Failing to fit in

I’m really into all things TED right now. I listen to TED Talks on my daily commutes and while I’m at my desk I listen to episodes of TED Radio Hour instead of music. One of the TED Radio Hour episodes I keep going back to is called “Playing with Perceptions,” and I think it’s because I can identify so deeply with the issues raised therein.

Canada is known for its diversity. We’ve all heard Canadian culture being called a mosaic in comparison to the so-called melting pot of the United States. The faces of Canada’s citizens, permanent residents, immigrants, and refugees represent numerous nations, as well as all the cultural and ethnic diversity they bring along with them. And because Canada is a nation whose inhabitants seem to celebrate, you’d think we’d all be used to it by now – used to the fact that there is no typical “Canadian” face, or that the Millennials are riding off into the sunset in intercultural/interracial/interwhateverPCtermyouwanttousetodescribteit pairs, or that non-white people in this country are doing the same activities and pursuing the same careers as the white ones.

Ultimately, you’d think that this whole multiculturalism thing would have made us all very aware of the different ways people come into Canada and become Canadian. And as a result of all this variety and the political correctness and politeness for which we’re apparently internationally famous, you’d think we’d be well-informed and educated enough to talk about the subject without offending anyone, inadvertently or otherwise.

And then conversations like the following happen:

“Wow, your mom is gorgeous! But why don’t you look Chinese? Is your dad, like, white or something?”
“Well, see, we’re actually not really Chinese. I mean, we have a Chinese ancestor somewhere I think but we’re actually mostly Spanish and Filipino.”
“Oh, cool! So do you speak Filipino with your mom at home?”
“No, we speak English at home.”
“Really?”
“Yeah.”
“Does your mom have, like, a really thick Filipino accent? I always find Filipino accents so fun to listen to!”
“No, she doesn’t really have an accent…”
“How long has she been living here?”
“We came over in –”

“Wait, you were born there?”
“Yes.”
“But you are so Canadian!”
“…what exactly do you mean by that?”
“Like, nothing racist or whatever – just, like, you’re so not ethnic. I would have never guessed that you’re not Canadian.”
“I am, though. I’m a naturalized citizen and I have a Canadian passport.”
“I thought it was like, super hard for refugees to get into Canada right now though. How did you become a citizen so fast?”
“We emigrated in 1992, and we weren’t refugees.”
“…so, wait, like – you can get a visa to come to Canada and be a permanent resident even if you’re just, like, a maid or caregiver or handyman or whatever?”

I’ll stop there and continue on in my own words – because yes, as you’ve probably guessed, this was a conversation that happened a few days ago between myself and an acquaintance. I do take offense at being seen as the daughter of a domestic worker and a menial laborer – not because I have anything against domestic workers and menial laborers (in fact, I have a deep respect for them) but rather because it simply isn’t true – and because sometimes people don’t want to hear that. 

And yes, I also take offense partially because I believe that applying that kind of narrow perception to an entire demographic is just another form of marginalization.

There have been other instances in my life in which I’ve found myself under social scrutiny on the basis of my biological, cultural, and ethnic heritage. Workplace discussions about things like food or holiday traditions or politics have often, for me, devolved into being put under the white-Canadian microscope through which I am studied with ogle-eyed fascination. Getting set up on blind dates with white guys by well-meaning friends always involves a casual remark that I look so different from other girls they’ve dated, and maybe that’s because “well, you’re exotic, right?” One blind date, upon being told I come from a Filipino family, delightedly told me that he loved dating Filipino women because “you Asian women are all so smart and hardworking and dedicated to your men, and now Asian culture is more open to white people so now you get to share that with us white dudes.” (I’m dead serious.) I have been presented to parents of more than one former love interest with surprising expediency, and the ensuing dinnertime conversations often became a civil and courteous, but nonetheless cutting, cultural cross-examination.

Basically, every time I feel totally Canadian somebody comes along and reminds me that I was not born under the Red Maple Leaf, and they were prodded to that point by their assumptions about non-white Canadians and immigrants.

