Monday, September 29, 2014

[Memphis Reads 2014] Fresh Reads Top Ten Winner Caye Caparas

Fresh Reads Essay Contest Winner Caye Caparas
In Dinaw Mengestu’s book, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, the main character, Sepha Stephanos deals with the struggle of finding his own identity. The reader meets a teenage Sepha Stephanos, who is forced to migrate to the United States, because his home country Ethiopia is devastated by war. Although Sepha’s family back in Ethiopia believes that life in the United States will be better for him, he questions this new life and never really settles in, even after seventeen years. He lives his life in the United States, never fully awake and accepting or appreciative of his new life, because he never saw it that way. He says, “I did not come to America to find a better life… I came here running and screaming with the ghosts of an old one firmly attached to my back,” and from then on, he remains longing for his home country, trying to live a simple and unnoticeable life in the United States.
Sepha’s identity, he believes, lies within geography. As the old saying goes, “Home is where the heart is,” and Sepha’s heart is clearly in Ethiopia. After years and years of only half-heartedly living in the United States and meeting Judith and Naomi, a mother and daughter who have similar cultural conflicts, Sepha questions living this half-hearted life, but remains resistant of assimilating to any sort of American culture. What Sepha does not realize is that the world he left in Africa no longer exists like he thought it would. Time does not stand still there, or anywhere, for that matter. Continuing to live his life only yearning for the past and refusing to move forward will ultimately hold him back him from having a fulfilling life. His identity cannot grow, because he refuses to allow himself the treasures around him, and to create a story for himself in his new home. He finally realizes that what his uncle said was true, that nothing in his life was his in the beginning. It was only with his work could he call something his own.
I come from a family of immigrants; my parents and their siblings came from the Philippines and immigrated to the United States during the 1980s and early 1990s. I am the first one in my immediate family to be born in America and as a first generation Filipino-American, I have always had difficulties combining my American and Filipino cultures together. Growing up, I was confused as to what I should and should not do. In one culture it would be perfectly fine to do something, but in the other culture, that “something” would be classified as a strange habit and would be frowned upon by my peers, because they could not understand any of it. I felt stuck in a position of trying to please everybody whether they were American or Filipino.
Growing up in the Filipino community, I was an outcast. I was different from the other Filipino-American children my age, because I did not know much about the Philippines. Moreover, other children in the community were able to fluently speak the native language Tagalog, while I could only understand every other word in a sentence and speak a few conversational phrases. Not being able to understand Tagalog clearly set me apart from the other first generation Filipino-American children. The adults would somewhat look down on me as a spoiled American child with no respect for “our culture.” It made me feel awful, so I tried really hard to please them and to show to them that I was not an ignorant brat. On month-long family trips to the Philippines during the summer, it became much harder to please relatives, because the language barrier was blatantly apparent. My parents came from poor parts of the Philippines, so the assumption that I was a rude American proved to be true when I had only packed “fancy” American style clothes and video game handhelds in my suitcase.
In America, many of my peers in school thought that being Filipino was weird. For lunch, I would bring leftover Filipino food and eat traditional Filipino snacks during recess. They thought that whenever I spoke in Tagalog, I was practically an alien. A lot of my American peers dismissed my ethnicity and that made me feel insignificant. They would immediately write me off as Japanese, Chinese, or some other type of East Asian. To many of them, it was all the same thing. I was stuck in a position of trying to please both cultures. Like Sepha, I battle with finding my own identity, but my struggle is between my two cultures. I have come to terms with the fact that my two cultures might never be entirely integrated and that I need to appreciate them for what they are.

--Caye Caparas

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