When a Filipina Hits the Dance Floor

As the mother of a toddler, my mind often wanders to what my own mother did in certain situations. How did she handle potty training? How did she discipline me? Then I think about how different our worlds were as new moms.

She was a 20-something immigrant from the Philippines who arrived in New York in the late ’60s, leaving a country of corruption for something better. I only recently found out that she didn’t want to come here.

I’m a born-and-bred New Yorker who has all the luxuries of a middle-class kid turned middle-class adult. I grew up with technology and easy access to almost everything.

I can’t imagine what “coming to America” was like for my mom. I try, but she hasn’t shared many stories. I know there was struggle, and strife. Good for my mom, she’s built tough.

She took to the dance floor for the first time since the
accident. I could see her pain overcome by pure joy.

My titas have told me about the lineage of strong, fierce women I come from, and I feel them in my blood. My mother and the women before her were quietly tough. I was raised to be the same.

My mom — Maria Ignacia Castro San Agustin Ocampo — loves to dance, travel and give. She worked at Flushing Hospital in Queens from 1969 to 2009 as a lab technician, testing blood and specimens for viruses.

Every day she went to work dressed to the nines under a white lab coat: beautiful dresses, print skirts, silky tops and kitten heels. Diana Ross’ iconic side-swept bob was my mother’s hairspiration and she rocked it on her 5-foot frame. She lined her big, round eyes with black kohl to complete the look. She always looked good.

Her love of dance took over in my early teens and she and my father took ballroom classes regularly until they didn’t need them anymore. They were the dancing stars at the local Filipino parties.

When I was in high school, my mom would travel “back home” to the Philippines for a few weeks every January to run medical missions with her friends. They started their own, independent mission to help people in remote provinces get medical care.

As a child, I didn’t understand why my mom needed to be away for so long. Eventually, I got used to it, and she extended her stays, sometimes for months. It took me a while to understand that she felt more at home there than she did in New York, which is why she always called the Philippines home.

Mom Ocampo!

Goodbye, Philippines. Hello, New York.

In my 20s, while my mom was on one of her medical missions, I got a call that she had fallen while getting off a bus in a small mountaintop province. The fall was so bad that she needed hip replacement surgery.

I still vividly remember that moment. I wanted to fly to the Philippines ASAP to be with her, but I was told to wait. Finally, I got a call from her; she sounded fine, great even. She told me not to come and “don’t worry — I’m OK! I will call you after my surgery.” I immediately felt better, calmer.

My parents had separated a few years before the accident, and since then I had watched my mom fully spread her wings. She gave more to the medical mission, growing and expanding it. She gradually spent more time in the Philippines or traveling elsewhere to volunteer or on vacation.

She hit all parts of the globe, too many countries and cities to name. The dancing star at every party, she was having the time of her life. Finally, her life was hers. A week after the surgery, she returned to New York and stayed with her sister to recover. And for the first time, I witnessed her inner strength in a way I came to revere.

Physically, mentally and emotionally, the recovery took its toll on her, but she pushed through, chin up. She wanted to dance again. A few weeks passed and she was making progress. Then we found out that her surgery in the Philippines hadn’t been performed correctly and would need to be redone.

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My family was crushed. We were glad she was with us, but we couldn’t believe she had to take several painful steps back.

After the second surgery, recovery once again took its toll. This time it was even harder. My mom kept her head high through it all, even when I knew her heart, body and soul were so very heavy and in pain. Watching her recover for the second time gave me an even higher level of respect and admiration.

There were moments when her weariness showed, and I wanted her to let it all out. And I hoped she found quiet moments to do so, because it’s hard being strong for so long.

Over time, she got better, stronger, worked even harder and started to walk again, with a cane. That cane cramped her fabulous style, and I knew she was going to push herself to walk without it. She did. Weeks later, she started walking unassisted, with a small limp. I know the limp bothered her too, but she refused to let it show.

Finally, she was ready to dance again. As she took to the dance floor for the first time since the accident, I could see her pain overcome by pure joy. I beamed with pride: Her smile was back and so was her radiant spirit.

Our worlds as new moms may have been very different, but as moms I hope we’re the same. I hope I teach my daughter to always keep her head to the sky, especially through the storms, because they will come, and I will work tirelessly to hand her the keys to life that my mom handed me.

She taught me how to be a woman, and a mom. How to travel, give, love and, of course, how to dance.

Asian Anger: A Model Minority No More

Exactly a month before the quarantine, I was lucky enough to take a quick girls’ trip. As I sat on a beach in the Caribbean, relaxed, sipping a cocktail on a cloudless day, my friend checked her phone and chuckled.

She then shared a joke about “staying away from Asians” because of the coronavirus. No one reacted.

