Re-discovering one’s voice

With candor and grit, Filipina musician Geej Lang shares with us her heartaches and joys of living in America. 

With a prolific, successful career in theater, music and non-profit work (I was an educator and communications specialist), I debated about whether I should pack up and head for America to be with my American boyfriend of three years. 

The political landscape in the Philippines was intense. Ninety-nine percent of my friends and over 90 million people were either going to vote Ninoy Aquino or Manny Villar into the Presidency.  I was a lonely voice helping the Green candidate Nic Perlas amid a mass of people riding the political bandwagon.  After over 20 years of devoting my life to non-government work, helping people to be more politically astute and progressive, I felt as though I hadn’t even made a tiny dent.  I realized that as long as politics was about  evil versus  lesser evil, the genuine good will not find its rightful place.  That, plus the need to be with someone after having had a series of relationship mishaps, made me realize  it was time to find a new adventure.  It was time to leave.  As my friend, Aileen said, “Who told you you couldn’t come back if it didn’t turn out well?”

With a house-full of stuff accumulated through over 25 years of travels and friendships, I squeezed into two pieces of luggage my most precious things and clothes, my dreams and hopes, and flew off to the land of immigrants—the United States of America. 

Miniondom in America

Having worked in non-government organizations all my adult life, my first entry into the corporate world was through a Filipina in Jacksonville—Fina.  I had contacted her before, having done a search on non-profits on Google.  She was then outgoing President of an Asian-American non-profit.  She gave me a call, “‘Have you found a job yet?”  I said, no.  “Then I’d have to give you one, it’s my responsibility.”  I was floored.  Next thing I knew, I was on the 5th floor of a building, working as her assistant, in a corner office with a 90-degree wall to ceiling glass view of the outside world .  And while it was short-lived, it propelled me into this other world of work, where I was no longer part of a think-tank, but a minion.

And it was—to say the least—humbling.  Soon, I was doing “odd” jobs: washing hair and cleaning in a salon, “babysitting” elderly ladies, and fetching the bosses’ children from school.  The latter was a step into a bigger door. When the couple saw my resume, they decided to hire me for office work instead AND fetch the kids.  In a couple of months, I was the company’s full-time web manager-cum-assistant-cum-Girl Friday.

At the salon where I worked for a couple of months which catered mostly to the affluent, I was always asked why I came to America.  I’ve always wondered if that question was also asked of other Asian women, not just the Filipinos.  “I got married,” I would simply say.  The next question was always, “How old is he?” To which I would reply, “I’m 46, he’s 56.” Looks of surprise, then muted sighs of relief.  Were they thinking I was maybe 30-35 married to an 80-year-old? I was a woman from the Philippines, I had to be a young woman marrying a much older man for the green card. 

And I had to explain to everyone why I spoke “good English.” I would have loved for people to have asked me instead, what I really did or do.  So I could have explained the various frameworks for peace, or what women’s empowerment is like  in developing countries while facing not just the enormities of gender violence but also of war.   I could have shared my involvement as a musician and theater artist with my country’s indigenous peoples’ struggles for self-determination. 

Instead, after I answered “I got married,” there was only silence.  Or a follow-up question, “how did you meet” and then silence.  I could only imagine the words “green card” in bubbles floating above their heads as I explained that I married a man with whom I had a three-year mostly online relationship with.  

How is it different from couples who have married for less number of years than that, or from couples who have lived together all their lives, got married, and divorced less than a year later.  Or from couples who have married and stayed married for over 20 years only to get divorced after all the children have grown up.  How different is it? You get into a relationship no matter how you did it—and you either succeed or you fail.

I stopped laughing

When love breaks between two people, and the other one is a Filipina who has travelled all the way from her home country to be with the man she loves, it had to be about the green card, ergo, “Filipina marriage fraud.”

Never mind what the reasons for the breakup were.1

“You, too, Geej?” asked my editor, Remé Grefalda, back in 2012 when I told her about my marriage woes.  “It’s every Filipina’s sob story—I didn’t’ think you would be one of them.”  I had to tell her I was a different story—that it wasn’t all that bad…until it got worse.

Without friends to hang out with except for my son who was my entire social life, I stopped laughing.  Or I laughed only with my son.

I left the relationship, four years later. I would leave the home that once harbored love and trust, and was  now a house of horrors—carrying almost exactly the same precious things I had left the Philippines with 4 years prior, but with more clothes. And shoes (hallelujah!)

The night we left, I was dazed and scared, and worried about the future.  My son, Enlil, took charge—he was only 17.  He made the list of what to bring, and what to buy.  He packed and hauled everything into my tiny new car. He was determined to go. He had called me a couple of weeks earlier and said “We need to get out of here,”.  I said,” why?”   “I found all my clothes thrown out into the driveway. We need to get out of here,” he repeated.

I could stand my pain, but not my child’s.  

The travails of a love gone awry has not ended one and a half years later.  Heartbreak metamorphosed into rage metamorphosed into revenge.  And so the words “Filipina marriage fraud”, “scammer”,”thief”, and their preposterous sisters were spewed out like wildfire.  But my tears extinguished the fire that could have burned me.  It was important to cry, or I would have been angry, and then four years of being a minion would have been for naught.

