One 1982 September evening on the 4th floor of the co-ed Finley Hall Dormitory at Oregon State University, Leticia (“Ling”) Tizon stopped by our room because we were collecting money for some group outing.
Others were coming and going, but Ling stuck around, propped against the door frame for a good long while, engaging me in conversation. It was the beginning of a friendship that, while in hiatus for 25 years, was renewed via Facebook about 8 years ago.
She calls me “my old friend.”
It wasn’t long before I made a visit to her family’s home on the grounds of the Fairview Hospital in Salem, OR where Ling’s mom worked as a physician and had done so for nearly two decades. This was 1982, my first contact with the Tizon family. Her mother was surprisingly cordial to me from the beginning; talkative, smiling, engaging, nice. That never changed—she was simply always very kind and nice to me, smiling. Did I mention smiling? In the cover photo at the top, that’s Ling in the red dress, smiling.
She gets it from mom.
While I didn’t keep in touch, per se, I did call Ling’s mom from France one evening in 1991. She was overjoyed to hear from me and caught me up on the family. It was the last time I spoke with her.
This was my first familial experience with a completely different culture. My dad’s side of the family are direct immigrants too—from Germany, 1952 when he was 14—but this was literally the other side of the world and even in 1982, this young man from Reno, NV, hadn’t had much exposure to “foreign” cultures. I was fascinated and charmed.
Several months earlier, I had done my Midshipman Cruise. It’s where in the summer of your junior-senior year in Navy ROTC, it’s off somewhere, half way across the world to experience a Navy ship for a month. My experience was in the Western Pacific and included port stops in Japan and Korea. I became intrigued with all things Asian and derivative, like Micronesian and Polynesian, etc.
At my first visit chez Tizon, Alex and Ling’s mom, Leticia, engaged me toward overviewing my background, what I was aiming for…all the normal things. For some strange reason, one explicit memory I have along with the visual—as she sat across the dining room table and to my right—was whether I’d ever had coconut ice cream.
I suppose I remember it because I’d never heard of such a thing. But the memory has been reinforced over more recent years since coconut is something us bloggers of things close to a paleo diet consider somewhat magical and special. So, mention of coconut in any context often calls up that memory and I like that.
Over the next two years, I visited many times; usually with Ling, but at least a couple of times on my own. I liked the family, there’s no other explanation.
I never saw anything even remotely close to the abuse of Lola described in Alex’s posthumous cover story in The Atlantic, June: My Family’s Slave — She lived with us for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings without pay. I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized who she was.
But, when you read that truly epic story closely, it really begins in about 1943 in Tarlac province, Philippines, when Lola is 18, and it sets the entire stage for all of what is to become—with Alex’s and Ling’s grandfather, an army officer, enticing Lola to be the guardian of his 12-year-old daughter. The grandmother had died in childbirth. Lieutenant Tom was a single dad in 1943 in the Philippines. How tough could that be?
…Earlier today, I interviewed my old friend Ling by phone and my last question to her was: is there really a villain? She paused and named her grandfather, who killed himself in 1951, 12 years before she was born. Go to the source. But, if you go to the source, it’s the source of everything that comes later, good and bad. Perhaps he didn’t foresee that in about seven year’s time, he’d put an end to his own life.
By the time he exercised his own final option, the parents had been together for a year, and they began making kids. Ling was the 4th of five, and her birth in 1963 corresponds with the family’s immigration to America within months. In one perspective of context, Lola had already been integral to the family and everything for 21 years before they had set foot in America at LAX.
What I saw was that Lola was integral, the center of everything. The first time I went, there was home cooked Filipino food. And the second. And the third. And forth, fifth, sixth, and… There was always good food, none of the kids were fat. #winning. And Lola died perfectly lean, not being overweight a day in her life of 86 years. She cooked for herself and others. I never saw her eat anything but what she’d cooked herself.
What I observed from the perspectives of Alex, Ling, and Ling’s younger sister Inday, is respect for all. For Lola, for mom, and even for the dad that had deserted them—visitation both ways was not uncommon. It was all pretty damn chill in 1982, 83, and 84. Ling expressed pride to me early on that her dad had a law degree and that her mom was a practicing physician. It was obvious in the household that her mother was the provider and had been for some long time, by then.
I was impressed and had an interest in her as a doctor and used to chat her up about it, and she’d explain various ways and means she would use to diagnose some condition.
Lola had a daily source of pride in cooking food for others. It was obvious to this insider-outsider that Lola loved doing it and the proof was in the clean dishes and plates unless she’d gone overboard and there were leftovers.
I doubt there was very much food waste in the household.
Lumpia, chicken adobo, pancit, and various other things. At the time, my own palate was just getting used to this “strange” fare, so those first three were my typical favorites of the offerings. One day, Lola was going to make a batch of pancit and I asked if I could watch and she lit up. She took me meticulously through every step of the process as I stood beside her at the stovetop. Of course, I didn’t write it down but I believe I remember that chicken stock was absolutely essential to the dish. (A few years back, Ling told me that MSG was her magic sauce.)
Alex’s cover story in The Atlantic describes how his mom could be jealous of Lola and her closeness to the kids. This was perhaps the chief thing Ling wanted to get across to me in my interview. Ling told me they often defended Lola against their parents. She witnessed the verbal abuse at times. “Why are you yelling at Lola?” she demanded to know, and understand.
I could see that, a bit, even at this much later time where all was chill, the kids were almost all successfully crafting their own lives, but Lola was the ever-present center of everything. But she was not the center in Leticia’s eyes.