These conversations reminded me that, while I do hold Canadian citizenship, travel across borders under a Canadian passport, pay taxes, vote, and even paid for part of my university education with a Canadian Forces scholarship, I’m still a visible minority. And being a visible minority means my face only tells part of my story. My non-Caucasian face keeps the chronicle of my life permanently open to the public on just one chapter – and yes, I’ve met many people who won’t bother reading the rest of the book or, at best, skim over the other parts but still pin their concept of my identity on what’s written on my face. My face means on some level, I will always fail to fit in because somebody will be making an assumption about me based on how I look…and that the assumption will often bear little semblance to the truth.

But failing to fit in means I become more like myself each time, which is what I realized when I head Heitan Patel’s TED Talk.  And then I realized that instead of reacting with indignation, silent or not, to what people say about me based on my face, maybe I could share my story instead.  Maybe instead of wishing that certain kinds of people would open their eyes and see the world without privileged first-world blinders, I could use what I know and what talents I have to contribute to the conversation that would eventually lead to clearer understanding across all these divisions.

As far as Filipino immigrants go, my family was extremely lucky. We were lucky in the Philippines because we had social, financial, and educational advantages that the majority of the Islands’ population does not have. We were lucky when we left because we were able to come over as an entire family unit – two parents and five children – which is the exception to the norm of third-world migration; furthermore, we were landed immigrants which meant that the entire process becoming permanent residents and then citizens took less than ten years. And we were lucky in Canada because we spoke fluent English when we landed and my father was able to find work in finance which, with help from my sisters, put food on the table, clothes on our backs, roofs over our heads, and a little extra every once in a while to have fun.

This is not the story of every Filipino immigrant – nor is it the story of every other kind of immigrant that comes to Canada. Like I said, we are the exception to the norm of third-world migration. Back then we were the “One Percenters” of our demographic, yet much of my young life was spent in denial of being Filipino because I so desperately wanted to fit in with my Caucasian, Xth generation Canadian classmates. (For example, my mother is fond of repeatedly telling the story of how I, as a three-year-old, turned my nose up at a plate of white rice and adobo, proclaiming, “I want hotdogs for dinner. I don’t know about you, but I am Canadian.”)

But now that I know better my family’s immigration story does not shame me. It humbles me.

It humbles me because when I read a similar chapter in other faces I see in this city, I know that there’s more to the story than just the lines on their faces and that each story is unique. It humbles me because I am reminded that immigrants bring more than just outward indications of diversity when they land: they bring experiences and stories that often go untold or ignored, even in a country constantly praised for its openness and multiculturalism. It humbles me because their smiles and their eyes gently remind me not to forget where I came from, and that even though I’ve moved from the “immigrant” demographic to join the ranks of citizens, I am a contributor to the same chapter of Canadian history as they are.

It humbles me because as a naturalized citizen who grew up Canadian from Filipino roots, my branch of the family tree will span across many divides – social perspectives, ethnic backgrounds, cultural traditions, and even the Pacific Ocean itself – as it grows.  And part of that growth is accepting that my face will always be non-Caucasian and using the ensuing moments of marginalization, regardless of how or why they transpire, to make the voice of my cultural and ethnic background heard in Canada’s narrative.

Neither Here nor There: Being a Woman in the Middle Ground

You hear a lot of things about the whole “women who don’t want families” debate.  You also hear a lot of things from the “women who are rather young when they settle down and start families” debate.  But what about those of us ladies who fall in between those two extremes – the women who are in their mid- to late-twenties, have career-path jobs, and want to have children?

I am a twenty-something young woman who is gainfully employed, highly educated, and quite independent on several counts, but who also wants to get married and start a family.  Speaking from experience, then, I can tell you that those of us who fall into this middle category tend to have somewhat of a hard time.  We’re on neither one side nor the other of the “modern women and marriage” divide, which means we get flak from both sides of it.

Just because a woman is able to serve a husband and a family doesn’t mean she is unable to be her own person and live her own life.  And just because a woman is able to be herself and make her own life choices doesn’t make her ability to love and nurture a disadvantage or weakness in the real world.

A woman is not demeaning or belittling herself if she gets married and starts a family, but neither is she selfish and cold if she chooses to remain single and works to support herself.

There is more to a woman than her biological capacity to become a mother and raise a family – but there is also more to a woman than her social capacity to be independent and successful.

Those of us females in the mid-ground see these things and understand these things – so why do members of our own sex on both sides of the chasm call us out for being in the middle?  Why are we made to feel like we’re letting down our gender by wanting to compromise and have the best of both worlds that are offered to modern women?

