Culture is such a very broad term. Most people think of a specific geographical influence or perhaps what their ethnic or racial background is. However, culture can be so much more complex than that and any psychologist or therapist and social worker needs to be aware of that. A person’s culture is the sum of their experiences; racial, social, familial, ethnicity and even the media. My own cultural influences has been a conglomeration of events beginning with the birth into a military family as a racially mixed child and extend through exposure to several states, an early divorce and remarriage into a new family, molestation as a child, and the teaching of not only my mothers and fathers, but the lessons I learned about life through books.
My genetic father met my mother in her native homeland of the Philippines. He was a naval service man, and my mother was a young, beautiful single mom with my older brother John. Once they returned to the states as a married family, a quick succession of moving took place as the military life placed our family in station after station. I was born in one of those bases: Presidio in San Francisco. Despite the fact we moved when I was not even a year old, I felt and still feel a strong connection to San Francisco and will explain more about that later.
A few transfers later and we lived in Hawaii for quite a while; long enough for me to have memories of happy times, to love the feel of a wave crashing over me, and for me to feel the tragedy of a divorce at only 4 years old. This was probably the first intensly strong cultural influence in my life. Family is a very important thing in Philippine culture and at the tender age of four I, and my brother, were asked to choose who we would live with, believeing that a minimum of family fighting over us was the best way to prevent trauma. However, I am of the opinion it caused more trauma than if they had fought over us. I believe this is why I grew up letting others make decisions for me, afraid to make a decision someone may not like. I always felt like I hurt my father by choosing to live with my mother.
So at four, after so many moves, the only real concept I had of “home” was the place where my family was, and that was shattered. I don’t remember much after that until after my mother remarried a marine about a year later and once again I was uprooted and brought to South Carolina. Unfortunately, this stay would only be a few months long, just long enough to meet my new extended family and be molested by one repeatedly. After that, my world changed into one of hidden secrets and innocence lost.
Arriving in California, where I would finally remain somewhat stable as my step-father was stationed on Camp Pendleton, where I lived and grew for 7 years and a lot of influences in my life too root: family, religion, authority, familial expressions of affection and my love for literature. It was here too that I learned more about shame and secrets, and it was during this time I had begun to learn what molestation was, what it meant to be with a male, that I was too ashamed to play the normal “learning about your body” games that kids play, and began to realize I liked boys as much or more than girls. While our family was not heavily religious at the time, it was just enough for me to learn how bad of a person I was and how many friends I had that were going to hell for being in the wrong religions. I lived there until I graduated from 6th grade, and as I think back, this time had played a major role in forming who I was as a person.
Later, I would spend my years until graduation in a severely strict household, close to abusive, and my cultural influences began to be molded more by books and people I met at school rather that the family that made me feel ashamed and self-conscious. My family returned to religion with almost a zealots fervor during this time and I tried desperately to become someone “clean”. It was this time, when I was one of the “freaks and geeks” without anyone knowing I was one, that I think I began to feel my desperate need to make everyone feel valued and to be everyone’s friend, a trait that would shape much of my future. I even became a gay and AIDS activist in my college and community. Since that time I have been the ultimate straight laced good kid to the almost out of complete control party man. I have experienced love and tragedy and all these experiences have combined to create the cultural influences that color my world and my potential interaction with clients. To that end, if I were forced to choose labels for myself, I would have to say I was a gay, male, abuse survivor with strong Filipino and multi-racial influences and deeply affected by a sense of justice learned from books. I am Agnostic, lower class Californian with strong democratic leanings. That’s probably as far as I’m willing to throw labels around.
Despite having two military men as fathers, they really didn’t factor in as a strong influence in my life involving gender roles. Being military, they were often gone, and thanks to the military, emotionally distant even when at home. So my ideas about gender roles was learned from my mother and the role models I chose in my schools. My mother was one of the biggest influences of course, always stressing how a woman should be treated and a gentleman should act. She evn taught me to cook, to prevent me from thinking that was a woman’s place. She insisted on being a working mother and yet was still always there to protect me from bullies and wild dogs, showing me strong women were a valued thing and an amazing thing.
Later, as I began to grasp on to the roots of my gay identity, I met my first out high school lesbian, which in 1992 was huge news and extremely daring. Sarah Brewer became my role model for her strength to be herself and to still have strength left to stand up for the other “freaks and geeks”. While certainly feminine, she also slowly began to embrace androgyny which fascinated me. It somehow felt right for men and women to share traits equally, like some sort of cosmic balance and that has shaped my worldview ever since. For example, I see nothing wrong and would in fact encourage boys to wear pink or play with dolls if they wanted, and certainly have no problems with girls who like to wear pants and play baseball. I believe it it all part of the belongingness of the human world.
While it was true that my mother did the majority of the cooking and housework until
I was old enough to help; I had already decided what kind of man I had wanted to be with regards to gender. So if the neighbor’s girls wanted me to be the wife and she the husband when we played house, I was more than happy to. Southern California also being a very liberal place, gender roles were not as strictly adhered to, especially when you lived near theatre and arts colonies where people believed freedom of thought and expression was more important than anything.
