By Gary Bowman,
Sr. Business Conversion Program Specialist, 7-Eleven Development

A proud grandfather studies the author’s high school diploma

Each May, millions of Americans take a moment to celebrate the wonderful diversity of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) people — a fantastic reminder for everyone who truly appreciates the diversity that this group represents. Like contributions from other diverse backgrounds, the AAPI community has enriched the American culture on multiple fronts: intellect and innovation, style and substance in self-representation, music and food, just to name a few.

As a first-generation Filipino American, my family celebrates AAPI Month, though not formally, as we prefer to honor our heritage with memories and laughter whenever we get the chance. I grew up in a tight-knit environment steadied by my mother — a larger-than-life personality and matriarch who stood watch over our family unit. The elder Filipino figures in my life including my grandfather, auntie and great uncles were also protective over my siblings and I, while providing the love and support every family needs.

Like many people of AAPI descent, our close-knit family told countless enduring stories about the experiences they faced when first arriving in the U.S. as immigrants. No matter how these stories began, good or bad, they typically ended with a laugh and a smile. That’s how I’m rooted and how I recall my Filipino family and friends: polite, strong-willed, engaging and filled with humor.

No one embodied these qualities more than my mom, hands-down the most inspirational person I have ever known. Sharp as a whip and always knowing her audience, her ability to quickly assess any given situation and then respond in a positive, productive way was nothing less than magical. Regardless of the economic challenges we faced, and there were many, the pride my mom showed whenever she did something to help our family, and how deeply that sense of accomplishment emanated from her very being, struck a chord deep within me as teenager that still resonates today.

The author with his mom at his University of Kansas graduation ceremony

As a child, experiencing our struggles first-hand, I watched her overcome language, social and cultural barriers with grace and the ‘will’ of a giant. She was truly a warrior in an angel’s robe, making a difference in so many lives – and it’s that warrior-spirit that I carry with me in everything I do. As I grew older, I began to understand that the things you own don’t make you feel good about yourself. But rather, it’s what you give to others that really matters most. This is perhaps the greatest thing my mom taught me. And because of her, I never wished to be anyone other than myself.

Reflecting on my personal journey as an Asian American, I think that people of AAPI descent are sometimes misunderstood or, more damaging, falsely stereotyped. Some people may be characterized as “quiet” or “reserved” when they are simply intent on listening. Others may be misjudged as “lacking warmth” when they are simply focused on getting something done (and forgoing the “water cooler” chats). This is something I’ve personally experienced and observed with others. I’m not a hard person to get to know at all, but what has been a bit misinterpreted at times is the fact that I’m often internally reminded of my upbringing… to be still and speak only when spoken to versus being like any other neighborhood kid that’s part of a rambunctious kick-ball team, playing freely and openly expressing the joy and energy of the moment.

The author and his mom at West Point

As with any group or person, it’s only when you put in the time and effort to get to know them that you really understand who they are and what they value. For me personally, the discipline to see matters through to the end, to politely stand-up for yourself, to rightly support someone or a position that’s not so popular, to be honest and accountable without fail — these are traits that were taught in my home and ones that I have passed on to my kids and the many dozens of young athletes whom I’ve coached over the years.

Professionally speaking, my current role has given me the pleasure to work with some very amazing individuals. We’ve never specifically dissected our heritage lines, but the acceptance, support and patience that we show one another is a trusted bond built upon many thoughtful discussions.

Are these AAPI traits or qualities? I’m not sure — that’s not for me to say conclusively. Ours is far too diverse a group to pigeonhole with broad-stroke characteristics. My siblings and I have actually never spoken about being first-generation Filipino Americans. We already knew this, and intuitively recognized the nuances it brought to our lived experiences as Americans. Experiences I wouldn’t trade for anything. Because like I’ve already said, I’ve never wanted to be anyone other than myself.

Thanks Mom — you taught me well…