Yes, I want to get married – but I want to have a set of memories and life experiences as an adult that are entirely my own.  Yes, when I start a family I would like to be stay-at-home mother – but that doesn’t mean I can’t contribute to that family’s finances now.  Yes, I am aware of that so-called biological clock ticking away inside me – but just because my body is able to bear children doesn’t mean I have to before the rest of me is ready to have and raise them.  Yes, I want to be the kind of wife my husband is proud to have on his arm and show off – but I want him to be proud because I have made something of myself in this world before deciding to be his wife.

There are many women who choose to be on one side, and one side only, of twenty-first century womanhood and as long as they find fulfilment and happiness in their choices I can respect and admire them for it.  They are doing what they want and what they think is right for them, and taking action for their happiness is what’s commendable.  What isn’t commendable is expecting every woman to fall neatly onto one side or another, because most of us don’t entirely fit the bill for just one side.

I myself would not be entirely fulfilled or happy if I was to choose one side without having been on the other.  I am neither any less feminine nor any less of a feminist for wanting what I think is the best pieces of both worlds.  I think that occupying the middle ground of modern womanhood allows me to be strong, independent, and assertive in feminine ways, while simultaneously being a feminist in ways that are non-abrasive, non-aggressive, and non-misandrist.  I don’t think I would be living my life well if I rushed into marriage without first having been able to become the best individual I can be – because my future family deserves to be given the best of me.  And living in the middle is where I can find that best possible version of myself.

Living my religion

Being a young adult of ardent faith comes with its own set of challenges, especially in today’s society.  It’s no understatement to say that being a young adult practicing any religion is counter-cultural simply because it’s true:  the majority of my peer group does not have a well-developed spiritual formation, if any at all.

And because we practicing young adults are going against popular culture, our own lives can become quite confusing from time to time.  We are still humans living in the day-to-day world.  We are still faced with the same challenges, ordeals, and events that everyone else encounters – but we have faith.  And while faith is on the whole an incredibly reliable compass, when the expectations of faith clash with the expectations of popular culture we do get thrown off-course.  It’s especially hard to live and express faith openly when popular culture perpetuates religion-based stereotypes, particularly the ones wherein anyone who is an ardent believer and faithful follower is portrayed as an uncontrollable, unlikable zealot out to convert the entire world by force.

Uniting uncommon faith with popular society is a tricky business.  It’s hard for those of us who have it to understand it, so believe me when I say that I get that the non-believer has a hard time understanding it too.  I’m a practicing Roman Catholic who had a crisis of faith in late adolescence and young adulthood, so really:  I understand both sides of the story.  And I do need to point out that the world through the eyes of faith is not necessarily black-and-white.  There are many shades of grey on all subjects of morality – and those spaces in between the extremes of what is blatantly wrong and what is infallibly right are where our faith is truly tested.

I’m still figuring out my faith and who I am as a daughter of God.  I’ll probably spend a great deal of the rest of my life trying to figure it out.  But in the twenty-four years that I have lived, loved, lost, and regained my faith, I have come to understand a little better three key aspects of my belief system.

Let me be clear that my intention here is not to preach on these three points, but rather to share how I have come to understand them – and for a few reasons.  First, not every religion names the Bible, either in entirety or in part, as its holy scripture.  Second, there are several versions of the Bible and the way I know the Word of God is not necessarily the way others would know it.  Third, the written word – even as it pertains to faith and religion – is always subject to human interpretation, and therefore can be read in many different ways even among those who know the same version of the Bible.  (See what I meant when I said it’s not all black-and-white?)

But there are common threads among all kinds of faith, and maybe if you’re a young man or young woman of a faith different to mine you’ll see those threads of my spiritual life intertwining with yours.

***

“Love the sinner, hate the sin,” is not carte-blanche for you to do whatever you want and think you’ll get off scott-free.  Catholics have this thing called Confession.  Otherwise known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it’s hinged upon the belief and teaching that no matter how grave the transgression, the sinner is still worthy of love and forgiveness.  (Actually, it’s what the entire religion is hinged upon.  After all, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ as a means of salvation for all of humanity is pretty much how this all started.)  And this is pretty good.  It means we can be human and make mistakes, but we have a chance to start anew and head back into the world with a stronger resolve.

