Charmaine, The Philippines

I was born in Iloilo, which is a city on one of the islands in the Philippines. I lived there until I was seven years old, and then I moved to Manila.  It was interesting because my grandparents were preachers and missionaries and I lived in a seminary in Manila, a college.  It was a Nazarene Church, a seminary for Asia, so I grew up with a lot of foreigners.  The Philippines is like ninety-nine percent Catholic.  It is a ridiculous amount.  It was a Spanish colony, so it is mostly Catholic.  Many people in the Philippines speak English as well.

I didn’t have any real sense of it being that different, but I was so isolated in that space. I grew up around traditions that weren’t part of my religion. In the Philippines, I think it was right around Easter, they would have this procession and I watched people. Mostly people were walking, but there would be some people flogging themselves.  I was part of it, but not really part of that culture.

Most of my family is still in the Philippines.  I lived with my grandparents and my aunts and uncles.  Maybe ten years ago I visited a province where it is just mostly my family.  I lived in the seminary, but obviously we would leave the seminary for many things.  My grandparents were teachers and college professors, but they were Filipino. In many senses we enjoyed a lot of status because of that but at the same time at the end of the day there were two kinds of people in the same position.   My grandfather got paid only a fraction of what the Americans were getting paid. He was the brown brother. We had some status and enjoyed some luxuries, but we were still not as wealthy as some.  I wouldn’t say we were poor.

I moved to the US when I was twelve. My mom moved here first.  She left me with my grandparents.  It is a common story for most immigrants, the parents go over to work and send money back, especially in the Philippines.  I think eighty percent of the economy comes from people abroad.  My mom came here first and I came years later.  My mom was here doing lots of different things, a lot of which she hasn’t told me. It was a struggle.  It was not stuff that you would talk to your child about.  I’ve found some things out and she’s starting to talk to me more about it.  When she came here, she already had a degree in chemistry and a master’s degree in education. She came here and she didn’t have papers, so I think at one point she was picking oranges.  This wasn’t anything to be ashamed of.  I’m not entirely sure why it is she hasn’t talked to me about it.  Maybe it was too complicated.  She came alone.  I think we had some extended family around, but she just had to figure it out.  She was young, in her late twenties.  At least when I came here I had my family, but she was completely alone.  She was trying to find a way to live.

My dad is in the Philippines.  He’s a journalist.  He stayed behind.  They were still married at that time but they didn’t stay married.  She was sending money to my grandparents to help raise me.  Then I came to live with my mom. One of my aunts moved to live with us and that created more security.  I don’t really know the details because we haven’t really had this conversation. She was still working two jobs.

This is weird, but my memory is blurry.  I think that for me any time any major change happens I just kind of adjust. I think I have just learned how to be flexible.  I do remember that I started school. I went to a private school.  I had to take a test; it was just a conversation with the principal. I didn’t realize this until I was older, but it created a weird complex in me, that he placed me a year behind based on that test.  I was always a year older than the kids in my class.

I went to that school and everybody in my classes were white.  I learned very quickly to adapt to it.  I lost my accent very quickly.  I didn’t even realize it.  Part of the reason why was that my mom remarried.  My stepdad is American, he’s Puerto Rican-American, so we stopped speaking my language at home and we spoke English.  I don’t know at what point I lost my accent, but it went away very quickly.  My mom came here when she was older so it’s still a little bit there.  It’s interesting to me because when I speak to other Filipinos who are friends of mine who immigrated at the same age that I did, they still have very thick accents.  I think part of that was my desire to assimilate.

I wasn’t in much contact with the Filipino-American community.  I was in Southern California.  There is a community, we had some family friends, but most of my family was scattered.  I have family in Hawaii and the Philippines.  I wasn’t really around many other Filipinos outside of my immediate family.  I didn’t seek them out.  I was just around whoever I happened to be friends with, whoever was around.  When I was in school it always struck me as interesting that there were certain groups, certain clubs that would come up, Asian clubs.  I never felt like I needed to be part of them.  I never felt a sense of separation from my heritage, so I didn’t need to fill that.  To me I’m Filipina, there’s no need to announce myself or some kind of connection in that way.  I’m still a part of my family so I never sought that out.  It is a kind of a weird thing.  Filipinos are called the Latinos of Asia.  Our culture in some ways closer to Spanish and Mexican culture than other Asian cultures.  But I don’t know that at that time I put much thought into it.

Because I teach English, I’ve always an affinity for writing and language.  Sometimes in my instruction now when we talk about grammar, I think, I never learned any of that.  By the time I got to the US all that stuff had already been covered.  So I learned all those things just by reading and writing.  I sometimes still have these moments when I think, what is an adverb? But there are gaps sometimes in my knowledge or my experience that come up once in a while in weird ways. I just have learned how to navigate my way through.

I was bright and motivated to do things, but I think what was difficult was that in the back of my mind it didn’t matter how hard I worked.  I could do all the things right, but there would always be a wall in front of me.  My mom became documented through marriage.  There’s really no other way.  There’s no path, even now.  The entire time I was young the future was just this big blur.  It was frustrating.  I was bright and motivated to do things, but I think what was difficult was that in the back of my mind it didn’t matter how hard I worked.  I could do all the things right, but there would always be a wall in front of me.  I couldn’t get a job.  I couldn’t get a driver’s license.  I could never work.  I went to community college and it was fine, but when I came across the obstacle was when I wanted to go to university.  At that time DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) wasn’t around.  I applied to just a handful of schools and I got into all of them.  And the ones I really wanted to go to wanted to charge me out-of-state tuition, and I couldn’t afford it. I think just a year or two after that they changed that policy so that they would accept your high school credits to show you are a resident.  At that time I eventually ended up going to San Diego State and UC Riverside.  I wanted to go to UC Berkeley, so that was frustrating.  I don’t know why it was different for different schools.

