Throughout almost 40 years that she has lived in the United States, Grace Talusan is Filipino. However, after four months in the Philippines, she has come to understand that she is an American.
Lest she be misunderstood, Talusan, who has something in common with Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, may be an American in the way she speaks and dresses up, and in her beliefs and expectations, but she is very much a Filipino at heart. She feels deeply for Filipinos, particularly those who work so hard yet live in difficult situations.
Talusan was born in Manila to both Filipino parents but has lived in the United States since she was three years old. She was 19 when she first came back in 1992 for a brief visit since they packed their bags to the US in the early ‘70s.
Like many Filipinos who have settled in the US, her parents who were both medical practitioners were initially undocumented aliens there. And so were she and her elder sister. Her three younger siblings were born there.
“My father had an opportunity to do his residency at New England Medical Center. He is an ophthalmologist so he did a glaucoma research. And my mother is a radiologist and she had an opportunity in Boston so we moved to Boston and they never left. They overstayed their visas. We were undocumented, we did not have legal status for a while,” the multi-award winning writer recalled.
Left with vague childhood memories of her early days in Manila, she grew up with hardly any trace of her Filipino identity, and ended up embracing the American way of life.
“My first language was Tagalog, and I lost it. I can sort of understand, but konte lang. I don’t have the vocabulary,” the English professor at Tufts University in Boston said with little regret.
Unlike other migrants who chose to stay far and unaware, Talusan, who also teaches creative writing at Grub Street, opted to trace her roots and reintroduce herself to the birthplace she couldn’t quite call her motherland.
So once she got her citizenship, Talusan longed to go back and learn more about the Philippines, its culture and values, its people and, of course, her relatives in Victoria, Tarlac where her mother came from, and in Talacsan, San Rafael, Bulacan where her father hailed.
She is a niece of Dr. Antonio and Dr. Celia Talusan who were mainstays in the public service television program Kapwa Ko Mahal Ko with Rosa Rosal and Orly Mercado in the late ‘70s to the ‘80s.
How did she get to Manila?
Until the end of May this year, Talusan was in the country discovering her Filipino roots and making more Filipino friends on the side while conducting a research on the life of business process outsourcing (BPO) workers (or what we know better as call center agents) under the Fulbright Senior Scholarship Program.
The Fulbright scholarship, administered by the Philippine-American Educational Foundation (PAEF), allowed Talusan to explore Metro Manila and some parts the country for almost five months.
“I was thinking about it [coming back to the Philippines]ever since my first trip back here when I was 19. I wanted to have a Fulbright; it’s just so difficult to get one. I tried two or three times—as a student, as a graduate student, and maybe one other time before I finally got this. I almost did not apply for this one,” she said in an interview one morning at the PAEF office in Makati City.
The Fulbright Program is an international educational exchange sponsored by the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. It was founded in 1945 by Senator J. William Fulbright to help promote peace after World War II.
Talusan and two other Filipino-Americans are in the country on Fulbright scholarship: Jason Reblando, an artist and photographer based in Chicago and a professor at Illinois State University; and Joseph Legaspi, a poet based in Queens, New York and works at Columbia University.
Together they presented their research work on May 12 at the PAEF hall: “Home Away from Home: Benefits and Losses of the Filipino Diaspora” by Reblando; “Home and in the Diaspora, a Non-Portrait and Poetry Reading” by Legaspi; and, “The Golden Headset: The Lives of BPO Workers” by Talusan.
For their research project, the Fulbright scholars were affiliated with different Philippine schools to help them find mentors and establish connections. Reblando was with Ateneo de Manila University as he studied the OFW phenomenon and the Filipino diaspora.
Legaspi conducted a research on Filipino poetics while affiliated with Siliman University in Dumaguete City. Talusan studied the “sunshine industry” of call centers with the help of The Manila Times College (TMTC) under the mentorship of its president, Dr. Isagani Cruz, himself a multi-award winning writer and educator.
Talusan said she came to know about TMTC through her friend Luisa Igloria, a Filipino-American poet who hails from Baguio City and who referred her to Cruz.
“She [Igloria] connected me to Isagani. I showed Isagani my proposal and he wrote me a letter of support . . . He’s wonderful; he has helped me a lot. He has been very generous with his connections and he is contemporaries with my uncle, Alfrredo Navarro Salanga,” Talusan recalled.
“He wrote me a letter of affiliation from The Manila Times College. I couldn’t have done this without that letter. I needed it,” said Talusan who is about to complete a book of essays, including “The Search for Tito Freddie.”
