The month of May is Asian American heritage month! And of course, it gets me introspective because I am Asian American. I grew up in the Philippines where my mother left me in the care of my grandparents while she went to the US, as thousands of her countrymen did, to find and build a better future for her family. Most countries that are colonized, economically or politically, end up with a crippled economy and corrupt government. Often, its citizens go to the colonizing country’s shores because it's the only culture with which they are familiar.
My mother visited me every year and always promised to send for me. I grew up looking at America as that curious place that one day, I would know well. Sure enough, when I turned 15, I came to live with my mother and stepfather in New York City.
My grasp of English was very good, I read and wrote quite well. But trying to fit in, speak the colloquial terms, which was very different from written English at that time, and trying to be cool as a teen, was very difficult. It’s hard enough, as we know, to be young. But to be young in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people was scary, laborious, lonely, exhausting. I found myself trying to shed my Asian identity as fast as I could in order to belong. Blending into society as much as I could be a survival tool and a coping mechanism.
When I had my own children, I very purposefully exposed them to anything Asian: food, performances, music, movies. We couldn’t afford to go to the Philippines every year so I did what I could to familiarize them with their roots here, which is a feat in itself when you’re in a place that lacks consensus on your worth. I wanted them to know that people of our color and culture are equal to the very dominant white culture in America. Now that my children are adults, I listen to them speak about what it means to be Asian-American and the havoc that racism wreaks in black, brown and Asian communities. I see now more than ever that cultural identity is a fragile thing. We don’t have to lose it, to blend in to be part of American society or to feel safe. In fact, it is what makes America unique. We are what makes America unique. And we’re very much not alone. We are safer together.
Almost every Asian I see is doing something of service: nurses, doctors, drivers, policymakers, and small business owners like myself. I’m going to hold this fragile thing tight. I’m going to feed and care for it instead of neglecting it like I once did. It’s so important to do that now, and I plead with anyone who reads this to do the same.