When I came to this country, I was an uber-naive teenager who had never worked in his life. I had graduated from high school in Manila and suddenly found myself in Jersey City with my whole family for the first time in so many years, with one family-assigned goal: to find a job.
The Philippines has a shorter educational system than the U.S., so many of us finish high school relatively young. In my class alone, the youngest was fifteen. Most of us had never worked, and wouldn’t have to think about it until college, or after college, if there was work, that is. In my case, I had to leave the country. And life, the new American life, would change just about everything.
After many jobhunting tryouts (one of which was with my own mother, at MacDonalds), I found a job on Wall Street, now the center of a global recession blame game. The woman who interviewed me, Martha, was the Manager, who told me months later that I reminder her of her son. In short, I charmed her, this white woman who thought I looked like her son. If you were an FOB (fresh off the boat), you wouldn’t pay too much attention to such flattery. First of all, you would be paycheck-focused. Nothing else mattered, not what Martha said, nor what her son looked like. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be working for Martha, but for her boss, a golden aged virago with a voice that could rattle a dormant earthquake fault. Let’s call her Cruella de Ville, 80s version, this way I wouldn’t have to describe her, because in fact, she looked very much like that cartoon, minus the dogs and the black and white color theme (or you can also age Merryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada and get a good image of this woman).
We had our own building on Wall Street. It was a seven-story building with a garden on the rooftop that was being kept by Cruella’s scantily-clad young gardeners (yup, I noticed). My desk was at the center of the floor, directly overlooking Cruella’s big oriental-inspired office, and was surrounded by glass windowed clerical offices. My morning task was to open Cruella’s mail, sort them, and hand her the ones with checks. I was being trained by two women, one black and one white. I would find out later, in my complete naivete about ethnicity, that this “white woman” was Colombian. I only knew of Colombia from watching Miss Universe for years. I had no idea how they really looked like. But our Miss Colombia never admitted to being Colombian. In fact, her last name was Garcia, which she spuriously pronounced as “Gar-sha.” It was the eighties, and her Garsha hair was as high as a hairsprayed mane could get. She grew up on Long Island, the land of self-denial, if you get the drift. The other woman was black, a very dark skinned one at that. She was pregnant and was about to be promoted to the first floor. In that building, the first floor was the penthouse. That was where all the white men were. That was where the “computers” were. Those were the last years of electric typewriters, but we still had them. In fact, on my floor, there was a whole room of typists, and across from them, proofreaders. I, a self-taught 70 wpm Executive Assistant, sat at a desk in the middle of it all.
My first few weeks were calm. I was given a tour of the whole building from the ground up. I was, after all, the assistant of the Vice President, an itinerant gofer on leather shoes. The first floor was reserved for executive positions, mostly white men, and their colored minions (one of whom was the newly promoted black woman). That floor was always closed. Always. Like some big secret ritual was happening there . The third floor was the lunch room, with a small wall-attached TV that played daily soap operas. All the women would go to lunch at exactly the time when their favorite soap was on. They would eat their ethnic food and completely immerse themselves in the lives of the characters on the 17 inch TV. They would have conversations about them as if they were cousins or neighbors. The fourth floor was Accounting, home to a Filipino family. I was on the Fifth with Cruella and her clerks. The Sixth was an underrenovated floor that housed three people, two of whom were overweight. There was one restroom on that floor. One lazy afternoon, after Cruella kept calling that floor and nobody would answer, she sent me upstairs to investigate. I found the two obese white employees coming out of a tryst, the restroom, at the same time (the male, zipping his fly), with one message for me, Don’t say anything to anyone. I never did, until now.
Compared to the towering architecture around us, we were a miniature. But it was always mesmerizing to watch the rest of Wall Street from our cafeteria window. I had not know then how different we were from the rest of Wall Street. I had no concept of immigration, race, or ethnicity. I had no idea that all the ethnics coming out of the train would all end up in my building.
