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May 23, 2007

OK Gerard, Here's Your Answer


Two things, for the record:

1.  Philindo Joseph Marsosudiro failed to make a complete stop at a stop sign.
2.  Philindo Joseph Marsosudiro is White.

Re: item 2, it looks like the police have finally provided the definitive answer to a 29-year-old question that Gerard Mills asked me back in 5th grade.  Pictured above, part of a recent citation.

See below for a essay I wrote for the spring 2000 issue of Spectrum, a quarterly publication that Brown University used to publish for alumni and students of color.  One of the alumni relations staff (a Chinese-American alumna, I think; from the west coast, I think) had asked me to write a piece on "growing up Asian in the South."  Shortly after I wrote the piece, I got to feeling that I'd been a touch more PC than I meant to be.  But that's OK -- it ran with a nice photo.

Brown Like Me

Springtime, 1991.  I had graduated two years earlier from what some would describe as the nation’s foremost school of political identification, but it wasn’t until I came back to Brown as an alumnus that I discovered what people had been calling me:  “Asian American.”  This was, to my consciousness, a term newly associated with me – but one that qualified me to speak at an Asian American Student Association career forum.  Students asked about my profession.  I told them what it was like, and how they could enter the field.  Then they asked me, “how has race affected your career?”  I hadn’t a clue.  And I realized it wasn’t the first time that someone had quizzed me about my race, and I had come up short on an answer.   My memory ran back another fifteen years, to fifth grade in Asheville, North Carolina, and to Gerard Mills.

Gerard Mills was a skinny black kid with a two-inch afro and big eyes.  And one afternoon, as we stood together in front of the Biltmore Elementary School boys urinal, he asked,

“Hey Phil, are you black or are you white?”

This question stopped me, cold.  I thought a while, hesitated, and mumbled something about “Oriental,” a word I knew from my mother’s occasional use.  But Gerard pressed on, “No man, but are you black or are you white?”  I never found a satisfactory answer for him, or me, that year.

Another half-dozen years passed in my hometown, snug in the southern part of the Appalachian mountains, and a few people did try to tag me – I briefly changed my race for a Christmas program, (“In Japan, we celebrate Christmas by shooting fireworks at midnight.”  I wore a Filipino shirt that my Mom gave me.  Charles Bratton wore my Dad’s traditional Javanese/Muslim hat as a prop while orating, “In Africa, we celebrate Christmas by...”).  In early high school, my friends called me, “Chocolate Monkey” and “Four Eyed Chink.”  (I wonder, now, what names got assigned to the other two brown-skinned kids at that 1,300-student institution.)

Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that I came into my adulthood at Brown and soon after without much awareness of my membership – as a Filipino, Indonesian, or “Asian American.”  I had come through my formative years without a meaningful label, and had come to think of myself as just “me.”  If time among Brown folk teaches us anything, a primary lesson is that each of us ought vigilantly carve our own destiny, our own identity, and our own sense of self.  That is where I have focused my reflections at Brown and as of late – finding out who I might be.

But now, at thirty-two, still learning from Brown, I am learning another lesson.  Slightly more aware than I was when I first spoke to the Asian American community at Brown – better educated on the power and politics of color, culture, and creed, I recognize that like it or not, I am the member of a club.  And I am thinking that as I consider myself, perhaps I should move beyond my American moniker, “Phil,” to my full name, “Philindo Joseph,” product of Philippine and Indonesian parents, and raised in these United States, and learn what that means.  Perhaps I am ready to ask, “I know who I am – but who are we?”

Philindo Joseph Marsosudiro ’89, serves on the Multicultural Activities Committee of the Brown Alumni Association.

01:03 AM in Misc.Blog 2007 | Permalink


I always thought you were more caramel colored. (grin)

Then again, I am writing this 30 feet from the ocean in Laie, Hawaii on the island of Oahu, and there is such a lovely spectrum of color here.

Posted by: Tarus | May 24, 2007 1:59:30 AM

I looked to see where you had been stopped. CH.

Yup: habit on the part of the occifer, is my guess. If you had been in Durham, on the other hand, well, I'd really wonder what was going on in their mind.

I'm with Tarus. Your skin color in particular is the color I shoot for when I caramelize sugar for flan, or when I make toffee at christmas time. :-)

Curiosity: what is the part that seems too PC to you through these 2007 eyes?

Posted by: Jenny | May 24, 2007 1:00:43 PM

Nota bene: I do change several shades between summer and winter, so don't get confused if the me you see in July doesn't look like the food you made in January!

Re. the officer, a couple of things: I was stopped in Hillsborough, in my parents' neighborhood (coincidentally where my drivers license is registered), in one of those "the neighbors are complaining so we're going to camp out here for a while." The officer (who was black) said that most of the people he'd stopped that night also lived in the neighborhood. Hey, Jenny, if I had been stopped in Durham, do you think he would have marked "H" for "Hispanic"?

Re. the PC to my 2001 eyes (never mind my 2007 eyes): call me oversensitive, but when I read those words post-publication, I kept thinking, "Oh Lord, now he's all earnest and convinced that 'I HAVE GOT TO GET IN TOUCH WITH MY COLOR!!!! I CAN'T BELIEVE I'VE IGNORED IT FOR SO LONG BECAUSE IT'S SOOOOOOOO IMPORTANT!!!! I MUST INCORPORATE IT INTO MY PERSONAL MISSION! NOWWWW!'" I've almost always been sensitive to overly PC behavior, which is probably why I reacted/react so strongly to seeing anything remotely similar in my own writing.

Posted by: Phil | May 24, 2007 1:09:44 PM

Hey, Jenny, if I had been stopped in Durham, do you think he would have marked "H" for "Hispanic"?

Yeah...I can maybe actually kind of see that happening. Maybe they'd think you were Columbian. Lots of different mixes in latin america.

You have such a nice skin color, btw, in all its range. Very rich, and both the toffee and the flan can be anywhere along that continuum. Any lighter, though, and the flavor doesn't have enough depth. Much darker and it's burned. This is not an analogy for anything else.

So yeah, PC-wise they are kind of earnest, those words of yours. I'm kind of a back to nature hippie girl. I'm having a hard time coming up with a direct parallel, but even *I* am not going out into a red tent to celebrate my menses. (My menses is like your cultural identity? Huh?)

Yeah. My comparisons are not making much sense, so I'll shut up now, even though I'm pretty sure I'm no longer ahead. Most people quit before that. Um, yeah.


Posted by: Stew | May 24, 2007 1:30:44 PM

Hi Phil. As they say on the radio - long time reader, first time commenter. :-) Enjoyed the post, and what you mentioned about the history behind your name reminded me of a friend from high school (when I lived in the Philippines). His parents were Filipino and Nepali, and they named him Nephil, to honor their two countries of origin.

Posted by: Paolo | May 25, 2007 8:31:26 AM

Hi Paolo -- thanks for being here, and thanks for your comment!

Re: your friend Nephil, I wonder if he would have preferred "Phine" as in "you're so...".

Jenny. Um, yeah. OK. ;-)

Posted by: Phil | May 30, 2007 12:03:04 AM

First time reader. I just happened upon your blog today by looking for other Durham blogs. I'm half Filipino and half German-Irish. Similarly, I've never found a good place or race to belong. Not white enough and definitely not Filipino enough. Here in NC, I'm considered a Mexican who speaks english well. :)

Posted by: Jen | May 31, 2007 3:24:40 PM