Beverly Parayno, USAWarscapes Corona Notebooks May 14, 2020
As the coronavirus pandemic creates mass food insecurity , Filipino-American writer Beverly Parayno finds that secondhand memories of her father's war years have become activated. In this honest and vulnerable account, she tells the story of a difficult relationship with her father, her fraught history with food and her desperation to help combat food scarcity in any way possible.
SECONDHAND MEMORIES DURING COVID-19 | Beverly Parayno
Several weeks ago, as California went under a shelter-in-place directive, my dad said something in our family group text that got my attention: how the chaos and the hoarding reminded him of the onset of World War II in the Philippines. A war that I had never lived through personally—one that I’m not old enough to have lived through—but one I feel as if I’d experienced firsthand due to the stories that filled my childhood home, stories told to me and my siblings repeatedly by my dad, mom, maternal grandmother and grandfather, who’d lived with us. Stories I’d heard so many times that I’ve developed a short film for each in my mind and can retrieve them at any given moment in the same way I can recall one of my own direct memories.
There’s the story of my paternal grandpa getting kidnapped by the Japanese, who needed his truck to transport equipment, and how he escaped many months later only to show up at his front door shaking with malaria; and the time my dad and his grandmother snuck away from the rice fields where the family had been in hiding to visit her house in town, the one she missed so much, and to cook a meal in her kitchen, and then, on the way back, hid in a ditch as armed Japanese soldiers patrolled the path just above them; and my dad as a nine-year-old dumpster diving for food after US soldiers had thrown away their unfinished meals; and my paternal grandmother giving her small allotment of food—consisting of root vegetables dug up from the ground, corn, potatoes, and even concoctions of leaves—to my dad and his siblings to the point where her own health declined and she eventually died of starvation and disease shortly after the war ended.
The stories my dad shared with us had the most impact on me. I never got along with him, especially as a rebellious teenager and well into adulthood. It’s not as if we sat by the fireplace in my childhood home sharing intimate stories of the past. (I didn’t really know any kids of immigrant Filipinos who had strong, open communications with their parents. My communication with my dad was especially fraught due to his violent nature and temper.) So when he’d lapse into a war story, often without any notice or even relevance to the discussion, he’d turn into someone I didn’t recognize, someone vulnerable and childlike. One of the many images that locked itself into my memory over the years is one of my paternal grandmother being buried in haste in the town cemetery, without a tombstone (she still doesn’t have one), all her belongings burned immediately to avoid contagion. Once, when we were teenagers, my dad recounted this story in the kitchen to my sister and me, and he began to cry. We sat there in awkward silence not knowing what to say, not knowing how, and not wanting to, comfort him.
Last week, as I vacillated between moments of heavy news consumption about COVID-19 and refusing to take in any news at all to save my mental health, I began to notice the articles on food insecurity, how a "perfect storm" of food shortage was happening across the country—described as a "tsunami" of demand by people who’ve never used the food bank before (and, in many cases, by people who knew of the food bank because they had at one time been a donor or volunteer), a decrease in monetary donations as people tighten their wallet for fear of the unknown, and a decrease in donations of product from grocery stores as a result of hoarding. I read that a food pantry in Amherst, Massachusetts distributed 849% more food in March compared to the same time last year. Food banks in places like Phoenix, Arizona and Independence, Missouri are seeing close to a 300% increase in demand due to COVID-19. At a recent food distribution in Miami, the line of cars stretched for eight miles. Ten thousand cars in line in San Antonio.
With millions of people suddenly out of work, a weak stimulus package of a one-time payment of $1,200 per person, a payment that many millions of Americans have yet to receive, and food banks about to run out of product, like the one in Washington state that says they’d be out of food by mid-April, I worry about the people who are already staring at the last of their canned goods, dry goods, the last of their meat and poultry and vegetables and fruit. I worry about the kids they have at home, the conversations they’re having around the table about what they’re going to do, or, even worse, the lack of discussion because there’s really nothing to say, little to be done.
I have personally never experienced a shortage of food. In fact, the opposite is true. Growing up in a Filipino household, we had an abundance of home-cooked meals, fresh vegetables, warm soups, homemade desserts like ginataan, fried bananas, large trays of bibingka. This became an issue for me—having so much food and such a small appetite. For years, I tried to eat every other day, which is what my small body preferred, but this caused my parents stress and anxiety, to the point where they nearly force-fed me, making me sit at the table for hours until I finished my meal. My parents threw a lot of big, loud parties growing up, parties we’d spend the whole morning and early afternoon preparing for, making sure there was enough food for people to eat twice during the party and to take as leftovers in Tupperware and paper plates covered in foil.
Once in my life, however, I stole a sandwich out of desperation. Looking back now, it was one of the dumbest things I’ve done, considering I could’ve gone to jail in a foreign country and had no bail money. It happened in a train station in Venice or Rome. My best friend and I had just finished a semester abroad in Bath, England. I was 23 years old (having started college late after dropping out of high school and running off to upstate New York). We’d taken the Eurail all over Western Europe for several weeks before going home. My boyfriend at the time, an Englishman who was living in San Jose on an expired tourist visa and working under the table in core drilling, owed me a thousand dollars. I’d loaned it to him at the beginning of my trip with student loan money, and he promised to make good on the loan before the semester ended so I could use it for my travels.