And this made this Wall Street firm most interesting, at least in retrospect; most of the employees were immigrants. The countries: Philippines, India, Guyana, Bermuda, Trinidad and Tobago, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Nigeria, and the Republic of the Bronx. For them, I was just one of them. For me, it was all strange; and I was in it for the experience. I had nothing to compare it with. I had no idea what the next day would bring. And of course, there was always the clueless Long Island hairspray girl named Garsha.
Garsha’s dream was to work on the first floor. She would come to work wearing a tightfitting dress that accentuated her breasts and her butt. She was about to get married and replace her Garsha last name with an Italian one, which profoundly excited her. Her hair would reach the ceiling. She was a goodlooking woman unwittingly diminished by her ethnic self-denial. She would do anything to get through the day, including hiding checks in the drawers that she couldn’t finish processing. Those checks were commercial paper and Treasury Bills checks. For the life of me, I had no idea what they were for. All I knew they were supposed to be handed to Cruella. What did I know? It was my first job. I didn’t even know Almond Joy was a chocolate bar. I would find that out after another secretary asked me to get her one, and my pride precluded me from inquiring deeper. I came back with my cup of coffee and a question: What is Almond Joy? Of course, after being called “stupid,” I had my first exposure to the world of obesity and American snacks.
Garsha would soon find herself in big trouble. Cruella knew the ins and outs of the building, of desks, and of every nook and cranny of her office and everyone else’s around her. One day, she threw a fit upon discovering Garsha’s secret treasures: weeks-old Treasury Bills and Commercial Paper (I suspect that she went through people’s desks when everybody was gone). I had never seen a white woman so angry in my life. I had never known facial wrinkles could get more, er, wrinkled. She called Garsha and me to the office and started screaming at both of us. The veins, oh the turgid veins on her dear neck. I thought they would explode on my new Bloomingdale’s outfit. Garsha parried the accusations by kicking my leg, trying to keep my mouth shut. So I did (I was already humanitarian). Yet, there was one person who knew the truth: Martha. Remember Martha? She was the one who thought I looked like her son.
Oh the solicitous Martha, with a Spanish last name, I remember now. In a closed meeting, the woman defended me and ransacked the poor career out of Garsha. But you see, during the time, I was already applying to go to college. Not that I didn’t care, but since I didn’t have any other work experience to compare it with, I was going with the flow, a constant flow of screaming, irascible, and high blood pressure-bound Cruella. I don’t remember what happened to Garsha after that, but I do know that soon after, I had my own assistant.
Every now and then, we would get a visit from the newly-promoted secretary from the first floor. She spat when she talked. You would rather not look at her. She and her husband went to the Carribean for a vacation, and she flaunted her tan afterwards. The typists had a ball on her, because according to them, she was too dark to even think she could get a tan (these were black people making fun of her). It was my first year in America, and my first exposure to race. I didn’t even know when to laugh, or why I should laugh at these jokes. All I cared about was what I wore to work.
I thought about this today, because a friend from that era has recently emailed me. She found me on the Internet. She is Filipino, too, and perhaps the first one I have met in this country. She is a victim of the recession, which we know now had its roots on Wall Street. Because of the Filipino family who worked in accounting, we outnumbered the other ethnics in that company. I often wondered why. When Martha’s son visited, she introduced him to me. It was only then that I realized that her Spanish last name was Filipin0. Her son didn’t look like her at all, and most likely took after her estranged Filipino husband. And no, for the grace of god, he didn’t look like me either.
