Between the ages of 13-18, I wanted to look like Robert Smith. In case you’re too young, or not melancholy enough to know who this is, Smith is the lead singer for the Cure – the band that provided the soundtrack to many a shoe-gazing loner of the late 80s and 90s.
For this little get-up, I remember searching through my Dad’s closet – finding his outgrown velour jacket from the early 80s, I paired it with my own ruffle shirt. I tousled my short angled bob-cut that hung over the left side of my face, using lots of Dep gel and aerosol hairspray. Then I drew on thick eyeliner and smeared on some grey eye shadow to add some deathly charm. It was a costume, but a part of me wished I could wear it all of the time.
What did this girl, in gothic attire, have in common with any other Filipina-American of her age?
Not much. Contrary to stereotypes, I didn’t grow up eating Pancit and lumpia, hanging out at fiestas, or learning cultural dances. That one of the Cure’s famous songs was “Why Can’t I Be You?” is fitting, because growing up, I often didn’t feel at home in my own skin.
At this age, some Filipino-American girls would be getting ready for a Debut – an expensive party thrown by the well-to-do. My Mom didn’t have a Debut, nor would it have made any sense for me; I would have rather been eaten alive by a tiger than to prance around in a frilly dress with a bunch of strangers.
At this age, too, a young Catholic Fil-Am would be getting ready for Confirmation, a sacred rite of passage – and this I was.
But I’m not going to tell the story of these traditional rites. Instead, I will talk about a turning point. For isn’t this what a rite of passage is: a point after which things change?
But first, let’s back up at bit and talk history. We as Fil-Ams inherit a fragmented sense of identity. With colonialism by Spain for over 300 years, and the United States for 50, sprinkle in war, conquest and martial law - identity was a complex thing for us before folks even came here.
Enter my parents, who immigrated in 1969 with little to their name, and kept separate from their relatives. Always seeking a better job, a better life, we lived like nomads, briefly settling in small towns and big cities throughout the country, from coast to coast. In an effort to prevent my sister and me from facing discrimination, due to the accents they feared we’d inherit; and mistakenly believing that if we were bilingual, we’d have trouble with English, my parents chose to speak to us in only English, not teaching us their native tongues. And so I grew up in a household where Tagalog was their secret language. Between this and the outside world, which told me to be as American as apple pie, I was a child who often wished I had lighter skin and blue eyes.
So I was a part of a story of constant change, of piecing together an identity from the old and the new, and sometimes of self-hate.
Over the course of moving, I began to believe that I could re-invent myself in the face of change. I remember getting ready to leave for Florida just before 9th grade, our fifth move across the country (we’d already lived in New Jersey, Washington, Texas, and California), thinking that I could be whomever I wanted to be – the flip side to the heartbreak of getting upheaval.
From ‘92-94, we lived in a desert town east of L.A.; the backdrop to my high school life was tumbleweeds, Joshua trees, and lots of dust. How much further could you be from the tropical Philippines? There were only few folks of color at my school, and they were lost among the clicks of jocks, cheerleaders, and outcasts. I became even more introverted, solitary, and sullen, even further resembling Robert Smith, and not just on Halloween. I couldn’t wait until it was time to leave the desert and go to college to start my own life. While other kids were partying on weekends, I stared at the Angeles Forest under the moon or made paintings of angels and cages on empty freeways. (Yeah, I was a real barrel of laughs.)
In 1992, when I was seventeen, something profound happened: my parents took me and my sister to the Philippines, their first trip back in 23 years. On this visit, I met my grandparents for the first time.
When we arrived at the airport, I could feel the sticky, hot air push through the vents, embracing my skin; I felt all these brown faces surrounding me, something I had never experienced before – imagine, people looking just like me! And then I saw my grandparents’ silhouettes as we entered the arrival area. It was like the myths came alive – my Lolo, whom I had only known through the letters he’d sent me, stood, this slender military man with thick glasses, – and this small woman with a smile that lit up her face. Embrace: Embracing them for the first time seemed to suture together, in one moment, the past, present, and future.
You don’t realize how displaced you’ve been until you find your place. So this, I’d say was my true rite of passage. Meeting my grandparents, visiting my parents’ homeland, initiated a lifelong journey of embracing my roots. Until then, my parents had believed it was better if I were to blend in; but in this skin we could never truly “blend in,” and this was the mistake of the Melting Pot myth. Instead, I had to learn to inhabit my own skin, my own history. Over 2 decades later, people are surprised to know how estranged I had been from my culture until that point.
But that’s what rites of passage are about: crossing a threshold; finding that self you were always meant to be.
How would I do it over again?
Well, I’d give my parents less grief. Like some of you, my teens were rife with rebellion and anger, of locking myself in my room and threatening to run away. I would, if I could go back, be wise enough to thank them for doing their best under the circumstances. I’d tell them I know that this world wasn’t welcoming for them -- so I get why they tried to make me more American for this world.
But see, I realize now that they, too, needed a rite of passage. They arrived to both the illusion of the American Dream and the harsh realities of racism and prejudice. Maybe they needed someone to say to them when they arrived with borrowed money and wide eyes, “it’s going to be hard here. You are going to struggle, be treated like outsiders. But you belong. Keep loving yourselves.”
So, if I could re-do my rite of passage, I really wouldn’t. I certainly wouldn’t have benefitted from a Debut, and my Confirmation would still be a rite of obligation.
It was through this journey of wanting to be someone else that I eventually became who I am: now, a proud pinay, a writer, an educator, hoping to light the path a little for others.
And yeah, on parts of that journey, sometimes I looked like Robert Smith.
Aimee Suzara is a Filipino-American poet, playwright, and performer whose mission is to create poetic and theatrical work about race, gender, and the body to provoke dialogue and social change. Based in Oakland, Suzara has graced stages nationally, from Florida to Washington. Her debut poetry book, SOUVENIR (WordTech Editions 2014) was lauded as “a powerful meditation on history and the legacies of race, family and identity,” (David Mura), and her poems appear in numerous collections, including Phat’itude and Kartika Review.