[Trigger Warning: transphobia, sexual violence, war]
It was my first fall in America. All the trees we drove by were a gradient of auburn and juniper, and we were moving up WI-26 at 65 miles an hour in a sputtering 1995 Toyota Land Cruiser, screaming our heads off to Kanye’s newly released Jesus Is Lord album on the road to a Christian conference for college students at the heart of the cheese state in the Middle West. Having grown up in a household parented by two church elders filled with a Pharisaical devotion toward fundamentalism, I was ready to flex my Gamalielic knowledge on Biblical hermeneutics and how I believed Jesus was for wealth redistribution because that was what the church of Acts did to build community, or in other words communism.
Alas, God decided that no one was ready for my radical ideals and made me unable to cohesively verbalize my Christian socialist agitprop with my fresh-off-the-boat conversational English. Thank the Lord for placing me in a car with three other introverts who made space for my silence, who asked questions in all kindness, unintrusively. It was the first time I felt like I could have actually belonged in this country.
That weekend, a congregation of brethren from all across South Central Wisconsin steadfastly partook in doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayer. During one of the sessions, I closely studied the prophet Ezekiel’s story during the exile of Israel, who despite being born into a priestly lineage, was transplanted into Babylon, an Empire that was void of the divinity of their broken-down Temple of worship.
Like him, I, too, was in exile. I had no place to call home in a country so cruel against the poor, the lowly, and the afflicted. I was a brown girl flown into white suburbia, and even when I left the event with promises of hope and restoration harvested from Scripture, I still had to pick the brick from the ground and raise my new abode. It was grueling to do so, but in that car, I laid the foundation for a relationship I didn’t know would blossom two years down the line. I was in the same car as the first boy I’d ever love. I guess the appropriate response would be hallelujah?
The stars aligned for us—not in the astrology-believing, Co-star femsplaining, new age mystic divination kind of way, but in the God of infinite wisdom, who counts the number of the stars and gives names to all of them (Psalm 147:4), honoring kind of way. The way He orchestrated the following events is bonkers.
Exhibit A: Read the first paragraph. Additionally, I accidentally left my wallet at the passenger seat of his car on the ride home from the conference. He returned it to me afterward.
Exhibit B: Despite working two jobs and taking eighteen credits, I was able to go to his prayer meetings at noontime every Monday of Spring 2020. We’d sit side-by-side on the musty pickle-green sofa at the windowless reflection room in the school dining hall, whispering under our breaths supplications for the glorification of God among the heathen, of that which we were the worst. Then, when Covid-19 shut down the world, we’d whisper under our breath supplications for the glorification of God among the heathen, of that which we were the worst, across frequencies in our houses three hours away from each other.
Exhibit C: We sang on worship team together for four semesters, one of which involved having to edit videos of prerecorded songs at the library. Once, he listened to me rant maniacally about how a worship setlist is structurally similar to Solomon’s temple with the outer courts, the inner courts, and the ark of the covenant. Once, he drove my friend and me to Five Guys and Festival Foods where I unknowingly drank kombucha with CBD oil and proceeded to panic for being a heretic.
Exhibit D: Despite working three jobs and taking eighteen credits, I was able to go to his prayer meetings at noontime every Monday of spring 2021. We’d whisper under our breath supplications for the glorification of God among the heathen, of that which we were the worst, across frequencies, in our houses ten minutes away from each other.
Exhibit E: I accidentally left two pads at the backseat of his car on the ride home from Madison where some friends and I bought boba, frog stickers, and books. He gave it back to me after receiving multiple messages of me saying, “Kill me now. I am: dead.” Shame.
Exhibit F: At the beginning of his last semester, I decided to be intentional with investing in people by breaking bread with them. We sat at the plastic chairs near the bowling alley of our student union, communing with breaded chicken tenders and fries, talking about having conservative parents, being traumatized at a young age, and him taking up criminology despite not wanting to be a cop. It was the night I found out that, like me, he also believed that Jesus was for wealth redistribution. It was the night he became my comrade.
