When I watched The Princess Diaries for the first time, I identified with it so much because that was my story. No, not in the symbolic coming-of-age sense. I mean it was literally my story.
You see, when I was 14, I found out that my father was a Malaysian King.
Despite growing up with just my mom, I never really looked for my father. Until one day, when I was about 5 years old, my kindergarten teacher asked us to bring our parents to class.
“Oh, your dad, he can’t come. He’s busy because he’s a king,” my mum said nonchalantly when I finally asked about my father. I believed her and didn’t ask any questions. To a child who had yet to grasp most rules of common sense, reality was tender and malleable.
My mum and I migrated to the United States from the Philippines when I was six. We moved around different rented rooms in California, but never had our own apartment. With age, I gradually came to understand that money wasn’t abundant around the house.
In middle school, what I coveted the most was a pair of Levi’s jeans. I thought they were so cool and American. But I knew that we couldn’t afford it. So, while my friends went shopping to refresh their wardrobes for the new school year, I scoured for knock-off brands with my mum at swap meets. We didn’t have much but we made do. Growing up, I didn’t own the hottest sneakers, but at least I had shoes.
My mother was a nurse and worked long hours, struggling to raise me on her own without any kind of child support. I thought about my father and I remember thinking, this is not how a princess should live. But even if I had my doubts, I didn’t want to poke holes at my mother’s story. From what I had gathered, the story that began with a Malaysian king and a young nurse and ended with an illegitimate daughter, wasn’t exactly a fairytale love affair.
Then, one night in 1996, when I was about 14 years old, we got a call. On the other end was Dato’ Michael (I later learned that Dato' is a Malay title commonly used in Brunei and Malaysia). He apparently was a lawyer who represented my father, the Sultan of Pahang, Malaysia. My father wanted to meet me, he said.
At that moment, I couldn’t believe that my father was real and that he was, like the wild story went, a king.
A couple of weeks after that phone call, I met my father for the first time in London, over lunch at a hotel restaurant. It was nothing like I expected. I was seated at a table with him, my mum, and Dato’ Michael. The rest of my father’s entourage were sitting at tables nearby. He tried to make small talk with me, asking about the things I was interested in, and what I wanted to do when I got older, but I was too intimidated to open up. The frigid setting felt more like a business meeting rather than a reunion with a long-lost daughter.
He was in his sixties, older than I imagined, but I was struck by the uncanny similarities we shared. Beyond our facial features, he was playful and sometimes sarcastic with his entourage — I was like that as well. It surprised me how I’ve inherited certain traits from a parent whom I’ve never met.
Over the next few years, I met my father two more times. The sterile, businesslike set-ups remained, all lunch meetings at hotel restaurants. We would greet with formal pecks on both cheeks, then he would bring up the usual conversation topics. “What are you interested in? How’s school? How’s college? Go check this thing out in London, or go shopping.” I told him I wanted to be a lawyer, and he commended me for that. But what truly delighted me was an unexpected remark that I looked like his eldest daughter. It made me happy to think that I had a sister.
Every time we neared the end of the meeting, we would do the obligatory “oh, when can we see each other again?” routine. But he was always careful not to make any promises or mention definitive dates. This meant I never did know if that meeting would be our last.
I had tried reaching out to him, but without direct access to my father, Dato’ Michael was my only point of contact. I sent emails to Dato’ Michael inquiring when my father would next be in London — he owned a residence in the city and would make regular trips there — but they were mostly met with radio silence. Every time I visited family in the Philippines and told Dato’ Michael my plans of swinging by Malaysia, he would say that my father was conveniently in London. As it turned out, our third meeting in 2003 was our last.
It’s an odd feeling grieving over a parent you didn’t really know. I learnt about my father’s passing last year, when someone sent me a message on social media that began with “Condolences, Carla.” I looked it up online and news articles confirmed the truth. I didn’t really know how to feel. I was sad, of course, and while he wasn’t the ideal father figure for me, I knew that I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him.
There was always a small part of me that thought he might reach out to check up on me. But with death, that’s kind of it, isn’t it? He won’t be reaching out to me, and he won’t be meeting my kids. He won’t know about the legal internship I did, which ironically steered me away from law and toward a career in social work.
More than the loss of an elusive father I barely knew, what saddened me more was how the finality of death precludes any possibility of getting to know him better.
In 2009, I was in Kuantan, the state capital of Pahang, Malaysia, where my father was the Sultan. I had written him a letter and went down to the Istana (palace) to drop it off. Of course I knew, as an illegitimate child of the sultan, that I would never be able to get inside. I passed my letter to the guard who accepted it with little curiosity. He probably thought it was just fan mail for the ruler.
That day at the Istana, I knew it was as close as I would ever get to the man I call my father.
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.