The Legend of Giants: Celebrating Filipino American History Month

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Did you know? The month of October is Filipino American History Month.

As we near the end of October (and thus, Halloween), I think one way to celebrate this month is to recognize and appreciate the history, resilience, and accomplishments of the Filipino American community. Another way to celebrate Filipino American History Month is to pay homage to the giants standing in your own backyard, the ones rooting for you from your corner, the heroes that get remembered, but the legends who never die. For me, that’s my mum. I don’t always say mum, but it just sounded fun in that last sentence. But I tend to go with mom, mother, ma, and sometimes nay (short for nanay in tagalog). Here she is below in such a rockstar outfit (exact day and year, TBD). So if you think I slay the game, just know that I get it from my mama.

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Now, in thinking about how I wanted to highlight her narrative as a way to ground this month in love and appreciation, I asked her to provide me with some details about her life in the Philippines and what it was like to be a kid there. Side note: the ultimate project I would love to do is to create a visual and written documentary about my parents’ love life and relationship. They did long distance at some point (woof!), exchanged love letters and notes, and raised three stellar boys and put us through college. I believe in the power of storytelling and its ability to create community, vulnerability, and compassion. In my role as an educator, I sometimes forget that storytelling isn’t just about me sharing my story with my colleagues or with my students. It is also about learning from the stories and wisdom that came before me. It is about preserving the generations of stories that have so deeply influenced my personal values, ethics, perspectives, and behaviors. It is about transforming fairy tales and legends into a book of personal truths and revelations.

And so this next part of my blog is therefore a brief story about my mom, a story about her growing up in the Philippines before she came to the United States in the 70’s:

My mom grew up in the Philippines in a small town of Maasin. There was what they/she called “market day” that happened every Monday and her relatives from the barrio (or neighborhood/town) brought their produce from the farm to sell in the market. They had sold things like bananas, sweet potatoes, cassavas, coconuts, and all other kinds of vegetables: “I loved market day. I loved to go with my mom because I got a treat too like banana cue.”

She said it was a 2-hour trek to the town and most of the time they balanced the produce on their shoulders or sometimes on carts pulled by water buffaloes (called kalabaw or caribou). Fun fact: I actually had a chance to ride on top of a caribou when I visited the Philippines 6 years ago. See my old friend below.

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Back to her story: Her mom, my lola (grandmother) had what she called, an “open door policy”, so her relatives and friends would stop by to have coffee or ginger tea to fill their stomachs. My lola would then go to the market extremely early in the morning to buy fish and vegetables. She would then make soup so everyone that stopped by can eat before they headed home. Now that I think about it, this is probably where I get my sense of giving, hosting, and community building, and definitely where my mom gets her love for being around her sisters, her nieces and nephews, and close family friends. It is apparent that in my family, and even in parts of my own life nowadays, we sometimes give more to others than we give to ourselves.

My mom goes on to say that they “were taught to respect [their] elders, to ask for blessings, to say please, thank you, [and] excuse me.” Respect in the Filipino culture is everything. It is not simply an act of doing, it is a way of being. From your kuyas and ates to your distant family friends — aka your cousins who aren’t really your cousins by blood, but you never really knew that until you got into high school — you show, give, share, and respond with respectful behaviors and attitudes. As one of the youngest kids in my family, I could never ride in the front seat of a car if my brothers or older cousins tagged along. I was always expected to pass out the dinner plates and utensils to my family members and guests during family gatherings. I was always told to do something, whether I wanted to or not, and most of the time if I was “good”, I would do it. That’s just how it is in Filipino culture. When you’re the bunso, or the youngest, you’re kind of at the bottom of the food chain. Let’s just say that with years of being at the bottom, I believe it taught me how to be more independent, how to deal and navigate through situations that weren’t particularly enjoyable, and how to advocate for myself and my needs. It has also taught me to be okay with failure and disappointment; to be okay with not being the best, but to be my best self; to be okay with not being the “hero” idolized in so many heteronormative television shows and books, but to realize that we all need saving in some way, at some point; to be okay with asking for help; to be okay with relying on the expertise and wisdom of one’s family and culture.

