It was the fall of 2012 in an unevenly-lit classroom and I was all crooked teeth, questionable outfit choices, and prickly brown skin. I was just a few months into the fifth grade and my teacher, Ms. S., had just announced our reading list — half of which was a couple educational institutions above my class’s reading level.
Ms. S was my first Filipino teacher in Canada. She told us stories about going to Italy for Montessori training and cooked us the best chicken adobo I’ve ever tasted. She filled up three chalkboards with vocabulary words, chuckled when I broke class records and reminded me of my mom, my cousins, my titas and an older version of me.
Ms. S made me wonder about how many remarkable Filipino women were out there, pushing the boundaries, however imperfectly, to redefine the North American educational system and show little Filipina girls like me that we belong here — Dora bangs, ensaymada baons and all.
That was how the next three years passed: same teacher, same classroom, same overly difficult readings. Yet somehow, I thrived.
Her assignments were inappropriate for our grade level, yes, but I don’t think I would be the student I am today without them. I had loved books before I entered Ms. S’s classroom but it was only after I left that I realized how good I was at taking them apart. Under her ambitious, and sometimes demanding, teaching approach and mentorship, I discovered both a penchant for literary analysis and a proclivity towards self-destructive work habits.
Engineering a future
All good things come to an end. Or rather, some good things can no longer distract you from what has already been eating away at you from the inside. At some point, my tired smiles just became hollow. At 17 years old, I discovered what it meant for a person to collapse into themself.
One day, the dreams I had back when no one else told me what my dreams should look like — filled with fresh ink, leather journals, cracked spines and floppy paperbacks — had been written out of my life.
During the spring of my grade 11 year, I had got it into my head that I would become an engineer and specialize in carbon capture. By first year I was a full-fledged engineering student.
I liked my classes but I barely got my course work done. In another life, maybe I would have been filled with the same wonder I used to have when I first started paying attention in my high school science classes. But I was tired, miserable and resentful.
STEM was never easy for me in the way that it seemed to be for all the other students in my high school honours classes, but I worked hard enough to do well anyway.
I spent five years surrounded by the smartest people in my school — children and grandchildren of immigrants who carried the weight of expectation like an overfilled backpack — and there was one thing all of us knew by heart: we were supposed to succeed.
It didn’t matter how good we were in the humanities and social sciences. At the end of day we were supposed to be doctors, scientists, engineers, lawyers, businesspeople and nurses.
We were capable of anything which meant we were expected to be the best. But when you’re smart and competent and given opportunities that other people earned for you, “anything” rarely means the path that makes you feel the most alive.
I didn’t apply to engineering because I wanted to. I applied because I convinced myself I was capable.
Everyone always knew me as the English kid, but I hadn’t picked up a book for fun in years. I hadn’t written for my own sake in twice as long. But even if I had, knowing I was a good writer didn’t mean I would become a successful one.
Engineering was the smart decision. So, like everyone told me I was, I decided to be smart.
But by the time I entered the program, I was already exhausted. My elementary school bad habits had snowballed into a personality and values system based on working myself to the bone. I was good at STEM because I worked hard to be, but I just wasn't capable of it anymore.
I didn’t feel smart. I felt incompetent. I felt like a traitor to myself and a disappointment to everyone who believed in me. I was supposed to be a success story but I felt like I had written myself out of it.
The language of loss
When I mustered the courage to transfer out of engineering, I went to the Faculty of Arts. I declared myself as an English and gender, race, sexuality and social justice (GRSJ) double major.
I stepped into my GRSJ 230 course with hesitant curiosity. Our first assignment was about names — the origins and meanings of our own, both given and inherited.
It’s Kapampangan. Or, at least I assume it is.
My paternal grandfather is Kapampagan, which means that his family is from the province of Pampanga in the Philippines. His surname is the one on my driver’s license, my birth certificate and twelve years worth of late slips.
My mother’s side is Ilocano, meaning that they were originally from Ilocos — the northwest region of Luzon Island in the Philippines.
My paternal grandmother is Tagalog, an ethnic group that resides mostly in the central Philippines.