Wall Street taught me many things about life in this country. I think now that it must have profoundly affected me that I had continued to work with immigrants since. What I learned from being there a year was not about Commercial Paper or Treasury Bills or CDs or Investments, but the daily struggles of the people who make the system work. Unfortunately, many of them recruited into this system were not being made aware of the internal mechanics of such system. Months after I left, I found out from my informant that the Securities and Exchange Commission had come in and shut down the firm. Stories flew about the company not having enough assets and how the president was physically dragged out of the building. Who would have known? They were all perfunctory paper shufflers, more worried about spell checks and typing errors than obviating the arrival of the Feds over liquid assets. Most of all, they were all immigrants. I wonder about the hiring now, whether it was purposeful. Was there an assumption about immigrant workers, their loyalty, their naivete, or their ability to feign indifference inorder to keep a much needed cash flow? The ones who might have known the real goings-on were behind closed door on the first floor. We didn’t even know their names; we hardly saw them. But at the time, it was all behind me. I was about to embark on a new world–college–and nothing else mattered but what was ahead. There was much to look forward to in my teenage years, including among other things, getting a whole collection of this new hot artist named Madonna.
Related Reading: Don’t Cry for Wall Street, Awake, Wall Street, With SEC charges, Goldman Sachs’s reputation is tarnished, You’re Welcome, Wall Street, Wall Street: Is It Good to Apologize for Greed?, No More Deceit: Strictly Regulate Wall Street, Financial Reform at a Crossroads,
I first heard of the “Browning of America” when it became Time Magazine’s cover story twenty years ago. That was two census seasons ago. In my intercultural communications class in college, we used terms like “melting pot” or “salad bowl” to describe this country’s cultural diversity, and to distinguish the difference between cultural assimilation and “separate but equal.” This was before “multiculturalism” or “political correctness” joined the American vernacular.
As an immigrant, I’m very chary of labels. I have assimilated up to a certain point. I don’t agree that becoming American means erasing one’s ethnic identity. Unlike the previous generations of Euro-immigrants, I ‘m brown as burnt rice. I’m lactose-intolerant, non-cheese eater. There’s no mistaking my Asian origins. Right now, the number of people who look like me are still largely insignificant. But in the future, about 40+ years, as mentioned in the article, the face of America will look like this:
By 2056, when someone born today will be 66 years old, the “average” U.S. resident, as defined by Census statistics, will trace his or her descent to Africa, Asia, the Hispanic world, the Pacific Islands, Arabia — almost anywhere but white Europe. (More here from Time Magazine).
Changes are said to begin this year. According to the Associated Press, “minority” babies will outnumber “majority” babies in 2010 (read here). In simple speak, children-of-color will outnumber white children this year. What Time Magazine didn’t predict are the socio-cultural and economic changes sweeping the country right now: the recent collapse of Wall Street, a recession worse than the Great Depression, and the election of America’s first President-of-color. That’s enough to shake the grounds of Puritan America. How will the current economic downturn impact the demographic changes in the future?
Good times always find a way of masking true innate feelings. Economic prosperity turns a country with deep intercultural issues into a superficial festival of nations. What’s there to be angry about? We are all eating. Shopping. Then one day, the bottom lid falls out.
The truth always shows its face when things are very, very wrong. 30 million people are unemployed. People are losing their homes. Xenophobia is reborn, and hate is its language. People of similar origins band together. Media gives way to propagandists. All of this hate–mostly directed at people who are “different”– finds its way in good ole time American organizing. And the Tea Party , overwhelmingly white male conservative, marches through Washington (see picture).
What we are seeing in the U.S. is the proliferation of blame in American language. President Obama’s skin color has made his attempt for a united government impossible as his assumed alliances become a rallying cry for conservatives. He has been called a “socialist” and a “Muslim,” words given negative connotations as America searches for blame. With 40 million Americans living in poverty, there is every reason to be angry. There are 5 million baby boomers who are currently unemployed. The competition for jobs is stiff. At this level, we sometimes forget our neighbors. We especially forget our neighbors who don’t look like us.
