Paradise Lost

My father’s intense longing for home had shattered his world—and mine. By Nestor Pura C’08

If there was one thing my dad could never shut up about, it was how much America sucked. If dinner tasted bad, it was because America didn’t have fresh fish like the Philippines. If we didn’t have enough money, it was because America discriminated against Filipinos. If we didn’t do our chores, it was because American laziness was rubbing off on us. And, of course, if I ever rolled my eyes or raised my voice at him, it was Putang inang bata na to. Insolent child! Where did you get those stupid American attitudes from?

My father loved to hear his own voice, and once he got started, I would never hear the end of it. One night, he decided to do a point-by-point comparison between America and the Philippines—and the Philippines won hands down. “In the Philippines we would never get bored or sad. Family and friends would be everywhere. There would be fresh fruit and fresh fish, not like this fake American food. Families would always stay together and children were matino; they never left their parents like these ungrateful American children.”

I remember absorbing all of this and believing every word. “I hate America,” I said out loud while I pictured the Philippines: a tropical paradise with rolling hills and palm trees heavy with coconuts. I felt like, by some horrible chance of fate, we’d gotten stuck in America, and as if this were some fairy tale, we’d have to work hard to eventually make our way back to paradise. It hadn’t yet occurred to me that my father himself had made the decision to leave the Philippines.

The first time I dissented from my father is still fresh in my mind. I was very young, perhaps 7 or 8, and like all childhood rebellions, it was small scale. In fact, I said nothing, did nothing.

I had been lying in bed on the verge of taking a nap when my father came in and demanded I get up. For some reason, he thought it was distasteful that I would fall asleep right before dinner. He made me get up and perform a military drill he had learned in the Philippines. It involved placing my index finger on the ground while I spun around it repeatedly, sometimes nearly falling over. He had me do it until he was convinced I was awake.

I remember feeling wronged, for there is nothing quite like the feeling of being punished for something you believe is unfair. I lashed out at my father, calling him every word of profanity I knew at this point. But of course, I did all this in my mind.

In Filipino culture, the child is in every way subordinate to the parent. My father often cursed American laws and claimed there was no such thing as child abuse. In later years, he would slap me in the face, and holding some crude object—a fork or some large piece of wood, whatever he could get his hands on—he would threaten that had we been in the Philippines, it would have been much, much worse. Later, in my teens, he warned me never to anger him, for one of us would indeed be dead. In the Philippines it was common for such violence to occur. My father often told me stories of how he would punch his younger siblings for disrespecting him, and how he himself had been stabbed by his own father with a machete. Of course, he never fought back.

So that day, as I spun around over and over again, nearly toppling to the floor each time, I cursed at my father in my mind. The notion of openly defying him was incomprehensible to me. But that mental proclamation of my anger, that silent rebellion that I staged as I spun round and round in dizziness—it ignited a fire in me that would never quite die. It was the first time I ever believed my father had been wrong. And as far as I can remember, it was the first time I ever hated him.

Merly and I were both college graduates, which is uncommon in the Philippines. We had bachelor degrees in accounting, but when we came to America in 1980, we could not put our educations to use. Merly became a biller, and I worked in the shipping and receiving department for Merrill Lynch. I noticed right away that my accent was a disadvantage. People did not take me seriously. They spoke slowly and loudly. They thought that because I was bad at English, I was stupid.

The worst part is that I was all alone. I left my family and friends to come to America. In the Philippines I did not know what it meant to feel lonely. I was always masaya, always happy there. I lived with my mother, my father, my three brothers and my three sisters. All I had to do was step outside of my house and there would be people to talk to, sitting on their porches or lingering on the streets, sharing stories of casinos and beautiful women. Wala akong magawa dito. Here there is nothing to do. Here there is nothing but strangers.

