Cultural connection roundtable: reflecting on Asian heritage at EF
This year, EF North America welcomed three new EFinity groups, including Asian and Pacific Islander (API) @ EF. While this group was created organically among work friends to build community, its members, led by co-captains Allison, Director of Program Support for EF High School Exchange Year, and Isabella, Recruitment and Development Manager for EF Go Ahead Tours, quickly got to work on raising their voices, sharing their experiences, and supporting their fellow Asian colleagues amidst the rise in anti-Asian violence in the United States.
[email protected] has already added so much to the EF Education First community. They began with a powerful letter to EF employees addressing these attacks from their perspectives earlier this year. They also recently developed educational and fun programming to celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, targeting the model minority myth, Asian representation in media and even cooking classes and a recipe book. We sat with Allie and Bella to learn more about their mixed Filipino cultures and experiences both in and outside of EF. This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Tell us about your culture and what it meant to you growing up.
Allie: I’m Filipino American. My dad is white, and my mom is part Filipino, part Irish. Growing up, Filipino American culture meant family and learning about how my family grew up; and a lot of connection to the culture was through food. So, my memories are going to my grandpa’s house in Florida and being around the kitchen table with all the cousins and aunts and uncles just eating delicious Filipino food. I love that part of my heritage because it just makes me feel like I have a big family and support system. That’s one of the best things about being Filipino to me– that familial connection.
Bella: It’s very similar for me. I didn’t have to second-guess my culture at all growing up. I identify as a Filipino, Colombian American. My dad is Colombian and my mom is Filipino. And some of the heritage behind my mom includes Filipino, Spanish, Lebanese. There are a lot of mixed people like that in the Philippines [due to] colonization. I identify more as Filipino.
Family is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of what it means to me. I was just surrounded by people all the time; both sides of my family are very big. My mom and dad both have a lot of brothers and sisters, which means I have a lot of cousins. So, it was this community that was built into who I was. Growing up in the Philippines, I went to an international school, and in Singapore, I was also in an American school. There are people from so many different backgrounds. It wasn’t something I ever had to question. As a kid, it was embedded in everything that we did.
How has your relationship to your culture changed over the years?
Allie: Mine has changed a lot. I know growing up, it was just part of who I am. I didn’t think twice about it. Then I went to a very small, predominantly white private high school in Princeton, New Jersey. I started to feel that kind of questioning of my identity in relation to my culture a lot. You don’t quite fit in with the white kids, but you don’t quite fit in with the Asian kids. That’s just the feeling you get when you’re a mixed kid growing up. I wanted to learn more about that piece of me; about being Filipino and what that meant but didn’t really dig into that until later.
In college at Boston University, I joined the Filipino Student Association (FSA). They were so welcoming and kind, but I still kind of felt like, ‘Oh, these kids are coming from the Philippines. A lot of them speak Tagalog. A lot of them are teaching me how to do Tinikling, which is a traditional dance, and I just feel like I don’t have enough of that culture in me. Why do I feel that way?’ In adulthood, more recently, I have been and still am feeling like the relationship to my culture is unique and perfect just the way it is. Even though I can’t train anyone on all these Filipino traditions, cultures, and foods, I can tell people about how I grew up and my relation to the culture, and I’m just now being okay with that. But I’ve always been proud to be Filipino American and continue to tie that back to that familial feeling.
Bella: Being mixed spoke to how I walk through the world and how my relationship to my culture and heritage has changed and evolved as I aged. The biggest jolt was moving to the states in sixth grade and going to a private Christian school full of mostly white people. In middle school, you’re already trying to figure out where you fit in society, let alone being the awkward foreign kid that moved in and trying to put aside anything that makes you remotely different. I remember a group of girls were like, ’That’s where all the Asian kids sit.’ And thought, ‘I don’t quite fit in there either.’ And then the majority was white people. So, I was like, ‘I don’t quite fit in there either.’ It’s constantly this tug-of-war of being an in-betweener in so many different settings and then trying to wrap your identity around the most acceptable thing. It was a lot of questioning and almost suppressing a lot of the culture, or just putting aside my Asian-ness, my Filipino-ness.
