Sunday, May 25, 2014

Unsung heroes: Dad, the Major

Melchor Diokno retired as a Major.
ANOTHER Memorial Day is upon us. I think of my dad - an Army man, through and through. The Army-Navy game every winter was the one football game he would never miss even though he didn't have a stake in the game other than he was in the Army. 

Unlike other veterans he never talked about what he did during World War II or the Korean War. To this day he remains an enigma to me.

So last week, out of curiosity, I Googled his name "Melchor V. Diokno." He died before this computer age so I was surprised to see his name pop up. It turns out there's a webpage about him and his service in the Philippine Scouts, an elite unit of the U.S. Army. His uniform is on display in a museum at the San Francisco Presidio. 

So, another chapter is filled in about a man who rarely talked about himself. Maybe it's because no one asked him about his war experiences. I tried to get him to open up his experiences in the military, but he would divert the conversation to something else. 

There are a few tidbits gathered through the years: Such as when he found his way home after being a POW, he was so emaciated, dirty and "smelly," his daughter Benicia ran into the house because she didn't recognize him. My mother also said that he was in charge of the grave detail of the POW camp. The POWs used the daily ritual of burying the dead as a means of escaping the camp. The prisoners would be hidden from the guards by placing the dead prisoners on top of them. When the guards were not looking, they would dash into the surrounding jungle.

It seems the more I learn about him, the more questions are raised.

Many of my nieces and nephews also knew another side of him. He had this ability to pull candy out of their ears. Sure, maybe they were humoring an old man but he took so much pleasure in their company and the surprised and delighted look on their faces when he would seemingly find candy in their ear. 

My father had hoped to continue his service but after being skipped over for promotion, he retired as a major. I know he was disappointed. In today's context, I can't help but think he was denied the promotion to colonel not because he didn't deserve it. He didn't fit the prototypical image of a high-ranking Army officer in 1954 America because he was not brash enough, short of stature at 5'2" and his skin was a shade too dark.

I don't know how many Brigade commanders sought him as their Executive Officer. He was forever the XO, excellent at managing day-to-day but in the eyes of his superior officers, not good enough to lead. Sound familiar?

But he couldn't fathom that the country he fought and bled for might be capable of discrimination. He didn't say a single disparaging word.  In the view of that generation of immigrant soldiers, America could do no wrong.

He was proud of his service to his country -- as I am proud of him, as all of us should be. This Memorial Day, don't forget him and the other Asian/American servicemen and women of that first generation who served their adopted country.

Here's a column I wrote for the Contra Costa Times (June 27, 2004) for Father's Day:

Unspoken conversations with my father

MY FATHER was a man of few words. We didn’t have long conversations. He never dispensed advice like the father in “Father Knows Best.” He would rather show than tell.

One day when I was 7 or 8, he took me to get a haircut at the International Hotel in San Francisco’s Manilatown. I thought it strange because for two bits, we could get a haircut just down the street at Mr. Willis house. A former barber, Mr Willis had set up shop in his garage and that’s where everybody in the Warren Way neighborhood got their haircuts.

The I-Hotel was home for many of the manongs, the elderly men who made up the first wave of Filipino immigrants who came to the United States in the 1920s-1930s. They found jobs in California’s farm fields and worked in the kitchens of the city’s hotels and restaurants. Some found a career in the Merchant Marine and lived in the residence hotels of Manilatown between journeys.

The International Hotel, the last vestige of San Francisco's Manilatown. 
Manilatown used to stretch for blocks along Kearney Street, just below Chinatown. The Filipinos and Chinese shared Portsmouth Square where they would get some sun, gossip or play checkers or mah jong. By the time my father and I made our trip, the financial district had gobbled up most of Manilatown. All that was left of the Filipino neighborhood was the hotel, two Filipino restaurants and the pool hall across the street managed by a white woman who had married a Filipino. Still, for hundreds of bachelor men (because immigration law limited the number of Filipinas) it was a home.

We walked up the hotel’s stairs and knocked on one of the doors. Inside were a couple of elderly men waiting for a haircut from the room’s tenant.

In the corner there was a single bed, a bureau where a statuette of the Virgin Mary was framed by a pair of unlit candles, a cushioned chair covered with a crisp, white doily, and a high stool on which one of the men sat with a bedsheet draped around his neck. Old photos were pinned up around the small room. It had the smell of a barbershop with the feint presence of after-shave and Pomade. One small window opening to Kearney Street below lit the dim world encased in that room

”Captain,” they greeted my dad, “How are you, sir? Have a seat, sir.” My father retired as a major but apparently, old habits died hard for these men. Both of us got our hair cut for a buck and a healthy tip.

They talked in Tagalog with my father. I was never sure how my father knew these men so far from my little world in suburbia. By the respect they showed him and because they addressed him by his military rank, I surmised that perhaps they used to serve together in the military.

