• Philippine Arts Council

A Shot of Oxygen

The Filipino in Me - Insights into Living Heritage

Entry by Riana Torrejon. Edmonton, Alberta

 

Artist's Statement

One of four article submissions in The Filipino in Me - Insights into Living Heritage.

Each article is a reflection of the push and pull I have experienced growing up as a Filipinx-Canadian woman. Navigating my identity with clashing cultures was difficult, to say the least. I am still finding the harmony that allows these two to dance with one another. Each article is from a different age, showing the evolution of my perspective as I grow up.

 

A Shot of Oxygen


Inhale, exhale.


I sigh as I pick out clothes to wear and get dressed this morning. My chest fills with dread as I approach the door and reach my hand out to the doorknob.


A recent article had a quote stating that "The constant level of heightened awareness and hyperarousal and cognizance that Black and Brown folks have to constantly be aware of is staggering and it is often why we are very burnt out and very traumatized and very sad," says Mullan in Decolonizing Mental Health: The Importance of an Oppression Focused Mental Health System.


This quote led me to reflect on my own health as a Filipino-Canadian woman that immigrated to Canada a few years ago. I realize that I often minimize my emotions as an immigrant because I remember how tough life is for Filipinos in the Philippines. My mother reminds me that many go without food and water, many are not living in safe conditions, and many people have jobs that pay under the living wage.


The individualized Western mental health approach to self-care does not apply well to my lifestyle. I was raised under a collectivist mindset. In the Philippines, it is common for everyone in the neighbourhood to know one another, for all of the adults to watch each others' children, and so on. If you begin working abroad, you inherit a list of people to be financially responsible for. It is an unspoken expectation that you share the blessings you receive with others back home.


When people at my peer support centre tell me to relax and to know that obtaining average grades are good enough, I have to exercise patience. It is tiring to explain that good grades have given me scholarships to alleviate my family of a financial burden. It is difficult to explain that I want to get good grades in order to encourage my relatives back home that their investment to move me to Canada was not in vain. I cannot afford the privilege to relax with my schooling because of the years of generational trauma that follows me. There are centuries of cycles of poverty and systemic racism that my family and I must fight against.


"C's get degrees" does not work for me as I feel like I have failed every person who has put work into me when I do not succeed academically. People assume that my grades matter to me because of the stereotypes about Asians. This misconception greatly frustrates me. Asians cannot be painted with a monolithic brush.


People always joke around about Asians being robots that excel in school, but for many of us, including myself, we carry the weight of our immigrants' parents' investment in us. Compared to a developing country, children of immigrants are significantly safer and have more opportunities available here, so gratitude is definitely a healthy practice to keep. However, emotions should be acknowledged and addressed rather than minimized because everyone has their limits.


As a Filipino immigrant who regularly attends therapy, I have realized that the mental health system must consider their clients' backgrounds. As immigrants, we often require an extra layer of understanding to care for the intersectionality of our problems. Systems like discrimination, pressures of providing for our families back home, and such are all things that therapists may not be trained to understand. Many workers in the mental health system utilize coping mechanisms that are catered to the Western, individualistic mindset.


Many immigrants come from a collective mindset. You can't ask a mother immigrant working abroad to "take a mental health day" when the cost of it is rendering her unable to send her kids enough money for food.


The mental health system acknowledges that people are from different cultures, but it must also be recognized that many people of colour suffer from heightened awareness and trauma from oppression. Heightened awareness of discrimination for me is my cognizance of the fact that many people in the Western setting have preconceived notions about me because of my Asian appearance.


My actions are often judged as reflective of all Filipino youth and immigrants. I hear feedback like "Wow, I know all Filipinos are so nice because when I interact with them at Tim Hortons, they always give me the best service." There are other comments on my speech and eloquence such as "The Filipino education system must be wonderful because you speak English so well." While these are compliments, it frightens me that a positive reflection of a Filipino's actions is then applied to the entire Filipino population. I am only a young girl trying to navigate this life. When I make mistakes, I would like to be afforded the right for that to remain MY mistake and not ALL of Filipinos' mistakes.


"You're pretty for an Asian."


"Of course, you're good at school, you're Asian."


"Of course, you're in accounting, you're Asian."


"Your parents must be so proud of you."


I pause before I turn the doorknob and look at the mirror beside me to check my appearance. I must ensure that I look like a presentable Filipino. The weight of this responsibility makes it hard to breathe in the Western air. I need the mental health system to provide me with an oxygen tank.


I sigh, I comb through the stray hairs in my ponytail, and I put on a smile before stepping out the door.


 

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