“Lola was the caregiver, mom was the provider.” — Ling Tizon Quillen
There’s what some call a viscous circle but I’m partial to calling it a positive feedback loop, where each input adds energy to the cycle and so minimally, it’s self-sustaining but can also go off the rails and blowup.
Emotional blowups tend to reset the cycle, so they can be healthy. But the cycle restarts.
I never knew the dad, only briefly met him once or twice. I think once was when he came down to Salem when I was there. The memory is blurry, but I think he did look me square in the eye and asked if I liked his daughter.
I knew Ivan—Leticia’s 2nd husband—more. While he wasn’t around a lot, it was obvious to me that he was the quintessential fish out of water in the household. Nobody understood the connection their mom had to him. I saw no effort on his part to learn anything or get along with a culture where he might have learned a lot.
What was mom thinking?
The only somewhat cool memory I have of him is the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, where I was there for a day and he was watching it as though a kid in a candy store, boisterously and vicariously emoting about everything regional.
That can be forgiven and even encouraged for a day or so. I get no sense whatsoever that he was anything but a parasite on the family, generally. At the same time, Leticia had been tossed aside with five children to raise with only Lola’s help and with only one of them prepared to do it on his own. Art, the senior sibling, had already set off by the time she hooked up with Ivan. It’s certainly a curiosity.
You can’t get there from here. I have long used this expression to critique various forms of 20/20 hindsight that seek to apply current standards of morality, law, and cultural practice to the past. In this case, we’re talking about applying 2017 standards in America to a Filipino single dad in 1943 Philippines and to his only child, Alex and Ling’s mom.
It’s undeniable that Lola suffered abuses. Slavery is a gross stretch.
Lola entered into this bargain at the age of 18. She could have opted for a convent, and instead of serving strangers and the house of God, she got to be the prime caregiver in her own family, The House of Tizon, for the rest of her life.
Being a nun instead would have been a gross underachievement, wouldn’t you say?
I asked Ling what her and the family’s general take on Alex’s article was—the final version after four drafts with The Atlantic editor. It was clear to me that the kids had zero standing or understanding in the early days. As they grew up, they knew Lola had choices and options because they presented them to her, encouraged her, but she always refused.
After the kids had gone, but before Leticia passed away in 1999, Lola got a job. She worked for twelve years in the Norpac Cannery in Salem, OR. It entitled her to social security and medicare. When Ling revealed that to me, I sighed. Too much of an omission, Alex, dude.
Ling tells me that she took great pride in a rather meager job. For once, she got to feel like she wasn’t only a servant, but a bargainer. Rather than exchange her toils for the love and adoration of the children she’d raised— but who’d had to go on to take up their own lives—she got to trade for dollars, dollars she could do with as she wished.
I understood why Alex chose the word slave, even though he clearly understood it was not technically the case. Even most people understand this when they say they’ve been “slaving away,” and various other forms. It’s slavery as a metaphor.
The problem with skirting the distinctive line between the literal and metaphorical is that when not a clear tongue-in-cheek, it serves to dilute the actual horror of real slavery. We see the same thing in other areas, where virtually all sex without forms of consent in triplicate, is rape. I don’t wish to push political buttons, but you get the idea.
Don’t diminish what people who were bought and sold as capital machinery with the intention of turning a profit on their production were subject to.
Chattel slavery was an economic system for thousands of years around the world until it was superseded by machinery and skilled labor. But the business principles are the same. You buy a machine (human slave), account for the capital outlay or debt service, repair, maintenance, upkeep (food, shelter, medical bills), the cost of a skilled operator (middle massa management), and then calculate what it can produce, what you can sell the product for, and does it turn a financial profit?
This was simply not Lola’s experience. It was not about business. It was about scratching and eeeking out and survival and taking a risk few ever dare—leaving it all for a better opportunity, just like my grandparents did boarding the SS General Hershey with six children, Bremerhaven –> New York, 1952.
Like I’ve said already, I never saw anything like that characterization. What I only saw from 1982 – 1984 when Lola was 40 years in, was a highly honored cornerstone.
Alex used “slave,” I think, for journalistic effect, precisely because people draw zero distinction. There is no nuance or context whatsoever, and what he showed is, there is.
Had he wrote something like “perpetual dependent” it would not have had the punch, even though it’s more accurate. Lola was a dependent her whole life, just a notch above the kids she raised. The wrong against her was that the dependency was encouraged rather than discouraged by the parents struggling to balance what would have been unbalanceable without her.
Everyone gets to judge however they wish, of course, but at least this is an offering by Alex that I believe is journalism of the highest form. It’s an epic story and thereby, people might get some insight into how complex life can be.
Imagine if children of actual slaveholders in America’s south—the early 1800s—wrote of how they were torn between the parents who bore and provided for them and the slaves who raised and cared for them.
That picture above is the result of three choices.
- Mr. Tizon deciding to toss caution to the wind in 1964 and come to America with nothing but a wife, four children (soon to be five) and a committed family helper.
- Mrs. Tizon determined to be a physician in America and it would take more than 10 years more to do so.
- Lola Pulido, who while reluctant and scared as possible, decided to step on the flight, Manila –> Los Angeles.
Take one single element out, you don’t get a picture of Ling and Rodney’s wedding in 2008. surrounded by a Tizon hive.
You don’t get to that without a million choices along your chosen path, most of them for the better in the understanding at the time.
Update 5/22/17: In People Magazine, Sisters of Late Writer Raised by Family’s Secret Slave Feel ‘Angry and Guilty’ About Their Past: ‘We Felt Powerless’