A Lens to View the World
By: Gisela Camba
I first remember viewing the world through a child’s eyes. At that time a street full of family members encompassed my whole world. My mother, sister, brother, and I lived in a section of a house that was divided by eleven families all related to each other. My father had immigrated to America four years earlier right after I was born, and he would send us knick-knacks from America. My brother and I would use whatever business skills we had in making a bit of a profit from some of those knick knacks. My mom likes to recall when my brother had sold little pieces of lottery paper that would either be blank or say “You win!” Of course there was no million dollar prize, but that didn’t stop the kids from buying for the sheer joy of being a winner. My mom found it even more amusing when I sold just a pinch of clay for one peso. We were making a killing in profits since all the kids loved the random American goodies. It was a bit of a game, and at the end of the day we would give whatever we earned to our mom, and then keep on playing with the other kids. Through a child’s eyes I was living a good and fun life. I enjoyed going through the narrow alleys, playing with other kids, and going where I pleased to explore. That street, those alleys, it seemed like such a big world to me.
But I soon came to understand that there were other worlds out there. At the age of five, I came home one day to find my mom packing late into the night, putting all our belongings into suitcases. As I understood it, we were going on a long trip. That trip was my family’s migration to America from the Philippines. Though I did not know it at that time, that one plane ride across the Pacific would have profound consequences for my future. All I knew was that this new country was confusing and I missed my familiar old street. I was no longer in a homogenous society where everyone was Filipino and there was just a sea of black hair. There were people of different races I hadn’t ever seen in person and various colors of hair-yellow, orange, and red. People spoke a language I didn’t understand. I had a father now. We kept moving from my grandma’s house to renting with a friend to our own apartment and finally to a house. Like many immigrant families it wasn’t going to be a smooth transition in regards to culture, family dynamics, and finances. There was a lot to get used to. Everything was so new and different and just hard.
As I grew older I began to be more conscious of social dynamics, and began to compare myself to other kids. It didn’t take me long to realize that my parents were a lot stricter, and we were not on the highest part of the economic ladder. We had to be more budget conscious with school trips, clothes, etc. Hand me downs were the norm. Going to the mall was seen as extravagant. Extra-curricular activities weren’t really encouraged because of the added expense like a tennis racket or musical instrument. The only thing that mattered was an A on your report card because that was your responsibility after all the sacrifices your parents made to get you into America. I was close friends with other kids who had the same budget as me because there really was no way around it. It was just easier and required less explaining. I compared myself to other kids at school who had more and felt less privileged.
In all the years spent trying to assimilate to America, I had forgotten that street from the past. I only remembered the anxiety of leaving. When I finally did return to my birthplace for a family trip, I was twelve and completely overwhelmed by the experience. A bit older, I looked at my old home differently. That street that seemed like a whole world to a child of four seemed smaller. On our jeepney ride from the airport, I saw houses that were even worse than the ghettos in the States. We saw people sleeping by the train tracks and children who would just come up to beg you for money. At twelve year old, I was trying to comprehend third world poverty while wrapping my mind around the notion of how just a simple change in citizenship completely changed the course of my future. The earlier feelings of being less privileged seemed laughable in light of that realization.
I thought going to a third new country would help me answer questions that had arisen from past experiences- questions about poverty, citizenship, culture, and identity. So I competed to get a scholarship and the age of 16 went to Japan as a Rotary scholar. While it was a meaningful and positive experience in my life, that year abroad left me with even more questions. I experienced stereotypes and racism outside the American sphere. I was American but didn’t fit the idea of what an American looks like to many Japanese people as well as the other Rotary scholars who came from places like Germany, Croatia, Australia, and Mexico. I saw the stereotypes and attitude towards Filipino abroad workers, and was made even more conscious of the difference in treatment I was given because of my American citizenship. I was American, and therefore an exception, even though in my eyes I looked no different from the other Filipinos. A naïve part of me had not expected seeing such lines and divisions between Asian cultures. I had been raised in the Pan-Asian community that formed in America due to shared experiences and treatment along with cultural similarities. As such I felt no different from other Asians. We each had our own culture, but there was no sense of a divide. I had taken that sense of community for granted. Upon living in Asia, I soon felt the divide between those cultures, and realized I had opened a Pandora’s Box of new stereotypes, hierarchies, and cultural interactions.