The Nazis rose to power during a major economic crisis in Germany, the darkest time in recorded history. However, given a mountain of evidence, some German communities are still in denial about concentration camps in their own towns. Sadly, they all have benefitted from Hitler’s psychosis. Because of short term memory, Europe once again is switching on its denial mode as it becomes a right-wing, anti-immigrant continent (story here from NPR). Never mind its long history of colonization of the brown world. Never mind the death of millions of Jews. Never mind that World War 2 was only 60 years ago. The search for blame and hate rages on, taking on a new form:
Targeting Muslims is a common denominator that now unifies a great proportion of European political elites and media. The reasons are numerous and obvious. Some European countries are at war (which they have chosen) in various Muslim countries; desperate and failed politicians are in need for constant distractions from their own failures and mishaps; associating Islam with terrorism is more than an acceptable intellectual diatribe, a topic of discussion that has occupied more radio and television airtime than any other; also, pushing Muslims around seems to have few political repercussions – unlike the subjugation of targeting of other groups with political or economic clout. (more here).
Eerily, what is happening in Europe parallels the rising levels of intolerance in the U.S. Americans should know better. The European continent does not have the immigration history of this country. America is built on the backs of immigrants. Also, Europe will probably not see the level of demographic changes that will sweep the U.S. in the next decades. Yet, xenophobia is the staple of colonial histories. America, after all, still traces much of its ancestry to Europe. We have truly just begun dealing publicly with issues of race and equality. What does this mean for the future? Will changes in American demography mean a positive shift in the act of tolerance? Or is xenophobia so deeply rooted in American culture that people-of-color will simply give it a new spin.
Case in point: Over easter lunch, my mother and I went to a Vietnamese restaurant in Jersey City (very POC, mind you). A group of teenage Latinos walked in and took the table behind us. A few were looking for “chicken wings,” and “beef and broccolli” from the menu. After making very loud, ignorant, and biased comments about the names of food on the menu, they walked out.
Blacks in America
While I probably won’t be around to witness the reversal of minority/majority in America, I will be here long enough to see it gradually happen. Already, the election of the first black president has made many people resort to old anti-black sentiments as a way of public expression. What once was private dinner conversation is now out in the open. Interestingly enough, in my job interviews, I have been asked about my ethnic background, as if it has any bearing with the job. As a former Human Rights Commission employee, I know that it is a red flag for discriminatory practices. I must admit feeling extremely uncomfortable after being asked the “Where are you from?” question, but I went ahead with the interview feigning a smile. Of course, as expected, I never heard from those people again. What’s there to do if you’re a person of color looking for job in this economy? Identity-erasure? Is the strategy of this unemployed black man necessary?
But after graduating from business school last year and not having much success garnering interviews, he decided to retool his résumé, scrubbing it of any details that might tip off his skin color. His membership, for instance, in the African-American business students association? Deleted. (More here from the NYTimes)
I don’t think so. Should it surprise us that the unemployment rate among blacks is twice as much as whites?
The Spirit Level
If the trend of intolerance continues in America, are we heading toward a system of Apartheid, where the majority is forcibly led by an oppressive minority group? Right now, the U.S. has more inequality of income than any country in the world. It also has more people (mostly Black men) in its penal system than any other country in the world.
A new book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, offers a ray of hope. First it tell us about us, as mentioned in a review of the book in The Guardian:
America is one of the world’s richest nations, with among the highest figures for income per person, but has the lowest longevity of the developed nations, and a level of violence – murder, in particular – that is off the scale. Of all crimes, those involving violence are most closely related to high levels of inequality – within a country, within states and even within cities. For some, mainly young, men with no economic or educational route to achieving the high status and earnings required for full citizenship, the experience of daily life at the bottom of a steep social hierarchy is enraging. (More here from The Guardian).
Then, it goes on to analyze why the more equal a society, the healthier it is. And in contrast, the more unequal, the more problems it has.
Lessons for the Future
This downturn economy is teaching us much about ourselves, our level of tolerance, our history of racism. It is not only a lesson for the white majority with a long tradition of imperialism and racism, but also for people of color who submit to such racist traditions. As America diversifies, the face of the oppressor changes as well. We all have bias in our blood. We all have a long tradition of protecting our own tribes. But we are also more aware and more educated than our ancestors. We understand diversity more. We know what democracy can bring each of us.
As these babies of 2010 grow up, what can we teach them about America of old and new? How do we pass on the message that the fundamental richness of this country is its ability to live in harmony despite the differences that could potentially divide?
