I had a lot of guilt growing up in the Philippines, one of the poorest countries in the world, and going home to a massive six-bedroom house with two cars in an open garage. I recently read about spite houses, and I thought about how appropriate it was to call my childhood home the “house of spite.” My neighbors constantly gawked at the sight of our house, and I was always so ashamed to be seen as that girl who lived in that house. People walked by our house and talked loudly about how great life would be if they lived in that house. It would have been great if the mistress of this house didn’t fill her long empty days with absolutely nothing.
My mother was raised a debutante by my grandmother, a hardworking single mom. My Filipino grandmother was married to an old-moneyed Chinese scion, but their marriage was brief—my maternal grandfather was locked up in the loony bin for marrying someone outside of his race and socioeconomic stratum. My relatives speak of my maternal grandparents in hushed tones, but what I know is this: My Filipino grandmother was employed by the rich family of my Chinese grandfather. This being the ’40s, they must have escaped China to live, love, and grow their wealth in the Philippines, but marrying the natives was the ultimate taboo. My grandfather’s family had expected him to marry a nice Chinese girl and continue on their Sino ancestry, but him going against familial and societal expectations could only mean he was insane, and not at all of sound mind.
As a result of this, my grandmother gave my mother anything her materialistic heart would desire: private schools, shoes, clothes, connections to wealthy people—insurance plans to move her up into the world. I have a suspicion that my grandmother spent the rest of her days setting up my mother to acquire what she lost forever—true love and financial stability from her marriage.
After my grandmother died, my mother married my father, who was born and raised in a small farming village, but was smart enough to get a technical job far, far away. I’ve lost track of how many countries my father has seen, but his work life is a map of the world. He’s not a talker, like I am. What I know about him and his life I gathered from my mom, the eternal mythmaker. Once in a while, he would say a few sentences in Japanese, or another foreign language—clues that he truly is a man of the atlas.
He held on to his cash (another trait I inherited), save for the gifts he bought for his less successful siblings and farm-raised nephews and nieces. Around them he was the Good King Wenceslas—he handed out crisp dollar bills like there was much of it, and that there would be more (more!) if they wanted it. At home, I always felt like Oliver Twist every time I asked him for money—school supplies, field trips, unexpected school projects—it was painful and embarrassing asking my father for money when he would clam up and feign ignorance about extra cash lying about. I don’t think I will ever know what my dad’s motivations were for being generous with his siblings, nephews, and nieces, but the feeling that he loved them more than his own children was omnipresent. With us kids, he was stoic and irritable, and it always seemed like life on the farm was always better than the life he had with us.
I think my father wanted his kids to work hard for their money, and not have grand expectations that everything would be handed to us. He wanted us to have a spine and work our way into the upper middle class like he did. My parents always said not to expect an inheritance—they would make sure none of us received a dime when they died. As an adult, I realize how strange it is to tell children these sorts of money stories of doom. I’m 30 now, and I have my IRA, Roth, checking and savings accounts set up with beneficiaries in COD (case of death). I told my parents to write a will for when they die so that their assets are dispersed properly. My mother told me I was greedy for thinking about their death, and all that money up for grabs.
My parents had a marriage contract that stated she would stay home and take care of the kids while he worked. It was a different world back then: About 98 percent of my friends’ mothers didn’t work. The other 2 percent are the “poor” folk whose mothers had to make a living, doing whatever it is they do, usually some vague type of office work.
I was always jealous of kids whose mothers went to work—my mother watched soap operas or hung out with the neighbors. Oftentimes she was at the salon, changing her hair color yet again, or getting some kind of skin treatment. Her lifestyle bored and repulsed me. I attribute my relentless workaholic tendencies today as an affront to her dilettante lifestyle.
To those kids who grew up wishing their moms stayed at home, I think it’s nice to have a mother who had a life outside of the house—a second place where she could show her true self, the self that wasn’t a mother or a wife. My mom wasn’t a Hestia-type woman either, since homemaking of any form bored her endlessly. We had a parade of nannies and laundresses to do those things for her.
If someone asked me to define my relationship with money, I would say it’s confused. I grew up surrounded by clichés of wealth—private school until my first year of college, (before we migrated to the U.S.) nannies and chauffeurs, brand new cars, a massive house that caused rift and envy from our “have not” neighbors. At the same time, we were not taught how to save money, only to be “careful” with money as good luck turns bad at any given time. I didn’t learn to write a check until I was 18—my aunt took me to the now-defunct Washington Mutual to open an account and she walked me through the check-writing process. Whenever I asked for money for school expenses, I was given a lecture on how much of a money drain I was. I was never the kid who had money to take my friends out. Despite going home to the biggest house for miles, I always felt like I was missing out on something—something intangible that other kids seemed to have. I remember a family who lived in front of us, they lived in a shack—literally a shack—and the kids appeared to have so much joy and so much life in them that I didn’t understand where it came from.