A lot of my identity was about my proximity to whiteness for so long. In and after college, and now in my late 20s, there’s this pride that comes from my culture and wanting to embrace and accept it and ask my parents about their backgrounds. Now I’m in a place of pride, curiosity, and ownership. It’s still different being a mixed kid, but it is who I am. This is my identity, and that’s totally okay.
Why did you want to start an EFinity group at EF?
Allie: I attended the virtual mixer last year that introduced the EFinity groups to North America. I was excited about being a part of them, but I didn’t feel that there was one that I felt represented in, and I wanted to create that. Later I reached out to Bella and said, ‘Hey, would you want to start this group with me?’ And she said yes, of course. It felt like something fun that we wanted to be a part of, and even more necessary after COVID cases were on the rise in the US, and so was anti-Asian hate because of that. We knew this group would be important and impactful. And I was looking for more connection to my culture, exploring who I am and meeting other people. It brings me a lot of joy to learn about other people’s Filipino upbringing or other Asian cultures that I don’t know a lot about, especially because being Filipino sits under that Asian umbrella. It has been a personal endeavor to learn more about others, and I was craving that at work and craving that in my community.
Bella: It was easy for us too because we were best friends already. I know one of the connectors was being Filipina; it was something we bonded over. And then, we connected with Joe Villarosa in EF Educational Tours, and it was also a similar thing. That gave us more and more of a desire to create that space. Also, with my background growing up in Asia, I have a huge heart for Asian culture in general and I wanted to learn more about Indian American heritage or Vietnamese American heritage because obviously, we’re not the experts on that. That’s the beauty of API @ EF. The goal is to represent the diversity within Asian culture, so it felt like the right thing.
Speaking of the importance of this group given what was going on in the world, how did it feel to put that letter out to staff?
Allie: To be honest, at first, I was a little nervous even to start the group because I knew responsibilities would fall on a co-leader of a group to be a voice in the organization. After getting over that, I felt a lot of pride that our voices could be represented in such a permanent way with this letter, and also, loudly for everyone to hear at EF in North America. So after running it by our affinity group, and having their support, I felt confident with the words that we were putting out there and really excited for EF staff to read it and see that we’re here, see that we’re feeling these feelings, and to bring attention to what was happening in the world. That letter was really impactful, but I think the brave spaces we held after were even more impactful for me and for the colleagues that joined in because it was an open invitation to be vulnerable.
What does progress at EF mean to you?
Bella: It’s stepping forward, even when you do have that fear. It’s sitting in the discomfort and having difficult conversations, but also listening and showing humility. It’s having more of a listening posture versus acting like we’re the experts in this. It’s knowing that [this work] is going to be an ongoing thing. The image that comes to my mind is from a DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) in the Workplace training that I completed recently. They mentioned this image of a fake tree versus a real tree. Does it give the optics of progress and look good on paper? Or is it an actual tree that is more sustainable and growing? Does it have roots going down? Is it bearing fruit? The outcome is what’s important down the line.
It’s also an extra conversation with someone to help them feel seen and understood and level the playing field. Looking from my lens, being in a RED (Recruitment and Employee Development) role, it is time put in to make sure we’re making sure that events and professional development opportunities are accessible to all. It’s advocating and sponsoring people, motivating, and amplifying people’s voices. It’s knowing when to sit down and lift up, and when to speak up.
It was a huge win that EF created the DEIB team. But if we’re doing it correctly down the line, it should be embedded in everything we do. That means more than hiring diverse candidates. It’s keeping them and making sure that they’re in leadership positions, too. A lot of the progress that’s happening is unseen and behind-the-scenes work. So many people are taking extra time in their day to have those conversations, to work through a difficult conversation with their manager, or to invite them to an event that isn’t being seen. That probably wasn’t happening a year or two ago. There’s so much that’s happening that not everyone will see.
What is something that is misunderstood about your culture?
Bella: That to be Asian American is this monolithic thing. It’s complicated because there’s so much diversity among Asian Americans in the States. At the same time, we do have to come together in solidarity to fight against any injustice. People aren’t going, ‘Oh, you’re not Chinese American, I won’t attack you.’ People are attacking us based on grouping people together. It’s a combination of knowing when to come together in solidarity and acknowledging the differences within us.