Exhibit G: He would invite me to hang out with him during his duty as an RA where we would yell things like “Eat the rich!” or “Death to capitalism!” or joke about getting matching tattoos of the communist hammer and sickle juxtaposed with the Cross. All the conservative Christian kids in our chapter did not realize we were, in fact, not joking.
Exhibit H: He told me he liked me the last weekend before students moved out. We were rotting in his hollowed-out college bedroom on a Saturday night, drinking out of a ginormous container of cranberry juice, reading poetry inspired by the sufferings of Job, when I asked him why he felt strongly about saying that I’m crush-worthy. Having grown up without pretty privilege because of being short and dark-skinned with an unremarkable lopsided smile, I have never thought I could pull a boy—let alone a beautiful boy—who was in the same metaphysical space as I was politically, socioeconomically, and spiritually. The only problem was this—he’s white.
“Maybe white men are the downfall of brown girls.”
Ashley waves her fork in the air, swallowing mouthfuls of her pale chicken Caesar salad. It is Indigenous People’s Day and she is crying over a white boy at the campus dining hall.
The aforementioned white boy, who dated a white woman before Ashley, also dated another white woman after ending things with Ashley, who found out about the relationship through an Instagram pic of the two lovers wearing cowboy hats at a country music festival, smiles and all.
“We love being the diversity hire,” I joke, chugging water for my dry throat, “Am I right?”
Two days ago, I slow danced with a white boy under tangerine streetlights, a Bright Eyes song blaring on my phone set on the hood of his car. We had just gone to a wedding where I tripped over industrial-sized party speakers, hit a wall, and lost a shoe at the dance floor in front of a hundred white strangers during a conga line despite only having one glass of red wine.
Two hours before this, Beloved’s ex, who was also my friend whom I also dearly loved, put mascara on my eyelashes after I repeatedly almost stabbed my eyes into blindness. She was an all-American girl, with blue eyes and blonde hair and a Southern Belle voice that rang with a kindness that would make you want to lie prostrate in penitence for having the moral corruptibility of a type of Satan. Had she ended up with Beloved, perhaps they would have had blonde-haired kids named Taylor and Chad and Tiffany who all go to a private Christian school in a suburb outside of Chicago and I would be genuinely happy for them. In my eyes, they were the textbook example of a Bible-believing, K-Love-listening, chastity-keeping Christian couple. In my eyes, Ashley and I could never have that because we weren’t white.
We are brown girls. When we’re with white men, we are more whore than wife. In the words of the gender scholar Neferti X. M. Tadiar, “Pussy is not only what the Philippines has, but is.” We are scarlet women, no damsels in distress. Our mothers raised us all nails and teeth and knees skinned from our stubbornness. But when Beloved waltzed me to Aretha Franklin at a secondhand bookstore in downtown Whitewater, all memory of ferocity left my body. When I’m with him, my claws are drawn back. Domesticated. Who would have thought I’d dream of us having three kids and living at a three-story mansion in a suburb outside of Chicago, even when I hate this God-forsaken country? Gross.
“Let’s be honest,” Ashley told her ex once, “You’ll eventually leave me for a white girl.”
I sat across the table from her listening, offering no comfort. What else could I say? It was our only destiny.
I guess one could call it love. I guess one could call it the zenith of Benevolent Assimilation. I guess one could call it using the master’s tools as a mode of survival under Empire. I guess I’d be lying if I said I don’t blame having a white boyfriend on Stockholm Syndrome, on the postcolonial nostalgia toward American settlement, on my paradoxical gravitation toward things that destroy me. Does this make me less of an anti-imperialist? Have I committed the ultimate act of treason toward the Republic of the Philippines?
A white boy grabbed me by the chokehold because he reads Poe and loves plants and knows about the migration patterns of monarch butterflies and compared it to how he never really had a place to call home, because he was born in Texas, raised in a military base in Germany, and studied in Pennsylvania before his parents bought a house in Wisconsin after a decade-long transnational diaspora.
