My Lola and Life in the Philippines

By Isabella Chua

This is the life story so far of my maternal grandmother Erlinda “Linda” Smith (nee Jovellanos: first married name) (nee Lomibao: maiden name), or Lola (grandmother in Tagalog), as I call her.

Born on October 29 1946, Lola grew up with her four older siblings (two brothers and two sisters) in a large house on a banana and sweet potato plantation, where she was raised by her postal worker father and her elementary school teacher mother, who later passed away from a sickness when Lola was nine years old. The plantation she lived on was owned by her father, and also grew crops like papaya and avocado, as well as planted rice and sugarcane, all of which were harvested by the local tenants or farmers. According to Lola, her childhood was neither happy nor relaxed. In the mornings, afternoons, and evenings, her strict father always demanded that his children would clean the yard and expected them to be busy once he got home. Only when he was at his job did Lola and her siblings allow themselves to rest. For housework, Lola only fed the chickens and goats, and swept the ground using a broom and pan, while her mother and older sisters took on heavier chores. Both of Lola’s parents worked 8-hour shifts at their jobs from Monday to Friday, with Lola’s mother doing her teaching job in the lower part of their house, which was used as a classroom. The family was so poor that they couldn’t afford maids like other Filipino families, electricity or electrical appliances, or even a car, so Lola’s father would always ride a bike or hitch a car ride with a neighbor to go to work. Likewise, Lola would only listen to radio at home and was only able to go clothes shopping once a month because of her family’s poverty. For meals, Lola, her siblings, and her parents would usually eat beef and fish together as a family, and never dined out in restaurants because they couldn’t pay for it either. They also hardly ate pork since her father suffered from rheumatism. For showers, Lola’s family filled drums with water and moved them to a bathroom cubicle downstairs, where they would pour water on themselves using containers and lather up using only a bar of Palmolive soap. As a child, Lola would often catch fever because nobody cared for her much.

While growing up, Lola attended a public school in Dagupan City, a place 500km away from the country’s capital of Manila, where they had strict standards on uniform, punctuality, and hygiene. They were also quite crowded, with the class size sometimes being over thirty in one classroom but never over forty. Back then, there were no advanced technologies, only simple equipment like blackboards, chalk, books, and textbooks. Students normally took notes from the blackboard on notebooks and did a test on the day after, with big tests occurring on Fridays and exams occurring once a month. Said tests and exams would then determine their grades. In addition to this, students also only did assignments at home with no help from the teachers or parents. Most subjects at Lola’s school were also taught in classrooms, which consisted of English literature and grammar, history, arts and music, national language (Tagalog), mathematics or algebra, and physical education. Since 90 percent of the population in the Philippines is Catholic, religion was also an important factor during Lola’s time, in which catechists would sometimes come to public schools to teach. Catholic schools, on the hand, kept a very strict regime and were ran by religious figures like priests and nuns. Unlike some other countries, both boys and girls in the Philippines had equal opportunities in public school. During her adolescent years, Lola attended a private high school, where she was only allowed to dress freely on Fridays and would often attend night classes due to babysitting her niece. After graduating from high school, Lola went to Manila to study at college and eventually took a job as a religion teacher for young children. When looking for work, Lola experienced sexism as a woman, despite the fact that the Philippines offered equal rights to both men and women. During that time, women could only afford teaching jobs due to crowded schools, while men were more pampered and allowed to pursue various careers, including not limited to, commerce, accounting, and engineering. Nowadays, according to Lola, women can become doctors.

When Lola was 24-years-old, she met her future husband in a marriage arranged by her father. Back then, marriages were mostly arranged and even considered very acceptable in the Philippines, which involved the men consulting the women’s parents instead of their future wives themselves. Her fiancé was a man named Jose Jovellanos, who worked as a manager/supervisor of a car company that sold cars and trucks and was around fifteen years her senior. Even though she never explicitly said she loved him, Lola recognized a good soul in my grandfather and as was expected of many arranged couplings during that time, the two soon married and moved from Manila to Cotabato City. She and my grandfather eventually had six children during their 11 years of marriage: Uncle Remigio “Ray”, Uncle Gabriel “Bobby”, Auntie Gondelina “Lenny”, Maria (Mom), Uncle Alan, and Auntie Mary-Ann.

