I barely remember writing my Witness for that Sunday Celebration in 2019. I do remember how nervous I was, how my heart was racing when I was sitting down on the stage waiting to tell my story. I have been a public speaker for many years, but I am certainly not used to telling “shameful family secrets” to a large audience. “Shameful” because I grew up knowing that I was targeted as representing an “unacceptable future” by so many people.
Telling my story, when it was my childhood experience that “nobody” wants to hear about the indignities and traumas of the past, seems not to have been entirely liberating for me, since it seems I put the discomfort of that Witness day out of my mind and then promptly forgot the words I had written.
It was also very uncomfortable for me to re-read my words when they were published online in the GLIDE newsletter. I remember, at the time, wondering if my father would find out what I’d written (I don’t think he did), and I never discussed my story or these issues after that day. It seems I have not healed from the abuses I’ve suffered.
But I am grateful to the members of GLIDE Memorial Church who came up to me after each Celebration to express concern and wonder and to thank me for telling my story. They helped me to feel held in having told it.
I grew up in a world where I was considered a misfit, a person who did not “belong” anywhere I went. I wasn’t white, I wasn’t Black, and when my mother joined the Filipino Community in Anchorage, in 1965, I wasn’t Filipino either, because I did not speak the language (none of the many languages). I was also too white and labeled “mestiza lang” (“only” mixed blood). I grew up in a world where I was constantly being asked “What Are You?” and—the phrase I still detest—“Where Are You From??”
So, I grew up not having any community—except that, for a time when I was a teenager, I was accepted by the Native Alaskan community, up until the moment I had to confess that I was not actually a member of any Native Alaskan group. The Native Alaskan kids my age had no problem with me, but the adults did. So even in that community where I looked like I belonged, I was only an imposter. In my early twenties, I found that I was amazingly talented in traditional Native Alaskan arts, in ivory carving, bead-working, skin sewing, and rye grass basket-weaving. I was rejected over and over by the Native Alaskan Master Artists I worked with, who told me that they were desperately looking for a talented apprentice, but it was “such a shame” that I was not Native Alaskan. And so I was rejected by the community I tried to join.
Right after my parents were married, they found their community with like-minded people involved in grassroots political and civil rights activism. My mother became an officer in the Anchorage chapter of the NAACP, and I grew up understanding that mis-education was the reason so many people felt that I should not exist, as I was “living proof” that the “races” could mix. But understanding the reason for the hatred and rejection I suffered in school and in public was not so helpful when I was looking for friends in an unfriendly world.
I have never forgotten my parents’ attempt to comfort me, in 1963, when I came home from elementary school after having been bullied, punched, and called bad names in the schoolyard. My parents explained to me that someday the “white majority” would no longer exist, and that a recent study revealed that the majority of the world’s population was projected to be Chinese by the year 2000. I was immediately horrified that I was expected to wait nearly 40 years to be accepted by society, and I told my parents that it was not helpful to tell me that “someday” things would be better when I had to go back to school the very next day and be persecuted by the same bullies in the school playground.
It was not until my second semester at UC-Berkeley, on the first floor of the Doe undergraduate library, while studying with one of my dorm-mates, a petite Chinese-American girl who had been valedictorian at her Irvine, California high school at age 14, that I learned that she and I were studying on the “Asian floor” of the library. I was surprised when she told me that, and she was surprised right back by my surprise.
“Look around!” she said, “everyone on this floor is Asian!!” “What on earth, why is that?” I said, observing for the first time that it was true, every single student in every study carrel and in the aisles appeared to have Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Filipino ancestry. “Because we stick together!” my friend told me. “What? Is that a rule of some kind?” I asked her. She smiled, and said, “No, we just took over this floor.” And I told her, “Oh! Well, is it okay if I’m here, with you?” Again, she looked at me with surprise, “What? But you are Asian!!”
And that was how, in 1987, I first found out that I was Asian, and even though Asians were not [yet] in the majority in the world (as my parents had told me to expect someday), nor the majority in our country, in our state, or in the city of Berkeley, Asians were — every evening — the majority on the first floor of the Doe undergraduate library at the University of California at Berkeley. Society could reject us before and after we were Berkeley students, and we could reject each other if we met outside of that building, but at UC-Berkeley, Asian-American students supported each other every day when we were together in that one place on campus.
That was the beginning of my understanding that I could belong in a community, and a first taste of what it felt like to be with people who did not demand that I explain myself, who accepted me just because I was there.
It was with that taste of community that I first came to GLIDE in 1995, and became a member of the GLIDE Ensemble in 1996. At GLIDE Memorial Church, I have learned that I am accepted, and that I am an integral member of a beloved community.