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My elders are my Filipino giants. The ones whose footprints have left joy and success etched into the dirt of the rice terraces and whose shoulders carry the hopes and dreams of a stubborn and determined community. These are the giants who have turned their roots into veins, never forgetting that their history flows through their blood. They are my mom, my dad, my aunts and uncles, my lolas and lolos. They are the things of legends. The kind of legends that I will write in hard-covered books and read to my kids just before bed:

“Anak, what story would you like to hear tonight?

The tale of the brown star-crossed lovers destined for greatness, but separated by the Pacific Ocean?

Or the one about the Filipina mother of eight whose love and kindness also feeds an entire village?

How about the one with the social justice warrior prince? He who uses his words to slay the dragons of everyday racism and uses his emotions to move an entire country?”

“Dad… How about we read them all? Maybe I can write my own too.” 

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In closing, my mom said this,”I had such a wonderful childhood full of unforgettable experiences. Babe, just correct my grammar. It’s past midnight and I’m sleepy…”

My mom is a one-of-a-kind individual, human, mother, and woman of color. She has demonstrated what it means to be resilient in order to persevere through challenges and high expectations, to be compassionate and respectful to yourself and to others, and to find the sweetness, the happiness, the fulfillment in every story, in every person, in every interaction.

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I may not have the same exact stories or experiences that she did when growing up in Maasin, but I do have a similar feeling of being loved, of being surrounded by family, of being taught these values of respect and optimism, and of remembering my childhood as an enjoyable one. And for that, I am both privileged and humbled.

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To close, here is a little haiku I wrote earlier this month. It is entitled, “Oh, I am brown.”

I am a product
Of brown love and excellence.
I know no limits.

Happy Filipino American History Month, everyone. I hope your October was as excellent and as beautiful as the culture and the people that I so deeply love and respect.

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Making My Own Love: A Critical Reflection on My Longterm Long Distance Relationship

Hi and welcome to my newest blogpost.

For those who do not know me, my name is Eric G. Carnaje and I am currently at the University of Vermont pursuing my Master’s degree in Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration. I am an ENFJ; an activist, scholar, and practitioner; a “Blue” in Leadership Colors; an artist and poet; a food enthusiast; Brown; queer; Pilipino American; a Strategic Achiever in Strengths Quest Themes; a California native; and so much more.

I am also in a longterm, long distance relationship with my partner Mark. He’s currently back in California and I’m here in Vermont. Say hi.

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We started dating when we were in college (#gobears). He asked me out one evening and the following week we had our first date over movies and hotdogs. Yes, hot dogs. And well, we’ve been together for the past six years. Today, Saturday, February 13th, marks our anniversary. It is also the day before Valentine’s Day, and seeing that we won’t be with each other to celebrate this weekend, I thought I’d dedicate this post to him — to us.

Because of this “momentous occasion”, this post is a critical reflection on what I have experienced being in a longterm long distance relationship. And it’s about time I share what these kinds of relationships can be like. This is my opportunity to not only celebrate love and the man I love, but to also illuminate how queerness, graduate studies, student affairs, and racial identities play a role in this Asian American relationship.

Also, this was our 2nd Valentine’s Day together 5 years ago (see below).

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Longterm long distance relationships  (LTLDRs) are an investment. They are also exhausting. Since working in higher education and student affairs, I like to equate these kinds of relationships to taking 4-6 academic credits. For some colleges and universities, that means you’re a part-time student. But trust me, there is nothing part-time about making long distance relationships work, especially when you’re a full time graduate student with a 20-hour assistantship (and additional co-curricular involvements and side hustles).

