Jennilee Austria

When I was growing up in Sarnia, my family had a strange hobby.

On Sundays after church, we’d go to open houses. We were always the only immigrants there, but we held our dark heads high, knowing that we looked better than we would all week. Our crisply-pressed Sears outfits and pristine patent-leather Payless shoes were nothing like our pambahay—the battered sandos, baggy shorts, and rubber tsinelas we wore at home when our blinds were closed. That’s when we reverted to the Filipino immigrant family we truly were: a scrappy blue- collar father from the Manila slums, a proud-but-underemployed mother with an untransferable teaching degree and two compliant girls growing up in a smelly Ontario oil refinery town.

At the open houses, we would tour the properties slowly, pressing our brown toes into the plush, cream-coloured carpets, running our hot fingers along the cool granite countertops, and marvelling at fridges with ice dispensers that spilled ice cubes all over the floor whenever we pressed the buttons too hard.

“We have one just like it at home, but at least ours has a built-in ice container,” my father would say, wearing his white lies over his Sunday best.

As the real estate agent rushed to clean up the ice, I’d grab a can of 7UP and pocket as many cookies as I could.

But that wasn’t the hobby.

When the open house was over, we’d come back to that empty house. I’d cover up my frilly church dress with my sister’s old Garfield shirt, change out of my shiny Mary Janes and pull on a pair of worn denim overalls that matched the ones my father put on over his own church clothes.

My mother and sister would stay in the car as lookouts.

“Make it quick,” my sister would say, handing me two empty rice bags.

“Do we really have to do this?” my mother would hiss. “We don’t want to ruin our good name.”

“We’re in Canada, remember?” my father would reply, swapping his fancy church shoes for a dusty pair of Nikes. “We don’t even have a name!”

Trailing my father around the perimeter of the house, I’d put on the men’s gloves he’d pilfered from the oil refinery that were too big even for him and keep my eyes glued to the ground. Around the new homes, the grass hadn’t been laid yet, leaving dry, rough earth exposed.

And there, in that glorious dirt, were rocks.

When my parents came to Sarnia, the neighbours had a fancy garden installed by a landscaping company. There was a gurgling waterfall that trickled down into a pond, with the most beautiful border of rocks that curved along the water’s edge, leading down to the corner of the yard where their property met ours.

The rocks were large and smooth to the touch, and I loved to hold them in my hands, feeling the weight in my palms before my mother scolded me: “We don’t want them to say that immigrants are thieves, okay? We want them to think that we’re good people!” She’d carefully put the rocks back, making sure to offer an apologetic wave in the direction of the neighbours’ window, just in case they were looking.

When my father called the landscapers to inquire how much the rocks cost, they quoted him a figure higher than his entire refinery paycheque.

“Why pay for something we can scavenge for free?” he asked.

When we searched around the new houses, we could never find the same smooth, dark rocks that the neighbours had, so we grew to prefer the red, grey, and brown ones instead.

“Only pick the ones with white stripes,” my father would remind me.

“Those are the ones that look expensive.”

Whenever I’d spot a perfect specimen, we’d squat down in the dirt and pour a bit of 7UP onto the rock. I’d hold my breath and watch the designs that would bloom across it like magic.

“Ang ganda!” my father would say.

“That’s one for the rice bag!”

When the rock hunt was over, we’d haul our finds back to the car, peel off our dusty gear and drive back to our little bungalow on the outskirts of town.

And in the golden light of the setting sun, we’d place the rocks along the edge of our garden, imagining how they would look beside the flowers that would bloom there someday.

Whenever we saw the neighbours peering at us through their blinds, my parents would smile and wave at them.

“Girls, see how they’re watching us?” my father would ask. “They’re probably saying, ‘Look how they bought such lovely rocks in their lovely clothes! What a classy immigrant family!’”

But since they never spoke to us, we never really knew what they thought.

One thing we do know: years later, when my parents divorced and we moved away, the first thing those neighbours did was take our rocks.


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Jennilee Austria

Jennilee Austria is a Filipina-Canadian writer, speaker and school board consultant who builds bridges between educators and Filipino families. Originally from Sarnia, ON, she now lives in downtown Toronto, where she still keeps an eye out for the prettiest rocks. Find her at jennileeaustria.com.


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