The recurrent dream takes me back to my grandmother’s house in one of the central islands in the Philippines. There is feasting and much laughter. I am surrounded by my extended family—cousins and aunts and uncles. In the midst of this gathering, I suddenly realize that I have to leave for America. Then I am at the airport, anxious about having to say goodbye. Next to me are unsorted pieces of luggage and packages, scattered at my feet. I am perturbed by the absence of order and by the cacophony of my surroundings. Then my mother, gently touching my shoulder and pointing to the pile of mismatched luggage, says: “Priscilla, these are gifts for you.”
In my life journey as an Asian American woman who has lived in two cultures—in the post-colonial milieu of a country in the developing world and in the post-modern setting of cities like Boston, I have gradually begun to embrace the meaning of that recurrent dream. It resonates with the universal search for identity, with the promise and peril of leaving home, and, finally, with the understanding that even the unsorted pieces of every life are ultimately part of God’s gift.
My name—Priscilla Lasmarias Kelso—reflects the polyglot mix of my ancestry and history. Priscilla, with its biblical and New England overtones, was a name given to me when the Philippines was under American rule. Lasmarias, the name given to my clan when the Philippines was a colony of Spain for over 300 years, symbolizes the three Marys at the foot of the cross—Mary Magdalene; Mary, the mother of James; and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Kelso, the Scottish family name of my husband, Bart, represents the European branch of my family tree. In this confluence of East and West, I am continuing to find my place as a biblical feminist and as a citizen of the world.
Throughout history women have built their lives on the scaffolding of those who have lived before them. Mine includes the life of my grandmother, who was a powerful presence in my childhood and who shaped my concept of the strength that women bring to the drama of survival as they rebuild from rubble. My grandmother, Cecilia, exemplified for me the unswerving drive to keep on living after she was orphaned as a young child, became a widow with several children to raise, and faced the devastation of World War II. An equal partner to her husband, who died young, she managed the family business and taught her grandchildren to be proud of their heritage.
In my earliest memory of my grandmother, I am walking as a little child behind her in the light of the setting sun. The war had ended and the family was returning to what was left of our hometown, after five years of hiding in the mountains as refugees. I can still see her quick stride, her face lined with the pain of loss and malnutrition. In her hand she carried a small woven basket with a mother hen and a few newly-hatched chicks. This was all she had left—along with her hope for the future, her faith in God, and her defiant spirit in the face of adversity.
I became the beneficiary of her insistence that the women in the family should get a college education. Her meager schooling merely taught her to read her prayer book and write her name; in her granddaughters she saw our potential for higher education. My mother, a high school valedictorian, was not allowed to go to college because, in her day, a career was not going to be wasted on a woman. It fell to the generation of younger women in my family to redeem the time, so to speak, by forging ahead with our academic and professional lives. When Stanford University offered me an international scholarship to do my graduate work in English and American literature, my grandmother Cecilia gave me her blessing to find my life in America—she who never read a novel, flew on an airplane, or spelled the words “United States.”
Growing Two Gardens
We speak in metaphors while attempting to comprehend the larger meanings of our lives. I feel drawn to the image of growing two gardens as I reflect on my bicultural journey as a Filipino woman who has lived more than half of my life in the United States, returned at different lifestages to the Philippines, raised an Asian American daughter, grown in an egalitarian marriage of 36 years, and nurtured my professional life in teaching and international education. Regarding the garden metaphor, cross-cultural people like me work with two different types of soil, so to speak—with different textures and the potential to grow and yield a mixed harvest.
In the years of paying attention to my international journey, I have learned that I cannot grow everything in the soil of my original and adopted homes. By choosing the issues that matter to my personal and communal life, given the potentials and limitations of growth, I am increasingly finding a balance between my Asian ancestry and my American identity. One of these issues is biblical feminism. The equal exercise of gifts among women and men, the freedom to understand the masculine and feminine sides of God, the mystery of one’s gender as a God-given gift—these have been woven into the fabric of my faith journey. The opportunities to live this out have been many—in my being one of the first women Presbyterian elders at my home church, finding my voice in my commitment to nuclear disarmament, participating as an equal in national boards of Christian organizations, advising future clergy spouses to compose a life that has room for their own gifts, in partnership with their husbands.
Gardens require work—getting down on one’s knees, working the soil with one’s hands, and doing some digging—all this to produce a yield of fruit that nourishes the body and blooms that delight the eye. Ultimately, this points me to a reminder in 1 Corinthians 3:6-9 that God makes things grow: “You are God’s field. You are God’s garden.” As a link to other gardens in the Bible—from the First Garden in Genesis to the trees in Revelation with leaves for the healing of all the nations, the image of God as gardener evokes hope. Ultimately, God is the one who tends, prunes, cultivates, and nurtures the plot of ground that is our lives. For people who have been planted in more than one soil, the process often takes time and seasons of testing.