Ironically, despite being a criminology major raised by two America-loving vets, he understood why I had too much pride to die in America, why white men telling me about their Filipina wives triggers my fight or flight, and why white women telling me about how they liked 90 Day Fiancé is my seventh circle of hell. I felt for him in ways too terrifying to name. He makes me want to live—to live here—in the belly of Babylon, far removed from the gravestones of my ancestors, buried and brown and rotting six feet underneath an archipelago in the Pacific. After two decades of following whirring compasses that pointed all directions, I was ready to return to him. Every day. Until we left this side of Heaven.
In 2014, Jennifer Laude, a transgender sex worker, died in the hands of Joseph Scott Pemberton, a lance corporal of the United States Marine Corps who was in the Philippines for joint military exercises. Laude’s naked body was found in the bathroom of a motel room, head dumped into a toilet bowl, neck blackened with strangulation marks. Pemberton was pardoned in 2020 by the Philippine Government after having publicly confessed his actions while misgendering Laude, saying, “I choked it, wrapped my arms around it until it stopped moving, and dragged it toward the bathroom.”
I was nine when my cousin married a white man who raised his fist against her brown body. She had to defend herself with a knife while she held her light-skinned son against her chest. I was fifteen when a white man came up to me at a Starbucks in the middle of Manila and jerked himself off in front of me in broad daylight. I was twenty when a white man came up to my sister and me after overhearing us speaking in Filipino while we were in Lake Tahoe. He yelled at us, “Mahal kita,” which translates to “I love you”. This stranger finds that love is the appropriate conversation starter to acknowledge the existence of two brown girls. His seven-year-old daughter was beside him. Her blonde hair glistened under the California sun. Her blue eyes were translucent, innocent. I was once that young. I no longer remember.
During the Balangiga Massacre in 1901, forty American soldiers were killed in a surprise attack by the townspeople of Samar Island. For revenge, General Jacob H. Smith ordered wanton attacks on the island of Samar, killing 2,000 to 2,500 people. Out of rage, an American soldier raped a village lass. This intergenerational cultural trauma goes back by centuries because the violence of white men has demarcated our cultural psyche. I do not blame my mother for telling me I cannot trust a white man.
Dressed in our Sunday garb, my family and I stuffed marinara-dipped cheese curds into our lactose intolerant stomachs, licked ranch off our fingers flagrantly at the local Culver’s. Beloved sat tight-lipped in his chair across from my parents. Wanting to impress my parents, I decided to tell them that Beloved took care of chickens and hens in their backyard and I saw it as an opportunity to pique my mother’s interest in him. She grew up in the farmlands of Cagayan, raised by two farmers who owned every nameable barnyard fowl at the back of their house, where domesticated birds were slit on their necks for their blood, bathed in boiling water for their meat. We’d roast chicken intestines for merienda, smoke sticking on our cotton shirts. We dipped the innards in chili vinegar, their wiry insides curling like vines on the barbecue stick. Its savor was salty, sweet, and sinful.
Beloved says that when they slaughter their meat chickens, his mother makes baked treats out of the intestines to feed to their dogs. Upon the revelation of this knowledge, my family bursts into laughter in the middle of the sterile fast-food chain and at that moment I realize the psychosomatic distance between us. He will never understand my love for grilled coagulated pig’s blood or my fascination toward karaoke or my palate’s enjoyment of Spam and I will never understand if that is because he’s white and I’m brown or if it’s something more than that—an irreconcilable difference of sorts.
Here are some reasons why our relationship might work: Because he took me to the nearest Kwik Trip fifteen miles away to eat gas station cheeseburgers. Because he hugs a turtle Pillow Pet named Fred to sleep. Because he watched Wes Anderson with me when it was required for film class. Because he bought a sack of bird feed for the robins at the school trails for his Cinderella-esque main character moment even when none of them ate from his hand. Because he saw the pink moon with me and we sat under the star-laden sky while singing theologically pristine hymns from the 1500s.
Because he knows about star clusters. Because he knows about Marx and Lenin. Because he’s an American, giving me permission to unapologetically write an Ethnography of the US Empire when we get married. Because he pulled over on the side of the road and sat with me on the rocky pavement when I wanted to see a field full of fireflies at a farm somewhere between Oconomowoc and Whitewater, where the horizon was embroidered by electric lines and the mobile aviary of mallards.
