This is a reflective essay I wrote for my first semester college english class. It was the first college essay I was assigned to write and I found it intimidating, realizing that my writing skills will finally be put to the test. I wanted to share my story because I know that I am not alone in struggling with these experiences. I am still struggling with balancing two cultures and learning to make peace with feelings of frustration and shame.
As first-generation immigrants, my parents are unfamiliar with the American education system, specifically, college in its entirety. While my parents have been supportive of my education, they do not have the knowledge or time to guide me along the process. As a result, I was forced to become independent within my academic journey. In becoming self-reliant and navigating through The Academy on my own, I struggled to balance my cultural and academic identity.
Growing up, my parents instilled in me the importance of education as a foundation for success. The guidance they provided was limited to: “Be a good student,” which meant, “earn good grades.” To please my parents, I finished my homework, studied dutifully, and earned fridge-worthy grades throughout my academic career. They congratulated me on every report card, with the same phrase: “Good job, anak, keep doing well,” my father would always write on every report card. With every A I brought home, they sounded like a broken record, it started to feel like they were mocking me. Their response was so superficial, so focused on the letter grade. I graduated high school with a 4.2 GPA, decorated with cords. According to my parents’ definition, this proved I am a good student. They were proud of me.
Nevertheless, I know a good student is not defined by the grades they earn. I consider myself a good student because I value and apply the knowledge I learn beyond the classroom setting. But, the more I learned, the more I withdrew myself from my family to focus on my studies. In prioritizing my academics, I struggled to balance my Filipino identity. The more serious I was about perfecting my academic skills, the more I held my parents accountable for the same standards they placed on me. While dealing with my perfectionism and familial expectations, I feel compelled to further conform to the academic standards of the Model Minority Myth. A model minority is a racial group whose members are perceived to have a higher level of success compared to others. The media often portrays Asians as a poster child for this myth, using seemingly positive stereotypes, such as “all Asians are good at math.” Not only does this have detrimental effects on diverse Asian ethnicities, but also race-relations in general.
As a result, the Model Minority Myth and my parents’ expectations forced me to bolster my sense of agency. Both conditioned me to attach my self-worth to my academic accomplishments. As a second-generation college student, would I become another prized possession, a trophy, for my family? My older sister, fortunately, went through the college experience before me, attending Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) and successfully transferring, and graduating from the University of Virginia (UVA). Despite our similar paths, the future of my education solely rests in my hands. I must have exigence because if I do not, how will I repay my parents for their sacrifices, if not for an educated daughter destined to pursue a better life than theirs?
For this reason, I adopted the habits that eventually isolated me from my family, such that of Rodriguez in Scholarship boy: “with ever-increasing intensity, I devoted myself to my studies. I became bookish, puzzling to all my family. My ambition set me apart.” Like Rodriguez, when I was in high school, I would come home every day armed with knowledge I was eager to share with my parents. My eyes lit up, almost alarmingly, chattering on about Crime and Punishment. Yet, as I was rapt in my speech, my mother’s eyes glazed over. She curtly commented on how all the books we were reading were too old, too Eurocentric:
“Fyodor… ano? Russian, talaga? Why do they make you read those books?”
“It’s a classical novel, mom. It brilliantly explores morality and religion—”
“He murdered someone? Wow! Don’t start thinking like him!”
“The author didn’t commit a murder. Raskolnikov is a complex character that—”
“Why all the books you talk about are old? No modern or Asian?”
“Well, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad—”
“Do you have to write an essay on it?”
I started to feel contempt against my parents’ way of life. Their philosophy was “not only different but starkly opposed to that of the classroom,” as stated by Rodriguez.
While I am adopting the identity of a scholar, according to my parents, I am becoming Americanized. In his song Kuya Derrick, Nak, a Filipino-American rapper, shares his similar struggles with maintaining his identity: “Our parents wanted us to grow up in America without becoming American.” My parents assumed American education was stripping me of my native culture because they claim The Academy has a standard, monolithic, mindset. Despite explaining The Academy’s emphasis on not only diversity in ethnicity, but as well as in thought, I do agree with them: I am struggling to be proud of, to retain, my Filipino identity while simultaneously becoming a member of The Academy.
In our image exercise in class, I chose the image with a group of people surrounded by thought bubbles and collaboration. I interpreted the frenzy of intellect as an example of scholars sharing their insights in The Academy. As an introvert, I see myself as the first person from the right, the one listening and contemplating the ideas they learned. While I do not see my introversion as a problem, my analytical thinking exacerbates my shyness and self-criticism. These issues not only hinder my contributions, but growth in The Academy. Currently, I am weighed down by the “Panic Monster.” To guarantee my successful transfer to UVA, he is always awake in my mind, pressuring me to confine myself in the yellow walls of my aunt’s attic, suffocating me with the constant transfer of knowledge. The only way to shut him up is to obey his orders: study and the “Panic Monster” takes a nap. To make the most of my college experience and to better engage in The Academy’s frenzy of knowledge, I plan to become more confident in my skills and embrace a hint of extraversion.
Now that I am paying for my education, I feel a profound sense of determination to take advantage of my resources. I do not want to be a passive student, just dutifully doing their work and waiting for two years to go by. I will participate in class discussions, connect with my professors, and take honors courses to grow further as a scholar. I will exhaust this campus of its resources by taking advantage of the tutoring centers, getting free merchandise from Student Life, and joining campus clubs such as the Honors Club and the Pride Alliance. To refrain from wasting the precious days of my “Life Calendar,” as Urban explains, I will further challenge my shyness by becoming involved outside of NVCC’s campus. I will explore Annandale, instead of constantly being cooped up in my aunt’s attic, and meet new people from various backgrounds in one of the most diverse colleges in America.
My parents, like most immigrants, wanted me to succeed and pursue the opportunities they missed. They were living their American Dream vicariously through me. I should be grateful for their sacrifices. While they do not have the same intellectual curiosity as I do, I take for “granted their enormous native intelligence,” as Rodriguez confessed. While I have an English accent in Tagalog, my parents can fluently write and speak in our native tongue. While I am forgetting the language, they manage to speak both English, Tagalog, and even a regional dialect, though they have an accent. While I can quote classical literature, they can cook a variety of traditional Filipino cuisine that I enjoyed eating growing up and still do today. While I held contempt for them, imagine how heartbroken they felt when they witnessed their child becoming increasingly disconnected and foreign from their family. I want to learn more about my roots, I want to study my history.
I strive to express gratitude towards my parents’ strength in moving us here after political persecution and extrajudicial killings of human rights advocates in the Philippines forced us to flee and seek refuge in America. I strive to reclaim my Filipino identity and culture by being less judgmental, and truly understanding my parents’ way of life, our culture’s way of life. I must not let the rules of The Academy and my Eurocentric education consume my identity. I aim to learn how to cook traditional meals, learn our rich native history, and respond to my parents in Tagalog.
A reference to the first Academy, founded by Plato. It is also used to describe the overall intellectual work and environment of colleges or universities.
anak means child in Tagalog, the main language of the Philippines.
The name Tim Urban coined for upcoming deadlines during his TEDTalk on procrastination.