Through the Lens of a World Citizen
At no point in my life was my citizenship more tested than when Corazon Aquino became the first woman president of my home country after the harrowing years of martial law and exile. When her husband was murdered and martyred by the reigning dictatorship in 1983, the political chaos that followed in the Philippines became part of my own crucible. My sister was a political prisoner; I had relatives in the military; Christian friends were being arrested or tortured.
Corita Kent, an artist and a Catholic woman of courage, said that to believe in God is to know that the rules are fair and that there will be many surprises. No prediction could have been truer than when Corazon Aquino, a woman that history picked for such a time as when she was needed, toppled a 20-year dictatorship, with the support of millions of Filipinos. Worth noting in the “people-power revolution” that restored democracy was the groundswell of non-violent activism that grew by leaps and bounds among women from all walks of life—those who tied themselves to ballot boxes to protect their vote, those who faced the tanks with prayer and song, those who supplied rice to demonstrators who joined the street protests for days. In the midst of such perilous times a world away, my daughter, Rachel, and I joined hundreds of Filipino American citizens who lobbyed the United States Congress on behalf of Aquino’s presidency that was almost stolen from her.
“For whom are my tears flowing?” I asked myself at a thanksgiving service for Corazon Aquino’s victory: for my sister, Inday, who was jailed for protesting martial law; for Domini, my journalist friend who fought hard for the right of the press to tell the truth in a time of repression; for Neneng, who could barely feed her children in a village 10,000 miles away from Boston; for Pilar, who lost her life in the struggle to restore freedom to a beleaguered land—and for me, as I straddled the two worlds of my citizenship and my allegiance to the two countries that have defined me.
As a Global Christian
When I was growing up in the family farm of my childhood, the boundaries of my world were made up of my grandmother’s house and the big city 50 kilometers away from where I was born. It was a safe world—self-contained, manageable, undisturbed. My choice as an adult to study and live in the United States expanded that world far beyond what I could have imagined had I stayed in the island of my birth. When I arrived at Stanford as an international graduate student, the Vietnam war was escalating. A few years later, pregnant and grieved by the deaths of innocent civilians in Indochina, many of them women and children, I marched to the Boston Common with scores of protestors to oppose that war. Not too long after that, I was part of an ecumenical team that resettled Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian families in Massachusetts. Some of them lived in my home—widows of war, shell-shocked men, grandmothers—all of them carrying the universal scars of all displaced people on earth. In my work with international development at a university in Boston, I came to know the children of war refugees, now in college, speaking American English, driven by success, yet haunted by memories of their lost homeland.
Nom from Laos recounted to me the day when she and her family left their home, running for their lives. As they were crossing the Mekong River, hundreds, thousands of butterflies flew across their path like a benediction, giving them courage. Tien, as a Vietnamese boy adrift with other boat people on the China Sea, knew that he was going to survive, and, years later, graduated with an international degree that could pave the way for him to become a diplomat. Chao from Cambodia found that writing poetry in my English class, using her first language, was a catharsis for the lost years of her childhood in a country that, to this day, bears the marks of carpet-bombing and incomprehensible devastation. This universe of stories humbles and energizes my life.
The silken thread of suffering is what binds me to the human community. I have pondered this in the years that I have been touched by the stories of survivors—my grandmother, Cecilia, who looked at misfortune straight in the eye, Corazon Aquino, who lived through several military attempts to topple her presidency, the children of war who laboriously rebuild their lives with grace. This solidarity with those who have been tested by adversity in my Asian homeland often links me to the original suffering of Jesus Christ, who was himself a displaced person living in times of upheaval and chaos. Honed by repeated testing and marked by radical obedience, Christ opened the way for humanity to endure and finally be vindicated. In my Christian journey, I have been blessed by the lives of those who, though wounded by life, said “No” to despair.
The Ongoing Journey
Displacement. Diaspora. Uprooting. Re-rooting. Bearing fruit. This process, in no way seamless or predictable, is increasingly becoming a shared pattern among many people around the globe. Mobility, immigration, resettlement, even exile have made the human experience so much more geographically fluid. It has all the possibilities of promise and threat, of discord and harmony, and is filled with the creative tension of answering the age-old question: “Who am I?” As women and men seek their individual and collective destinies across borders—from Asia, Africa, Latin America—they add to the richness of global diversity.
At this time in history, with humanity seeking a better world and, at the same time, fearing for its future, I believe that every life is part of the bouquet that every generation offers to God—Creator, Gardener, Liberator. From my beginnings in a small island in the Pacific to the expansive terrain of my Western education, I find myself continuing to till the soil of my two cultures, thankful for whatever harvest blesses my home—this earth, a speck of blue suspended on a sunbeam.
My recurrent dream was true, after all.