When I first came here, it was just Merly and me. I could not stand the culture. I could not stand the language or the loneliness. I became depressed. I did not speak. Nothing could bring joy to my life. Even food did not taste good anymore. The doctor told me that I was having a mental crisis. I spent much of each day praying. And I promised God that if he helped me, I would name my children after him.

Sa awa ng Dios, in God’s mercy, I soon made it back to the Philippines. I had my children there, but eight years later, we moved back to the States. I did so reluctantly, knowing that it was what my wife and her family wanted. And I knew that going to America was a dream come true for any Filipino youth. I wanted my children to have American green cards, but I didn’t want them to become Americans.

I named my first child Nina, the female version of Santo Nino, little Jesus. My second child I named Noel, in respect for the day that Jesus was born. And my third child I named Nestor, after my brother who had been killed, probably by anti-government rebels. Nestor was a cop, the bravest of us Pura brothers. He did not say much, but he always spoke with action. One time he finger-wrestled a man—a traditional Filipino test of strength—and would not give up even when his finger started to bleed. Nestor was matapang, fearless. Whenever his friends wanted to fight someone, it was Nestor they called. He never complained or asked how many men he had to kill. He would just grab his knife and follow his friends to wherever they took him.

One day Nestor’s best friend, also a cop, was killed. The body had been found chopped to pieces. The police could not find the murderer. But the following week an unknown man approached Nestor and told him that he knew where the killer was. Nestor followed this man, and later that night Nestor’s body was found on the street. We never found out who that man was.

I can still remember our father ripping his shirt to pieces when he found out that Nestor was dead. But mostly I remember a time years ago when Nestor and I had gone out to a casino. I had just lost all of my money, and I saw Nestor put a coin in his pocket. I asked him to lend me some money, but he told me that he did not have any. Out of frustration, I punched him in the chin. When I saw him fall to the floor, naawa ako agad—I felt bad immediately. I helped him up and told him to punch me in the face. “Hindi, Kuya,” he said. “No, big brother. It is OK.” When I found out Nestor was dead, I remembered that day, and how he had looked on the floor. I wished I could take that back.

I named my last child Nestor Angelo: Nestor to remember my brother, and Angelo to fulfill my promise to God. But also, I did not want Nestor Angelo to have exactly the same name as my brother. I did not want my son to die too.

I often dream of fighting with my father. We are at home and the light has this strange hue to it—neither yellow nor white, but a combination of pink and orange. It reminds me of a setting sun, as if it is obvious some life-changing moment is about to take place. But I am never aware of this in the dream.

My father is scolding me for something: leaving the water running, or buying the wrong type of milk, or whatever he can conjure up at the moment. He is using me to fan his own anger. After hearing the long list of nuisances he has turned into catastrophes, I am once again confronted with the words that I have grown accustomed to hearing: I am infuriating him with my incompetence, and I am the sole cause of all the problems in the family. He is yelling, and I am listening: a perfect reflection of real life. Except for one thing: In my dreams I have this inhuman fearlessness, this surge of passion only unleashed in sleep.

In the dream, I lash out at my father with words that could not possibly articulate the story I wish to tell. Yet my father nods slowly and sadly, in submission, as if my poorly chosen English words have somehow pierced his heart and allowed him to live my experiences. Despite his stubbornness, despite the stark contrast of our views and despite the total lack of transition from the unrelenting fury unleashed only a few seconds before, my father finally sees that he has been wrong all these years, that he has been a terrible father—and that I must leave him now.

I wonder what I am searching for in these deep-rooted dreams. Perhaps I need to know what a heroic stand against my father would feel like. Would the dream be just as meaningful if he yelled back at me and the only thing I had was knowing I stood up for what I believed? Or have I been wishing for impossible truths all along: a foolish world in which he concedes that he has been wrong about everything without the slightest admission of fault on my part? The more I think about it, the more I question what I am really trying to overcome. My father—or myself?

Nestor Pura C’08 is a writer living in Jersey City, N.J. This piece was adapted from a longer essay he wrote for a Drew creative writing independent study.

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