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Pattie Umali '12 Article in the Manila Times

A Pinay student shares Filipino culture to her American Ivy League university

It is November 2008. I have only been at this campus for two months, but my first performance is already here. My nerves tense up. My friends in the audience seem intrigued to watch this Filipino dance with a name they hesitate to pronounce. Sakuting . . . or however you say it. I feel as if this may be the first time that the color of my skin comes into their line of focus. The lights dim and the emcee begins to speak. I march on stage to the roar of the crowd. My feet work the steps as I attempt to stay with the folksy tune. One two three, two two three . . . Am I really here?

Even today, it is hard for me to believe that I attend Brown University. Throughout my life, my mom portrayed the Ivy League as a target that must be reached. Many Americans see this ambition as very stereotypically “Asian,” but I saw it as my mother did: proof that her migration to the United States had brought her daughter new opportunities. After all, what is a better icon of American success than the Ivy League; breeder of America’s wealthy and prominent? Indeed, my time at Brown has provided many occasions to increase my knowledge and expand my networks. But also, my beloved university unexpectedly presented the opportunity for me to explore a part of myself that I did not realize required further reflection: my bond to the Filipino-American community.

I always considered myself “in touch” with my Filipino heritage throughout my childhood in the Chicago suburbs. I often spent Saturday afternoons with family, eating pansit and barbecue, and entire Sundays at a church with a predominantly Filipino/Filipino-American population. I enjoyed the “Filipino” label that my American friends gave me because it made me feel like I had something special to share. I felt neither unsure nor ashamed of my Filipino ancestry and I had no plans of changing these attitudes in college. So I came to Brown riding high on the supportive shoulders of my friends and family, all of them proud of my achievements and excited for my future. Eager to start a new chapter in my life, I did not expect that the temporary loss of this community would affect me so greatly.

For the first couple of weeks, I was terribly homesick for my family, my friends and the taste of my lola’s nilaga. At the same time, Brown held true on its promises of fascinating new friends, compelling courses and exhilarating independence. I can only describe the first months as supersonic, unpredictable fun.
However, there was something missing; I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I felt like I had completed a jigsaw puzzle, only to find that I had overlooked one missing piece. Because of this tiny gap, I could not see a clear image of what my college experience would be like. It took me a while to recognize that the last puzzle piece sat in the open palm of the Filipino Alliance.

The Filipino Alliance (FA) is a group of Filipino/Filipino-Americans and non-Filipinos who strive to maintain and promote Filipino culture and heritage at Brown University. I first became involved by serving as Traditional Dance coordinator and choreographing Sakuting for our fall performance, but my time with “the FAmily” soon included informal study breaks and birthday dinners. The members reminded me of this tita or that kuya; and they genuinely cared about how I was adjusting to Brown in the same way as my loved ones at home. I am now a very active member of FA and hope to ensure its survival even long after I exit Brown’s distinguished gates.

Is “Filipino-American” my only descriptor? Certainly not. I am also a musician, film junkie, intercultural education advocate and cat owner. However, it is my Filipino blood that has provided me a lifelong source of comforting stability through my family at home and the Filipino Alliance at Brown. My time at college has revealed the value that I place on the collective camaraderie that Filipino-Americans seem to intensely nurture. While some may see the Filipino global diaspora as culturally altering or destructive, I choose to see the positive, in that many Filipino-American youth have taken a proactive interest in their Filipino ancestry and culture. Quite interestingly, the results have created a hybrid, as I especially see among the Filipino-American youth of Chicago. These individuals claim a selfhood that embraces both their American perspectives and their Filipino roots. In the same way that I learned Sakuting, with English steps and
Filipino melodies, Filipino-Americans tango through life with the ability to learn from both ends of the cultural spectrum and the capacities to relate and translate for either side. What results is a person at a distinct advantage in a world of many cultures.

Link to the Manila Times Article


A Charlie Chan Film Stirs an Old Controversy

Published: March 7, 2010.

The revival of a 42-year-old documentary on the fictional Chinese detective Charlie Chan has reignited the controversy surrounding that character specifically and, more generally, the portrayal of Asian-Americans in Hollywood.

The documentary, “The Great Charlie Chan,” made in 1968, was all but forgotten. But Harvey Chertok, who was vice president for advertising, promotion and publicity at Warner Brothers-Seven Arts when it was created, said he discovered it recently while cleaning out old files. The New York Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the group that organizes the New York Emmy Awards, held a screening in February and another is scheduled at theNational Arts Club in Manhattan on March 16.

A book, “Quotations From Charlie Chan,” was published as a companion to the documentary. It contains many of the kitschy sayings the character used when talking to his “No. 1 Son.”

For many activists, Charlie Chan remains a symbol of Hollywood’s failure to accurately portray Asians and Asian-Americans. The character was usually played by white actors who were made up to seem Asian and who spoke English with an exaggerated accent. The portrayals also frequently perpetuated the cliché of Asian-Americans as inscrutable.

A screening of such films “indicates the level of disenfranchisement and disregard they hold for Asian Pacific Islanders,” said Ken Choy, a producer and community organizer in Los Angeles.

Bill Chu, a 71-year-old New York City resident, says that when he was growing up in Los Angeles and Philadelphia in the 1950s, he and his younger brother were subjected to racial taunts inspired by the fake Confucian quotations of Chan.

“The Hollywood characterizations — Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan and other stereotypes — didn’t necessarily put us in a favorable light,” Mr. Chu said.

