Leah Laxamana, malia hatico-byrne and Tan Sirinumas
This is a continuation of my first post honoring Asian Pacific American Heritage Month by getting to know my neighbors in the Tenderloin and learning what their heritage means to them. I was excited to hear about my having similar experiences with some of them and shared grappling with existential issues on identity and how that has been shaped by bloodline, physical appearance, birth order, geography, and political events, to name a few.
I was born the youngest of seven children in Manila, Philippines and all of us were raised by extended family as my parents moved to the Bay Area in the 1960s to find a better way of providing for us. I grew up speaking Tagalog and Kapampangan at home, spoke English at school and usually when I went to the U.S. during my summer vacations. Often when I traveled outside the Philippines people would assume I’m Chinese based on how I looked and try to speak to (or at times, make fun of) me; I was once asked if I’m Indonesian because of my last name, but as far as I know, my family is pretty “Filipino,” sort of. Last year, I attempted to apply for dual citizenship in the Philippines only to find out I’m not eligible even if I was born there because my parents were already U.S. citizens when they had me. So…I’m a non-Filipino Filipina, but a Filipina-American?
My conversations for this blog series left me astonished from hearing stories of families’ and individual struggles before and during their journey to the U.S. I was inspired by their determination to overcome barriers and self-doubt, and motivation for what they now do daily. Their ability to express what they appreciate and are grateful for about who they are and being in the Tenderloin, and name what is challenging, are to me, an indication of an authentic connection to who they are and the community. I am grateful for the power of affinity and visibility because they keep me from feeling alone and give a reassurance that people need not be defined by the difficult things of their past, stereotypes, or societal expectations. That there is room for contradictions and divergence while still honoring heritage and being fully oneself.
Following are more highlights from conversations I had. While APA Heritage Month comes to a close, the reflection, learning, and connecting will continue for me. I’m grateful to Sinoun, Lalaine, Michael, Malia, and Tan for the honor of getting to know them more and sharing a bit about them. I already admired all of them before our conversations but afterward, I was left in awe and with deeper respect of their respective life journeys and how they show up on this earth.
malia hatico-byrne (she/they)
Associate Artistic Director, Skywatchers
Malia and I have crossed paths frequently in the past couple of years through the Skywatchers’ and Faithful Fools’ close working relationship; we also have a shared gratitude for being welcomed and finding community in the Tenderloin. I have always admired the role she and Skywatchers play in offering Tenderloin residents an avenue to courageously and creatively tell their stories. Malia has been able to blend her background in dance and Peace & Conflict studies at Skywatchers where she has an ongoing opportunity to interrogate and challenge systems of colonialism and patriarchy using the arts. She is amazed by how the potential for art and relationship, community and capacity building— something she theorized in college— is unfolding in her daily work.
Malia is a third generation American on both sides of her family, her dad’s grandparents immigrated from Ireland and her mom’s grandparents from the Philippines and Japan. She grew up in Sante Fe, New Mexico in a mostly White neighborhood and was one of the few Asian people she knew growing up. She wasn’t raised speaking any of her great grandparents’ languages nor did her parents give much thought about being in a mixed-race marriage. It wasn’t until Malia moved to California for college that she grappled with her identity; she realized that she grew up not fully belonging to one bucket and became conscious of how her first-generation friends have vastly different experiences from her. Having an Asian teacher and ally in her undergrad years who shared her values in a predominantly White school made a significant impact on her thinking and life trajectory.
The way Malia connects with the earth so intentionally has been informed by her relationship with her maternal grandparents who have been displaced from multiple homelands and generations. She is filled with gratitude for how this has been passed onto her by her ancestors along with the ability to collectively nurture one another. Malia continues to unpack her identity especially with a collective of queer, Asian folks using movement as a tool especially in redefining internalized negative messages about Asians. It is important for her to have humility in the exploration and to consciously center her identity because doing so allows her to be in solidarity with other communities. The Tenderloin has taught her abundance in relationships, that trust takes time, how to confront fraught histories and systems, while reminding her that people can be in the same fight despite having different lived experiences.
Thai Artist | Studio Assistant, Hospitality House
I have been a long-time fan of Hospitality House’s Community Arts Program and couldn’t believe my fortune when I became the lucky owner of Tan’s piece, The Warfield, which later on was his featured artwork for the Tenderloin BigBelly Project. I admired Tan’s work for years but became a bigger fan of him as a person the more we interacted; discovering how his ties to the neighborhood began and strengthened since he first stepped foot in 2008 was profound. For one, Tan said he only knew the dictionary meaning of the word “community” but the Tenderloin allowed him to experience that. Living in an SRO and struggling to find a job, art was the only thing he knew how to do and Hospitality House gave him the space, art supplies, and social support to find his bearings and later on was able to expand his community.
Tan was born in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand to a Chinese father and Vietnamese mother – details he didn’t discover until he was older. Learning about his mixed heritage made him feel special because he could connect with more people, like his Vietnamese barber. He also felt relieved because his father didn’t fit the stereotype of traditional Asian parents being conservative and strict, especially to first-born sons; rather his dad was easygoing and supportive of his interests. Tan had rough patches with his family when he was younger leading him to start over in Australia, then in the U.K., then in the U.S. At first he stayed in San Francisco despite hardships because he felt like going back to Thailand would be giving up on his dreams, but he eventually stayed for the life and community he has built.
“Thai” means freedom, which is the most important part of Tan’s heritage to him; he appreciates that his culture has an optimistic mindset and finds ways to overcome difficulties. Tan’s sister also influenced his Buddhist practice which helps him focus and stay hopeful. When he found out about APA Heritage Month, he thought to himself “Finally!” and feels good that he is able to represent Thai people in a positive way.
Tan considers the Tenderloin a sanctuary, he feels he has received so much from the community and he is ready to give back. One way he is doing this is by building on his digital technology skills to help other artists, another is simply by being the authentic creative and person that he is and always spreading positivity wherever he is.