Delivered today as the keynote closing speech at the Filipino Young Professionals’ 2019 Conference at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Hello everyone. I’d first like to say thank you to the organizers for inviting me to speak with you all today, especially J.P., Aggie and the rest of the Filipino Young Professionals DC executive leadership team.
My name is Malaka Gharib. It is an honor for me to even be speaking to you today because never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be a guest of honor at an event for Filipino Americans.
For much of my upbringing, I never felt Filipino enough. My name is Muslim and Arab. I am named after my Egyptian grandparents. And growing up with my Filipino mom in a mostly Filipino community in Southern California, it was hard not to compare myself to classmates with last names like Aguinaldo, Bigalbal and De Castro.
I was told by the event organizers that the theme of my keynote should be about success.
While I think of myself more like a work in progress, I will tell you everything I know, as a mere 33 year old, about what I’ve learned about quote unquote “making it.” These stories only serve to validate what you already know.
The story of my success starts on the night of my parents’ divorce.
My mom would take me to my grandparents house, and this is where I’d hear the first of many of this phrase throughout the early period of my life: Kawawa naman si Malaka.
In Tagalog that means, and you know it: Poor Malaka, pity Malaka.
What would she do, this little five year old, without her father, with her mom now single, and juggling multiple jobs. How would she grow up?
Between my Titos and Titas, my Nanay and Tatay and my mom: they decided that they would all raise me.
Me and my mom moved into two-bedroom apartment with my Tita Pinky and Tito Arnel. We shared a twin bed. Tatay would drive me to school. Tito Ovid would help my mom pay for my tuition. Nanay would be my babysitter.
And that’s how it was, for the majority of my young life. That was the first lesson I would learn about success: that you need help and support to thrive.
I never felt alone with my Filipino family. If Tita Pinky bought a new dress for her daughter, my cousin Felisha, she would buy the same thing for me. If Nanay was going to the store and there was no one else to take care of me, I would sama, come along, too. That’s how Filipinos are. We watch out for each other. We care of each other.
During this time, my mom was working hard. She had three jobs. She worked at the airport. Worked at my Tito Ovid’s medical clinic as a receptionist. And she sold jewelry on the side. She worked on Thanksgiving and Christmas. For many years she worked an overnight shift. She missed many of my school events. And I rarely saw her. When she came home, she was exhausted and did not have much time to play with us.
Still, I loved her.
Even though I was just a kid, I understood what she was doing. She was trying to earn money, so me and my sister Min Min could have a decent, middle class life. So she could say yes, when at 15, I asked her to buy me a pair of hundred dollar Diesel jeans — very cool in the early 2000s — and not feel ashamed to say no.
Mommy was sacrificing a lot for us. So I tried to do well, too. I studied a lot. I did my homework. I got good grades, I won awards in school, I made the honor roll.
The more I learned about the world, the more I started to dream of what kind of life I wanted for myself.
I did not want the life in which I was raised in. I wanted something bigger. I didn’t want to have to work so hard, in a uniform and punching into a clock, for so little pay, like Mommy. I wanted to have a job that I was passionate about. My mom had her own dreams of what life would be like before she came to America. And her life was so far from it. I wanted to make enough money to take care of my mom and my family, to give back to them what they gave to me.
In high school, I realized that the only way for me to do this was to go to a good college. It would be my ticket, I was sure, to a better life.
In the last year of high school, I told my family my plan. I was applying to schools on the East Coast. Schools with good programs for journalism. Because I wanted to be a writer.
You can imagine how well that conversation went.
I can still remember what they said. My Tita Jean told me that I’d never make money. And my Tito Arnel told me that it was really competitive and I’d never make it. Going to school for writing, they said, was a waste of money — a big gamble.
Who would pay if I failed?
Why didn’t I consider nursing? That’s where the money is, they told me. Or accounting? You were good at math and science in school, they said.
I couldn’t even bear to tell them that what I really wanted was to be an artist. That would have killed them. Writing was my second choice, actually. Still creative, but a little bit more practical. And I knew I was good at it.
But even telling my family that — telling them that I wanted to be a writer — it sounds like it’s really easy to say. If you grew up in a Filipino family, you know how hard it is to stand up to them.
As a dutiful daughter, granddaughter and pamangkin, you want to please them. To be deferential to them. To do what the clan wants you to do.
My family taught me everything I know about everything. I didn’t want to be ungrateful. But I was on my own on this one. And that’s the second lesson I learned about success: that sometimes you need to be brave, to trust your gut.
And I will cut to the chase: I did, eventually, despite my family’s concerns and passive-aggressive side comments, become a writer. I am a journalist at NPR, one of the highest levels of mainstream media. And at age 31, I got a book deal to write my own memoir. So yes, I am glad that I stood up for myself.
But I had a topsy, turvy way of getting there.
Actually, it was my Tita Pinky — the matriarch of the family — who helped me stay focused amid the rest of the clan’s discouragement. Before I left for college, she gave me a very cliche piece of advice, which I clung onto for dear life: Do what you love and success will follow.
She told this to me after she realized that nothing my family could say could stop me from leaving home. And I understood exactly what she meant by that, because she was following that advice herself.
Tita Pinky is a doctor, actually the head of pediatrics at a hospital in Southern California. It sounds awesome, and it is — but she has other passions. She loves planning weddings. So on the weekends, she arranges flowers and corsages. She’s really good at it and she could probably start her own company. But she does just enough of it to scratch her creative itch.