LTLDRs require time, energy, patience, and money. You figure out a routine and you stick with it: when to call in between classes, when to say goodnight, when it’s okay to FaceTime, when it’s appropriate to say good morning because of a 3-hour time difference. Even at the end of a long day of work, class, work, and more class, you still have to make time to check in with your partner. Luckily, Mark and I are at a point in our relationship where we can go several hours without texting or calling each other. Despite being across the country from one another, we don’t need to be in each other’s lives every single hour of the day. At the same time, constant and reliable communication is essential to making the relationship work. We’re very much our own people and each other all at the same time. You’re constantly thinking and reflecting upon your own actions and decisions because they not only impact you, but your partner as well. For example, as I finish my graduate work and figure out my job search, I am not only thinking about my future, but our future as well. You also pick up on mannerisms, personality traits, perspectives, and thought processes. Sometimes I find myself serving up some Jean Grey during our late night conversations. Communication doesn’t have to be verbal or visual. Communication can also be quality time spent in silence.

Now, if there was a way to make LTLDRs more affordable and cost-efficient, someone please tell me the secret ASAP. When I think about my own relationship and analyze it, there’s definitely notions of class privilege that come up. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s simply something to be cognizant of (for yourself and when around others). With one of us being in Vermont and the other in California, we have to make smart financial decisions to see each other. Obviously, flights are not cheap. Trips can cost anywhere between $400-$600 when you’re flying across the country. And let’s be real, when you’re a graduate student with loans, bills, and expensive tastes, those flights make a huge dent in the savings account. You wait three to four months just so you can spend three to four days with your partner. Those are the days that matter most. The ones that get you through your graduate program. Although I do not currently have the luxury of going out on Friday night dinner dates or waking up early for Sunday morning hikes with my partner, I know it will happen someday. Hopefully sooner rather than later. And hopefully this LTLDR will be just me and him without 3000 miles in between.

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I think what also has been helpful over the last few years is the continuous and unconditional support from our friends and family members. The love that these individuals have shown Mark and I is indescribable. From cousins to colleagues, their words of encouragement, affirmation, and inclusion, allows us to be our best selves. Growing up, I had no idea what a queer relationship looked like, let alone what a queer Asian American relationship looked like. In college, we had the opportunity to define that for ourselves. Sure, it meant keeping things initially on the “downlow” from our friends and family, and knowing when and where it was appropriate to show some affection when in public. But as our relationship and friendship grew, so did our understanding of it. Even today, where is the representation of queer Asian American (Pacific Islander and Desi American) couples in the media, television shows, movies? Who can our kids look up to? Where can they find people who act, think, look, and love the way they/we do? If there’s nobody around our future generations to role model these kinds of relationships, we have to start creating, highlighting, role modeling, and loving them ourselves. Defining what our relationship looked and felt like to us was probably the most empowering and rewarding thing that could have happened. And having the support from our loved ones has helped us make it this far. It is my hope to share this love story, proudly and queerly, with the rest of my Asian American community. To instill hope and redefine love. To say thank you. 

To be honest, it has taken me some time to become comfortable with how public my relationship with Mark is. We’re not “Facebook Official”. My extended family barely met him a year or two ago; he’s going next year to our annual Christmas party because it’s “time”. From the stereotypes to the stigma, from insecurities and unwanted glances, I have heavily worn all of these feelings and experiences on the back of my shoulders. But I think after six years of love and fighting, I am capable of anything and everything. We are capable of this, that, from the f*cking moon and back. This kind of love is political, dynamic, revolutionary, and whole. This is radical love.

Throughout these six years, I have gotten to know both my partner and my own soul. I know what kind of love languages he speaks and I know what kind of driver he is (one with road rage). I know what stresses him out at night and what helps him sleep. And at the same time, I know more about myself than I realized. All thanks to him. He taught me what love and commitment looks like, what openness and vulnerability feels like, and what sinigang fried chicken tastes like.

