The Asian-immigrant story in the United States often hews close to that of Amy Chua, who wrote “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” an account of how she raised her two daughters to be achievers mainly by hounding them and holding them to the highest standards of academic fulfillment and filial obedience.
Marie Claire Lim-Moore says her own Filipino mother (Chua’s parents were themselves Chinoys) is an “un-Tiger Mom” who, even if she was a teacher herself, would often turn off the lights in her children’s rooms at night, reasoning that they had studied enough and it was now time for them to go to bed.
And yet the immigrant story that Lim-Moore tells in “Don’t Forget the Soap: And Other Reminders from My Fabulous Filipina Mother” sounds eerily like Chua’s. Perhaps there is a reason Asian-Americans are often called the “ideal minority.” The immigrants, and their children, often end up as high-achieving, ambitious, unassertive and generally law-abiding citizens. (Lim-Moore ended up going to Yale and working for Citibank.) Fil-Ams in particular blend in so easily into the culture that they are often “invisible,” even to multinationals seeking new, unexplored markets.
Ostensibly a memoir of growing up in a Filipino-Canadian-American extended family of relatives, family friends, work mates and “adopted” strangers, “Don’t Forget the Soap” focuses on Lim-Moore’s mother, Lenore RS Lim, an art teacher who, after retirement, embarked on a second, flourishing career as a printmaker/artist. (Her husband Jose was just as active a parent, and even merits a cameo in a chapter devoted to him.)
Sprinkled throughout the book are anecdotes about this remarkable woman, from her uncanny ability to bond with perfect strangers and establish lasting friendships, her reluctance to allow Claire and her brother to join slumber parties (something all Fil-Am parents share, apparently), even to her ability to marshal a small army of relatives and friends for Claire’s wedding in Manila.
But the story opens up, too, to broader horizons, providing insights into parenting that go beyond the immigrant experience and pays homage as well to uniquely Filipino qualities: our penchant for bonding over food and music, hospitality to friends and strangers that can extend to months, and maintaining ties with the old homeland.
This is, in fact, the story behind the book’s title, referring to the complimentary soap bars in hotels that Claire’s mother reminds her to collect, for sending to the Philippines where, bundled in tissue paper along with other amenities, they become expressions of caring and remembrance, ties to home, and lessons in kindness and thoughtfulness.
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I missed the book launch, and have yet to finish Lualhati Bautista’s mash-up of a memoir and novel titled “In Sisterhood—Lea at Lualhati.”
But from the get-go, the reader is enthralled by the author’s conceit, telling her life story through the eyes, and the caustic words and attitudes, of her characters. The “Lea” in the title is Lea Bustamante, lead character in one of Bautista’s best-known works, the novel “Bata, Bata, Pa’no ka Ginawa.” The book opens with Lea wondering what it would be like for the characters to tell the story of their creator’s life, if she would allow them the freedom to frame the story on their own terms, in their own words.
Of course, the process is far from simple, and involves many a confrontation between “creator” and “character.”
“In Sisterhood” lays bare the “back stories” of Lualhati’s books. “Bata, Bata,” for instance, was written, says Bautista, when it suddenly occurred to her that she didn’t know what her civil status was as a single parent. “And from this small complaint without a solution,” she writes in Filipino, “a seed of an idea was planted, grew into a tree and bore fruit to my sturdiest assertion of the honor and dignity of being a woman.”
Another best-selling novel, “Dekada ’70,” was born, writes Bautista, not from her experience as the partner of an activist and political prisoner, but out of her “simple experiences as a mother that I wove into the experiences of other mothers.” But these experiences are rooted in a particular place and time: the Philippines during the martial law years, and traces the paths of a family—and of a mother—as they go on their divergent ways.
For a writer as prolific as she (she also wrote screenplays and teleplays), Bautista apparently has had no problems with “writer’s block.” “Don’t believe it” is her succinct advice to young writers. Instead, she says, the stymied writer should simply set aside an unfinished work, because, as “In Sisterhood” shows, “what I set out to do 20 years ago could simply be taken up again like it had just been set aside yesterday.”
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Even as activists and anyone with a grievance lobby Congress to pass laws they feel can address their complaints, the fact is that, if more people were only more aware of existing laws, they can find the answers they seek, and the redress they demand.
This may be the reason lawyer Catherine T. Manahan wrote the book “Know Your Rights,” a compendium of laws dealing with social and economic benefits that still too few citizens know about. Or, they may be aware of these laws, but have not read closely enough into the text to understand how they can benefit from them.
Written in a straightforward manner, punctuated with case studies that illustrate the practical application of the laws, “Know Your Rights” is a handy, succinct guide to all citizens dealing with the law, especially those with special concerns such as women, solo parents, senior citizens, people with disabilities, and overseas workers.