Being the only Asian woman on the trip, it definitely hit me differently and I side-eyed her under my shades. Did she forget I was Asian? My close friend of 15 years? What the fuck? I didn’t want to kill the vibe, though, so I regretfully didn’t say anything. It was our first day of vacation.

I’ve been hearing about other hate crimes and attacks against Asian Americans — making me angry and fearful in a way that I’m not familiar with.

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I didn’t engage with her as much as I normally would, though, since we were already on shaky terms, and then after four lovely days of vacation, it was time to come home. At the airport, I quickly noticed that my crew and I were pretty much the only under-50, non-white travelers there. Something I, and most people of color I know, take note of in a new setting, and this scene was a very quick read.

As we waited in the long security line, I wondered if I was imagining the dirty looks. I wasn’t. We were a group of chatty, happy women of mixed races, so there is that, but I couldn’t help but wonder, as the only Asian in the room, was I the bull’s-eye?

In the waiting area, there were TVs scattered around, all streaming CNN — the wide red bar and bold white text reading something like CORONAVIRUS SPREADING IN U.S.

Having been away from TV, we were not fully aware of what was happening and how quickly. I held in a cough.

A week or so later, on one of my last commutes to work, sitting on the train, an older Asian woman was getting ready to exit, probably at the next stop. A middle-aged, burly man was standing behind her.

As we approached the station, she sneezed, covering her mouth. The doors opened, and as she walked off, the man behind her started yelling as he followed her out.

“Go back to your country with that shit, get out of here! You Asian BITCH!”

The train started leaving and I watched from the window as the woman yelled back at the burly man, boiling rage brewing inside of me. I wanted to protect her. She could have been my mom, tita (aunt) or lola (grandmother), and she was simply trying to get to work like everyone else.

And now? Now she’s having to defend herself for being Asian. I was proud that she fought back but scared of what could happen to her. I recently read that retaliating typically has an adverse effect and only spurs on the attacker. The real way to get them to back down is if a bystander steps up, but how often does that happen? These days a bystander is quicker to record the incident and not do much else.

And I’ve been hearing about other hate crimes and attacks against Asian Americans — making me angry and fearful in a way that I’m not familiar with. From my friend’s comment and the incident I witnessed, to more serious attacks that I’ve heard about from friends and friends of friends, I’m scared it’s not going to stop anytime soon.

I’m also especially disappointed that it’s happening in New York.

As a first-generation Filipina American, born and raised in Jamaica, Queens, the streets of New York City raised me, and I’m not frightened easily. I was a typical Queens public-school kid. I grew up seeing rappers like Onyx, LL Cool J and 50 Cent — who was always promoting his mixtapes — on Jamaica Avenue, and often cut class to stroll around the village.

This city made me fearless, and I wear it like a badge of honor. To feel afraid? It’s surreal, and I’m not alone as this is happening everywhere, with the volume of racially incited incidents and the swelling of fear lighting up my social feeds.

Yes, we’ve seen mounting coverage of attack stories. Sure, Cardi B did an Instagram Live telling her fans not to be racist against the Chinese, and 45 tweeted to not be racist against Asian Americans (after using the term “Chinese virus” multiple times), but what will this do on the local level where these incidents are actually happening?

Emelyn

The author is a native New Yorker, born and bred in Queens.

As Asians, we have our own interracial relations. Filipinos have been the underdog, not as known or “celebrated” as Chinese, Koreans or Japanese, at least until very recently thanks to some notable personalities, but we’ve been here. We’ve all collectively been here and are now bonding together because bigotry will lump us into the same checkbox.

I keep thinking about the woman on the train who I’m sure was Filipino and the image of her yelling loudly on the platform, her anger palpable while everyone watched in silence. I know that incident has left an impression on her too, and I hope she’s OK.

But how do we convey that we are not the enemy?

The enemy is a germ, a bad grouping of them that have spread across the globe. Asian Americans were often seen as the “model minority”: always on the sidelines, following the rules. Now we’re the target. That thin dotted line between fear and hate, so easily crossed in times of panic, is being crossed.

I finally confronted my friend, and it was not an easy conversation as we had other issues to discuss. She apologized for the comment. She said she didn’t know that I was “so sensitive.”

It brought other concerns of mine about our friendship into play. Maybe because of how I’ve been feeling about the state of the world, her one comment is carrying more weight with me (and our friendship) than it should. Maybe.

All I know is that every time I have to go outside, I put on an invisible coat of armor and am on the defense, hyper-aware, but then aren’t we all to some degree? Mine just has an added layer.

I wish I knew what to do with this new combination of emotions, this fear for my family and the Asian American community. As someone who meditates daily, I can usually “ohm” things out. This time though? I’m at a bit of a loss.