For what is the profundity of being just that—a minion.  How was the winter of my discontent made glorious summer?

Miniondom, Part II

While working as a sitter for elderly ladies, I had the great fortune of taking care of Ms. Sara for almost two years.

Often when I visited, Ms. Sara and I would go to the retention pond and would stare into the water for long periods of time, watching out for turtles, or fish.  And as we watched, we talked about her life—about her sons, and grandchildren. And I talked about mine— about the family and friends I left behind. She had become  my best friend.

While listening to Ms. Sara’s stories, I thought about how quickly the joys of the glorious past could flow by; that suddenly here I was, listening to the reflection of my much older self—bound in a wheelchair, unable to do anything much but stare at the pond, and write beautiful thoughts on beautiful cards to send to beautiful friends.  Such poignancy in the simplicity of living.  There was no need to prove I was a great somebody, no need to show my achievements, or what I could do or could not. I was just there, being.

The Land of the Free

But being or achieving or underachieving, no human being deserves to be demeaned.

One thing I discovered is to never be complacent about “White” people’s seeming acceptance of my race, or especially of my country of origin.  A Caucasian man told me how Asian women in general are seen as highly sexual, great in bed, and submissive.  And when you’re a Filipina, you are marriage material because you will serve your husband.  Serve.

So when I didn’t live up to the lotus flower stereotype and was instead a dragon lady2, I had to be a whore, or a scammer.   An ex-lover called me a “Third World” whore, and told me to go back to the “Third World jungle” where I originally came from—on Facebook, no less.  

In all my travels around the world, never have I been so verbally assaulted .  Racism on top of sexism on top of public defamation of character—it had to be the second worst assaultive experience of my life.  Both, in America. The land of the free.

Finding my voice

Four months after I arrived in the US, I knew I had to find my musical voice.  Bong Vicente—a Davaoeño friend who was now living in Jacksonville—had me look up Riverside Arts Market (RAM).  One email to Gary Becka brought me to the RAM main stage three months later. Since then I played in summer and autumn, from 2011 to 2013.

But I wasn’t very happy singing alone on a huge stage.  Looking to hook up with other musicians, I discovered a Meetup online where musicians and wannabes would meet at someone’s house every now and then to jam.  I didn’t go to any of these meetups till three years later, but it was where I met Ken Anoff and started playing with his Time to Drum.

In 2015, six months after getting separated, I decided it was time to “go out.”

Going out meant doing things I couldn’t do while I was still married because it was “not appropriate to go out without your husband” (he was asleep by 7pm).  It meant playing more music no matter where, it meant attending get-togethers wherever I was invited, it meant a lot of laughter and cultural interaction, and friendships and exchanges of ideas, and did I mention music?

It was Bob who sort of started me on that path.  I met him through the Meetup.  He brought me to every open mic, and every show singer-songwriter Mike Shackelford was in. And that’s how I wound my way into Jacksonville’s musician community, and into my partner Mark Williams’ heart, also a singer-songwriter, with whom I now have a music duo—MoonStalker.

My creative energy was back; and while now unfettered, it did not rush out like a dam’s floodgates opening. Instead, it is a slow, but sure flow, treading softly like faerie footsteps hoping to sprinkle magic in its every wake. My all-English music album is coming up, and I have concepts for two plays—both musicals.  And I will be working on having a musical chautauqua next year, hopefully in Europe, and in the US.

Not the end

I’ve been a full five years and a half in this incredible journey.  Life has been very kind to me—it could have been worst.  I could have ended up in a surreal court scene with the ex-husband, a possiblity I am still not discounting considering the current circumstances.3

In the five years I’ve been away from my beloved home country, my singer-songwriter daughter languishes in jail (3 years now) for marijuana possession, my eldest son goes through some hard times, my youngest son grows up to be a very responsible young man, my 8-year-old grandson tells me my flying back home would be his Christmas gift, and my 4-year-old granddaughter is saving money so she could visit me. Two aunts, one uncle, and six friends have died.  Filmmaker friends have won some awards.  And musician friends are riding their music chariots to glory.

As for me, I realized that my time in America was no longer to be in the spotlight—at least not yet.  It was, instead, a time to learn.  And while I was holed up in miniondom learning how to be patient, to be quiet, to be a lot more introspective, to know what survival means as opposed to conquering. I was, in the words of a beautiful musician friend, Gina, “soul-building.”

Footnotes:

  1. “41 – 61% of Asian women report experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime.1 This is higher than the rates in a national study reported by Whites (21.3%), African Americans (26.3%), Hispanics of any race (21.2%), people of mixed race (27.0%), and American Indians and Alaskan Natives (30.7%), and Asians and Pacific Islanders (12.8%)” Statistics on Violence against API Women, http://www.api-gbv.org/resources/violence-against-api-women.php
  2. 5 Ways ‘Asian Woman Fetishes’ Put Asian Women in Serious Danger by Rachel Kuo, http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/12/asian-woman-fetishes-hurtful/
  3. “68% of Filipinas and 50% of Indian and Pakistani women reported being stalked by an intimate partner.” Statistics on Violence against API Women, http://www.api-gbv.org/resources/violence-against-api-women.php