Every year, American professionals come to the Philippines under the various Fulbright scholarship programs meant to promote linkages between the two countries and among their faculties and other professionals.
“An American Fulbright scholar is assigned to a school, so that there is a mentor and the scholar can get contacts through the school,” Cruz explained.
There are more Filipino Fulbright scholars sent to the US than there are Americans coming to the Philippines, according to Cruz, a former president of Fulbright Scholars Association.
In 2014, there were 36 Filipino grantees in four programs under the Fulbright umbrella: Fulbright Student Program, Fulbright Advanced Lecturing/Research Program, Foreign Language Teaching Assistants Program, and the Fulbright-Philippine Agriculture Scholarship Program.
From 2012 to 2013, TMTC also hosted Fulbright scholar Tria Andrews, a Cherokee, Irish and Filipina writer who has published literary works focused on her Cherokee and Filipino roots.
Why the interest on call center agents?
In the case of Talusan, she became interested in studying and writing about the life of Filipino call center agents because of their connection to the Americans.
“There’s one million in the Philippines and I wanted to talk to a few of them and know
what it is like who’s on the other end of the line. Mostly they’re servicing US calls,” she said.
“The US and the Philippines continue to have a relationship other than the military. We have an intimate one-on-one relationship over the phone and I wanted to talk to people about it,” she added to explain the rationale for her research.
“They’re [call center agents]sacrificing so much to do this job. They work at night and their families are awake during the day so it’s a whole other life, and it’s unhealthy.
“From the people I’ve talked with, some have a heart problem at an early age. It’s not just being awake at night, but also stress. It’s a very stressful job. People [callers]are mad and they complain [to the BPO workers], and then there’s also smoking, a lot of smoking, and partying,” Talusan shared.
The business process outsourcing industry in the Philippines has grown 46 percent annually since 2006. In 2014, it posted an 18.7-percent growth in revenue to about $18.4 billion.
The Information Technology and Business Process Association of the Philippines (IBPAP) attributes the sector’s sustained growth largely to the growing demand for its services from the global off-shoring industry, particularly in the voice and non-voice sectors, healthcare information management, global in-house centers (GICs), as well as gaming and animation.
In 2013, Tholons, a US-based strategic advisory company for global outsourcing and investments, placed Manila at no. 3, in the top 100 ranking of global outsourcing destinations, overtaking New Delhi (India). The top spots remained unchanged, Bangalore (India), no. 1 and Mumbai (India), no. 2.
By 2016, the Philippines IT-BPO industry is projected to have 1.3 million employees.
The boom in the IT-BPO industry is led by demand for lower labor costs, a highly skilled and educated work force, and high proficiency in spoken English.
With such a phenomenal growth in a relatively new industry, it was indeed interesting to take a look at the people on the other end of the line.
Now that her Fulbright scholarship is completed, Talusan already has many things in mind to keep the interest in it. “I’m not dropping this. I’m still trying to find my angle. I’m still trying to find what I want to say and who I want to say it to.”
She said she wants Americans to be aware of the existence of BPO workers. “My idea is that we—the US—call all these phones and they don’t even know anything about them. I want them to know that there’s a person with a life on the other end of the line and maybe that will help them be a little more respectful.”
What’s fascinating, annoying about Filipinos?
While in the country, Talusan has keenly observed the Filipino way of life. She was fascinated in how we can laugh heartily despite the problems that we have to live with as we go through our daily routines.
“I don’t even know how to pronounce it in French, joie de vivre, the joy for life, as I can see it,” Talusan said. “Like today, I was looking at people on their way to work—you know how difficult the traffic conditions are—and yet I saw people laughing and having a good time, really laughing. I like it.
“If you can laugh like that every day . . . Oh my God! It’s wonderful!”
Observing the working conditions of construction workers in Bonifacio Global City (BGC) where she and her husband Alonso Nichols stayed, Talusan felt deeply for them. “They make only P250 to P350 a day and they are putting themselves at risk. They make those buildings and they make very little money,” she said.
“People here live under poor conditions and yet they do their work, they have their smile. I wish their conditions were better.”
And what did she find most annoying in the Philippines?
“Crossing the street,” she quickly said without having second thoughts about it. “It is so
scary for me here. In the crosswalk when it’s my turn and still I have to move my hands up to hold cars.
“In the States, if I step on the crosswalk, that’s it, everyone has to stop. Here, they don’t hit me but they’re very close. I’m not used to it, but other pedestrians, they’re not worried. Some were even on their phones, but me, I’m upset . . . I’m angry. But maybe, I should just try to follow other people’s lead and not be like an angry American so I just try to relax about it.”
