipino, with possibly some Spanish ancestry.

But I also feel mestiza culturally, spiritually. My soul is mongrel. 



 

Recently, at a poetry event, the emcee introduced me by reading a bio I’d written in which I called myself a Filipino American poet. My father, who attended the reading, asked me why I didn’t call myself Chinese Filipino American, though I think he already understood. The truth is he taught me nothing of Chinese culture, probably because he didn’t know much about it himself. The truth is most of the time I feel disconnected from both my Filipino and Chinese ancestry. The truth is living in the United States, I feel I have to make an active choice to invest in my Asianness, or else I might fall away from it.

To be culturally mestizo is to be pulled by the gravity of dominance, to circle around it, to be chipped away by it—until I am made small, no longer a planet of my own but a comet spewing gasses and space dust as it orbits another. I have to actively resist the chipping. I have to insist upon my Filipinoness. But I’ll admit, I’m also a little embarrassed by my insistence, my Filipino pride. Someone told me once that being Filipino is a part of my “brand” as a writer, though I also write about family, religion, U.S. cities, motherhood, and so on. I dislike the idea that my identity can be used as artistic currency, and I find it painful to be pigeonholed. Still, I have to write about it. I can’t stop. To write about Filipino identity means holding on tightly to all that is left of it in me.



 

As a child, I did not think my family’s immigration story was linked to history, but that was only because I didn’t know the history of U.S. dominance. 

In Cincinnati, William Howard Taft’s name is everywhere. 

There is a road named William Howard Taft; I get my oil changed there. 

 

I am a Taft Fellow at the University of Cincinnati, which means I am funded by an endowment made by Anna Sinton Taft on behalf of her husband Charles Phelps Taft—the brother of William. 

There is a brewery called Taft; their logo is a silhouette of William in a bathtub. 

There’s also a popular children’s book called President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath. But he was never stuck in a bathtub, mere fat shaming. What the children’s book should’ve been called: President Taft Is Stuck in the Empire

Long before he was president, back when he was the U.S. governor of the newly acquired Philippines, he turned from a skeptic of imperialism to a dedicated expansionist who believed it was the solemn duty of the United States to bring democracy to the inferior Filipino race.

If the Philippines were a bath, it was a small seaside tub, already filled to the brim with white men who believed they knew better. William Howard Taft stepped into the tub, and it overflowed, flooding the floor and leaking down onto the people below.  

 


 

I'm thinking about my grandmother again, about her fall out of the window and into the arms of a U.S. soldier.

Looking back on my family’s story, the U.S. soldier is everywhere. 

 

There he is now, fighting guerillas during the Philippine-American War, killing civilians. 

There he is again, I see him, the U.S. soldier sitting on a water buffalo. There, again, on a barstool in my grandfather’s restaurant. He is white and muscular. He is tall with blue eyes, a chiseled jaw. There he is again, with one of my grandfather’s lovers kissing him. Her name is Susan, and she is a hostess. There he is, kissing my grandmother. There he is again, holding a gun to my grandmother before she jumps through the second-floor window. (Could the burglar have been American? America?) Oh, I see him now. There: my father in uniform. 

When my father moved to the States in the early 1980s, he joined the Army so that my mother could come to the U.S. quickly. And he is lucky, he says, he didn’t have to be deployed for long. He was gone for six months during Desert Storm. He never had to kill anyone, though once he drove a truck through the desert in the middle of the night and was afraid he might be killed. It was dark and he was afraid, and he prayed to God to save his life. But he survived, and my mother was granted citizenship.  And the U.S. military has good health insurance, a nice pension. There are a lot of benefits when you give up your life to a country. 

The United States, burglar and benefactor. 



 

My grandmother was pregnant when she fell out the window. Her baby was fine; her tenth son would be born in the United States. He would not join the military, but he would die falling from his plane. 

The echo of that fall, the way falling has become a motif in this essay. I do not wish for his death to be something so frivolous. 

While I didn’t know him well, I remember laughing with him when I visited Georgia and during family reunions. I remember feeling a strong kinship with this uncle, my only uncle who was born in the States.    

 

At his funeral, Rick, my grandmother’s ex-husband, the man who raised my uncle, turned to my entire family and said, “Hey, if it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t be here.” 

