by Leah Werther
Although I teach English Language Arts, English is not my first language. That would be Bicol.
I learned English by watching television shows, namely All My Children. I often credit Susan Lucci for teaching me, but really the credit should go to my mother. She believed that in order for her Philadelphia-born daughters to succeed in America, they should be proficient in the language.
Before we entered elementary school, my older sister and I were fully immersed in English. The complicated relationships in Pine Valley taught us words for family members, careers, and of all things numbers. How many husbands did Erica Kane have? Let’s count. The more traditional educational programming of Sesame Street, Zoobilee Zoo, and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood helped us with letter sounds, shapes, and colors. We were quick to learn and soon excelled in our studies. But that came at a cost.
Do I wish I could still speak Bicol? Yes.
Do I think my mother made her decision with love? Also, yes.
Every couple summers, the three of us would fly to the Philippines to visit my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins. We were the only ones who lived in America. Prior to each trip, I would feel a twinge of apprehension. I knew I’d have a hard time communicating with my relatives.
In my teen years, I was relieved my cousins were taught English at such a young age. I was selfish like that. I understood a few words and could say some phrases, but I wasn’t committed to relearn what I had lost. Looking back, I’m surprised my mother wasn’t embarrassed of her English-lang (only) speaking daughters. If she was, she never voiced it. She never made us feel like we should be ashamed of not being Filipino enough.
As much as I loved being with my family, I still felt like an outsider, a foreigner. Like many children of immigrants, navigating between two worlds and trying to find a place of belonging is all too familiar a feeling.
I tried not to let those feelings surpass the joy I felt to be with them. We did the touristy things, like zip-lining, eating at Jollibee, and visiting Mayon Volcano. But what I enjoyed most was gathering together in the living room.
It seemed like every time we visited there was a new TV show obsession. One summer it was the melodramatic Mula sa Puso. Who didn’t have a crush on Diether Ocampo and Rico Yan? Then the following year it was Home Along Da Riles that filled the house with laughter. I could barely understand a word of these shows, but that didn’t matter. I just wanted to be with my family.
One year, everyone was hooked on Pinoy Big Brother. Whenever the song “Pinoy Ako” by Orange and Lemons came on, the houseguests had to stop what they were doing and perform a choreographed dance. I didn’t quite understand the purpose of the dance, but I did fall in love with the infectious tune.
Gathering together with my cousins, watching this show, and attempting to learn the dance was my favorite part of that summer. I felt like I was exactly where I belonged.
The following school year I began to add more of my Pinay-self to my teaching life. I’ve always had pride in my heritage, but I didn’t realize how important it would be to let that part enter into my classroom.
When my freshman wrote “Where I Am From” poems, I was compelled to start mine (see below) with the lines, “I am from mangoes / From papaya and guava and starfruit.” I shared the poem with a colleague, who read it to her class. Two of her students told her how much they missed the Philippines.
When my sophomores wrote vignettes, mirroring the style of Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street, I shared mine titled: “Young Rude Selfish Snobby Asian American Who Doesn’t Know Any Better” (see below). One of my Asian students told me she could relate. She came back to my room, invited a few of her friends, and they had lunch with me that day.
Without noticing it, Clem Castro’s catchy words became my unofficial theme song. I had internalized the lyrics and embraced the fact that I am Filipino enough. I’m more than enough.
Anak ako ng mama ko. Ipinagmamalaki ko na ako ay isang Pinoy.
“I Am From Mangoes” calligram poem
Young Rude Selfish Snobby Asian American Who Doesn’t Know Any Better
Those who don’t know any better think that I’m a fat, self-centered, rebellious, snobby, math nerd who cannot speak proper English. Those who don’t know any better think that I am arrogant, power hungry, emotional, and rude. Those who don’t know any better see me, judge me, stereotype me, and put labels on me as if I were a sweater. Except my label doesn’t say Made in America even though I am. It says Young Rude Selfish Snobby Asian American Who Doesn’t Know Any Better.
Age 7. I accompany my Asian American mother to the mall. I am Asian American, but I am not different. I look in the mirror every morning and see a girl with big brown eyes, long black hair, ten fingers, ten toes. I am not different. I walk confidently in my new Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice non-Velcro because-I’m-a-big-girl-now sneakers and pass each store with its promise of a SALE, which I know is a gimmick. We are shoppers, and I am not different. Two teenage boys fling French fries at me and my Asian American family, call us words I dare not repeat, and flee the scene like bandits. I am no longer a shopper. I am an unwelcome foreigner who has never lived anywhere but the United States. I am Asian so that makes me different.
Age 12. Middle School. Everyone wants to copy my math quiz. Of course, she has the right answer. Everyone wants to copy my social studies homework. Ask Leah for number five. Everyone wants to be my lab partner. Is this seat taken? Everyone wants to be in my group and sit next to me in class, but when it comes to lunch, This seat is taken.
Age 18. The Real World. I walk down the streets of Albany and am overjoyed with the sea of color. Black. White. Brown. Tan. Apricot. In the faces are my grandmother, my uncle, my cousin, my neighbor, my teacher, my friend. I befriend the African American woman who lives down the hall from me. I befriend the Jewish American man who lives upstairs from me. I befriend the Italian American who lives next to me. I befriend the American American who doesn’t believe that she is anything but American because she was born here so that makes her just American. We are all different and there is always an extra seat around our table.
Those who don’t know any better may look at me and see a rude, selfish, snobby Asian American woman, but that’s okay. Next to me are African Jewish Italian American Americans and we know better.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please read yesterday’s blog post, “Bittersweet Departure,” by Erica Snowden, (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).