Gabriel Kramer is a reporter at Ideastream Public Media, the local NPR station in Cleveland. He currently lives in Cleveland, and was born and raised in a suburb of the city called Medina to a mother from the Philippines and a father from Ohio.
Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Gabriel and Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) on March 15, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.
Ruth Chang (RC): Let’s begin with your family’s immigration story — how you ended up staying in this area.
Gabriel Kramer (GK): So my father is actually from Medina, Ohio, as well. I got this corny story about my dad. Me and my dad were born in the same hospital, me and my grandfather went to the same high school. My dad’s side of the family has been in Ohio — and Medina, Ohio — for a very long time. My mom moved to the United States from the Philippines in the mid ‘80s. And then, her best friend growing up, they grew up on the same street, basically, in the Philippines. She said, “Hey, I got this job in Cleveland and I want you to come with me.” So my mom moved with her from Seattle, because she moved to Seattle first, like a lot of Filipinos do, and then to Ohio. And it wasn’t Cleveland, it was Medina, which is much, much, much smaller. But even more so, much, much, much, much smaller than Quezon City, where she’s from. It was definitely an adjustment for her. But, 35 years later and she loves it. She likes the slower paced life, she likes that there’s parking lots everywhere. And she’s found her own sense of community there, as well.
She worked at a candle factory in Medina for almost 30 years. I’m really proud of my mom for doing that. For my mom to move from the Philippines, to the United States, and Ohio, a place that is so different than where she’s from, and then to build and raise a family that is able to thrive here, despite any challenges that we may have faced. I’m really proud of my mom for doing that. And working so, so, so, so hard in doing so. She worked a blue collar job that I don’t think she ever expected as a teenager she’d be working. And that’s hard labor. She worked early morning shifts, and late night shifts, and made it happen to feed us, house us, and get us all to college and graduate. For her and my dad to pull it off, I think is an impressive thing. I don’t think they get enough credit for that sometimes.
I don’t always like digging into racism and things like that in front of my mom, because sometimes I don’t want her to know how bad it was. I don’t want to think that she moved to Ohio for this to be a place that she couldn’t bear. To a place that sucked for kids, right? Like, it wasn’t really like that. I had the privilege of thinking thoroughly about that life process. Most of my friends were Filipino when I’m really young. I go through high school, trying to fit in, and trying to not just fit in, but prove that I am more than just how I’m being defined by my peers. Then I get older, and I’m the identity for the community. That’s a privilege that was created by my mom and my dad to give me that. Whereas my mom — her priority in life was making money, feeding us, putting a house overhead, and putting a roof over our head. So, she didn’t have the privilege to be able to join Asian American organizations and preserve culture and preserve our history and all that stuff. I have that. I want to take advantage of that while I can. Because she couldn’t do that. And it would be a real shame if we let go of our traditions and our culture. I don’t want to lose that. I don’t lose that part of my life. I’m a proud Filipino American, and I want to be able to cherish that and hold it forever.
RC: She still there in Medina?
GK: She’s still there. It was the house I was born in.
GK: Ohio is what I’ve known. And, I’ll be honest with you, I do yearn for that AAPI community feeling, especially the older I get. And I know that there are cities and markets out there that I could go to, and it’d be much bigger, more prominent — maybe that’s in my future someday. But I do feel pretty dedicated to Ohio and Cleveland. I feel that the minority communities here, especially the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities here — I feel in my field I want to be able to serve, and I feel very proud to be able to be that person here in Cleveland, because there aren’t enough voices like that. There aren’t enough voices in newsrooms standing up for minority communities and I want to be that person in a place where we really lack that.
RC: Was that something that you experienced growing up? Sort of standing out in a place like Medina?
GK: Oh, yeah. I felt very different growing up in Medina and I tried my best to fit in. And I know that’s common with a lot of Asian Americans in Ohio that I’ve talked to. We have that same kind of story of when I was younger, before I started going to school, my best friends were other Filipinos because their moms were friends of my mom. And that’s how we became friends. We get older, you go to school. I’m more interested in sports, John’s more interested in skateboarding, and Jason’s a few grades above me, and then Phillip goes to another school. We kind of just naturally grow apart in that kind of way. And then you’re trying so hard in K-12 to really just assimilate, as sad as it sounds, and just fit in, that you kind of neglect your roots a little bit. And all of a sudden, you’re in your 20s. And you’re like, man, you don’t have that community outside of the family.
My family is great by the way. Let me just point out that. You know, my mom is one of eight siblings. We have 24 first cousins. I think the total count right now for kids in the generation below us is like 26. My sister just had a baby. Family reunions are awesome. So I get that taste of that community and it’s great. The camaraderie is amazing. But outside of that, you really yearn for that at a place like Medina High School. You yearn for that in a place like Kent State University. I’m not saying people aren’t nice and kind, but there’s something about having that shared life experience that you really want with people.
In terms of relating it to my workplace, as a journalist and a reporter, you want to tell stories that represent our community. Whenever I’m watching TV or a movie, or hear a song, and the actor or the musician is Filipino, immediately, I’m like, “Filipino, that’s one of us!” Even if you watch something on the news, you’re like, “Oh, this is something that’s related to us.” If it’s something that’s Asian, Asian American, Filipino, whatever it is, you kind of jump in, you’re like, “Oh, that’s cool.” You get excited about it. You take notice of it more so. I wish that was a more normal thing. I want it to be more normalized. To have representation of our communities in the news product, not just the faces that you see, or the voices you hear in these news reports, but also that there are stories that are relevant and important to our communities. And when you look at the lack of diversity in newsrooms around the country, you look at the lack of diversity in management of those places, you really notice the people who make the decisions about what gets displayed in media — there’s a lack of diversity. There’s not enough Asian Americans in there. There’s not enough Black Americans or not enough Latino Americans in there. And that can really have an effect on what gets put out there. And as best as I can, I want to change that. I’m pretty dedicated to that in my field. And that wasn’t maybe not necessarily the first reason I got in there. But when I realized that I could have the ability in this field to have that kind of influence, or the ability to create change, that really became a pretty, pretty lifelong goal for me right away.
