Beauty of Diversity

Beauty of Diversity

May 15, 2024

My story is a testament to the beauty of diversity and the resilience forged through embracing varied cultures and experiences. It is a story of assimilation.

I was thirteen years old in 1980 when I first moved to the United States from the Philippines. My older sister and I were visiting our dad in Southern California for the summer. He had emigrated not long before, after he and our mother divorced. His parents and siblings came to the U.S. in the early seventies. I still remember his words - after a week of adventures at Disneyland, Universal Studios and Knott’s Berry Farm - “Well, do you think you’d want to live here?” Being young and naive teenagers, we saw the ‘American Life’ as an extension of The Magic Kingdom! Naturally, we said, “YES!”

Of course, life in Culver City, CA was not like the Magic Kingdom. At least, not always. We no longer had nannies/help to pick up after us, drivers to take us wherever we wanted to go, cooks to prepare breakfast/lunch/dinner. We took the bus to school, made our own lunch sandwiches, and - heaven forbid - helped with chores! My sister and I assimilated quite quickly and quite well to the American way of life, while still surrounded by the ever-growing ethnic minority group of Filipinos in California.

A year later, our mother remarried and moved to Belgium. After settling in, she reached out to my sister and me and asked: “Well, do you think you’d want to live in Europe?” My sister chose to stay in California. I said, “Sure, why not?”

Life in Belgium was much different. First and foremost, I had to learn Flemish (Dutch) in order to communicate and get around. My stepfather’s family were very traditional. I often describe them as the Dutch equivalents of Victorian. I was initially expected to get dressed for dinner (not shorts, a t-shirt and flip flops), eat everything(!) with a fork and knife, use and serve the proper silverware and glassware for multiple course meals and fully assimilate the Belgian way of life. I much appreciated that I was immediately accepted as part of the family. However, I could not help but feel (perhaps more me than them) that I was still regarded as this ‘Asian kid that dressed and spoke like a California teenager. The original plan was that I go to a Belgian high school and eventually, the University of Louvain (Leuven), my stepfather’s alma mater. As fate would have it, my path was different. As a concession for having ‘uprooted’ me from the California way of life, I was allowed to pick my high school. I settled on a very small, exclusive, international school in Antwerp. I thrived in the international environment! It was a microcosm of different cultures and nationalities (more than 10!) that coexisted for a common goal. The sports program was a great example of this: Israelis and Egyptians, Indians and Pakistanis, Turkish and Greeks, Dutch, French, Swedish, Norwegians, Filipinos, Japanese, Belgians, Americans, and more…. Striving together to achieve one goal… to win as a team! Of course it was not perfect. Generations of cultural mistrust and misunderstanding is tough to shed. We had strict rules. For one, everyone was required to speak only English when two or more nationalities were present in a group. Racial slurs were cause for immediate expulsion. For the most part, these rules were respected. And we reveled in this environment. I loved the experience so much that I eventually chose to attend an international college. I was among the first group to graduate from the English-speaking program of the University of Brussels (Vrije Universiteit - Brussel) with a degree in Business Economics.

Finding a job after graduation was not easy. I suppose the convenient explanation is that there might have been an element of racial prejudice involved. However, if I am to be totally honest, much of the challenges probably were because I was not at least trilingual. Actually, I was trilingual. It’s just that I spoke the ‘wrong’ three languages. Most Belgians graduate high school fully fluent in Flemish, French and English and/or German! Eventually, I accepted a position in low level operations of a small international courier company, well below what my credentials would have qualified me for. Within six months, I was promoted to Operations Supervisor. After, another year of permanent night shift, I found myself in the position of Operations Manager. I suppose one might say that my career was on its way. But I was never truly happy. I felt like I had reached my ceiling; at my job and living in Belgium.

After fifteen years in Belgium, life presented me with another fork on the road. I chose to move back to the United States in 1995. My experience in job search was different. Speaking multiple languages other than English (almost regardless of what language) is considered a huge advantage. My exposure to multiple cultures and ability to relate to them have proven to be important assets. My wife and I met (and got married) in 1999. Then living in Northridge, CA, we decided that we wanted to start our family where she grew up. In 2001, we moved to Flagstaff, AZ and have called it home since. Through the years, I have established myself in the community as an independent financial advisor.

As they were growing up, I told my children the narrative that, if you took a world map and drew three lines of equal distance across the map, I have lived on each of those lines! The Philippines, Belgium and the United States: Three different countries; diverse in cultures and languages, social conventions, political and economic structures.

This is my story. I recognize that it is unique. Everyone’s story is unique. That is the beauty of diversity! Through all these experiences and exposures, I chose to live in the United States, despite its imperfections. During the month of May, we celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. I am proud of my Filipino Heritage. I am proud of my European experiences. And, importantly, I am proud to be an American!