I have 3 brothers and we were all born in the United States and my parents are both from the Philippines. They’re both physicians and they both came here to New York as part of their residency. My dad in particular was really depressed when he came here and wanted to go back [to the Philippines] but then that’s when Marcos declared martial law so he couldn’t go back and I think that was why they got married in residency and had 2 children in residency. And so I think a lot of it was to feel some sense of family to come here from so far away. My mom did have some relatives here in New York which is why she chose New York but my dad didn’t have anyone. Part of his experience too is seeing a child in the ER who was having withdrawal symptoms from drugs [and] was like, “Okay, I don’t want to raise my kids in New York City” so he moved to Man, West Virginia which is, like, really remote. So, that was too remote so he moved to where we grew up so that was in southwest Virginia in Norton, VA, which is also pretty remote. They still live in that area.
There were not that many Filipinos who lived there at the time. The reason my parents were there [was] because they were sponsored by hospitals, so that’s how they were able to come and stay in the United States. The hospital administrator sponsored them to work in this rural area and now there are a lot of Filipino doctors, Indian doctors, and other Asian doctors, but we were one of the first ones. For sure, when we were there there were mainly a lot of comments of kids calling us Chinese or Japanese or Puerto Rican and talking about our noses or telling us that we were ugly, that kind of thing. What’s interesting is that, obviously they learn it from their parents, but often it was the African American kids who did it and I guess when I look at it now, a way of if you’re marginalized it helps to marginalize someone else so that you don’t have to feel like such an outcast.
That really went on – primarily in elementary school – but went on occasionally when we went back. I remember some instances when we went to the mall and college, and that was really hard but no discrimination other than that. My parents didn’t teach us how to speak Tagalog and they didn’t talk to us in Tagalog because they really wanted to have us fit in. So we couldn’t speak Tagalog at all and most of my friends can’t – but they could understand it more – but [my parents] didn’t even speak to us in Tagalog. So, they would speak it to each other but purposely not talk to us in Tagalog so that we really can’t speak it at all. A couple of my brothers have really made an effort to learn more as an adult, but it’s not the same.
We ate some Filipino food and my mom would often refer us to – anything that we preferred over Filipino food – as being Americanized. So she’d say, “Oh, you’re Americanized” like that’s a bad thing to be Americanized and when I would ask her because people would often say I wasn’t American and I didn’t know and I would ask my parents and they would say that I was an American citizen, which is interesting now because this was in the 70s so they didn’t think I was American either. Just this sense that you’re technically an American but you’re not really an American. And I didn’t know what that meant anyway to be an American citizen because I was just a kid. We did have Filipino food, friends, last supper thing picture in the dining room, wooden fork and spoon in the kitchen – all those things that Filipino families have. When I was in college at UVA they just started OYFA. I was one of the charter members of that. It was great. OYFA was really the way I was able to have a group of my own in a school where I felt really different from everyone else.
You feel Filipino, but Filipinos still tell you that you’re not a real Filipino. And same thing – I was American but then I was not really American, even then I was Americanized. So it is this weird in-between identity like how people feel if they’re biracial where you don’t feel completely a part of any group in particular. I mean, I feel Filipino but then people are like, “What, you can’t speak the language?” I’m sorry it’s not my fault, it wasn’t my choice. For me, I think the thing that stood out the most not so much necessarily specifically from being Filipino, although I think it was a lot of it, but just this feeling of being different from other people like not doing things correctly not showering as often as you’re supposed to or correctly the way you’re supposed to shower. Eating with a spoon or fork or eating with your hands. There were all these things where I just always felt like I didn’t know how to do things right. It was always – not just how do other people do things – but we’re doing it wrong and I want to make sure that I do it right. I want to make sure I pronounce things correctly and do things the way I’m supposed to do them. A lot of things contributed to that but definitely being Filipino was one of them.
I remember we went to the Philippines when I was 5 and I got this dress there and I loved this dress it was sleeveless and I came to school granted it was in the winter and I was wearing this dress and people were like “oh my gosh she’s naked” and I felt so much shame about this dress that I thought was great. Which now seems like what’s the big deal, that’s not really a cultural thing, but maybe it was. Just little things like that and thinking, “I didn’t get it right somehow” and I think that does have something to do with why I became a psychologist because in therapy ultimately whatever the person’s presenting problem is my goal in general is for them to understand that everything they are everything they say everything they feel everything they experienced is okay exactly as it is. They don’t have to try to be, feel, do anything differently because they feel like somehow some aspect of themselves is wrong. I think that’s really a part of identity development regardless of ethnicity, sexual orientation, or class or whatever. Ultimately that is the last goal. I did specialize in multicultural psychology in grad school and really in all developmental theories that is the ultimate goal. I think in college you see a lot people in the goal where it’s sort of like a defiant, like an adolescent version of accepting their identity. Which is understandable because that’s a part of it too. In a way there’s almost a resurgence of that now, almost like it was in the 60s where it’s like this is who I am, I don’t care if it does make you uncomfortable. Ultimately, I think that the goal is to move to a place where it’s like we can all be whatever we are and it’s okay. Also, I think this understanding that we call also all be at different stages in this identity development and that needs to be okay too. It can’t be that we all need to be enlightened and be in the last stage and be accepting of ourselves and others. I don’t really like the whole move lately of shaming people into acceptance. I don’t think that that’s very helpful and I think that you just have to respect where people are. They can’t help it any more than we can. Anyway, those are my thoughts off the top of my head.
What does it mean to you to be Filipino American?
I really do see it as a part of who I am. I didn’t change my name for a lot of reasons but in part because I didn’t just want to have this name that didn’t represent my history and who I was. I would just sound like some white person. I wanted to keep my name, like it’s always been difficult to pronounce and a lot of times people don’t get it correct. I don’t know, maybe when I was younger I wanted it to be simple but then it’s like no I don’t. That I would say characterizes it. This is a part of who I am, a part of my story, all the things that made it difficult, all the things that made it an advantage. It’s a part of me as much as anything else is a part of me and I try to embrace all of those aspects of myself.