Screenings of Charlie Chan films have drawn objections before. In 2003, the Fox Movie Channel reached a compromise to show some of the films after it also agreed to broadcast a panel discussion on racial issues to accompany the movies.

Mr. Chertok said that during the screening in February, no one in the audience raised the issue of stereotypes, although he said he made note of the Fox controversy during his remarks.

But some Asian-Americans say that although Charlie Chan was an amalgam of stereotypes, he should be looked at in a broader context 80 years after he was created.

“The fortune-cookie aphorisms tend to be funny” today, said Stephen Gong, executive director of the Center for Asian American Media in San Francisco. “His children very much represent a generational shift.”


A version of this article appeared in print on March 8, 2010, on page B6 of the New York edition.


Figure Skaters of Asian Descent Have Risen to Prominence

Published: January 23, 2010

SPOKANE, Wash. — Before finishing second at the United States Figure Skating Championships, Mirai Nagasu said with a teenager’s irrepressibility, “I’m here to show myself and others I’m the future of the U.S.A.”


It was self-referential, but Nagasu, 16, also had a broader point to make: Skaters of Asian descent, primarily women but also men, have risen to prominence in large numbers both nationally and internationally.

The reasons are varied, skaters and coaches say. They have to do with rules changes, body type, hard work and discipline, diet and the emergence over the past two decades of role models like Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan of the United States and Midori Ito of Japan.

Eight of the 23 women who competed Saturday in the long program at the United States championships were Asian-Americans, who also excelled here among younger skaters. Nathan Chen won the men’s novice competition, completing triple jumps as a 10-year-old. The siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani won the junior ice dancing competition. Another sister-brother team, Danvi and Vu Pham, finished second in the novice ice dance.

The reigning women’s Olympic champion, Shizuka Arakawa, is Japanese. Asian women have won seven of the nine medals at the last three world championships. Kim Yu-na of South Korea is heavily favored to win the women’s gold medal next month at the Vancouver Games, where Asian skaters are also among the favorites in the men’s and pairs competitions.

“Maybe Asians are switching from studying to sports,” said Nagasu, a Japanese-American from Arcadia, Calif., and the 2008 national champion.

The influx of Asian skaters can be traced in part to the elimination of compulsory school figures, coaches said. For decades, the etching of figure-eights on the ice counted for 50 percent or more of a skater’s score at competitions. Mastering these tracings took years and miles skating in circles, delaying the development of jumping technique.

Compulsory figures had a major drawback, though. They could be numbing to watch. They grew increasingly less important and were eliminated in 1990.

“TV and the media thought it was the dumbest thing they’d ever seen,” said Kathy Casey, a longtime American coach.

Without compulsory figures, skating became more like gymnastics. Jumping assumed a new urgency. Younger skaters could excel. The key to jumping is to leap high and spin quickly and tightly through two, three or four revolutions before returning to the ice. Asian skaters are often small and willowy, which can be an asset when jumping.

“They have bodies that are quick and light; they’re able to do things very fast,” said Frank Carroll, who coached Kwan and now coaches Nagasu. “It’s like Chinese divers. If you look at those bodies, there’s nothing there. They’re just like nymphs.”

Asian skaters also often adhere to a diet of rice and vegetables and fish, avoiding large quantities of beef and fat, Carroll said. This can make them less vulnerable to weight gain in a sport where five pounds can make a difference between a winning jumper and a struggling one.

Other cultural factors are also at play, coaches said. Discipline at home often transfers to discipline at the rink, Carroll said. Audrey Weisiger, a prominent Chinese-American coach, said: “A lot of Asian families really drive their kids, and I don’t mean in the car. They’re not allowed to be marginal.”

Nagasu’s mother sits at practice and gives hand signals to her daughter, The Chicago Tribune reported. On Friday, Nagasu said her mother had sometimes used corporal punishment, slapping her when she was younger.

“I think my own thinking is harsher than my mom’s discipline,” Nagasu said. “I think it’s because I’m so hard on myself that I can push myself this far.”

She took up skating even though her parents favored golf. Yamaguchi, the 1992 Olympic champion, was also self-motivated. She often woke her mother at 4 in the morning so she could train, said Yuki Saegusa, the agent for both Yamaguchi and Nagasu.

“I think hard work among Asians is the premise of why they succeed,” Saegusa said. “I don’t think that aspect is given enough credit.”

On the other hand, cultural differences may leave some Asian-American skaters feeling uncomfortable in standing out individually or feeling they measure up, coaches and parents said.

“It may not be second nature that they always feel comfortable,” said Chang Gao, the father of the 15-year-old skater Christina Gao of Cincinnati and a former junior national badminton champion in China.

Curiously, China is one place where women’s singles skating has not fully developed, despite two Olympic medals won by Chen Lu in the 1990s. There are not enough coaches and rinks, said Li Ming Zhu, Chen’s former coach.

“It’s better than it was 10 years ago, but in China they don’t have very many young skaters,” Li said.

That is not the case in Japan, which experienced a skating boom after Ito won a world title in 1989 and an Olympic silver medal in 1992. Rinks are being built, too, in South Korea now that Kim has become a world champion and an Olympic favorite.

“You watch these skaters and you think you can do it too,” said Christina Gao, who trains with Kim in Toronto and idolizes Kwan, who won five world championships and two Olympic medals. “It really motivates me.”

A version of this article appeared in print on January 24, 2010, on page SP7 of the New York edition.


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