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Melissa Han

EDLD 770 A&B EDS 291 A&B Leadership Research


Spring 2014
Melissas Cultural Autobiography
Early Family Life in America
I am the only child of Filipino immigrants. Although my story began with the journey of
ancestors, I choose to write from where my parents path began in America. Each of my parents
came to America because of older family members who served as gateways for their arrival.
After dating for a few months, my mothers temporary visit as a tourist in America was to expire.
She then told my father that if he was serious about her, he would marry her so she could stay.
Since my father had a permanent status in America, he decided to marry my mother. My father
became an accountant and my mother was a payroll clerk for insurance companies. While I grew
up, my parents always referred to the Philippines as home and America as a temporary place to
make money and raise a family so that they could eventually go back home with more
financial stability.
My parents saved their money for many years until they were able to buy their first home
and only home in Pasadena, California in the mid-1970s. The street where my parents lived was
primarily a white, elderly population. I was born in 1976. My parents continue to live in
Pasadena in the same house. Although they still speak of eventually going home to the
Philippines, they havent made the move despite both being retired. Their home is a symbol of
status for them. My parents constantly reminded me that as long as I worked hard and went to
college, I could be successful. Success meant being a doctor or lawyer. Symbols of status were
important to my parents because it proved the American Dream worked. They were immigrants
who made it. I remember the day my parents bought their first white Mercedes Benz. That car
showed they had made it. My mother could not let that car go. It sat in their driveway long after
it stopped working.
I was unaware of my familys social class until we visited the Philippines when I was 19
years old. We decided to shop at one of their mega malls. People would stare at me. My mother
and I walked to the restroom and I asked her why people were staring at me. What was wrong
with me? My mother said people stared because they could tell I was from America. She also
said that when they negotiated with vendors, I was to remain silent. My American accent would
convince vendors to raise the prices that my parents were trying to negotiate down. It was then
that I realized our American citizenship was a social class in of itself when in a third world
country.
One night, my aunt invited our family to have dinner with family friends during our stay
in the Philippines. As we drove through the dark streets and approached the 10 foot black gates
of our dinner party, I was struck by the begging children waiting outside the gates. We drove
through the gates and closed them, dividing us from them. On the other side of the gate were
twinkling lights strewn around palm trees, a mansion and a guest house. The dinner party was
filled with wealthy, Filipino senators and their families. This was the first time I was physically
sickened by my financial privilege.
School Days
I have always been a quiet person for as long as I can remember. That is what I thought
until I watched an old family video. I was in the kitchen, not watching, but just listening as the
video played. All of a sudden I heard an obnoxious, loud girl in the background. Upon looking
up, I was startled to discover that that loud girl was me at 8 years old. The loudness was not
startling, it was the confidence behind the voice that was captivating. Who was that girl? Why
did she become so quiet?
When I travel back to that time, an image of me as a third grader brings to light how that
confident girl became silent. That year was critical because it was the year I became aware of my
race, ethnicity, and gender at once. It was recess time at Webster Elementary. I was wearing my
turquoise dress that my step-grandmother sewed for me and my run down sneakers. A teacher
asked if there were any students who wanted to play baseball after lunch. Even though I had
never played before, I thought that it would be fun to learn. I am proud of how courageous I was
back then. I thought what the heck and walked on the field.
I was the only girl. I was also the only Asian. I was up to bat. The boys on my team
yelled at me to not swing. Since I didnt know why I swung anyway. I missed. Strike one.
Finally, a boy said that if I didnt swing, I could walk to first base. Since I wanted to help my
team I stopped swinging. It was then that I realized that I was seen as weak because I was a girl.
When I relive that time in my life, I still grieve for that girl. That moment crushed her confidence
and quieted her more. I continue to build back the confidence I lost that day.
That same year, I was playing tag with my friends at recess. A white boy whom I had
never met walked up to me and pulled both his eyes into a straight line and said, Ching chong!
Youre Chinese! I looked around me to see if he was talking to someone else. He couldnt be
talking to me. My eyes dont look like that. I dont speak like that. I am not Chinese. For the first
time, I felt both shame for being different. From then on, I didnt want to stand out. Although I
used my shyness to hide from my physical insecurities, I felt confident as a student.

College Years
I went to UCSD ready to become the doctor I dreamed I would be. After my first biology
course in my first quarter, I decided that was not the path for me. At this point, I realized that I
could choose what I wanted to become. I had been carrying the burden of living out what my
parents dreamt for me, when in the end my parents asked me what I wanted. Maybe thats why
they came to America and worked so hard, so that I would have a choice.
When I took social science and teacher education classes with friends, it was then that I
first experienced what it felt like to be passionate about a cause. We read Kozol and discussed
how society perpetuates the underserved and those who continue to have power and access. I
decided to minor in teacher education and social sciences. I just didnt know what to do with it.
Faith and Social Justice Intersect
I grew up culturally Catholic. Being Catholic was always intimately tied to being
Filipino. When I went to college, I wanted to own my own faith and choose it for myself. I
attended various non-denominational Christian groups until I chose one that valued diversity and
social justice. During one meeting, we began an intense discussion of race and how our personal
experiences with racism shaped our identity. We were encouraged to be vulnerable and honest. I
had not up until that point dealt with the pain of being made fun of for being Asian. As others
were sharing their stories I was relieved to hear I wasnt alone but also angry to hear others say
they were color blind. After witnessing others courage to speak, I then spoke my own truth.
It was then that I befriended a white woman who apologized for what her race had done.
Her name was Melissa too. She would ask me questions about my story. She never assumed or
defended. She simply asked and listened. The Christian group we were both attending spoke
about reconciliation and challenged us to pursue it through authentic relationships. I learned what
it meant to be committed to pursuing racial reconciliation through my friendship with Melissa.
Racial reconciliation was not an end product but a process where both parties are committed to,
even if it means sacrifice and risk. It was also then I learned how my faith was also about
bringing about the kind of justice I yearned for in an active way. It was no longer a building to
attend to on Sundays. I questioned how I could live out the justice I sought for.
Beyond College
As an educator, I see that my experiences as both on the receiving end of oppression and
privilege. The interviews and re-entering my journey through this cultural autobiography has
helped me realize those experiences have given me empathy for the underserved and made me
aware of my choice to use my privilege to empower others. It is a choice to be willing to
sacrifice and risk my comfort for the benefit of others. This is advocacy. Much of my
assumptions were corrected through relationships built on deep understanding and trust. They
were built over time. Although my experiences have added to my awareness, there is much more
for me to learn by pursuing authentic relationships that will continue to challenge my
assumptions with others who have different faith and sexual orientations from myself. My
journey towards cultural proficiency continues.

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