After I got my haircut, my father took me to a restaurant downstairs on Kearney Street. To
my surprise, the owner greeted my father like an old friend. He ordered some Filiplno dishes that he knew I liked: dinaguan, adobo, kare-kare and pancit (pork stew, chicken in a sauce, boiled ox-tail spiced up with shrimp paste, and a Filipino variation of chow mein.) My father grew more mysterious to me. The man I never knew. Why was he so well known

I didn’t know then what I know now. My father wanted to expose me to a world beyond Warren Way where we lived with other families of Filipino/American soldiers, airmen and sailors. He wanted to show me that not all Filipinos were as well off as we were on our blue-collar street. And I learned there was more to my father than I knew.

One night, my father came back from one of his innumerable meetings. He was excited. “We got the money!,” he exclaimed to my mother. It turns out he was part of a group trying to get funding to build retirement housing for farmworkers. He and his group were able to raise the money through grants from Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to build Agbayani (Heroes) Village in Delano, where retired farmworkers, usually without family to take care of them, could spend their retirement. The magnitude of my father’s late night meetings took years to dawn on  e: That he knew Larry Itliong, one of the founding Filipino leaders of the United Farm Workers, was astonishing to me. As a veteran, my father went to the commissary at the Oakland Army Base to buy groceries to bring to the grape strikers. He lived part of the Asian American history.

Ironically, I found myself covering the eviction of the I-Hotel’s manongs as a reporter for the Philippine News. The lessons my father sought to teach me in that single visit came flooding back in an “ah-ha” moment as Manilatown’s last building fell to a wrecking ball.

After my father’s death, I found a faded snapshot of a young man, in white blousy shirt, dark pants, boots and — this is what stood out — a red sash around his waist. The man in the picture was dashing and handsome in a Rudy Valentino kind of way. His smoldering, dark eyes stared defiantly back at the camera. I couldn’t believe it was a photo of my
dad in a heroic pose, as he perhaps saw himself at that stage of his life.

It’s funny but we usually think of our fathers as old men. We forget that once they were young and facing life with youthful optimism with all the world at their doorsteps.

My dad died years ago, before we could have that father-son talk that both of us seemed to avoid. Just as I was realizing the value of what he taught me, he was gone. I like to imagine that if we had a that conversation we both seemed to avoid, we would have lots to talk about.


Friday, May 16, 2014

Is America ready for a TV show with Asian leads?

Could ABC's new television show featuring an Asian American family be the series I've been waiting for since the 1950s? I'm hoping it is.
All props to Mindy Kaling for "The Mindy Project" but I suspect mainstream America never thought of her as Asian after her long run in "The Office." There are two ways to battle stereotypes: one is to play down the differences demonstrating that we're all the same with the same flaws, same wants, and same dreams and goals; the other way is to bust the stereotypes wide open.
The Mindy Project depicting a young woman looking for love, looking for respect and career success, clearly is using the former approach. From the looks of the trailer and other sneak peeks, FOB is going for the latter approach.
The sitcom is based on the childhood of chef and restaurateur Eddie Huang as he grew up in Orlando, Florida in the 1990s. "Little Eddie," (how can you not like that name?) is also a bling-wearing, swearing hip-hop fanatic, a far cry from the nerd stereotype most caucasian Americans have of Asian students. The lead character is the son of fellow blogger Jeff Yang and he writes:
"The show is like nothing you will have ever seen before on television. If it makes it to the air, it will blow minds, raise eyebrows and, to quote a line that my son says as Little Eddie, 'change the game.'" A game-changer, eh? That's a lot to put on one single show. But if you consider the scarcity of Asian roles on TV and the movies, much less, fully-rounded characters, its hard not to think in those terms.
I remember the first attempt - "All American Girl" starring Margaret Cho. That was a dismal failure when producers tried to turn Cho into an all-American girl. It didn't last a season and is one of the big regrets of the comedienne.
I faithfully watched it, even when it wasn't funny, out of loyalty and eagerness to see it succeed, as if I counted in the Nielsen ratings.
Since then, a few inroads have been made by Asian actors, but roles for Asian actors have been far and few between and never as the main roles.
I may seem to make too much of media portrayals of Asians but the media -- TV, movies, commercials and print --- is where most Americans gain their impressions of unfamiliar situations, countries and people -- even if it's crazy and fantastic. There are people out there who are preparing for a zombie apocalypse, for goodness sake!
But more importantly, the media is where stereotypes are born and reinforced. The quiet, studious image is one that I've fought against all my life. Not that that's a negative stereotype, but there is so much more to individuals that people overlook because of the first impression that's made. Many times, that first impression is made before they even meet you ... because of that damn stereotype playing on the silver screen or the boob tube: always the sidekick, not the hero; always the doctor's assistant, not the surgeon; always the submissive one, not the leader; the friend, but not the best friend; always the nerd, not the hiphop fanatic.
Its taken 20 years for a major network to attempt an Asian family comedy again. And I'll probably watch it out of loyalty and curiosity. For sure I'll be pulling for it. I just hope its funny and the audience is laughing "with" -- not "at" -- the characters.

The month of May is . . .

I'd be remiss not to mention that May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. Let's hope next year at this time we'll be talking about the second season of Fresh Off the Boat.

The cast of "Fresh Off the Boat." Will non-Asians be able to relate?