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I FIRST SAW THE SON on my way through the TSA security gate. A small hand scrubbed off the fuchsia imprint of his mother’s lips from his cheek, his complexion that of the undulating Chocolate Hills from his ancestral lands. Ang galing naman! A Filipino boy of perhaps age five or six. His face stared back at me, haunted as the Visayan blood, I assumed, that flowed through his veins. Holding a papaya-orange tablet, complete with foam bumper case to guard against the enthusiasm of childhood, he was adorned with a penguin-shaped cross-body satchel and a winning smile.

He waited for his sister as they approached the podium; a security agent careened down at them from her brushed-metal watchtower. My gaze fell on maliit na batang babae; she appeared to be the same age as her brother and carried a bumblebee-shaped tote half her size. Her long, black hair was carefully plaited atop the crown of her head and cascaded down her back. Wearing an onyx Michael Kors puffer jacket and quilted Ugg boots, she was paying full attention to her own mango-colored tablet, which she cradled like a doll.

To my surprise, their sandy-haired mother followed, sporting dragon-fruit-pink highlights and floral-embroidered over-the-knee riding boots. She had the look of a person who, in her college days, majored in Gender, Women, and Sexuality studies. Now, fulfilling her destiny as a woke womxn of the Resistance, she spent her mornings frying cage-free eggs sunny-side up for her children while casually retweeting bell hooks and Roxane Gay.

Her husband ushered them forward in line to the security checkpoint. Were it not for the Bluetooth Jawbone headset tucked behind his ear and the Chiclet packet snuggled in his breast pocket, he would be a walking L.L. Bean advertisement. Decked in a sturdy persimmon flannel and a trim beard, he had a distinctive look that said, “I know how to light a campfire in the rain.”

I was unable to fully compute the backstory of this multihued family, which left me restless, scavenging for clues. As a flight attendant distributed golden junior pilot wings to the little ones, I scanned for telltale signs of infertility. The mother was of solid build and wore matte concealer—perhaps polycystic ovarian syndrome? The father’s ample facial hair dissuaded any notion of hypogonadism on his part. The parents seemed young, albeit with seemingly abundant resources for adoption. Was she of advanced maternal age?

I had so many impertinent questions. How much IVF did they shell out for before turning to an overseas orphanage? Or did they choose adoption, purporting ethical notions of conserving environmental resources? Were they the kind of parents who bought a house in the West Liberty school district to enroll their kids in bilingual schools? Kung kausapin ko ba sila sa kanilang sariling wika, sasagutin kaya nila ako sa Ingles o Tagalog? Or would I merely face blank stares of confusion?

This halo-halo family, my Precambrian brain ever wanted to categorize them into boxes and silos for which I had little precedent. Unlike my friends from more rural parts of Iowa where international adoptees were the norm, I grew up cocooned by the idea that Asian children belonged to Asian families. Even in other blended households, if one parent were an American GI Joe while another parent a nurse, their hapa children were always rooted by food, by family, by Filipinos. 

I noticed them again upon boarding the aircraft. Leaning forward with as much discretion as I could, I watched as parents and progeny sat two by two in separate rows. Nakakagigil talaga ang bata, the adorable ones seated in front, each engrossed in their individual black mirrors of distraction on their laps. I stifled a giggle as their entertainment devices loudly blasted cartoon theme songs. Scowling, the returning snowbird in the aisle seat next to them couldn’t properly enjoy her gulp of airplane whiskey (two Templeton Rye, neat).

The parents held hands in the row directly behind. I judged them instinctively. Walang hiya, why doesn’t she sit up front with her children? Like a real mother, I added parenthetically, and was immediately ashamed.

Midway through the predeparture safety video, I heard a gleeful squeal and saw a plastic trinket catapult into the air. The wing-shaped pin landed in the lap of a hirsute man with prominent sideburns who was knitting on circular needles. He uncrossed his legs and returned the airline token to its guardians. In response, the mother drew her face close to the son and whispered sympathetic words of warning punctuated by a kiss atop his shiny bowl cut.

I pondered their future and how they would grow up. Would they, too, be the Only Ones in their suburban Midwestern world? Would they eschew arroz caldo and sinigang in favor of Pop Tarts and Chef Boyardee to avoid lunchroom ridicule? Would they internalize their Wonder Bread surroundings and become those adoptees? The ones who wake up and tell the world from their brown faces that, “Sometimes I forget I’m not white until I look in the mirror in the morning.”

Would they inherit their parents’ presumed neocolonial tourism practices, embodying the privilege of unencumbered and unquestioned travel as a consequence not of their contributions but the mere color of their passports?

Backpacking through Southeast Asia with fresh eyes and an old soul on a gap year, would they simultaneously experience both discovery and homecoming while dodging volcanic ash on their way to conquer Mount Bulusan? Documenting their adventures with a GoPro trekking along the Banaue rice terraces, would they bother to notice the eroding numbers of Ifugao farmers who remain grounded in the land?

My questions were never ending. But as I pulled back from the wide-angle lens in my mind racing at light speed, I slowly reeled in the many piña threads I had woven into the fabric of an imagined future for these young ones I had never met.

 I stole one last look. The children were laughing as their parents gingerly passed apple slices through the gap between seats 7B and 7C. In that moment I saw nothing more than a loving family, and it was beautiful.


Melissa Palma is an Iowa-raised daughter of Filipino immigrants. She was privileged to grow up in a multigenerational household with her grandparents, parents, and little sister in Waterloo, Iowa.