Allie: We say this all the time in the DEIB world, but we don’t have all the answers, and we’re not the experts. I think that’s worth saying again. Just because I’m here and raised my hand to co-lead a group and wanted to help with DEIB work for EF High School Exchange Year does not make me an expert. We take on this role of helping to facilitate those conversations and education, but I want people to understand that everyone is coming from a place of learning and growing.
How do you stay connected to your culture outside of work?
Allie: I started a Facebook group because I was trying to meet other Filipinos in Denver, but then I was worried I
wouldn’t find any Filipinos, so I kept it open. I posted, ‘Hey, there any Asians out there?’ And that’s how it started. I got many responses from people that wanted to feel a part of this community, which was cool. One thing I was a little worried about when moving to Denver was that I didn’t see any Asian people. It was really noticeable just from being there for a weekend before moving there, so I started this group. Bella and I met two of our close, half-Filipino friends there that we’re still in touch with. I think there are really easy ways with social media to connect to that part of my heritage and culture, even when I’m not close to family. When asking people to be a part of this group, it was just online, but it was nice to have this outlet for people that I wanted to connect with. I would see Asian women on hiking trails and say, ‘Hey, I’m part of this group, do you want to be a part of it?’ and they’d be so excited about it.
Bella: I have been reconnecting with and asking more questions to my mom, and having this new, reignited curiosity about my culture. Yes, I grew up in the Philippines for seven years, but I was a kid, so my experience was different. I went back to the Philippines with my mom three years ago and I called it a heritage tour to learn more and have more adult conversations about how she grew up. I plan to do that with my dad and go back to Colombia to do a heritage trip. It was nice to be able to see the Philippines with adult eyes. I’m also being more intentional about the content that I’m taking in. I’m making sure that I follow different accounts that educate me about Filipino culture or artists or history. Now, my mom and I are sending back and forth different Instagram posts. It has been an unexpected bridge for my mom and me especially.
You two are so inspiring. Who inspires you?
Bella: My mom. Both my parents are immigrants. They moved to the states at 17 and 18 years old. I know that they had to go up against a lot, even though they won’t say it as much. My mom is more of the quiet one, too. She doesn’t pour out her heart as much as my dad, but I know that she had to work twice as hard as everybody else in the office she was working at when she first moved here. She had to correct her accent a lot.
My assumption is when you move to a brand-new country like that as a young person you’re so used to trying to blend in, that you could become set in your ways. But as I’ve gotten older, and as we’ve had big conversations, there are times when it’s really difficult, and we clash on certain things like generational differences or how we practice our faith. They’ve been in their mindsets for so long, a lot longer than I’ve been in my mindset regarding things like political beliefs. However, as much as everything would justify them staying put and clinging to their values, more and more, they’ve been open to challenging that and asking questions, listening to podcasts that I send them, or trying to understand me. I will forever be thankful for that. They’re constant learners, and they always want to be students. That inspires me. When I’m their age, I want to do that with my kids too.
Allie: I’m inspired by my parents, by my sisters, by the strong women that I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by in my life: friends, family, and colleagues. I’m inspired by the volunteers that put in the DEIB work every day on top of their regular jobs. There are not enough hours in the day, but somehow people make time, whether that’s to contribute to the work for EF or if that’s just on their own time for themselves. It inspires me to want to do more, help more, grow more, learn more and stay curious.
I’m also inspired by you, Bella. With your new job, you said yes to helping me with this group. And you keep me in check, making sure we’re organized. You make me want to keep going and be better. I feel really lucky.
Bella: We both motivate each other to be better and to do the best that we can and be excellent at whatever we’re doing.
What’s something you would want someone who was thinking about joining EF to know?
Allie: I want them to know that they can be their beautiful, unique selves in all parts of their life, including their work. EF is really cool because those unique parts about yourself are celebrated and valued. And you’re going to have support from amazing people that are currently strangers but hopefully will soon be close friends and colleagues.
Bella: If you do have any apprehension or nervousness or anxiousness about your identities, know you’re not alone in the thing that makes you feel on the outside. Remember that there is most likely someone who is looking for the same type of belonging as you. That has always been the thread that binds me together with my closest friendships at EF, like with Allie. You will find your people here.