Relationship To Authority
While I was generally a respectful and good child, there was always a simmering resentment in me towards male authority due to the early divorce and emotional distance the military taught. While I rarely acted out on it, it was something that simmered through my childhood until into my teenage years. While not as respectful as a Filipino child would be towards his mother, I was far better than your average “American” child when with my mother. I was a bit of a “momma’s boy” and nothing was more important to me than her and her welfare. She reinforced this trait when she left for almost a year to take care of her dying mother in another state and her constant devotion to sending money to our impoverished Philippine relatives.
This carried over into most of my other life. I wanted and needed the majority of adults approval, so I always tried to be nice and caring, especially in view of adults. That didn’t mean my peers were not important, on the contrary they were very important, and showed me that it was ok to stand up to authority when you know your cause is just. A set of friends had just died in a car wreck my sophomore year and as a tribute we all adopted Brian’s habit of wearing a cowboy hat, sunglasses, and chewing on a stick match in our mouths. Despite the protests of several teachers, the principal allowed us to grieve in our own way, to the extent of reprimanding teachers who sent us to the principal for refusal to remove the accessories in class.
Now due to what I considered near abusive mental and emotional treatment by my step-father, I had very low self-esteem, despite my ability to befriend anyone. My self-esteem was caught up in their thoughts of me, although I didn’t realize it at the time; which is why it was a big surprise that I stood up to my first adult, a teacher, during this time period. After t tirade ending with her saying “get over it, he’s dead”, I actually stood up, told what I thought of her beginning with insensitive and ending with words not fit to print here and walked myself to the counselors office without permission. While this was not the beginning of some anti-establishment phase, it did teach me that adults were not always right and led to me being able to fight for other things, more important things in college as part of the Student Government and as President of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual association.
However, there are still those who can remind me of certain things in my youth that can take me back to angry places in which were the few times I fought over what I felt what important with authority figures. For the most part however, years of work and college have been able to train those impulses into more beneficial ways of dealing with authority, even when I disagree with them.
Expression of Affection
My entire life of learning about expressions of affection came from two sources. Mainly my mother, who was never afraid to hold me, cuddle me or or hold my hand, even as I got older. This generosity of affection allowed me to learn how to freely share my emotions with friends who, for the most part were artists and performers (and have no concept of personal space)and hang out and cuddle in what we termed “puppy piles” where as many people who find a spot in a lap or across a body or snuggled into a corner did do on the couch or bed for TV to talk time.
For the most part, this has carried over with me from years of theatre; expressing my emotions freely and having no personal space is very natural to me. It is also a trait I have to constantly be aware of around certain situations, as I am learning as I make my way towards becoming a clinical therapist.
This is a difficult area. Most of what I learned about the child-parent relationship was what not to do. There were times when I felt the discipline was far too harsh and bordered on abuse, but the closeness and love shared by myself and my mother was forged too strong to break no matter how strong her temper got, or how cruel I felt my step-fathers words were. I feel it was very much an authoritarian form of raising, and I do not believe it to be the best form of child-rearing, especially since I’ve been working in child care with abused children for a year. While a do believe in corporal punishment for severe natured trespasses, it is my belief that a caring, nurturing environment where feelings are encouraged, anger is allowed to be expressed, tantrums can be had and lessons can be taught during and after emotional crises is best. If a young person can be sat down, talked to and taught the connections between feelings and behaviors by parents or authority figures all through their youth, we might have a less violent society that believes when someone wrongs you, you hit first.
I also believe a child should be allowed to make as many choices growing up as possible to allow them a sense of control in their lives. Which socks to wear? What scent shampoo? It encourages thought and praise for the choices builds self-esteem and confidence. Also, I believe children and parents should spend as much time with books as possible, where it was that I learned about compassion, triumph over evil and the belief anyone can become a hero.
While stressed early on during the military portion of my childhood, time ceased to be such an important part of my family’s life. Of course, be on time for work, be on time for school; these were standard responsibilities but had more to do with work ethic than any importance placed on time. It wasn’t until I discovered theatre and began a career in performing that a realized how important time actually was. The whole theatrical culture revolved around time, when you woke up, how long to get to dance class, when rehearsal began, what if rehearsal ran late? There was call time for shows which gave enough time to prepare with make-up and warm-ups and costumes, then the places call warning we had 5 minutes until the curtain rose and we must be in our places on stage… I think that being a newbie in theatre I was always early to begin preparations before everyone else. I feel this may contribute to my constant, if not always successful, desires to be early wherever I go.
Then death and illness of friends really took home the sense of the premium we should place on our lives. We really do have no day but today, because tomorrow is always tomorrow. Who knows when they’ll stop?
“Family problems stay in the family” is a phrase I heard and still hear often. I was raised that asking for help, especially from outside the family was shameful. My family in California literally had to have no food left in our cabinets before they bent to accessing a temporary food bank for assistance. Even now, for our family to ask for help is unheard of except in truly desperate times. I find my own pride and heart ripped to shreds whenever I have to call a parent for help, because I was always taught and told “you should be able to do it on your own”.