When he didn’t come through, I had to rely on my best friend and her credit card to get by. Eventually we maxed out her card, and neither one of us, being too proud and too stubborn, wanted to call home for help. It became a game to see how long we could make it, how long we could survive on change and an unlimited train pass. It’s not like I thought about taking the sandwich. If I would’ve thought about it even for a few seconds, I would’ve chickened out. And I didn’t discuss my plans to steal with my friend because I knew we’d look suspicious and draw attention to ourselves. So, as we walked by the stacks of sandwiches in an open refrigerator, I casually picked one up and stuffed it into my oversized jacket pocket. I’d shoplifted like crazy in middle and high school, influenced by my older sisters who used to do it all the time. My friend and I found a quiet place, cut the prosciutto sandwich in half, and closed our eyes with every bite.
When I’d read about the food bank shortage due to COVID-19, I wanted to do something about it. I went into a bit of a frenzy. I started reading every article on the challenges facing food banks. I opened my own wallet and made a cash donation. On Facebook, I heard of a writer who was giving away free copies of her new book to anyone who could show proof of a donation to a food bank, any food bank. I contacted my fellow board members at PAWA, a nonprofit that supports Filipinx writers, to see if we could do something similar—only to come to the realization that we can’t ask authors to go to the post office during a shelter-in-place directive to ship their books to donors. And now, even though I’m feeling behind in my own work as a grants consultant, I’m looking to offer pro bono grant writing to food banks to try to help them raise more money. I’ve been up early reading about the food shortage, up late reading about the food shortage, and also worrying about the number of guns that have been sold and what a country filled with even more guns in the midst of a food shortage is going to look like. It hadn’t occurred to me that my reaction to the food shortage is directly related to my family’s food shortage during the war. It hadn’t occurred to me that secondhand memories over the lack of food would send me in all kinds of directions, all kinds of panic, during this pandemic.
In Viet Than Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, he invokes the German writer W.G. Sebald’s concept of “secondhand memory”—the impact of war and trauma on those “seared at too young an age to know exactly where the scar is.” Sebald spent much of his career writing about the Holocaust, which ended one year after he was born. Similarly, Nguyen was only four years old when his family fled Vietnam, and he has said he recalls very little of the journey. As a refugee, he grew up with memories of Vietnam and the war. In a 2017 Rumpus interview I conducted with him, I asked him how real secondhand memories are for him. He says the memories have become a part of him, that they have left “emotional residue” so he knows they are real.
Last year, I visited the Philippines with my parents to take care of family business. A family friend recommended we stay at Lisland Resort in Urdaneta, a half mile from my dad’s ancestral home. My parents and I checked into our separate rooms, freshened up, and reconvened for a late dinner in the resort’s open-air restaurant overlooking a large swimming pool and deep, lush forest. Hungry from our travels, we ordered more than we could possibly eat: chicken adobo, steamed rice, shrimp and vegetable tempura, spaghetti Bolognese, a bottle of wine. While we waited for our meals to arrive, my dad told me that the land we were on used to be referred to as ‘the jungle.’ They would play here as kids. And then he pointed to an area in the dark woods not far from where we were seated, and said the US military had used that site as a staging area for Black soldiers who were awaiting orders to go home after the war ended. They had to be segregated at the time.
He said, “I used to hang out here looking for scraps of food.”
“Right here? At this very spot?” I asked.
At that moment, my heart rate increased. My hands began to shake. I’d heard these stories all my life but, in my mind, they occurred in a fictitious place, not one I ever thought I’d visit let alone be sitting in at that very moment. I hadn’t been prepared to stay at the exact location where he had begged for food as a child. Where he had to ask for scraps, rummage through the garbage, try to befriend soldiers in hopes of getting leftovers by singing Ilocano songs. (Soldiers who couldn’t have ever imagined that the skinny Filipino boy before them would grow up to live a middle-class life in the US with an abundance of food.)
When our meals arrived, we had to move condiments and a small center piece off the table to make room. While my parents helped themselves to large portions of rice, I found myself suddenly without appetite, unable to think about anything else except what had happened in the jungle. Wondering if the trees still remembered him. And thinking how life is long. So long that my dad now sat in front of me with more food than he could eat and had the ability to order anything he wanted on the menu. A story of mine, called “Victory Joe,” got published years ago in Warscapes. It’s a story set during the end of World War II in a small town north of Manila, where the matriarch of the family, based on my paternal grandmother, is slowly dying from malnutrition and illness. The story is having a bit of a resurrection now, as Warscapes has selected it for inclusion in an anthology being published later this year and a translator in Beijing has decided to translate it into Mandarin. On the one hand, I’m grateful that the story is making its rounds and continuing well past publication, and, on the other hand, I wish it’s a story I had never had to write at all.
Beverly Parayno is from East San Jose, California. Her fiction, memoir, essays and author interviews appear or are forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, Bellingham Review, The Rumpus, Warscapes, Huizache, and Southword: New Writing from Ireland, among others. Her fiction will be anthologized in Insurgent Feminisms: Women Write War (Mantle Books, 2020). Mandarin translations of her fiction appear and are forthcoming in World Literature, a journal of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Parayno earned an MA from University College Cork and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she received a Lynda Hull scholarship. She serves on the board of PAWA, a nonprofit arts organization dedicated to supporting Filipinx writers, and on the executive committee of Litquake. She is a freelance grants consultant for social justice nonprofits in the Bay Area. You can find her at www.beverlyparayno.com.