note: this article originally appeared on Medium at this link.
In November 2009, the United States Congress passed House Resolution 780 recognizing the month of October as Filipino-American History Month. While looking through my Instagram feed a couple of hours ago, I saw something my cousin, who goes to nursing school at the University of San Francisco, posted under the trending #students4fahm. The hashtag called for an Instagram challenge where people would post pictures with the tag while answering personal questions about Filipino-American History Month, most significantly the culture of being Filipinx-American in current American society. Her post was intriguing, and it accurately described her family’s story. Naturally, it got me thinking about the question she answered: What are your everyday labans (Tagalog for struggles) as a result of being Filipinx-American? I thought about posting my family’s story on Instagram, but I figured I had more to say than what would be socially acceptable on that specific medium.
In the late 1980s, my parents, born and raised in Imus, Cavite, a then-small town 12 miles away from the Filipino national capital of Manila, immigrated to the United States. My mother, the youngest of four, and a marketing and communications double degree holder, followed her sisters to California. My father, the youngest of eight, and just recently a Master of Business Administration from the Maastricht School of Management in the Netherlands, followed my mother to California. They both met back in Imus. The story was always told that they had both been in the same kindergarten class for a week before my mother moved to a different class. While one of my dad’s older brothers and my mother’s only brother were best friends, which led to both sets of my grandparents knowing each other well, my parents did not meet again face to face after that kindergarten stint until well over 10 years later. Allegedly, my father became cross-eyed at the sight of my mom, and maybe that’s why I’ve had glasses since the second grade. My paternal grandfather, one of the only lawyers in town, fought for the Americans during World War II as a spy against Japanese occupation. The United States made a vague promise to recognize those who fought in resistance against the Japanese; after all, the Philippines was an American colony at the time. Legend has it that my grandfather’s military records were destroyed in a fire, and because of that, he felt as if he didn’t receive the proper recognition he felt was promised to him for his service. My maternal grandfather was a successful salesman who managed one of the town’s only automobile supply stores. A fun-loving guy, he too descended from a family with associations to a rich military history. Before both of my parents left for American soil, the father of eight and the father of four, independently and through their own volition, penned letters to his son and to his daughter. Both letters served as a request to stay in the Philippines. My father’s family had a pig farm on which my father worked on since grade school and is probably the reason why he’s relatively still swole at 53. They also helped found a rural bank in the town, which still exists to this very day. My grandfather purported the idea that by staying, my dad would take over the family businesses. Same with my mother. Both emphasized that they could live comfortably in the Philippines, but guess what they decided to do instead? They took the challenge of immigrating to a new country, a country whose people would whether intentionally or unintentionally, look at them differently, and categorize them as different, head on.
About five years after my parents got married, I was born in Van Nuys, California. By then, both sets of grandparents followed their children at least on a temporary basis to the far west coast (from their perspectives). Almost all of my parents combined 10 siblings were in the United States, with many of them being in California itself. Three years later after we settled in Stevenson Ranch, California, my sister was born and we were a family largely connected to the Filipino community and our extended family on both sides. For my parents, it made America seem like home. For my sister and me, it made being around family all the time seem like it was the normal thing to do. Nine years after that, my dad received an offer he could not refuse to relocate the family to start a job in Dallas, Texas. It was here again, my parents decided to take the challenge of moving to a new place head on. Only this time they had a kid who played piano, upright bass, but in reality just really wanted to play guitar and another kid who could make hip-hop look fun and tap-dancing look easy, to deal with. It wasn’t until moving here where I fully realized what it meant to be Filipino-American. In California, the next most commonly spoken language after English and Spanish is Tagalog, which is a reflection of the state’s Filipino population and a good indicator as to why the #students4fahm is getting a lot of traction in the Bay area. Here in Texas, the Filipino population at least in where I went to middle school and high school in was low. Thinking back at my classmates, I could definitely count the number of Filipino students I graduated with on one hand.
The struggle with being Filipino in a place where there aren’t many Filipinos to begin with starts with the question of racial ambiguity. I’ve told this many times before and I constantly fall back on making jokes about it, but I would often be called Mexican, Chinese, or somewhere in between the two. It makes sense for the most part. My Hispanic last name, dark skin, and the shape of my eyes lead people to guess, and then second-guess. Then, of course, are the stereotypes, predominantly the Asian ones, but are they the only ones? Again, the issue of racial ambiguity brings up a question of identity. Are we really Asian? Are we Pacific Islander? Hispanic? Something else? What I can confirm is that the stereotypical “tiger” parents held true in my younger years, but faded as I grew up. Understandably so, as well. My parents were experiencing this newness on their own and found that limits were appropriate because this land of opportunity has its own drawbacks that can hurt when you’re not careful. On the other hand, I do believe my parents made the right choice in breaking down that stereotype. While that breakdown felt like a struggle, it was one that was necessary. I’ve always prided in myself and my sister that we are the products of our parents’ support rather than a product of our parents’ own ambitions. They could have easily insisted on both of us becoming doctors or nurses by giving us an ultimatum in paying for college, but they didn’t do that. They found it in their hearts to let their children take advantage of the full opportunities that the place they migrated to has to offer. Instead of confining us, they did the opposite. It taught us how to work hard for what we want. It taught us self-worth. It gave us fulfillment. Now they have a 23-year old son currently in law school and a 20-year old daughter who is the future of speech therapy to show off as a result of their precise and model way of parenting.
I’ve been monumentally blessed to have both parents be so supportive. Together, my family has learned in each member’s own way how to be independent as one of the only Filipino-Americans in the community. As is true in everyone’s story, there have been ups and downs, but the stereotype of the first generation immigrant mentality centering on blood running thicker than water is inescapably and resoundingly true. I like to think I’ve inherited more than just chromosomes from my parents. My dad’s soft spoken, but witty and balanced demeanor and my mom’s loud laugh, extroverted character, and empathy are like looking into a metaphorical mirror. I don’t know whose heart I inherited since both are so generous even though they’ve caused me some cholesterol anxiety in my blood work. By now, I probably know what you’re thinking: What was the question again? The question was for me to describe the daily struggles as a result of being a Filipino-American. I probably didn’t answer that question clearly enough, but as the month comes to a close, we illustrate our experiences and labans through reflection in our stories. Our family’s story is in no way anointed or meant to be construed as having merits to rank it above anyone else’s story. There are many more who have struggled harder, and as a result of that there are heroes known and unknown who deserve more praise. But, what we all have in common is that in some way or another we got here, and it looks like we’re not going anywhere anytime soon.