It’s a component of Catholicism that is so integral and intrinsic to the entire belief system that sometimes it becomes a loophole or a crutch.  Personally, I have lost track of the number of times I have said to myself, “I can do whatever I want, because as long as I go to Confession I’ll be alright.  But that’s not entirely true.  “Confession is a covenant, and requires conviction to keep us from condemnation,” as my father once told me (how’s that for a Catholic tongue-twister?), and as such, it can’t be taken as a “get out of jail free” card that we can whip out every time we’re faced with a moral quandary.

But in terms of the world outside the confessional, loving the sinner and hating the sin goes beyond one’s own personal relationship with God.  As I’ve grown in my faith and in my limited understanding thereof, I’ve come to realise that the concept applies to my real-world relationships and that in these circumstances it applies in both directions.  To love the sinner and hate the sin is to “forgive those who trespass against us” and to do it with faith so that we may see the inherent good in others and help them overcome the challenges presented by their own weaknesses and shortcomings.  It is to remind us to forgive without losing accountability – either to ourselves or to others – and to forgive with conviction so as to strengthen ourselves and others.

 “Let those without sin cast the first stone,” is not an invitation towards passivity or inaction.  Spiritual lukewarmness has its own Gospel passage wherein it is struck down and criticized – and rightly so.  Faith requires conviction – not just when it comes to asking for forgiveness and forgiving others, but rather in every single one of its components.

Only God has the power to judge and condemn, but once again this isn’t an excuse to do whatever the heck we want and think we can get away with it.  This is yet another situation wherein accountability to oneself is intertwined with one’s accountability to others.   Refraining from casting the first stone does not mean remaining an uninvolved bystander.  Yes, we should make a conscious effort to avoid passing judgment (especially when we know little or nothing about the situation), but we should not avoid the opportunity presented to us in these circumstances to help another person grow positively.

Whether or not another person in my life shares my faith and even whether or not they believe in anything at all should not dictate how I choose to live my faith within that relationship.  I believe that I am held accountable not only for my actions but for my inaction as well.  It is not enough to merely refrain from casting the first stone:  the hand that drops the stone should be extended to help another back to their feet.

“Love one another as I have loved you” and “do unto others as you would have done unto yourself” – if these truly lie at the heart of my faith, then dropping the stone is to try loving as my Savior loves, and extending my hand in aid is to treat another as I would want them to treat me.  The call I have answered through my faith is not a call to jury duty.  It is a call to the witness stand where I can testify to the good in everyone and everything.  If I drop the stone but remain a bystander, I am not testifying to my faith:  I am failing to live by the standards of humanity in which I believe.

“Turn the other cheek,” is not another way of saying, “take it lying down.”  My mother often says, “Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice.”  That is to say, the general (and ideal) Catholic propensity towards openness, compassion, and forgiveness is often either mistaken as a loophole to bash the religion as a whole for the mistakes and shortcomings of its individuals, or mistaken as passivity, complacency, or obliviousness to reality.

God created man in His image.  Catechism taught me that God is love; therefore, because I am made in His image I too am called to embody love.  And while my spiritual propensity towards love does exist, my human one towards pride causes a great internal conflict.  I have learned, though, that there is a great difference between having pride in myself and being prideful.  The former is to acknowledge and stand up for my worth as a person – as an individual, unique, and irreplaceable creation.  The latter is to believe that my individuality and my uniqueness place me above anyone else.

To me, turning the other cheek is relinquishing one’s pride enough so as to allow room for growth and improvement in both parties involved, but not letting go of it entirely so as to become a willing doormat or scapegoat for one’s opponents.  To take any unwarranted or excessive attack lying down is to be lukewarm or indifferent to one’s faith and to one’s own inherent value.

I know the reality of human nature includes unsavory qualities and harmful tendencies, but I also know that the reality of spiritual nature gives every man, woman, and child a measure of worth.  Every person’s inherent value is worth fighting for, but I firmly believe that we are called to fight for our worth in ways that are not vengeful or harmful towards our aggressors.  Rather, we are called to fight for our worth in ways that would reflect the worth of others.

***

Of course this is all easier said than done, but another integral part of faith is the battle to overcome human weaknesses and failings.  The struggle is real, but my personal failures and shortcomings do not define me.  I am defined by how I abandon myself to my faith and how I live it in my daily life.