The Only Way Out is Through

In Return by Rhonda Nebiyou

“Memory sifts. Memory lifts. Memory makes due with what it is given. Memory is not about facts. Memory is an inconsistent measurement of the pain in one’s life.” – Brandon Taylor


One of the most painful things that no one talks about growing up is coming to face the humanity and mortality of your parents. As a first-generation Canadian whose parents emigrated from Ethiopia and the Philippines in the late 1980s, I spent a good portion of my youth fantasizing about how much simpler the lives of my hypothetical children would be.

They would have parents who spoke perfect English and expressed themselves eloquently, parents imbued with the patience and understanding attuned to nurturing a bourgeoning identity, and parents who didn’t live in perpetual fear of their child falling down a path of irreversible self-destruction. But most significant, they would be alleviated of the same responsibility I felt towards my parents growing up—to guide them through cultural norms, to reassure them that the sacrifices they made to cultivate a family here were not in vain. 

My dad grew up in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Coincidentally, he emigrated to the Philippines at the age of 19 to attend Adamson University, where he studied chemical engineering. By contrast, my mom was born in Isabela, the second largest province in the Philippines. She grew up in a small, tight-knit community where her family owned a farm before emigrating to Canada for dental school. Despite their vastly different upbringings, both my dad and mom miraculously settled in Toronto at the ages of 24 and 22, respectively. 

I often think about the circumstances necessary for my existence—from my dad’s decision to emigrate to Canada instead of the US to my mom’s decision to uproot her life at the precarious age that I am now. Yet, as children, we often lack the necessary tools to contextualize the lived experiences of our parents, especially when they’re from two entirely different cultures. We’re shown photos, we hear anecdotes at family gatherings or perhaps remnants of a memory triggered by something arbitrary, but nonetheless, there remains a tacit and profound disconnect. 

It wasn’t until we moved to the suburbs that I began to internalize the minute ways in which my parents would adjust their demeanour in ways that were appropriate to our white neighbours. I tend to look back on that time with a mix of nostalgia and anger. The anger is directed at me for the shame I harboured, but specifically at the specter of aspiring to an ideal that simply does not exist for people of colour. My parents raised me in hopes that Canada could be mine, knowing it would never be theirs, and so if being the daughter of immigrants has taught me one critical life lesson, it’s that only I can give myself the approval and worth we so often seek from others. 

At the same time, recognizing that the narrative of opportunity is fading with each generation is an uncomfortable truth. Most people are not privy to the same imagination of self that is part and parcel of the early-generation experience. It sends me spiralling into a crisis about how I’ll look back on this current period of my life, whether I am destined to grow into my parents’ skin, or whether I could ever ensure my future children aren’t forced to grow into mine. 

Growing up mixed-race, this ostensible inadequacy to navigate my environment was underpinned by an aversion to growing up between cultures—cultures I did not feel attached to, nor worthy of claiming as mine. As a result, I’ve always felt liminal, like I drift between race and culture.  However, in this liminality, I became acutely aware of the conditionality of the spaces I occupy. 

To this day, I struggle to feel connected to my Asian heritage because, more often than not, I’m treated as the conditional Asian person or the “exception.” In fact, some of my earliest memories are tied to this realization—a realization that had effectively morphed this part of my identity into a tool to be wielded for acceptance. Mixed-race families are often heralded as the panacea to racism and emblematic of racial progress—but the reality is that kinship does not preclude racism in the same way that dating a woman does not preclude misogyny. Sometimes I’ll think about the kinds of questions I was inundated with as a child, questions I had never even considered, and try to pinpoint the moment they became a barometer of legitimacy. 

These feelings of dispossession ultimately carried over to my teenage years, engendering a sense of confusion and shame that I’ve since dubbed “lost time.” It is both fascinating and terrifying that sometimes you’re immediately aware you’ve lost it, but other times, it isn’t until months or years later that you find yourself clinging to any semblance of your roots. Most of my adulthood has been spent rectifying my cursory understanding of my Filipino heritage. And while I often find myself oscillating between reclamation and grief, it’s given me a new lens with which to reflect on my past and to innately understand the world outside of binaries and limited optics.

In the same vein, when people look at me, they typically think that I’m Black. There’s a privilege in that ambiguity, in that positioning as the palatable version of Blackness, that simultaneously makes me doubt the bounds of what exactly I am allowed to claim. Not in a self-deprecating way, but in a way that seeks to foreground experiences I am not—and never will be—privy to. Colourism is a societal ill predicated on one’s proximity to whiteness. It would be remiss to overlook the insidious ways in which it has informed the lives of those who do not benefit from it. 

As I grow older, my concept of racial identity is perpetually changing; it’s malleable and nebulous and perplexing. And yet, as my understanding of my race becomes more complex, it also solidifies. There’s a certain stillness that comes after a lifetime of wondering if your grief belongs. But the newfound thrill of feeling a profound sense of belonging in multiple places, having reconciled with my own duality, has still not left me.

Some days are harder than others, but life is a spiral. Darkness looms over all of us, in more ways than one; on my bad days, there’s this quiet fear that I am merely running from it, and sooner or later, it will catch up, surpass me even. But I’m reminded that the paradox of healing is that you have to look at the darkness to retain your lightness. The paradox of life is you can’t have one without the other.