Something in common with Angelina Jolie
Long before Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie had a much-publicized preventative double mastectomy, Talusan had undergone a similar procedure because, like the Maleficent starrer, she was a carrier of BRCA1 gene mutation.
At 34, Talusan opted to have both her breasts removed even if she did not have a cancer diagnosis and against the advice of some relatives and friends. In 2014, she had oophorectomy, a surgical removal of the ovaries. BRCA1 gene carriers are said to be at high risk for breast and ovarian cancer. For her, it was better to prevent cancer than to treat it.
Cancer scared her after having seen a two-year-old niece go through surgery and chemotherapy for a rare pediatric eye cancer called retinoblastoma, and caring for her elder through a difficult breast cancer treatment at age 36.
Her sister’s diagnosis prompted Talusan to undergo genetic testing.
A writer in a family of doctors
Talusan came from a family of medical practitioners. Besides her parents who are both physicians, her three siblings are all doctors and the fourth is becoming a doctor soon.
“I’m the only non-doctor but I have an MFA [Master of Fine Arts] in the field of writing,” she said.
She actually finished her pre-med course before venturing into writing. “I know I wasn’t good at it. I was working too hard for little results.”
It was a turning point in her life. “I thought maybe if I work hard on something else I can be better so I just told my dad, I said I’m gonna drop this. I’m not gonna become a doctor anymore, and he said, well, do whatever makes you happy,” Talusan recalled.
She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1994 at Tufts University and her MFA from the University of California-Irvine in 1999.
Writing may be in her blood after all. As early as age 10, Talusan said she was corresponding with famous Filipino writer Alfrredo Navarro Salanga. “I call him uncle but he’s actually my cousin.”
“In the Philippines people know him, and they even know him personally so I’ve been talking to people to tell me something about my Tito Freddie because I don’t know him, but he was my pen pal,” she shared.
It was Salanga, literary critic, newspaper columnist, journalist, novelist, poet, fictionist, editor, and multi-award winning writer, who encouraged her to write, and so she did.
Talusan was once a news reporter, too.
When she was in eighth grade, she contributed to Eaton Bulletin, a county newspaper and was paid $50 for an article and an additional $25 for a picture that went with it. She also wrote for Brockton Metro and for the San Francisco-based Filipino newspaper Philippine News.
But later on, she realized that she was not cut out for newspaper reporting because she was very shy.
It must have been something else that dissuaded her from newspaper reporting. “I was interviewing a lot of politicians at one point and it was like… they’re lying.
“I said I don’t want to do this anymore. I needed to do something that feels real. I don’t like this [political reporting]. It was too uncomfortable,” Talusan recalled, and narrated her transition into long form writing.
“I love long-form journalism, and I also like essay writing which is writing that comes out of my experience, more like creative, non-fiction or memoir.”
Since writing is not a lucrative career, Talusan had to engage in something else that can give her stable income so she went into teaching.
“I don’t really have a career trajectory, I mean, I get by doing the things that make me happy,” she said. But she’s not stopping there. “I need to do more; I need to do better,” she said.
Staying in the Philippines for four and half months—from January 19 to May 31—was truly a wonderful experience for Talusan and her husband Alonso, assistant director of photography at Tufts University.
Their escapades to the Legazpi Sunday Market in Makati with best couple-friends Jason Reblando and Joanne Diaz, trying Filipino foods and making friends there, were fond memories she would forever keep in her mind as a Filipino in America, or an American in the Philippines.
“It’s really nice talking to people there, sitting on a table and striking a conversation, and have some friends meeting us there,” she said with fondness.
Their weekend trips together to Bohol and El Nido, Palawan, and to Divisoria, Binondo, Intramuros, Malate and Makati have given them not just experiences but also opportunities to interact with ordinary Filipinos.
Thanks to Fulbright scholarship, Filipino-Americans Grace Talusan, Jason Reblando and Joseph Legaspi had their tastes of what it is like to be Filipinos in the Philippines, and they are bringing these good memories back to the US where they have lived most of their lives.
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Apart from Fulbright scholars, The Manila Times College also hosts other students under its educational exchange programs with Goethe University in Germany, Thammasat University in Thailand, and Universitas Esa Unggul in Indonesia. TMTC has also signed exchange program agreements with universities in South Korea, and is negotiating with schools in Bangladesh, India, Australia, Taiwan and the United States.