Over the weekend I was surrounded by Filipino aunties and uncles, little kids running around, teenagers chatting doing anything so as not to be bored, and music—traditional and contemporary Filipino music. On repeat. I watched as yet another generation of Filipino American youth danced between bamboo sticks and tried to swing their hips while gracefully moving their arms from the right to the left as their feet tapped to the beat. The young girls—no more than 10 or 12 years old—could sense everyone watching them, their cheeks turning a little pink. One even teared up when she stepped on the bamboo and fell. We were all worried about her well being. But for a moment I thought I saw more embarrassment than pain and the pressure of expectations.
It’s been two decades since I was that little girl. Twelve years old. Roped into joining the dance troupe with a promise of a meal at McDonald’s (I know. I know. So gullible). My memory of those days is untrustworthy, as memory often is. But I remember feeling like people were always watching, calculating your worth in their head, almost waiting for you to mess up. That one over there is pretty. The other one, not so much. She’s smart but that’s trouble. I’m not surprised she got pregnant. Does she have any talent? She may be graceful but she’s a little fat.
I wish I could say these calculations stop at some point. Or maybe I wanted to believe that they do. That I had grown up enough—that my life experience, skills, and relationships speak for itself. That there is no space for others’ calculation here.
Instead I found myself explaining what I’m doing now. Stating (with a bit of hesitation and uncertainty) that building community, especially among AAPI artists, and providing a platform for our stories to be heard and celebrated is very important to me. The interaction bothered me enough that here I am writing a public blog post about it.
Thinking it through now, I don’t think it was their question or response that really bothered me. It was the tiny hesitation I heard from myself. It’s the young girls going through the same thing I did—a handful of people watching them, expecting things from them that fall within the limits of what they consider to be “normal” or “traditional.” Young girls who may not, for a long time, know what it means to be your own person. Know what it means to be free.