When my Auntie Mary-Ann was a few years old, my grandfather got involved in a truck collision that left him brain-dead. About three days or so later, he passed away in hospital. Shortly after his death, Lola’s older brother, Pio (my granduncle, may he rest in peace), helped her raise the children.

Around the time my mother, uncles and aunts had reached early adulthood, Lola met an Australian man named Barry Smith, whom she later married after six months courtship. Shortly afterwards, Lola and Auntie Mary-Ann moved to Australia with Lola’s new husband and were naturalized as Australian citizens. It was a big cultural shock for her. While there, Lola experienced racial discrimination from the locals as a foreigner, even from her own husband who turned out to be racist. After two years of marriage, Lola eventually divorced her second husband and moved to Gladstone, never seeing him again. At some point later in her life, Lola relocated to Brisbane, where she fell in love with its laid-back, small-city environment, and set up residence there. And before long, each and every single one of Lola’s remaining children (excepting Uncle Bobby) came to Australia to join her, where they all became naturalized citizens and established comfortable livelihoods for themselves.

Over the forthcoming years, Lola eventually became blessed with nine beloved grandchildren through four of her six children: Eman and Gabby-Ann through Uncle Bobby and his wife (also named Mary-Ann), Ryan Jovellanos and Jose Salter through Auntie Lenny (via different fathers), me, Angelica, and Kristina through Mom and her husband, Johnson Chua (Dad), and Xavier and Theodore “Theo” through Uncle Alan and his wife, Auntie Sandra. Despite Lola’s sayings that she never chose favorites amongst her grandchildren, my sisters and I did spend a lot of time with her during our youth. She would frequently stay at our place and talk to us about her past, help out with chores like washing dishes, and discuss the Bible with us. As a devoutly religious Catholic woman, Lola would almost always attend Mass every Saturday or Sunday, collect holy water, and pray the rosary before going to bed, all the while encouraging us to do the same.

Compared to the Philippines, Lola’s experiences here in the first world country of Australia are more positive. Her living conditions are much better today, for she only needs to clean her house once a week and is able to wash clothes using a washing machine. Nowadays, Lola can sometimes cook for herself and order from restaurants near her place. Even though she still doesn’t own a car, Lola is grateful to have electrical appliances now, after spending her earlier years listening to radio and watching black-and-white television when she first got married. She even says that Australian cities are more advanced than the ones back in her home country, with better resources like coal and power plants. Even so, she thinks that their nature and city environments are a bit polluted when compared to the Philippines, which has cleaner circumstances like availability to fresh food. Despite having endured racism at the hands of the locals, Lola really likes multiculturalism here in Australia, and knows that Australians nowadays are more open to new cultures due to educations. Likewise, their views on marriage are also more modern (not arranged), which Lola thinks is much better, considering that her two older sisters had married of their own accord. Even though Lola’s life in Australia has come with its fair share of advantages, this is not to say that things have not improved back in the Philippines. Despite being a third world country, Philippines has improved in terms of having better access to phones, cellphones, and transportation, in which they used to ride horse carriages during the past. In the past, affluent people in the Philippines were able to fly in planes, afford communication technologies, and go to the theatre, according to my grandmother. Nowadays, Filipino people often use electricity, watch colored television and movies, and take all sorts of transportation ranging from tricycles, taxis, and jeeps to cars, buses and boats, despite the overcrowding. Today, their educational system has become more advanced, with both private and public schools with better resources like handouts and computers. And because it is now the present day, they no longer have arranged marriages in modern cities.

Come 2021, and Lola is now a retired yet contented pensioner revolving residences with her children. As of this writing, it is to my great sorrow to say that my Auntie Mary-Ann and Kuya Theo have recently passed away this year, both from different forms of cancer at the ages of 49 and 23, respectively. They were such tragic losses in our family and were especially hard for my grandmother, who had to deal with the news that her daughter and grandson had departed just mere months away from each other.

Despite the devastating year she had so far, my grandmother is by far the kindest, most loving, and most resilient woman I had ever met, having retained a gentle heart whilst enduring hardships as an immigrant and making a better life for herself in Australia. And as her granddaughter, I look up to her as a role model and see her as one of my heroes, and I hope she knows she realizes it too.