This piece of advice taught me something crucial. You don’t — and you really shouldn’t — derive all your joy from your day job.
When I graduated from college, I found it really hard to get a job in writing. My family was right in that regard. But I also I graduated in 2008. It was the height of the global recession. News companies were losing out to the Internet and were starting to lay off all their staff. I couldn’t find a job in the industry. Which was embarrassing, because I had a whole bunch of student loans. I didn’t want to ask my mom for money. And I didn’t want my family to see me fail. I couldn’t bear to come home for Christmas and hear Tita Jean say “I told you so!” or “It’s not too late to enroll in school for nursing.”
So I went on to work in the next best thing: working here in DC in communications at a global health nonprofit. It wasn’t journalism, but I was making money. And technically, I was still writing.
But I decided: if I couldn’t do the kind of writing I wanted to do during the day, I’d do it at night.
In my early 20s, I started a magazine — or a zine — called The Runcible Spoon. It was about food and fantasy and it was really crazy. Artists could contribute essays, poems and comics. We made up recipes, drew our dream foods and half of our stories were jokes. And then it started getting popular. Bookstores in Tokyo and Amsterdam and Copenhagen started selling it. Then it was featured in The Washington Post. And then The New York Times. It was blowing up. I made it.
It was proof, I thought to myself, at age 26, that Tita Pinky’s advice was right. Do what you love and success will follow. There was some truth to it.
I was doing that magazine for me. For fun. It made the drudgery of my day job more bearable. The day would be over — and I could focus my time at night on more fulfilling work.
So I continued to think of my hustle that way. That if I just kept writing and drawing the things I wanted to write and draw about, things would eventually happen. My day job suddenly became inconsequential. I felt fulfilled in my life because I never had to let go of what I loved doing most.
Working like this is how I got my first book deal for my memoir, I Was Their American Dream.
After 2016, I kept hearing these one-dimensional descriptions of immigrants. That we were rapists, terrorists, drug addicts. It was so far away from the people who I grew up with.
So I started making these little drawings on my social media of my parents. To counter the narrative that immigrants were desperate to come to this country, I drew a cartoon of my mom and her life before she came to America. She had a great job in Manila. She could get cool clothes like Nike sneakers from Japan. She didn’t want to come here and work so hard.
And I drew a cartoon of my dad, titled “The Muslim Who America Fears.” I drew stuff that he liked: Tom Hanks. KFC. Jorts. Not so scary.
Those cartoons caught the eye of a colleague who referred me to an agent in New York. That agent helped me get a book deal.
Do what you love, success will follow. It’s worked out so far.
The last lesson I learned about success came pretty recently, after the book was published.
It was actually a Facebook comment from a former classmate named Justin Claravall, who is Filipino American. The comment was this: You rise, we all rise.
Just five words. But I felt like that statement had such gravitas. I suddenly felt the weight of those words. Justin was cheering me on. He was celebrating me.
And I knew exactly what that felt like.
It’s that inner urge to applaud when I found out that we have a badass New Yorker writer — Jia Tolentino — who is Filipino. That a Filipino cartoonist, Lynda Barry, won a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant this year. That the freakin’ new host of Blues Clues, Joshua De La Cruz, a bright young talent, is Filipino. They have careers I thought Filipinos could only dream of.
And it’s how I feel when I look around this room: this amazing spark, this energy. You can’t be here in this city of Washington, D.C, at this level where you are in your careers, without being someone special, without being the cream of the crop. Without taking risks. Maybe you had to shirk your familial obligations. Maybe you had to move halfway around the country for a job that wasn’t being a doctor or a lawyer. Or heaven forbid, choose to become an artist.
That’s why whenever I see a Filipino professional out in a big city — or you all right now in this room — I have mad respect for them. I know exactly what you had to fight against to get where you are now.
In fact, one of my favorite things to ask Filipino American professionals — especially those who don’t work in the medical field — is “how did you do it? How did you get here?” And oftentimes, they know what I mean by that. They know what I mean is: How were you brave enough to stand up to your family? To leave the safety and comfort of home?
That’s why when I was told that the theme of today’s keynote speech was “success,” I already knew. There is no way I could tell you anything new. You already know that the odds of making it in this world are better when you have the support. That you have to trust your gut. That following your passion leads to a more fulfilling life.
You’re all already killing it.
So I am here to celebrate you. To cheer YOU on. To remind you. That when you rise, we all rise.
But that phrase also carries a big responsibility.
We need to raise each other up. And Filipinos are good at doing that. Pass on a resume. Get coffee with that young FilAm who wants to “pick your brain” — a phrase I know that a lot of people hate. But just do it.
Or do what we do at NPR: host a lunch club for Filipinos, if you have any, at the workplace. Get everyone to bring in homemade adobo or sinigang and eat together. It sends the message, especially to the younger ones — that you are here for them. That it’s cool to be Filipino. That in 2019, it’s perfectly OK to put bagoong in the office microwave.
Or at the very least, give a young Filipino Americans the kind of advice you wish you had received at their age.
I know exactly what I would tell 22-year-old me. I’d give her simple encouragement. I’d tell her:
You’re doing great.
I am proud of you.
Thank you so much.