“I’m from California!”
That’s my answer when someone asks where I’m from. More often than not, no one can actually guess my ethnicity and no other answer seemed to really fit.
I am mixed race, with a Scottish/Irish father, a second generation American, and a Filipina mother, a foreign-born American citizen. Sometimes it’s overwhelming; knowing there isn’t anywhere else in the world that I truly fit in other than my hometown of Los Angeles. My dark hair, eyes, and complexion doesn’t typically jive with Irish redheads, my white features sometimes makes Filipina seem out of the question, and my eccentric unironic use of the word “dude” screams west coast even just a few states over. My last name doesn’t even offer any hints; it was changed from “Strachan” to its phonetic “Strawn” when my distant relatives arrived at Ellis Island to work in American factories during the Industrial Revolution. And Molly? That name comes from Star Trek after Officer Miles O’Brien’s on-screen daughter, Molly O’Brien. Turns out, I am about as melting pot as you could get.
Regardless of what I would soon discover, I grew up blind to race, told that love was love, and the world better get ready for me when I finally had the stage. I was empowered to be anything I wanted, and as a young hot-headed and loud girl, I had no idea it was intentional, because my family was never offered the same opportunities. My grandmother was raised as one of nine in Jolo Sulu, a small island in the Southern Philippines in the Sulu Archipelago, and having lived through the Japanese occupation during World War II, she was concerned with something I never had to be: survival.
Before she passed away earlier this year, I interviewed her numerous times to fill in the holes between the many stories I’d heard in a mix of English and Tausug over family get-togethers. I became obsessed with my family’s heritage, almost in disbelief that these kinds of sometimes horrible stories could have happened to them.
My favorite person to hear about was always the same: my great-grandfather Leslie Thompson. He was so important to my grandma, and throughout my lifetime, I have heard so much about him: his love, his dedication, and his spirit, that it almost felt like I knew him in an odd way. Leslie was an American orphan and after his service as a medic in the US Cavalry, he was honorarily discharged with claims to land in the Philippines. He met my great-grandmother, Pujuk, and had 9 children on his newly built coconut plantation. They built a wonderful life together in Jolo Sulu.
However, throughout the Japanese occupation in the 1940’s, Leslie was taken a prisoner of war, the children had to fight to survive, find enough food, and make a living, often witnessing horrible tragedies like public executions or gunner airplane flyovers. Civil unrest threatened their village daily and led up to the burning of her family home and the slaughter of her family livestock. My great-uncle and God Father, Alan, was 14 at the time. As a child, he was told he was the man of the house.
Eventually, after long years of enduring, the war was finally over, and Leslie could return to his family. Rather than endanger them again, especially with the Korean War starting to brew, he utilized his American standing to send his entire family to the safety of the United States and stayed behind. She said it was the most painful thing he ever had to do; he told them to be strong, and to never show fear, but she later heard him crying alone in his bedroom the day before they left.
The prejudice they felt here in California was almost unbearable: they didn’t speak English, knew no one who could speak Tausug, they had no exposure to American culture, their skin was dark, and several of them were women. However, without support, they survived working here in sweat shops without a penny of welfare, building a new home here and adapting to struggles once again.
Back in Jolo, the village was still recovering from the war. Leslie, as a rich landowner, had given money to the Princess of Jolo Sulu as a loan to use in the rebuild and war efforts. Rather than pay back her dues using her land as collateral, there was an easier option: to have Leslie murdered. I could have never even imagined the pain my grandmother had felt when she found out as word came to the states. She was never able to see him again.
She struggled with cultural isolation for years before she decided to return to Jolo. After having my mother, she escaped the region again and returned to California, later having her youngest son, my uncle. She eventually moved into a career in the LA Records department, setting up herself with a pension, medical care for life, and a future for her two children as a single mother.
I remember munching on her favorite BBQ Lays chips, sitting across from her in her living room and listening to this, all from the woman who had one of the biggest hands in raising me. She was so familiar and felt like home, and so it was almost unfathomable the struggles she went through just to be here with me, and beyond that, how much she loved me. She was never a “single” mother to me; she was always more than enough, even if she never saw that for herself. She was empowering, and inspiring.
I felt heavy, and endowed with responsibility: I carry her heritage, her story, and Leslie’s family name (my middle name), with me in my bones. When I miss her, I still listen to those interview recordings and treasure what it means to be Filipina, love your culture, and adapt to an American way of life, through her words.
I was never taught Tausug to give me an even better shot at being truly American, but I do know one phrase: “Kalasahan ta kaw.” It means, “I love you,” and that’s the only phrase I needed to know. My melting-pot identity, my ridiculous California accent, my emboldened stubborn mindset, my belonging only in the United States: turns out, it was all by design. And somehow, by becoming closer to my heritage and every event that had to line up to make me, it gave me a better appreciation of my own identity. I remember when I insisted on being a pallbearer at her funeral, regardless of the traditional male nature of the position, my mother laughed and said, “of course you can be, she’d let you do whatever you wanted.”
I am still in charge of my own career, my own life, and the life of my future family, but I now do it with even greater appreciation. My name is Molly Thompson Strawn, and I’m from California!
Each and every one of us carry a story of cultural significance and celebrating them together is the best part of being an American. I am blessed to share this story, to hear many more, and that I get to call the InnovateMR team my second family who is supportive of initiatives like this. I wish everyone a wonderful Filipino American History Month!
Molly Strawn is a Senior Marketing Strategist at InnovateMR focused on outbound content creation including email, social media, events, and more. She has served in a number of marketing-related positions throughout her career and benefits from a deep knowledge base related to brand strategy, social media virality, digital content production, and SEO optimization. She was most recently nominated for Significant Insights Global 30Under30 and the GRIT Future List.
InnovateMR is a fiercely independent sampling company that delivers Faster Answers™ from business and consumer audiences. As industry pioneers, InnovateMR connects organizations with market research audiences around the world to support informed, data-driven strategies, and identify growth opportunities. InnovateMR has built its reputation on a relentless pursuit of customer delight. Stop working with vendors, and start working with a partner dedicated to your success.