In-LawingBy Philip Dominguez Mercurio
SAN FRANCISCO – IF EVER you wandered into the Sunset district in the late ‘80s – assuming you either wanted some good Chinese food from Irving or were just plain lost – you may have witnessed a little kid pedaling away along one of the sidewalks. With colorful noise makers attached to axle of his wheels and a Cookie Monster bell for a horn, approaching him would have sounded like entering a junkyard hard at work. You couldn’t miss him.
That little kid was me. Back and forth along the same strip of block I went, never crossing the perimeter of asphalt. My mommy never allowed it – believing that kidnapping was rampant in the area. So I never did cross the line.
On this particular day though, an errand befell me.
While running up and down the side of the hill, one of our old next door neighbors, Olga, opened her door and called to me in need of some assistance. Approaching her at the door, she kindly asked if I would get her a half-gallon of milk from the corner store. The corner store was across the rails. The opportunity for me to expand my horizons had arrived.
Eagerly with petty cash in hand, I flew down the sloped street, jumping off the concrete curbs which divided each of the driveways while being yelled at by second-floor irate neighbors for daring to roll over their un-manicured lawns without permission.
Reaching the end of the block, I witnessed the expanse of Judah St. The street seemed relatively quiet, with no Muni trains in sight. I peddled across the street without getting run over.
Apparently, elementary school taught me well.
Once inside, the purchase of the lipid substance was executed with childish enthusiasm and now delivery was at hand. Speeding out of the store, I crossed the street once more. A bit unbalanced this time, thanks to the weight of the milk on one of the handle bars, I steadily progressed my way to the top of the hill.
Back at her doorway, Olga greeted me with her wrinkled smile, perhaps a product of both the sight of the milk and years of vodka binging. As she chatted away about how happy she was with receiving her milk, I got a full glimpse of the inner workings of her home. As I peeked inside, I saw a full living room equipped with your standard sofa and loveseat.
Now, this would have all gone unnoticed had it not been for one unnerving fact: one of the walls in the living room was really a garage door. This may seem strange anywhere else, but not in this part of town.
Sitting along the western edge of the San Francisco peninsula, this area commonly referred to by locals as the “Avenues” has more than one family per house. The little two-story homes, once the domain of a large Italian and Irish population, now are prominently- owned by the Chinese community, and an influx of Russians and Filipinos who convert these homes.
Homes once devoted to just one family, have catered to much more, with the houses usually turning into duplexes – with one unit above and one below. Sometimes the owner would live on the second floor or, on the first floor, renting out the second floor for a much pricier rent. Even more ingenious owners would convert their would-be-garage into livable space, retrofitting them with extra bathrooms and such, turning the house into a triplex.
Such audacious undertakings have made for some interesting entrance ways for would-be renters. To get to where I live, one must knock on the garage door first. After that level of security had been breached then the unacquainted visitor would finally reach the entrance to our home which was located in the interior of the house.
Other entrance ways required folks to ply through an elaborate maze of hallways or bizarre paths outside the house which requires a renter to strangely go to your landlord’s flowered backyard to get to your front door.
Even with such strange arrangements, rarely are there complaints. Tenants find this as a good alternative to living farther from the city where traffic is usually a residual nightmare, and landlords find this a particularly good way to make some extra cash. Much of this activity isn’t official with much of the transactions occurring away from the ire of government accountants. Shared bills for electricity are common; more so for the water; and mail must be sorted via a semi mailroom-like manner between tenant and landlord.
Such a mutual arrangement has been made possible thanks in part to the particular way tenants are acquired. For Filipinos, our culture has helped make landlord/tenant relationships possible with relative ease.
The talkative nature that Filipinos fancy with one another has made the talk-about-a-friend-about-such-and-such-place-for-rent-at-such-and-such-price, a reality. This friendly exchange has made it possible for newly-immigrated Filipinos to settle down quickly into the city and not become totally dependent upon relatives for a place to stay.
In the end, expenses are minimized, hours stuck in traffic are saved, and savings or at least, extra money is created from a situation that otherwise would not have been. But this is interesting when placed into facts and figures. Number crunching reveals that Filipinos, as a whole, are particularly wealthy in comparison to other ethnic backgrounds residing in the U.S.
Thanks to good portions of Filipino jobs shifted to the white collar/medical fields, the general consensus is that Filipinos have become a successful ethnicity.
These figures, while particularly outstanding for our community, unfortunately doesn’t account for many factors that often go unnoticed. Not accounted for is the fact that many of those white collar jobs are located in high expense areas where prices are sometimes higher than the national average, particularly in the Bay Area.
For instance, when real estate prices come to mind, they are considered so astronomical that the San Francisco Chronicle regularly quotes them as “surreal.”
Underemployment, particularly among the newly-immigrant population continues to hound many, forcing them to work in jobs that they were not actually trained in. So although Filipinos in the Bay Area may bring in heftier paychecks, many remain in jobs below their full potential while at the same time, paying gasoline prices which are 40 percent more than those in the state of Tennessee.
Faced with all this, Filipinos have resorted to many ingenious solutions to get by. At times, some Filipinos would aggregate like some globular fat atop some cooling adobo leftover, staying in households with more than the normal amount of people in them. And some Filipinos would resort to in-lawing.
While all these measures are cost-effective, they all translate to a misguided picture of the Filipino American community. On face value, the numbers show a vibrant, cash-wielding people but upon intense analysis, this masks a still struggling community.
Filipinos may have the buying power but at what cost? They may be driving the “fancy-fancy” car but continue to turn off the air-conditioner indefinitely so electricity bills won’t gobble up much of their paycheck.
Now, I’m not saying in any way that it’s a bad thing to participate in such things as in-lawing. From personal experience, I found living in the “garage” as having a profound impact upon myself in the future, a learning experience which influenced me to overcome challenges and hardships while being below what’s considered “average.”
Filipinos must realize that we haven’t exactly “made it,” so to speak. It still takes a lot of hard work and many sacrifices to achieve what we’ve gotten, lest we get caught up in the belief that everything’s alright. The numbers may be telling but they conceal many important facets, particular to Filipinos, that run contrary to our ultimate success as a community.
What is for certain, as our present situation plays out, is things such as in-lawing will continue to survive as a Filipino American subculture which will only persist due to the continuing stream of immigrants from the land of jeepneys and spam into the foggy quarters of Daly City.
The idea of in-lawing has a purpose, functioning as a needed transitional point from life in the Philippines to an American way of living. Where one has one foot in the American doorway, while still living in compact quarters which have a resemblance of home.
Without this harbor, new immigrants may find it much harder to get accustomed to this new fast-paced way of life. – PDM