here at chez 'zilla, we read a bevy of books as part of our nighttime routines. lately, it's been really fun (in the paloma's room anyway... back in the porkchop's crib, it's all..."good night moon, good night cow jumping over the moon, good night light and the red balloon" blah blah blah ad nauseum... ad nausea...). we stack up the pillows and hunker down in the blankets, read new stories, look at some pretty pictures and yawn and discuss and yawn and point and yawn again....
the thin man has enrolled the paloma in eb white 101 and roald dahl 101. and i've been slowly plugging thru the children's books that we (my sisters and me) all bought while in manila. finally, i came across this one, "ang pambihirang buhok ni raquel" or "raquel's fantastic hair".
i think my sister (whose name is pronounced "raquel" but is spelled "rachel" - i don't know why.) thought this was funny and oddly coincidental. but, i don't think she actually cracked open the book. or at least i hope she didn't... i'm hoping it was an honest mistake.
now, i don't know if it's because i think the market for childrens books is bigger here than in the philippines and/or because i've seen/read so many. or because i'm so familiar with the sick child book genre. when i see a childrens book about hair, i almost automatically assume it has something to do with illness. or race. this book? it throws in BOTH - for good measure.
anyhoo - four sentences into the story you read:
"Raquel doesn't know that I envy her. For she is truly pretty, with flawless fair skin."
*insert sound of car - schreeching to a halt*
WTF?! TRULY PRETTY = FAIR SKIN??!! here i was (a dark skinned filipina) reading this story to my (fair skinned, mixed race) daughter.
i paused for a little bit... and against my better judgment continued to read, i thought, "ok, it can't be as bad as i think. maybe there's an epiphany at the end...TWO sentences later... it got worse:
"When i compare myself with her, I feel inferior."
in the story, ana, the dark skinned "country cousin" (who btw - smells and sweats and doesn't speak good english), begins to visit raquel, the "city cousin", in manila. during one of their playdates, raquel faints and her fantastic hair falls off. apparently, raquel has leukemia and wears many different wigs. she's rushed to the hospital. and while waiting for her, ana has a revelation:
"Yes, I may not be rich, I may not be as beautiful, and I have a dark skin. But I am healthy."
i was so unsatisfied with the climax of this story that at this point, i stopped to discuss all of this with the paloma. we've had similar conversations already about my being different from other mommies. when she was very young, too young to speak, she questioned it - she would gently caress my CH and then trace her own face. finally, when she could talk, she asked about it, what it was, if it hurt... lately, it doesn't come up in conversation much at all anymore though i'm sure it will come up again later.
i really wasn't sure how or if she was processing this story. so i said, "paloma, this story makes me kind of sad." she responded, "why mommy?" and i said, "because the girl in the story is sad because her skin is darker than her cousins. is it bad that i have dark skin?" and she replied,"mommy,your skin is darker than mine. but that just means we're different. it's ok to be different. don't be sad because you're different. i love you." she smiled up at me and patted my dark skinned hand with her fair skinned hand.
i should have prefaced this whole post letting all of you non-filipinos know that it's actually very common for filipinos to say things like "oh, she's so beautiful! her skin is so light" or "stay out of the sun, you don't want to get too dark!" i remember when we were still children, my sisters and cousins would apply eskinol (a common face cleanser in the philippines, like clearasil here, that doubles as a skin whitener) before leaving for grade school. in college, my mother, a light skinned filipina, greeted me at the airport upon my return from a long weary trip from spain with an obvious frown, furiously rubbing my dark sunkissed face with spit on her thumb saying, "are you... DIRTY!?". and just recently on our trip to the philippines, the paloma was FAWNED over - all over manila - everyone commenting on her beautiful fair skin. it hurt especially when my own sister said to the paloma about my new, dark and beautiful niece, "i hope she doesn't get too jealous of you and your fair skin."
i am my father's daughter and like him, i am dark. as a child, it was made abundantly clear that i wasn't like other "superior" filipinas. to my critics, it was tragic enough that i was born "disabled" (their terminology, not mine), but to top it all off - how sad it was that i was dark. thankfully, it was easy for me to get over being dark - especially because all of my caucasian friends kept going to the lake, summer day, after summer day, after summer day, in an effort to achieve an all over bronze like me. i was a walking paint chip for bain de soleil. i really wish i could write more on the domination and history of western beauty ideals in asia but i'm just not that educated. suffice to say, it's an archaic standard and it's not something i will perpetuate or tolerate in my house.
the author of the book, luis p gatmaitan m.d., wrote another book that we have - a BETTER book - called "sandosenang sapatos" or "A Dozen Pairs of Shoes". i can recommend this book to you. it's another story that follows the lives of a shoemaker and his two daughters - one is born without feet. it's a charming story and it's especially poignant because it was sent to me by my youngest sister and reminds me of our relationship and my relationship with my father.
i can also tell you that the publisher of the book, adarna house, has other great storybooks told in both tagalog and english with wonderful whimsical illustrations by filipino artists. we bought many of their books during our trip and so far all of them have been great. but i will definitely be sending an email to them to complain about this book.