Because he’s clinically depressed. Because he’s too poor to confirm that diagnosis. Because we’re both too poor to confirm that diagnosis. Because he offers to crack my back every time we see each other, the most mundane act of chiropractic kindness. Because he drops me off at my house with the quiet nervousness of a white man entering into a brown household, desperate to impress my evangelical mother. Because he installed a Filipino dictionary app on his phone and learned the Filipino word for fork and goodbye and I love you. Because when I told my Filipina friend that he installed the aforementioned Filipino dictionary app, she said, “We love a white man who will literally bend over backward to be brown.” Because he taught me how to properly hold a wine glass and said between laughs, “I’m teaching you how to be white.” Because Westerners go to the Philippines to look for wives and I think it’s a power move for a Filipina to go to the West in order to find a husband.
Because he kissed me on the cheek at the drive-thru of the local Culver’s, hand on my hand, the AC blowing its cool air onto our faces in the middle of summer, and that was when I first realized that I could possibly love a boy who I’d stay for, who I’d transform for to be the stereotypical Midwestern Filipina who has fully bought into the American dream by living with her Trump-supporting military vet husband in Door County and goes kayaking with her three-year-old who has blue eyes and blonde hair and religiously eats at a fish fry on Fridays with her girlfriends to fill the void of postcolonial nostalgia for a home that she could never again have because she chose to be with a white boy who ages like milk after two years of child-rearing. Because, as much as I hate to admit it, I want this future if it meant I could be with him.
Perhaps God does not will it. Perhaps I meet his gun-owning Republican parents and his conservative cousins and visit their house in Wausau, the one with the American flag waving proudly in front of it, and they end up hating me, and then Beloved ends up hating me. Perhaps I return to the Philippines for good, never to see Beloved again, never to be loved. Perhaps Beloved marries a nice Midwestern white girl. Will I see it as a win against the patriarchy, against the weight of being a white man’s burden?
Falling in love with a white boy is a red flag, the obelisk of my acculturation. Before him, I exclusively had a militant desire for women, and so, to succumb to a white man was a breach of faith, a Judas kiss. I often need to share my deep but unsurprising feelings of treachery because in the diaspora my body is the only land I have left, and to surrender with arms held high to a boy who held me under a star-laden sky while I cried for home feels like colonialism, but isn’t all love sacrifice? Isn’t all love resignation?
Here is my white flag raised.
Here is me kissing his cheek on a bench along the edges of Lake Mendota. Here is me buying him an ice pack at Walgreens, bandaging his sprained ankle at the backseat of our friend’s car. Here is me cleaning his room during a depressive episode. Here is me writing his cover letter for a job application. Here is me reading him poetry while watching the proverbial sunset under an oak tree at his favorite place in this city right next to the upper-middle-class suburban homes that all look eerily the same, where we’d lie down on the grass and miss each other already, even with the minuscule distance between us. Here is me giving him a film camera. Here is me giving him a bouquet of bright yellow tulips from Trader Joe’s. Here is me giving him my first ever kiss with a boy, all teeth and tender. Here is me giving myself over to him because I have learned in church that all love is surrender, is trust. It is a Kierkegaardian leap of faith. Ezekiel and the exiles of Israel lived at the mercy of God in their exodus to a foreign land, and in the same way, we live at the mercy of others. We love at the mercy of others.
The first time I told him I loved him, it was on a bright Sunday afternoon after service. A few minutes before this, he whispered that he loved me and I didn’t hear it because I was too busy being lullabied by the rustling of leaves. We were lying underneath an aspen tree, making figures out of the wispy clouds on the ceiling of the horizon when I realized the absurdity of cohesion, the lie of narrative. We make heads or tails of our destiny even when at the end of the day is no Calvinistic predestination to life’s tangents. One does not find home, one chooses it. That choice requires patience and love is patient. I wait for Beloved and the genesis of the steeple of our own hands, subliminal and erratic, tessellated by mercy, graced by grace.
Hannah Keziah Agustin is from Manila, Philippines, and based in Madison, Wisconsin. Her work is found and forthcoming in Guernica, Prairie Schooner, Hobart, Michigan Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.