“When did you first move to America, Matt?” my teacher asked me — in front of my entire sixth-grade English class. She had called on me to read aloud from the short story we were studying and, apparently, was surprised that I somehow managed to read several paragraphs without a hitch.
“A few months ago,” I replied. It was my first year as a student in the U.S. after moving from the Philippines to Las Vegas.
“But your English is so wonderful!” she said, smiling.
“Well, our primary language of instruction in the Philippines is English.” It was my first instinct to throw shade, but I immediately felt my face grow hot.
In the tense silence, I asked to go to the bathroom. I could taste the salt in my tears on the walk over and locked myself in a stall until recess. It was the same defense tactic I deployed against bullies in gym class who called me “faggot.”
I’m sure my teacher meant well, but she might as well have said, “Your English is good for an immigrant.” It’s a variation on a phrase everyone in a minority group has had to hear. “She’s confident for a woman.” “He’s eloquent for a black guy.” “She’s pretty for a lesbian.” Our positive defining qualities are constantly tempered by the fact of difference. If you’re different, praise becomes patronizing.
I came out as gay to my mother the following year. We were on the road in her Ford Taurus, on the way to my 13th birthday party. She said she knew. Mothers always know, she told me. But the slight purse in her lips told me that mothers know something else.
“Natakot ako para sa ‘yo,” she said to me 10 years later, over my college graduation weekend. She, my stepfather, and I were reminiscing at dinner and our talk had turned to the day I came out. She confessed to me in her forthright Tagalog, “I was scared for you.”
We were already different when we moved to America, she said. Being Filipino immigrants, she knew there were obstacles, barriers in our way like the culture and the language. We already had thick, fresh-off-the-boat accents. Why did I have to go and add a lisp?
My coming-out had given the bullies in middle school an extended list of things to pick on: my accent, the foreign lunches I packed, the limpness of my wrists, my crush on the blonde, blue-eyed heartthrob of Swainston Middle School. America had provided no reprieve from the Filipino kids at my old all-boys Catholic school in Manila who wanted to expel me from campus because they thought I was a girl. There were a handful of supportive friends, both in the Philippines and in Las Vegas, most of them other kids who came out in college.
But for the longest time, the only cheerleader I had on my side was my mom, whether it was when we were in America together or via Skype from across the Pacific when she and my stepfather moved back to the Philippines. At dinner, they were alert and elated to be with me despite the jet lag and 24 hours of traveling from Manila to Poughkeepsie for my graduation. It wasn’t until I saw them standing in front of Vassar’s main building that I realized how far they had come. How far I had come.
“Natakot ako para sa ‘yo,” said my mother. She toasted her elderflower cocktail against mine and took a sip. She smiled. “But not anymore.”
The next morning, I walked up a stage, curling a rainbow-colored tassel around my fingers. I bowed in front of a woman with kind eyes and she put a lei over my head. It smelled sweet, bristling against the nape of my neck. I adjusted it and the rainbow tassel got caught in a flower. I was afraid if I tugged it out that the whole thing would fall apart. So I let them hang there as I stepped to the podium.
In the audience were many happy faces, other graduating seniors with leis, their parents with glistening eyes. I cleared my throat. I thanked the Asian Pacific Alumnae/i of Vassar College, reading the cue card tucked in the podium, for hosting the annual Lei Ceremony to welcome their newest members. Inductees into the APAVC were asked to say a few words, something about our experiences at school, something we thought the attendees might like to hear, something to say thanks.
Then I saw my stepfather in the front row, his camcorder in one hand and a handkerchief in the other. Next to him was my grinning mother. Her teeth gleamed like a white picket fence. Her cheeks were stained with Dior mascara and joy. She wasn’t scared for me anymore. So I thanked them.
I thanked her for not batting an eye and keeping her eyes on the road when I came out to her. I thanked him for accepting me, not as baggage from her first marriage, but as a son of his own. I thanked them for driving to my high school and barging into West Side Story rehearsal wielding my Vassar acceptance letter when really the only acceptance I needed, I’d already received twice over. For the financial and emotional sacrifices they’d made to send me to college across the country. For believing in my choice to stay in New York while they returned to the other side of the world, just a phone call away. For paying my phone bill.
I twirled my rainbow tassel at the end of my lei. I thanked myself for coming out when I did, for accepting myself when I did. I never had to worry about fitting in with others, instead busying myself with loving my own skin — being Filipino, being gay, being different. I’ve had 10 years of practice, becoming the first person in my family to finish school in America (as an English major, no less). It was an education I wouldn’t have done any other way.
As I stepped down and back into the audience, my parents stood up and applauded, leading others to take to their feet. My name was announced again: Matthew Manahan Ortile.
In the Filipino tradition, the middle name you receive is your mother’s maiden name. Roughly translated from Tagalog, manahan can mean “what is to be inherited.”
I like to think I got her pride.