By the time I reached the Villanova campus and lit a candle among a sea of Villanovan freshmen, I had had experiences with multiple cultures, living in different countries, poverty, and other social issues that I was still trying to process. However no amount of exploration and no increase in experience would help settle all those questions. I saw that I needed more than firsthand experience. I had to actually just sit down and study to understand it all from an academic perspective. So I chose political science (along with an East Asian studies concentration) in order to provide a framework in which I could understand myself and the world I live in. I grew to have a better grasp of the people around me, their circumstances and situation, and the world in which we all live and act. It has helped me understand events, personal experiences, issues of cultural identity, economic status, and other singularities as something more complicated, something that is part of a larger system beyond me and the people involved. I came to see certain actions and events as more than a single point, a person’s actions as more than them, but rather a whole system behind them that has led to that point or influenced that person’s actions or sense of right and wrong. Having come to that realization, I can analyze situations as more than black and white, right and wrong, but as problems with solutions that need to be tackled on a fundamental level.
On a personal level, I learned a deeper and more honest approach to identity. I had to view my identity outside of myself, to see myself as representing multiple identities placed upon me by others and by the world, and acknowledge these accumulations of singular identities that I have come to represent. I am a girl. I am Filipina. I am American. I am an immigrant. I have to understand these notions as more than just personal experiences. They are rooted in issues that were beyond my control, but nonetheless greatly influenced my life. As I try to understand these identities, I am empowered to also influence these identities, to take responsibility, and make them my own and create something rather positive.
When I took my first occupation as a teacher in Japan, I was very conscious of the responsibility I had to the identities I represented, the job position I had, and to the children who will become persons of their country and this world. I introduced them to a second and even third culture, and that would have profound effects on their sense of self. My actions would inevitably shape the children and their impression of people and intangible symbols beyond myself. I would shape a significant portion of their image of non-Japanese people, of women, of Filipinos, and of Americans. I understood that the children I was teaching were future citizens who would come to shape the country and world they live in. The other teachers and I were teaching kids to be citizens of Japan, citizens of the world.
I understood the importance of that precisely because of my degree. With that understanding I was able to take on the responsibility of my first job post graduation. A degree in political science had given me a new lens through which I can view events, social dynamics, and financial circumstances that have led to my present identity. It is important to first have a grasp of your place in the world, of how the world sees you, and reconcile that with how you see yourself, before stepping in the role of a teacher or of any profession. My political science background prepared me to take on the real responsibilities of a teacher who will influence the education of the future citizens of tomorrow. That education was the very foundation of my interpretation of myself and the world I live in.
The decision to study political science all started with a pressing need to answer some life-long questions. But not everyone has to walk into the degree with definitive questions or experiences in other countries or of even economic diversity. However it’s inevitable at some point that you will experience a plethora of diverse experiences be it on a study abroad trip or at a volunteer site where you will face these questions. Instead of being swept away by these larger than life questions, it’s good to take a hard look into your own identity and analyze what led to your present existence and circumstance, and those of others. Then hopefully you will dig even deeper outside yourself, outside that community to see the events, decisions, and dynamics that led to the reality we live in. For me, political science was an important step towards empowerment of self through self-understanding, and applying that to the outside world. You have to go into it actively with a mentality that you want to uncover the multitude of connections between people, cultures, and nations. At the end of the day a political science degree- and any degree really- is only what you make of it, and I made mine about a personal journey of self-discovery and self-awareness.
Gisela graduated in 2010 with a degree in Political Science. She was awarded a prestigious JET Program Fellowship to teach in Japan. Gisela is currently pursuing her interest in sustainable housing and development and applying to graduate schools.