America Is in the Heart

I read a lot of great books in 2018, but the most important book I read was America Is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan.

Published in 1946, Bulosan’s memoir chronicles his emigration from the Philippines to the United States, where he struggled with adjusting to life in a new country, maintaining personal relationships in a turbulent racial climate, and finding his intellectual and literary voice as a labor movement advocate. Despite these hardships, Bulosan developed a sense of optimism and patriotism for America.

This was an important book for me because I’ve never related to a written work on such a personal level. My parents grew up in a neighboring province (although several decades after Bulosan) to Bulosan’s Pangasinan, and his experiences broadly corroborated stories I grew up hearing about life in the Philippine peasantry. It was deeply moving for me to read about his life and see elements of my own family members and the values they worked hard to instill in their children: family obligation, reverence for education, and the pursuit of a better life for future generations.

That shared throughline became more pronounced as Bulosan’s story transitioned from his life in the Philippines to his early experiences in America. As he began first looking for work in the States, he was able to quickly find a community and support system in fellow migrant Filipinos, despite being over 6,000 miles away from their shared home.

It reminded me of a story my dad once told me about traveling to Alaska for work. He had just arrived and was walking through the airport when he was recognized as Filipino by a group of brothers. They invited him into their home and provided him with food and a place to stay until he was able to find a job and make it on his own. Eventually, one of those brothers would also have a son, and that son has been one of my closest friends to this day.

As Bulosan navigated the migrant worker experience, it took him up and down the west coast from Washington state, up to Alaska, and eventually back down to California. I’m a Filipino-American who grew up in Alaska, attended college in Washington, and now lives in California, so it was a preternatural experience reading through these pages and observing such close parallels between the author’s life and my own.

Bulosan posed and inspired questions throughout his book that I have wondered throughout my life: what does it mean to be Filipino-American? How do others see and perceive Filipinos? Where do we as a community fit in with the broader narrative of Asian-Americans? America Is in the Heart did not ostensibly seek to answer these profound questions, but it did illustrate Bulosan’s personal framework for seeking answers:

  1. Work hard even the work comes with objectionable circumstances.
  2. Be grateful for experiences and relationships even when they’re coupled with uncertainty.
  3. Read widely and deeply when nothing else seems to be providing answers.

I highly recommend and am thankful for this book. Not because it helped me attain any sort of clarity in my own exploration of the Filipino-American identity, but because it showed me that at the very least, pursuit of that clarity can inform and impact future generations.

December 30, 2018

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