Hometown Heroes // Pt. 3

My grandparents are honestly one of the biggest reasons (if not THE biggest reason) I still enjoy coming home to Jacksonville.

Then

Growing up, my grandparents took me everywhere that screamed FLORIDA: Disney World, Seaworld, The Marine Science Center, the beach, the many shopping malls with those quarter rides and a decorative roller coaster above the food court. The same house they have now is the same house I grew up in every summer. They cooked for pretty much every meal – something I never really got used to until much later in life.

It was peaceful. It was everything my normal NY childhood was not.

At the end of 8th grade, two months prior to graduation, I got kicked out of my private school for being unable to afford tuition. I went to Baruch Middle School for a few weeks until my parents dropped the bomb: We’d have to move to Florida indefinitely because we could no longer afford our own rent. I was devastated. I didn’t have  many friends at this time but how could I leave right before high school? What about my scholarship? My life was suddenly reduced to “What fit in a suitcase & U-Haul.” I had no choice.

My grandparents welcomed us as openly as they could, given the circumstances of my parent’s volatile marriage and the state of emergency to re-settle us into school, etc. Between travels, they looked after us and even when the divorce finally happened, they loved us.

As I got older, things weren’t as easy.

I was smart in high school, but towards the later half, I was also troublesome. My mom and sister moved back up to NYC to pursue life with my stepdad. I had to teach myself once again how to be independent so of course, I stayed up late, stayed out often, and wasn’t as engaged in family life as I was in my own social sphere. I was a teenager. I suppose you’d call that typical, but in an Asian household where family is everything, it wasn’t ideal. I learned a lot from these periods of time, where tensions with my grandparents flared up more than I was used to.

Still, they loved me through it all. And that’s something I didn’t fully accept until I had to grow up a little more.

 

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Graduation. Photo courtesy of Redner Salonga Photography.

Now

This summer, I made a point to bring it back to the basics when it came to connecting with my grandparents. I watched hours of K-dramas with them. I introduced a new puzzle game to my grandma because she’s always liked those. I saw relatives out of respect when I could have easily only been with friends or alone. I went pasyal (Tagalog for a walk, outing) with them even if I didn’t feel like it, because in such a short window of vacation, a trip to the grocery store or errand runs were still a way to spend time together. I even begged for days to go on base whenever my grandpa was off work, or my grandma felt like driving there.
By “on base,” I mean the Navy base. My grandpa served in the US Navy for decades. He was retired from active service by the time I was born, but would take me on base as a kid to go bowling with my cousins (a tradition we still have though we never really beat Grandmaster Grandpa at his own game). I remember making an attempt in freshman year of high school to understand what my grandpa loved so much about the Navy, so I joined the Sea Cadet Corps, and though I couldn’t handle the academic workload of my high school combined with the rigorous schedule of PT and marching in dress blues in 90 degree weather, I think those short months being a cadet helped me understand more than I intended. It also explains why I got along with my high school ROTC chapter.

It wasn’t about the routine, the early wake up and late hours; it was about the community of service, and how serving others can really change lives. Like I said before, it’s a labor of love. Not everyone wants to be in uniform and work under intense conditions, but the ones who do deserve so much respect for actively choosing it.
Anyway, I still go on base with my grandparents to go shopping at the Commissary/Navy Exchange. It’s heartwarming to see them drive around and point out the shipyards saying “I used to be here!” Or “That’s where this happened!” Grandpa also has an amazing knack for remembering nearly every shipmate he worked with: there’ve been so many times we go on base and he runs into someone, or at times we’d even meet up with my friends and their parents and he’d probably already know who these people are.

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Something that also meant a lot to me this past summer was being back in the comfort of my high school home, namely the kitchen.

Pretty much everyday I would dedicate at least two hours to whipping up something tasty out of what we had in the fridge: minute steaks, fresh fig jam, orange zest cake, pancakes, French toast, Pad Kee Mao. I cooked as often as I could so they wouldn’t need to, and I hoped my recipes could both impress and satisfy them.
I admit my sense of hospitality was ingrained into me by my grandparents, the OG hosts. I pride myself on being able to discern a wholesome plate of food from one that just looks pretty, holding a Food Handler’s License, and being able to connect with everyday people over their experiences with food and the cultures those foods represent. I honed these values when I started working in cafés during my early college years, but I attribute a lot of my commitment to evoking emotions and stories out of food to my grandparents.
I learned to do basic ingredient prep when I was a kid, but I never took cooking seriously until my later years when I realized there would be a day I needed to make something out of nothing and I didn’t want to be just another #struggleplate on Instagram.
Of course, my grandparents did cook my favorite meals too: French Onion Salmon, Dasilog (a fried milkfish popular in the Philippines, paired with rice, fried eggs, and tomatoes), and Chicken Adobo. They didn’t cook these dishes as often anymore since we all moved away and they had less mouths to feed. But every bite felt like I was eating for the very first time, over and over again; every flavor, bright or nuanced, was equally as memorable as the next…and I could only hope to get to this level of culinary connection someday, too.

I guess it’s true that life comes full circle sometimes. In my case, I’ve learned to love a lot of things I once failed to understand. I took advantage of opportunities I once took for granted. My grandparents shaped me to be someone that I never imagined being. And I’m glad they did.

//

This post is super long, and there’s still so much left to say about my grandparents and everything they’ve done for me. But for now, I just hope they read this and know how grateful I am. I hope that I always make you proud, Grandma and Grandpa.

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