by Jennifer Dertouzos
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the shows that featured Asians focused on showing the stereotypical, obedient, Chinese kid playing piano or a Japanese child honing his violin skills. Even though these shows tried to be ‘inclusive’ they made me feel like even more of an outsider since my particular flavor of Asian, Filipino, was never mentioned. These shows made me believe that I enjoyed more freedom as a child than my Asian counterparts.
There weren’t any other Asians in my neighborhood or my school. When given the option to study music, I said, “No thanks.” None of the cool neighborhood kids took music lessons and I didn’t want to be like the other ‘foreigners’. I wanted to be as American as possible. My ten-year-old brain equated biking, sports, slumber parties, cookouts, and video games as being all-American. Now, the situational irony of playing video games on Nintendo — a Japanese product — while aspiring to be ultra-American is not lost on me. I played outside, explored the neighborhood streets with my older brother and our 100% American friends. We rode our bikes, we swam, we took little excursions to the corner store where the biggest decision of the day was: yoo-hoo chocolate drink or a big piece of stained-glass-like jolly rancher candy. I enjoyed my childhood as a tomboy. My parents realized that I was a bit of a monkey, so they let me burn off my energy outdoors.
In an effort to belong, I pushed away whatever might be used to define me as Asian. I avoided scholastic extra-curricular activities and musical instruments. When friends came over to our house, instead of asking them to take off their shoes, as was customary, I told them to not worry about it. I instructed my younger brother to simply call me by my first name as opposed to using Ate (pronounced: ah-tay) the traditional, respectful Filipino phrase for older sister. Once, at a local talent agency, there was a casting call for Lolita. The requirements were plain as day: caucasian female. Despite not being a caucasian female, I auditioned. At some point along the way, I was a cheerleader, dated only blond boys with blue eyes, and friend-zoned anyone who looked like they might be remotely related to me. When people asked, “What are you?” clearly referring to my ethnicity, I would reply with: “American”.
Now, at 37, I am teaching myself how to read sheet music for the piano. I took lessons two years ago, with an incredibly talented piano teacher. My interest waned because my deficiencies as an older student were too much for my pride to handle. I stopped the lessons and told myself I would resume when I got better. Once I stopped sulking, I acknowledged that the only way to improve is to practice. When I sit at my baby grand, I feel inadequate as I play the three songs that I truly know: Liebestraum, Siciliana, and Ode to Joy. I have books upon books of sheet music. Some of these books are highly valuable, handed down to me by my mother-in-law. My husband, a total autodidact, can’t read sheet music, but he’s gifted with the ability to hear a song and pluck the notes out of thin air. Obviously, I am jealous. So, here I am, or there I am, on most afternoons looking at my books, painstakingly going through the staff – reading the notes, deciphering them one by one: Every Good Boy Does Fine, F-A-C-E, All Cows Eat Grass.
Each year, I try to learn something new or do something that I haven’t done before. I’m not sure when I started this. Some of the pursuits have been: skydiving, not the kind where you’re strapped to someone/tandem, but the real way where you are actually responsible for your own jump, parachute, and landing; stand-up comedy; sewing; racing road bikes; organizing a fundraiser for Seeds of Peace; competing in a triathlon; running a marathon; getting a tattoo; entering a writing contest; moving out of the country; attending and eventually dropping out of medical school. This need to try something new, annually, is less about novelty and more about living life. I know my time is finite and want to try as much as possible. I tell myself that this is why I chose to take up the piano. But, when I dive a little deeper, I think there’s more.
As a Filipina American, I never felt like I belonged – anywhere. I wasn’t Filipina enough and I wasn’t American enough. Despite being clearly and visibly Asian – dark hair, almond eyes, and petite stature, I felt that I was American first and Asian second. As I get older, the attempt to reconnect with my Asian-ness leads me to pursue the things that I turned away from as a child. Now, more than it has EVER been, it is ok to celebrate my cultures: both Filipino culture and American culture. While I am not proud of the cultural obliviousness of the current administration, I am not afraid that I will be attacked for embracing and expressing my not-so-mainstream culture. I am not afraid to speak Tagalog or Visayan in public for fear of someone thinking I’m ‘fresh off the boat’, I’m not embarrassed to bring a traditional Filipino dish to friends’ potluck parties, I’m not ashamed to speak of my birthplace, but I will also not berate the country that I choose as my home.
Playing the piano is a daily reminder that it’s ok to be nuanced, that there will be hurdles and obstacles, on and off the bench. Playing the piano reminds me that I am an active participant in this country’s future. Playing the piano reinforces the idea that I don’t have to choose one culture over the other, as my ten-year-old self thought. I can be both and I am both – this is the beauty of the America that my parents chose. Acceptance, celebration, empathy, inclusion, hope, love, opportunity, these all still exist. America is not confined to the manipulative sound bites and clips that violently stream across our screens. The United States is not defined by one person. America is defined by millions of people. At almost forty years old, I am finally making peace with my many identities. Maybe we, as a whole, can focus on a similar sort of reconciliation: embrace the knowledge that being one way doesn’t threaten or take away from being another way, we can move forward.
Jennifer Dertouzos is part of the New Voices Workshop. She was mentored by Sha Liz, Contributing Editor.