I actually got married in the middle of college, at age twenty-two. I was lucky.  I was already with somebody.  We had been together for a year and a half and we were planning to get married someday.  He was a few years older and already had a job.  But then 9/11 happened, so that asserted pressure.  He said, “I feel like we should secure your place.”  It was not a hard decision to make at the time because I knew that we would eventually marry.  I didn’t want to have to do it in the middle of college.  That was never what I envisioned for myself.  I would have prefer to have waited. It is ok, we are still together.  It has been seventeen years.  It was frustrating that choice was taken away from me.  I was pushed into making decisions that other people don’t have to.  We had to go through an interview, so they could ask questions about whether it was a real relationship. We accept those things because it is part of our process, but when you think about them more critically you have to ask, why does it matter?

I went to the Philippines once, about ten years ago, to see my family. My mom has been able to travel back a handful of times. Before I was married I couldn’t leave the country.  I wouldn’t have been able to come back.  When I came the first time it was on a tourist visa.  I knew what was happening.  It is pretty common in the Filipino culture.  We actually have a word for it.  People who come and stay undocumented the term is TNT, short for Tago Ng Tago, which means hiding.

I feel a sense of belonging, but also a feeling of rejection.  I still have Filipino citizenship and I am not a US citizen.  I have permanent residency.  A lot of people don’t know the difference between being here as a resident or a citizen. I am probably going to sometime in the next year or two work on my US citizenship.  It has a lot to do with what is going on right now and not feeling safe. For a long time I’ve had this very complicated relationship with becoming a citizen, not really wanting to.  It is a sense of resentment that comes from me coming here not by my own choice, feeling culturally very much American, but I still have a lot of my Filipino heritage.  But I’ve been here pretty much my whole life since my teens.  My friends are American.  I feel a sense of belonging, but also a feeling of rejection.  There are very tangible rejections that I dealt with, like not getting a driver’s license and not being able to work and stuff like that.  And then internalizing a lot of that stigma and rhetoric of being illegal.  I never talked to my friends. You just don’t talk about it.  Nobody knew. I think some of my friends knew, but we never talked about it.  They know now. Now, even as there is a lot of varied dangerous and threatening rhetoric out there and just immigration in general, there is still a lot of support that wasn’t there back then.

My very first boyfriend, when I was in the sixth grade when I broke up with him, told me to go back to the Philippines.  It was an off-handed comment.  But more often I hear things, but they aren’t directed at me.  Because people didn’t know about my status they would feel comfortable talking about these topics around me.  I had friends in high school who would talk about illegal immigration, good friends, who would talk about how people just need to wait their turn.  It wasn’t outright hateful.  It was rational and logical, it made sense.  Ok yes, we have a process, and there are borders, but it comes from somebody who doesn’t have any perspective on what that means.  They don’t know anybody who is going through that.  It is an abstract thing.  It is abstract until you are going through it or until somebody who is close to you has to make that choice.   Until you feel scared about what is going to happen, and I think it is lacking that humanity, understanding that these are people’s lives.

There’s this weird liminal space, being in two different cultures and histories.Maybe this is something that I’ve grown into as a source of pride, but despite the challenges that I’ve come across, there’s this weird liminal space, being in two different cultures and histories.  It gives me a certain kind of perspective.  Immigrants feel like US history isn’t their history, and I understand that to an extent.  I studied history as an undergraduate and it is fascinating to me, but I don’t feel like it is a history that is part of my story, but I think that doesn’t mean it is not a part of where I am today and my future.  I feel very much as a part of my Filipino culture, as that is my legacy.  I had a very different experience when I went to some historical sites when I went to the Philippines.  It was an emotional experience for me.  In Manila I went to the jail cell of José Rizal, one of the first Filipinos to fight for independence, who rallied against the Spanish.

And Filipino culture itself is just such a mixture of Spanish and American culture, so we have this interesting relationship with America. Almost everyone there speaks English, broken English, but everybody speaks some.  There is a lot of American influence in music.  I think that different Filipinos have different attitudes toward the colonization period.  My grandfather just loved Americans. We have a history with the US, but the US doesn’t know it.  People need to learn it. At some point we can stop talking about Lincoln.  It’s been covered.

I think everybody just comes to America. The myth that if you come here and you work hard and you can make a better life for you, and in a sense relative to other countries, it is true.  Most places don’t have the infrastructure, there aren’t a lot of jobs.  The economy is better here, but it is still a struggle.  This is why many Filipino people have an affinity towards the US.  I think the language and the culture are familiar.

Racism and xenophobia have become more apparent to me after moving to Portland from Southern California. It is a new thing that I am having to think about.  I think it is because Portland is very white.  It is not diverse, but despite that, it seems like it is unaware of its whiteness, its lack of diversity.  I have students who say that this is the most diverse place that they have ever been and compared to where they have been, it might be true!  I feel like I’m having to have those conversations more.  It is part of my story now, talking about immigration. I’m trying to bring that up in my classes.  I’m teaching Intro to Poetry now and we are doing  poetry called “The Othered Americans,” and their poetry about being here.  There is this sense of responsibility now, more now than I did before, maybe because of that scarcity.  I never felt like a person of color until I moved here.  My sense of identity has changed, it isn’t just Filipina, I’m now Asian.  And then beyond that, a person of color. It is a weird thing to have to be responsible for.  Now I’m representing a whole group of people, which is kind of not fair, but that’s the fact, so I have to represent.