Related Reading: In Job Hunt, College Degree Can’t Close Racial Gap, The Rage Is Not About Health Care, Whose Country Is It?, Institutional Racism in Employment and Unemployment, Again, The Spirit Level, Poll: Tea Party overwhelmingly white, male and conservative, In the Face of Racism, Distress Depends on One’s Coping Method.
I found the following in my previous website. It was how I introduced the reviews for my first book. After reading it again, I had a series of thoughts about the state of American writing, and the intersection of race and culture in the arts.
Following are reviews of the book in the U.S. and the Philippines. In reading them, please observe the almost staggerring differences between reviews from the two countries. It is not surprising that reviews in the Philippines contextualized the novel and placed it within a Filipino historical and literary framework; the reviews in the United States couldn’t seem to remove it from a catalogue of Asian American writing or some kind of ethnic potluck, within which many of us Filipino writers are unfortunately categorized. What becomes of a book (or anything) once removed from its original context? But then, only in the Philippines–the country of origin–can we create a historical and literary consciousness around Filipino and Filipino American writing. In the U.S., we will always be compared to precedent ethnic writers or worse, dead “white” American writers, completely ignoring the centennial of Philippine literature in English. I think there exist a possibility of a more thorough reading of Filipino text in the United States, if only one would devote enough time and effort to study the context from which it is written. In fact, a few Filipino American writers have taken on reviewing works of their own, breathing into such literary texts a living and profound historical insight without sounding esoteric (e.g. My reviewer for San Francisco Chronicle is in fact, Filipino-American).
My perspective on publishing has not changed in the past fifteen years. After watching the Oscars last night, and noticing that the only Asians on TV were unknown faces next to male entertainment moguls, I felt that Asian-Americans have a long way to go. When my friends and I started the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in 1991, we were addressing the dearth of Asian-Am writing in American publishing (you know, to tell our story, the way we wanted). True, the numbers of published Asian Ams probably nearly doubled in almost two decades, but all of that came crashing down with the downsizing of publishing houses. However, it is important to note that for Filipino-American writers in mainstream presses, there has been very little movement. While literature languish in the backrooms of publishing houses, celebrity books seem to be taking an all time high. Sometimes I ask, do we really need to read a book about the pilot who landed his plane on the Hudson River? Is that moment, understandably phenomenal, worth expanding into 200 pages? Well, according to HarperCollins, yes. In fact, said pilot was offered a book deal worth $3 Million dollars. That’s enough to publish 50 literary writers in the U.S. But a choice between a future Pulitzer winning author and one of the decadent Real Housewives of New York, who do you think gets to bite the dough?
So what do ethnic writers in America get to settle with? If Oscars Night was any indication, the answer perhaps is to mask one’s ethnic identity, or write for the demographic majority. Here’s a scenario: forget you’re Asian, write a story about a football jock named Garth. Maybe he had an Asian girlfriend (there’s your guilt). The story is really about how he befriended a football player from a black neighborhood. There you go. It has that feel-good interracial flavor. Make sure though that Garth gets 95 percent attention in the book. Would Hollywood consider it as a possible project for Matt Damon? Perhaps. And Lucy Liu.
Funny, last night, I was thinking, maybe I should write a screenplay. After all, I had my beginnings in playwriting in grade school and high school. I suddenly stopped myself with a thought: “but you really believe in writing the story of your people.” I think Hollywood is still at the very early stages of representation of ethnic America. The industry has yet to fully include blacks, much less the rest of us.
On a positive note, because we do need to sleep at night with good vibes, things will change. There are the ingredients to success: perseverance, persistence, resilience. There are the cultural movements. There are the constantly shifting waves in American politics. But more than anything, there is the changing demographics in the United States. In the future, more and more ethnic Americans will demand their own histories in America. While publishing and entertainment are very slow to reflect these changes, the work needs to be written now.
Related Reading: Births to Minorities Are Approaching Majority in U.S.