While I lived in California, I turned 30. In some cultures, being 30 and unmarried is seen as a failure. I had a wonderful friend named Lynn from the Philippines, who was a few years younger than me, who decided, unbeknownst to me, that she was going to help me out of this shame.
Lynn married Danny, a man who was also from the Philippines, and made it possible for him to become a permanent resident of the United States. Lynn was a citizen, because her father had served in the US Army during WWII, and when Lynn and her sister came to the US before the age of 18 to live, they were given the choice of becoming citizens and giving up their allegiance to the Philippines. They both became US citizens.
Lynn and Danny sometimes invited me to come with them to San Francisco or to their apartment for dinner. Lynn was a fabulous cook, so I always accepted. I was not surprised when one day she invited me to go with them from Oakland, where we all lived, to Modesto, in farming county, to visit with her in-laws one Sunday. I accepted and was eager to go.
They drove us out to Modesto, a nice small city in the valley. When we arrived, Lynn’s mother-in-law fixed plates of Philipino barbeque, along with plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit for both of us. Everyone else, Lynn said, was on the patio, and I would meet the rest of the family later. The barbeque meat was some of the best I had ever had, marinated in spices, vinegar, and soy sauce.
After eating, the mother-in-law gave me a lovely gift of a straw purse, made in the Philippines, and I was invited to go out to the patio to meet the rest of the family, specifically Danny’s seven other brothers, all there on temporary visas. I walked behind Lynn to the patio where I saw the mother-in-law, father in-law, Lynn, and Danny, all sitting on one side of the patio, but the brothers were all sitting in lawn chairs, in a semi circle, and placed across from them was a solitary empty chair – for me.
I was urged by the mother-in-law and Lynn to sit there. I did, and I was immediately asked questions by each of the seven brothers. “What do you do for fun?” “Do you like to dance?” “Do you like to drink?” “Do you go to clubs?” “What kind of music do you like?” I was offered a shot of some kind of alcohol, which I politely but firmly declined. The questions went on for some time, and in truth, I must have been a disappointment because I have always been bookish, enjoyed museums and plays more than club life, and I was not exactly a willing participant in this social quiz, this sort of marriage interview.
By the time I had a pretty good headache, the mother-in-law and the other chaperones must have given some kind of signal to the boys that the interview was over. I was relieved, and expected to be taken home soon after. I was wrong. There was a part two.
We want you to come out to the farm and meet, “the Uncle,” Lynn told me. So we all piled into two or three cars and drove out of town a few miles to a lovely farm, similar to ones where I grew up that are largely what my mother used to call, “garden farms” because the crops they grew were vegetables for selling to grocery stores, not the big corn, wheat, and bean crops so common in other parts of the country. After looking around and being entertained by seeing even more members of the family, I was invited into the residence of the Uncle.
The Uncle was the head of their American family, and as such, he was the last to arrive in the room, which was very large. This room was arranged with chairs of all kinds along the walls on the right and left, but there was a single chair at the head of the room, and I was directed to sit there. I did, and everyone else sat at the chairs along the walls.
The only other chair, in fact the only other piece of furniture, was in the center of the room, but toward the back, so all the other participants sat where they could see this chair, which also was on a raised platform, perhaps ten inches off the floor and about six foot square. The uncle came in and stepped up on the platform, and seated himself in his chair, which looked quite large and almost throne-like. Who am I kidding? It very much was a throne. He was a nice looking man, perhaps in his mid 60’s, but he could have been older. He was tall, about six feet, give or take an inch, which surprised me. He was lean and muscular from years of farm work.
People had been talking quietly until the uncle entered the room, and then no one else spoke after that, except the uncle and me. He began by asking me where I was from. I said I was “from Michigan.” He smiled and told me when he first came to this country as a younger man, he had lived in Imlay City and had worked on farms there. From then on, we had a lively conversation about the area, because it was just miles from where I grew up. We talked for perhaps half an hour, and then he ended our interview by thanking me and standing up.
We all went back outside, and I was loaded up with several sacks of fresh vegetables from the farm. I suppose I had passed the uncle’s test and was judged suitable for one of his nephews. Lynn, Danny, and I got in their car and headed back to Oakland, but I took little time to let Lynn and her husband know I was not interested in being married. I appreciated the gesture to introduce me to the brothers and the uncle, and they seemed like fine men, but that was not the direction I wanted for my life.
Shortly afterward, Lynn and Danny moved to Modesto, and I never saw her again. I think she was not pleased about my choice, and saw it as a rejection of her and her family. I was impressed by this very different cultural approach to mate selection, and have never forgotten every nuance of that experience. It was a once-in- a-lifetime event. I was happy to have had it, but happy that it was over. I did talk to Lynn once, years later, after I came back to Michigan. She was content, living in a house next door to her in-laws in Modesto and raising her kids. I am still glad to be here and not there. It seems as surreal to me now as it did that day.