I suppose that had an effect on my desire to help others in need, to help them find resources and to someday find ways to make assistance programs have less of a community stigma. I know I want to encourage children to seek help right away if they feel they’ve been in an abusive situation.
Centrality of Religion
While I was young, religion did not have a strong influence on me. My mom was raised Catholic, like most Filipinos, and my fathers had Christian backgrounds. I remember being told stories of how my grandmother and grandfather were disinherited by their respective families for marrying outside their respective religions. That should give you an idea on the importance of religion in a Filipino household.
However, I already had an issue with religion, How could any God let a child be molested, or starve, or die of sickness. My life was somewhat content without religion playing a major role.
However, shame knows no limits. Once religion became central to our lives again, I was in Jr, High school and I prayed with all the fervor I could muster not to like boys. We were in the Church of God, and they espoused miracles happening every day. For the next few years I tried, crying in the altar. But I never got anything but a feeling of peace, that I was ok as I was. It didn’t make me any less ashamed at the time though. However,bacuase of this I began to have doubts about Christianity.
First, I was a pacifist and I thought there was too much death associated with God’s name in the Bible. Secondly, I could not reconcile that some wonderful, good people I knew would go to hell for having the wrong religion taught them by their parents. Finally, I could not believe that something I considered as beautiful as love could send someone to hell.
So in my first year of college, I began experimenting with the various religions on camps to see if any might fit my beliefs in what a higher power should be. I studied Wicca, Buddhism, Baha’i, and even some older native traditions to see what I could find. What I found were a lot of similarities, but at the hearts of it all Wicca’s belief of “An as ye harm none, do as ye will” and the belief in Baha’I of universal acceptance of religion and their traditions of using dance and the arts to teach appealed to me most. After much deliberation, I came to a personal conclusion that I was Agnostic, that every religion was on the right track somewhere but none had it right. This has been one of my biggest assets in dealing with others of differing faiths
Growing up in a Southern California school system, it is pretty much a foregone conclsion that college will be in your life somewhere. I wanted so much to graduate and attend a performing arts college like NYU or Julliard, but no help financially was forthcoming. However I believed and still believe that education is one of the most important components of our society. I went to a community college originally as a Theatre Major, which I was quite successful in, until some setbacks took me out of college.
Despite a ten year gap, my mother never stopped encouraging me and I never stopped believing that finishing an education was key to a productive life in society. However, now I was wanting to be a clinical therapist and began my new career at the university of South Carolina, Sumter.
As the first in my family to attain a University Degree, I hope to set an example for the future generations of my family to attend college and not settle for meaningless lives drinking beer and bowling.
Attitudes Towards Economic Success
There has always been a sort of divided attitude about economic success in my family. My genetic father has always pushed me to do for myself and become financially comfortable. A very understandable goal. However he truly tended to believe it should be on one’s own with no help, although he no longer pushes that as much. My genetic mother used to refer to the days I would be be a millionaire actor or psychologist and could afford a fancy house for her next to mine (again, family ties are extremely important to Filipinos. Families often spend entire lives together under the same roof.)
However, my mother always supported me, letting me choose what was going to make me happy, whether there was going to be money involved or not. She always told me over and over “as long as you’re happy.” I tend to take this heart and spread this philosophy to my younger relatives; “go to college and choose what makes you happy, no matter what it is!”
I believe if more people had this attitude, there would be less fighting and obsession over gaining material goods, and hopefully less crime and more charity.
My Work With Future Clients
I have already seen my problems with future clients lies in getting too involved with their success of failure and am working to learn better as my education continues. While I do not believe I am ethnocentric and would be insensitive to another person’s heritage, I do believe I could use a little more education on norms and customs of potential clients groups. I find that someone who is devoutly religious may be a challenge for me, and I expect I’ll learn ways to deal with that eventually.
I do believe however that my varied life experiences and acceptance of others have made me an ideal prospect for being a welcoming therapist that clients will feel open to talking to. I feel that my experiences expressing emotions will allow me to truly show a client that I can relate on level they will find sincere and productive to progress in their therapy. I am scared about when I will eventually work with my first sexually abused client, but the time is not now to worry about that. My biggest challenge I foresee is going to be allowing the client to work through their problems on their own time frame, not mine. Allowing them to proress and face their challenges rather than pointing it out for them to see.
While sometimes my influences seem to clash with certain aspects of my upbringing, this only serves to illustrate the point that the cultures I inhabit have been formed from more than just a family, religion or race. Books and other media have influenced my values, beliefs that others were in the wrong have taught me the way I want to treat and be treated, Being part of an outcast group has taught me to be more accepting of all those around me and my early activism has made me ready to advocate for any client that needs it. All in all, it is my belief that the diversity of my cultural background is going to prepare me to be an excellent clinical therapist and continue to progress towards superior service to my clients.
Source: Mark Gittner, MSW Candidate, USC Class of 2012