I don’t know much of my family history. I don’t know if this is because I am a child of the diaspora and I cling to my history like falling sand or if it is because of my own personal faults.
I know this much: I have more family members than I know the names of; whenever I return to the Philippines, I am embraced by strangers who watched me grow up before I moved a world away; my grandfather never taught his children how to speak Kapampangan and they never asked him why; my parents never taught me Ilocano and I never asked them why; and that I am loved in more languages than I know how to speak.
But when Professor Leonara Angeles — a.k.a. Dr. Nora, my first Filipino professor and hopefully not my last — called my name, it was in a language that it was not created for, yet she still called it perfectly.
“Jasmine Manango. Well, I guess, over here, they would pronounce it Ma-nan-go, don’t they? Can you tell us more about your name?“
I said something about flowers or maybe I didn’t. I was distracted because she was the first professor who had ever said my name without needing a correction.
When she asked about its origin, I couldn’t answer. I said it was Kapampangan, because I couldn’t find the answer online and I somehow couldn’t find the courage to ask my father.
When she spoke about her own name, she spoke about Indigeneity and colonialism and Indigenous names whose meanings were lost to time and “conquerors.”
Dr. Nora said my own surname sounded Indigenous — a remnant of the ethnic groups who populated the archipelago before the Spaniards came.
And for the first time in life, I wondered what my name meant.
I wondered how much I’ve already lost.
I wondered how much I’ve lost that I will never realize is missing.
I have not stopped wondering.
Stories centuries in the making
Dr. Nora was the person who sowed the seeds for my interest in the Indigenous peoples of the Philippines, Filipino-Canadian history and collective forgetting. She is the person who made me want to remember.
My first independent research project was based on my early ideas for an assignment in her course. My initial research questions for this assignment was “How do Filipino Canadians represent themselves as they come to terms with Asian settler colonialism on Indigenous lands?” and “How does the representation of Filipino immigrant labour in Canada affect how the Filipino diaspora in Canada understand their role in settler colonialism?”
These questions were the foundation for the research project I presented at the 2022 Multidisciplinary Undergraduate Research Conference (MURC). My research, inspired by Dr. Nora’s, was about the interacting structures of violence Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) encounter in Canada.
Before taking Dr. Nora’s class, I had never seriously considered grad school or working in academia. During high school, I was ambitious. But after transferring out of engineering, I was scared of dreaming big. I was afraid of how obsessive I can become, of how prone I am to overworking myself, of how pathetic and hopeless I become when burnt out.
I was really, truly scared.
Yet, despite my fear, I was also excited.
There are three things I have always loved and done well in: telling stories, understanding people and learning about the stories people carried with them.
Words and people. My bread and butter.
It was an almost unsettling shock to me when I did well in my upper level humanities and social sciences courses. I had only invested 60–70 per cent of my usual energy into those courses because I was still recovering from burnout, but it felt almost easy.
Dr. Nora was the first professor to offer me a research assistantship. Although I did not end up working for her because I did co-op in the summer, I’m still grateful. Not just for the offer itself but because for the first time after what felt like a string of failures, someone had believed in me. Not in me from high school, with my accolades and impending self-destruction, but in second year me: nervous, reluctant and held together by perpetual self-doubt. Dr. Nora saw my passion, my enthusiasm and my potential and thought maybe I could become someone great.
When she offered me that position, it made me realize that being an academic was an option. Then, when she explained why she was offering me the position, it made me realize why I wanted to choose it.
Dr. Nora told me about how underrepresented Filipinos were in universities across North America. She talked about how few Filipino professors there were in North America and when she listed names, it felt like she somehow knew all of them.
She wanted to mentor students like me — students who looked like us, spoke like us, knew the importance of being kababayan — so that we could make our place in higher education and the academy.
Filipinos have always been a community-oriented people. Dr. Nora’s kindness reminded me of the kindness of my titas and ates and the now-retired Ms. S.
When she told me about how few of us there were in the academy, it made me want to add to that number.
She helped me realize that studying and telling my people’s stories were an option, that there were already people dedicating their lives to it and that I could be one of them. Because no matter where I go, no matter which field I specialise in at the moment, I always find myself returning to stories.