As the saying goes, “sometimes you just have to make your own luck.” Well, for me, it’s not just about luck; sometimes I simply have to make my own love as well. And I have. I have made it. So there he is: my boyfriend, my partner, my novio, my soulmate, and my best friend. This is my story. This is our love. And this is not the end.

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When I Met Love

When I met Love, he was not much older than me. Love had looked the way I
always thought it did. Brown. Slender. Handsome. He was taller than me and
dark-haired. Love had this slightly crooked smile that made me bend over
backwards for him…literally. He was the whole package. And I eagerly undressed
Love with every ounce of R.E.M that I could possibly dream of.

Now, when I met Love again, he sounded different. He was kinder; the tone of his
voice more gentle than our initial encounters. His whispers tickled the nape of my
neck and my body melted to the shape of his words. Love was like a smooth R&B
song that you could listen to for days; and boy, did he know the meaning of
“rhythm” and “blues”. Mmm.

Some months later, a new Love drifted into my life. He smelled like Spring — the
breath of fresh air, clean, but hauntingly attractive. He knew how to dress, sharp,
classy, simple. His cologne would pierce every nerve in my body, make my heart
twitch with each new craving. Love was too real for me to even comprehend.
Freshly baked cookies couldn’t mask his expertise for affection, Korean BBQ
couldn’t rid the traces of simple pleasures that soiled my skin. Love was like
those 4 packs of cigarettes smoked in your own car. Love lingered too closely
then. And he had me scared.

Fast forward a year or two later, and we met again. That night, Love handed me a
glass of wine, moscato to be exact. He was sweet, almost too sweet. But I didn’t
care. I wanted to taste vulnerability with every bite of the lip and with each
caress of the tongue. I wanted to taste the scars that marked his body like a knife
to a cutting board. Love was unrefined. Raw and passionate. But Love left as
quickly as he came.

Sooner or later, I realized that Love would someday walk into my life again.
Perhaps for the last time. And he did. He curled into my bed huddled beneath
layers of insecurity and seduction. Our legs interlocked like DNA strands in the
making. The firmness of the palms of his hands braced around my backside. The
feel of his hair through the cracks between my fingers. The lust that moved from
one kiss to the next. I felt Love … and Love was real.

And for the first time in 4 years, I realized that love never left. Love was the look
on his face when I agreed to be his one and only. Love was the sound of his heart
skipping rocks when we rode that roller coaster together. Love was the smell of
sushi dinners and buttered popcorn at the movies. Love was the taste of ecstasy
that first riddled my tongue with trust and sensitivity. Love was the touch that I
longed for when I was alone on restless nights. Love was and love is the very
thing that you mean to me. Love is Love. And Love is you.

 

The Fourth of July

Usually, my (extremely large Filipino) family and I aren’t too keen on celebrating the Fourth. We often end up doing our own thing — sometimes watching fireworks in a different part of town, getting together for dinner at someone’s house, shooting off our own (illegal) fireworks in the neighborhood, or merely gazing into the dark sky on our own time in hopes of seeing a flicker of lights from the rooftop.

This time, we managed to plan a last-minute get-together with the family and surprisingly, we enjoyed a great turnout of our family. We had a nicely organized food spread (I decided to not post these pictures just yet), great rounds of Badminton games (my little cousins are quite competitive), and a beautiful end to the day with a wedding proposal from my soon-to-be cousin-in-law (proposal picture featured below).

Some of my favorite pictures from that day taken with my new Canon T5I:

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With that said, there’s also some history that comes with being Filipino-American and celebrating this “National Holiday”. July 4th is not only celebrating America and its independence, but it’s the date when the United States declared the Philippines independent from their 50 year rule. I think it’s important to celebrate who we are, but in order to do so, we need to also celebrate how we got to that point where we can freely celebrate our culture, love, and independence.

All in all, I’m glad I got to spend the day with my family. I got to get in some great practice with my new camera and capture some really awesome (and candid) moments from the fourth.