 

I believe he wanted some sort of thanks. But it wasn’t something for him to be proud of. He was likely the reason their mother had left. 

The United States, benefactor and burglar. 



 

Yesterday, I had an argument with my parents about the word mestiza. When they visit, they often comment on my biracial daughter’s light skin. They call her mestiza, and they say her skin is “like porcelain.” They can’t help but observe it, admire it. 

Americana kaayo siya,” they say, as if America were only white. 

When I told them I’d like them to stop commenting on her skin, to compliment her in other ways, they pushed back, got angry. 

There are historical reasons that explain why they focus so much on skin color, the value of whiteness taught to us by the Spanish and Americans. A whiteness intended to make us feel like we are not enough, that we have to be different than we are in order to be beautiful. So my mother doesn’t hear me when I say that this veneration of white skin leads to its opposite, to colorism and anti-Blackness within Filipino and Filipino American communities. She doesn’t hear me when I say that white-skin worship is a form of violence toward Filipino people. Pits us against us.  

 

But I can’t help but wonder: When I try to convince them to see it my way, is this me trying to get them to conform to a U.S. way of thinking? 

 

Even in relation to my own family, my soul is mongrel, always both connected and disconnected, my leg dangling out the window. 



 

Because unemployment is so high in the Philippines, people often leave their families behind to work in wealthier countries in Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas, to make money elsewhere and send it back to their families. Women are the ones who leave. Over 10 percent of the Filipino GDP is made up of remittances. In other words, Filipinas keep the Philippine economy afloat. While I do not believe my grandmother left for the States for economic opportunity, she did send money back to her children every month. Her eldest son was in charge and budgeted the small amount she sent to them.  

 

When I ask my father what it was like for his mother to leave him at such a young age, what it was like for his father to be generally absent—so busy with his bar, restaurant, and other women—he talks to me about emotional gravity. The way you have to sometimes let the feeling fall deep inside you so that it is no longer felt, so that you can move on, have a good enough life. 

When his parents were gone, his eldest brother raised his six other brothers in Cebu, and he and his twin were raised by their grandparents, aunts, and uncles in Barili, a municipality an hour and a half away. Again, my father considers himself lucky. 

My father is a devout Catholic. I no longer am, but I brought my daughter to church on Easter anyway. I felt a calm in my body, and then a relief when I heard the priest say, “You are loved.” I think I was feeling what my father feels when he is in church. Catholicism filling the holes the world creates. Remembering that something larger loves you. Gripping a bead between one’s fingers and giving thanks. Allowing oneself to wish for something. 

My father would dislike this idea, that religion is merely a tool for comfort, relief from pain. To him, Catholicism is the truth, the way to eternal life. A window between this world and the next. 



 

The image again of my pregnant grandmother. 

She is ninety years old now. She became a woman of the American South with her Capri cigarettes, iced tea, conservatism, and love of fried chicken and steak. She never returned to the Philippines. I wonder if she ever wanted to go back.


I’m now a mother myself, and the move to motherhood was a kind of migration. 

The world now, a foreign place in which I must always be on guard. More so than before, I lock the doors in my home. I pay attention to where doors are positioned in rooms. I pay attention to who walks inside. I worry—more than ever—about soldiers of any kind, men with guns. I look out for bends in the sidewalk, holes in the floor, open windows through which she might fall. 

Recognizing that gravity and history apply to me, I strategize. I think about how I might teach her to fight off the inevitable burglar. How I might show her what life is like at the window, on the threshold. About what it means to be mestiza—culturally, spiritually, ethnically—in the diaspora, how she might stay at the threshold without falling, or—if she must fall—how she might relax her body, to give in to the fall and keep rolling, land on muscle, not bone.

Marianne Chan.png

Marianne Chan

she/her

Marianne Chan grew up in Stuttgart, Germany, and Lansing, Michigan. She is the author of All Heathens (Sarabande Books, 2020), which was the winner of the 2021 GLCA New Writers Award. Her second collection, Leaving Biddle City, will be published in 2024. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, Best American Poetry, New England Review, Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. This fall, she will be joining the faculty at Old Dominion University.

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