When my family migrated to the U.S., my father decided to cut financial ties to my mother to finally give her “independence.” Upon showing up in the U.S., my father told my mother she had to get a job, and the days of him sending checks were over. It was time she supported herself along with my older brother, my younger sister, and me. My eldest brother was left behind, because he aged out of the family visa. My parents bought into the myth of the American Dream—that all you had to do was show up, and that the bills would get paid and life went on as always. My father sent his resumes to engineering firms, and despite his illustrious resume, no one ever called him for an engineering job. The only calls he got were for entry-level manual labor work. He briefly did janitorial work for a nursing facility where my aunt is a registered nurse—she got him the job, and she got my mom a job with the scheduling staff.
For a few months, their new arrangement worked well, they both went to work and they split the bills right in the middle. My mom was happy, for a while anyway, not to rely on a man to control her finances. Until of course, my father decided it was too demeaning and too much trouble to go from a high-paid engineering job to a janitorial work. He left the U.S. to go back to his old engineering job, and he was back to traveling all over the world. My older brother joined the Air Force, which left me with my very young sister, and my mom.
Being the eldest daughter, it became an unspoken rule that I would be financially responsible for my mother. I was going to college on a very generous state grant and worked full-time. I paid most of the household bills, while she paid for the small two-bedroom apartment that we had at the time. Old habits die hard, so they say. My mother couldn’t shake her real estate lust—the thought of “wasting money” on an apartment never sat well with her, and she had always lived in a house, at least since the early days of her marriage. It was a time of easy credit, and she was able to find a realtor who told her she could afford to buy a house on a cleaning lady’s salary. I believe she only made barely above the minimum wage at the time, but with the power of predatory lending practices and my father’s largesse (he gave her the down payment), she bought a house with an $180,000 adjustable-rate mortgage. I was only 19 when I cosigned on the mortgage with my mother. The banks must have known that the salaries of two immigrants didn’t equal the $1,500 a month mortgage payment—and yet the papers were signed and we had a house in a bourgeoning part of town.
Over time the bills caught up with my mother—and the rest of us. My mother wanted the debutante life she had in the Philippines where things were bought so easily and credit cards were paid off without a thought. She had accumulated over $30,000 in debt, which I didn’t find out until early last year when a nice tax lady crunched the taxes “I” owed as the primary signer of the eventual short sale of our house. A loan officer had convinced my mother it was a great idea to take out a home equity loan to pay her debts, which manifested everywhere I looked around the house: the TVs, the two cars in the driveway, the expensive couch, gifts for my brother in the Philippines. I told her that what she was about to do was a terrible thing, and that she would pay for the consequences—financial or otherwise—in a few years. I was told I didn’t know anything because I was just a child.
Two years ago she decided she’s had enough of America and working for a living. She missed her old life of leisure and endless days of nothingness. She put up the house for sale, forced me to sign all the paperwork to my name, and then flew back to the Philippines to start her life all over again.
During the past few years, the part of town I lived in had seen an upswing in theft and crime. Before the house was on the market, someone threw a rock through my bedroom window. A few months before, someone had tried to break in. The local papers reported crime regularly. I had no hope that the house would sell, and I was prepared to let it go into foreclosure. Our realtor, the one who sold us the house in the first place, informed us that we owed $250,000 on the house, which meant we would get nothing from the sale of the house, not even the requisite $3,000 check that homeowners receive when they short sell a house, to help them relocate. Miraculously, someone bought the house quickly and within the price range the realtor set out—it turned out to be a Vietnamese immigrant who lived in an apartment complex just a few blocks away.
After the short sale, I was informed that my once pristine credit score would be damaged for three years. I tried applying for a credit card to see what would happen and was denied. An apartment I was looking into declined my application citing my “bad credit.” Up until that point, I had never been denied a loan application in my life. After all those years of fastidiously paying bills, I now have to work to repair my credit for two more years. During tax season last year I found out I owed $3,000 from the short sale of the house. The kind tax prepaper worked doggedly to help prove I was insolvent and escape the liability, but all those years of being careful with money worked against me—a week later, I signed the checked and mailed it to the IRS, but not before crying to anyone who would listen to me about the saga I had gone through. I was still in college, paying my way, and every dollar mattered to me.
My mom, who now lives in the Philippines on my father’s purse, just built a massive house on a piece of land my parents bought decades ago. My father spent over half a million dollars in cash to build the house from scratch and furnish the place with everything my mother could possibly desire. This is the house I was meant to have, she said, when she emailed me photos of the house. My father once told my mother his dream house is a house on the family farm—that’s the house he was truly meant to have.
These days, I can barely look at any house, including the one I rent, without wondering about what kind of dark money secrets may be behind the doors. Is this the house they were meant to have? Are they waiting for their lives to happen somewhere else?
Ruzielle Ganuelas is a recent college graduate and board member of Seattle Education Access. Photo: Wee Kee Chin