May is Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month! As I grow older, maybe wiser, I find myself drawn to my ethnic roots. I want to connect on a deeper level to the people who existed before me. People who immigrated from different countries and fought the battles to be recognized as citizens, all so that I could grow up here – in the United States, with opportunities that far surpassed my ancestors’ expectations.
I am part Japanese and Filippino (from my mom’s side of the family). My grandma was strong; my grandpa was brave. He was a Filippino soldier stationed in Japan. She was the youngest daughter of 9 children with strict parents and even stricter siblings. She was not allowed to wear nail polish to the dinner table, let alone run off to be with a soldier from another country. Miraculously, they got a very unusual, conditional blessing and were married. Shortly after, they started a family and moved all over the world to finish my grandpa’s tour. They settled into retirement in the flatlands of Northern California, and that is where they lived until their passing.
I have brown eyes and dark hair. I am not tall. I have small feet and a skin color that lightens and darkens with the change in season. I grew up surrounded by people and friends of all ethnicities and have appreciated the diversity I was exposed to. Both my grandparents had accents that were sometimes difficult to understand. Being able to decipher their words and phrases had helped my ear to be able to hear and admire other accents easily.
I have experienced prejudice for being mixed race. I have been an outcast for looking different in a group of peers. People have made fun of Asian culture in front of me. They have looked at me and pulled their eyes up, down, or to the sides and laughed. That was then; before I found my voice as an individual who stands against racism of any kind. That was the “before” when checking the ethnicities boxes used to give me anxiety because the forms didn’t want you to pick more than one dominant race. But I am more than one. I am grateful that all the ingredients of my mix spill out all over those tiny boxes – because being Asian or Pacific Islander means we don’t fit in just one box. And it’s wonderful! I get to show my daughter how uniquely beautiful it can be to be mixed to perfection. I get to tell her stories of these wonderful Asian and Pacific Islanders who came before us to pass down these traditions, the recipes, the clothing, the dances, the preparations for holidays, and so much more.
I miss my grandparents so much. Their memory is not far. Their influence, I can still feel.
My grandpa always valued our education, and I can still hear his voice telling me to “study hard.” He loved hearing me read aloud. He told me education was the most important thing I would ever need. And now, I hope I am doing that same practice justice with my little one. Maybe I am since she loves to go to school. Although, I think it may be more for socializing (I’m ok with that too!). 😉
My grandma was not vain, but she knew beauty. She made a lot of dresses and outfits for her children. Her closet had many beautiful beaded handbags and coats. I loved sneaking into her high heels and walking around the house as if I was off to a ball. Grandma got creative with her hand-painted ceramics for the home. She had a wonderful green thumb and would grow rose bushes that had the biggest blooms I’ve ever seen. If I had to look at a row of lipsticks, I could probably tell you which one was exactly her shade. Grandma rarely wore a full face of makeup, but she had a gold tube of lipstick at the ready – at her vanity, in her purse. I think of her when I put on my lipstick, and I wonder if that will be something my daughter will remember about me one day.
They loved to dance and attend parties with other retired members of the local air force base, many of them Filippino. They loved their children and grandchildren so fiercely – they helped raise us while my parents commuted to work full-time. My grandparents loved to travel, and when they weren’t traveling, they were planning the next trip and telling my sisters and me all about the places they had been. When I was 12, our whole family went to Japan to see my grandma’s childhood home and to meet extended family; an experience I will never forget.
My grandparents had beautiful laughs and big, big smiles and gave the best hugs.
You could never leave their house without having a drink and a full plate to eat on a flowery couch fitted with a crocheted cover. Or sweets at the living room table, nestled into a hole in the floor; a nod to the Japanese seating style but was much friendlier on the knees when you went to stand.
Asians are proud. They are passionate. They have big hopes and dreams and a path to get them there. They value family. They have a very cool, ancient culture full of flavor, colorful art, meaningful traditions, and a powerful, quiet strength. I am proud to be part of the Asian and Pacific Islander heritage.