Editor’s note: Job candidates for newsroom positions at The Spokesman-Review are asked to write an autobiography as part of the interview process. Virginia de Leon, a new reporter at the paper, adapted hers for this Perspective page article.
My name changed when I was 9 years old.
It took me weeks to get used to it, of course, and that sometimes caused problems.
In the third grade, for instance, my teacher thought I had a learning disability.
She would stand in front of the classroom, look me in the eye and say “Virginia.”
But I didn’t hear my name - at least not before I heard the giggles, or felt the eraser end of a pencil poking me in the back.
Few at the time realized that for the first nine years of my life, people called me “beer-hee-nya,” my grandmother’s name - a name so vastly different from “vur-jin-ya,” which I didn’t even recognize as one of the 50 states.
Few also realized that before my name changed that year, I had never heard of trick-or-treating or slumber parties.
I ate rice for lunch, not PB and J. I never wore Wonder Woman Underoos.
I grew up in a country of rainbow-colored Jeepneys and crowded calles. In the Philippines, a Southeast Asian country of 60 million people, we celebrated saints’ days with fiestas. And Christmas lasted more than 12 days.
Few Americans realize that I was one of the lucky ones. Unlike millions of Filipino children who grow up in poverty, I spent my childhood in a large brick home in Manila, where I attended a private Benedictine school. Our neighborhood was one of spacious homes, German shepherd dogs and security guards. We even had three maids.
Many don’t understand why my family left such a luxurious life, but if you ask Hector, my father, he’ll give you the usual earful about America, the land of opportunity.
What he won’t talk about much is the past he left behind: A so-called democracy where no one could vote; irreverent laws influenced by bribes; a military that nearly killed his youngest brother, a former member of the Communist group, Kabataan Makabayan.
What my mother, Juanita, won’t talk about much is the fact she never had the opportunity to vote in a Filipino election. By the time she was old enough, former President Marcos had imposed martial law. By the time it was lifted, she had already moved to the United States.
When we moved to Seattle in 1983, my family learned to adjust. No longer could my mother afford her weekly manicure. My father, a chemical engineer, became a mere office worker. My sister, Eva Marie, and I washed dishes for the first time.
Gradually, we all learned to live in separate worlds - straddling both American and Filipino cultures.
For me, it was a matter of keeping up appearances and striking a strange balance. On one hand, I was a normal kid. I played kickball at recess, I learned to eat pizza, I listened to Duran Duran. But at the end of the day, I would return home to the greasy smell of fried food, my family’s kitschy statues of the Virgin Mary, the loud and sometimes hysterical voice of my mother reproaching me in her native Tagalog.
For a while, my Filipino culture embarrassed me. I even asked my mother, with her thick accent, to stop answering the phone.
But the culture - and my parents - also were unforgivably strict. I became a sort of outcast among my classmates because I was never allowed to spend the night or join Camp Fire. My parents, who also never heard of girls playing soccer, expected me to come home with straight A’s, practice the piano for two hours, do my chores, say my prayers then go to bed.
Perhaps inevitably, I grew to hate my double life.
For many years, I made a conscious effort to speak only English. I also rebelled against my parents’ vision of the obedient Asian child and attempted to be “normal,” even if that meant skipping class or sneaking out all night.
When I lived in Germany for a year between high school and college, I sometimes saw myself in the dark-eyed Turkish women immigrants. Some with shrouds on their heads, others with grocery bags walking five feet behind their husbands and sons. They would look longingly at the young German women - at their uncovered heads, their trendy Doc Martens, their almost carefree manner as they sashayed down the busy market streets.
In Yakima, where I worked for several months, I also saw myself in thousands of Mexican immigrants. Our eyes sometimes met as we passed each other, but we said little despite our common identity.
There were times when I wished I could take the young women aside and give them advice, impart them with valuable knowledge. But what could I have taught them? Now, at 24, I’m finally beginning to understand.
“Hyphenated Americans always try to reject one half or the other,” Franklin Fong, a Franciscan friar, told me once. “But eventually, you realize you are both. You can’t deny either side.”
For the first time, I am learning to accept all sides - sides that include my Filipino heritage, my American lifestyle, my German ideals.
In many ways, I’ve evolved into a polyglot of life, having lived one with such confusing contradictions. But if every life is indeed a story, then I, as the storyteller, must now learn to share my own.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos
MEMO: Virginia de Leon, a 1995 graduate of Gonzaga University, covers the culture beat for The Spokesman-Review. She is always looking for stories about people living in Spokane’s ethnic and non-mainstream communities. If you have a story idea for her, please write her at The Spokesman-Review, P.O. Box 2160, Spokane, WA 99210-1615. Or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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