I’ve spent most of my life in the US, immigrating at five years old from the Philippines to Chicago with my parents and two younger siblings. The early years consisted of excelling in school, people being generally friendly, and me ready to become a success at anything I put my mind to. I just don’t remember talking to my parents much about any of it – especially my father.
My dad is generally quiet, and worked many hours. I’m not sure if that’s a general Asian trait, but there was much more to it. Bottom line is that we didn’t chat much as a kid. I could communicate better with my school sports coaches (maybe it was the lengthy time I spent on the bench, ha).
This is not to say that I wasn’t loved. And it wasn’t that my dad was particularly strict. That fact is, I was actually spoiled in many ways. My parents worked hard to give my sisters and me a nice home, great school, and many of the things we wanted in life. There just wasn’t much communication between me and my old man.
After moving to a small suburb in California, I started experiencing racism in high school and eventually college. Being more of a loner in that phase of my life, and rarely seeing any Asians in town, I didn’t feel like I had anyone who could relate to this issue. It didn’t help that I lacked a parental role model with whom I felt comfortable talking about it.
One Thanksgiving when I was a high school freshman, my dad, my two younger sisters, and myself were on the road, when a large teen punk in another car started spewing racial slurs at us. My dad paid him no heed. But the man was driving in our same direction. When we stopped at a light, the teenager got out of his car. He approached us, intensifying his taunts. The jerk started punching the car with his fist, continuing to shout epithets at my family. My machismo, even at a skinny 5’3, caused me to yell back at him (of course from the safety of being in the locked car). But I was merely hiding the fact that I was freaking out inside. My sisters were crying, telling me to stop. My father, who was smaller than the teen, finally started to get out of the car. But my sobbing sisters begged him not to go. Finally, the light turned green. Soon after, other cars honked, causing the furious teen to flee. I was both afraid, humiliated, and angry.
Dad and I never really talked about it again. My father was the kind of guy who would keep things inside. Even if he was angry…until he eventually exploded. That’s how I became.
As other racial incidents happened to me, I let the anger build inside. I wish I could’ve talked about the frustration with more people – about the struggle with identity I fought with, in not feeling like I belonged, and with that, not feeling much worth. I didn’t realize that the rage I hid was becoming a ticking bomb.
Sometime during the Fall of my college senior year, I was on a picnic with my family and many of our relatives. I decided to go for walk alone. In an area with few people, I passed by a Latino fellow standing by himself; he seemed to mumble a racial slur at me. It was in Spanish, or so I thought. It might not even have been anything insulting. Regardless, I had enough and I confronted him. It turned out that he wasn’t alone after all. Shadows appeared out of nowhere. About a dozen of his friends began to surround me.
Yet I didn’t back down. I didn’t run away, even though I was alone. Even if I was on the verge of getting seriously hurt, my pride wouldn’t let me walk away. I had become the very monster I thought I was fighting against. My fury had finally erupted and was taking control of me.
Thank God two of my cousins saw me. Though greatly outnumbered, they refused to leave my side and tried to talk reason into me. Strangely, I was able to talk it out without anyone getting hurt.
That’s what I needed growing up with my father: communication (this ironically was my college major). I realize that the immense responsibility of packing up your entire life, including your family, and starting over in another world thousands of miles away – physically and culturally – can be overwhelming. I’m sure my dad had his own pressures, not only in providing for his family, but in being the foreigner in a new land. I just wish we talked about it more.
Today, while it’s not the easiest job to talk with my father sometimes, because of his generally quiet nature, I’ve been able to learn so much more about him, and his own achievements and struggles, both for his family and himself. He had his own issues with his overly strict father growing up. I’m able to understand better who he is.
Just by talking about it.