RC: Being Asian American in the Midwest — what does that really mean? And for you, how has that informed how you’ve crafted your career and decided to stay here?
GK: There are, like I said, cities and markets where I can go find larger Asian American communities and feel like I can maybe help more people. But there is something about being in the Midwest, where whether it’s Toledo or Cleveland or other states, they really really lack that, right? The Asian American populations are much, much, much smaller in a lot of these parts. So I feel somewhat of a responsibility to be that person for this community here, because if it’s not me, who is it going to be? I’ve built relationships and I hope I’ve built trust with a lot of minority communities around here. And I hope that they trust me as a person that’s going to come to them with empathy, that’s going to tell their story in a way that best represents the minority communities. By doing all that work, I’m really proud of what I’ve built. So it’d be a hard decision to make to want to go to a different market because the people here in Cleveland deserve that. The people here in Cleveland — the people here in Ohio — deserve storytellers and news reporters that are going to look out for them, approach them with empathy and have just a shared experience that they can use to trust the media landscape.
RC: So how did you get into the storytelling, reporting career?
GK: Because I’m vain, and I wanted to be on TV [laughter]. I remember being in high school and trying to think, “Okay, what is the right career path for me?” I think Asian Americans maybe feel like they’re nudged towards certain fields sometimes. And I’m really lucky that my mom was willing to let me explore some things and explore my passions, even if that meant being creative. I’m sure my parents would have loved it if I was a nurse, or a doctor or a lawyer or whatever career path could have made me lots and lots of money. But I felt passionate about writing. I felt passionate about connecting with people. I really feel that’s a lot of fun. People ask me what my favorite hobbies are and I’m like, I just love meeting people. I love getting to know people. It drives a lot of my friends crazy because they’re like, we’ll be hanging out somewhere and they’re like, Dude, can we go and I’m just like, out here talking to strangers and meeting random people. But I love to do my job, I think it’s a lot of fun. And then when you feel the satisfaction, the first time of going to college and telling a story, or then when you’re done with college, and you got your story out on the news and it’s something that you felt like the people in the story really appreciated, and really loved — and then all of a sudden that’s a really great feeling to feel like you’re doing some good for some people.
Admittedly, when I first really got started, I was like, “Oh, I’m gonna be a sports guy. I’m gonna be on ESPN and, or a local sports cast or whatever.” And then I quickly learned through covering sports, that, especially covering high school sports, for as crazy as that sounds, especially here in Ohio, people love high school sports. In a lot of these towns in Ohio, the Friday football games are wild. It’s where everyone gathers; it’s busier than the city council meetings by a large margin. When you see that, when you’re covering sports, you’re like, “Wow, I’m really doing something the community loves and appreciates.” And then I learned that I could take it even farther, when I think about my life goals of wanting to make this country, this town, this state a more welcoming, accepting place. Not that I don’t think this place is welcoming, accepting, but I really want the world to know that this is a place where Asian Americans can be welcomed, accepted and be part of the fabric of what makes this community what it is.
RC: Yeah, when you turn on the TV and you’re in California it’s like, no big deal, Asian American. But here when you turn on the TV [here], you don’t really see that.
GK: Cleveland has an AsiaTown. It’s not the biggest, most heavily populated Asia town compared to Chinatowns or these densely populated communities for Asian Americans across the country, but when you’re in the Bay Area, and you see a story about what’s happening in Oakland Chinatown, that’s not a surprise. That’s something you kind of expect. When you’re in LA and you hear about a story that’s happening in the Koreatown in LA, it’s a little bit normal. But I remember doing a story a few years ago, that was, “What is AsiaTown in Cleveland?” And I’m glad I could tell that story of what AsiaTown is and what it is that people might want to know about. But the fact that it had to happen, not that long ago, is kind of a disappointment, because we should have been telling stories about this community long, long ago, not just recently. But now that I’m in this field, I can continue to keep tabs with the community leaders in AsiaTown, and continue to tell stories of what’s happening there. It’s something that Cleveland needs, and not just in that neighborhood in Cleveland, but that extends to all AAPI and minority communities all over the region.
RC: I want to jump back with a little bit about Medina. What was it like to live there? Who lives there? How many people?
GK: Medina is about 27,000 people. Not very big. It’s a conservative place that votes red pretty much all the time, with few exceptions. It’s about 92% white, and it is less than 1% Asian in terms of demographics. So it’s a place where growing up, people were kind, people, for the most part, were accepting, people were welcoming. And I’ve got a lot of thanks to my hometown that raised me and raised my father and raised all my siblings. But Medina at same time is a place that has its flaws. And I think it’s foolish to ignore that. By being a place that is predominantly white, there is something to be said about the lack of diversity. There’s something to be said about how there are going to be instances of racism. There are going to be instances of ignorance, at the least. And by it being so primarily white, already on the surface, it’s a place that people of color might look at that and say, “Maybe that’s not a place for me.” And while it was a place for me a lot, there were also a lot of times when maybe Medina wasn’t the place for me. I wish that were not the case. But that’s just the reality of a lot of predominantly [white] places.
RC: Growing up, there must have been some challenges and difficulties. I’m curious about how that formed or how you pieced together then your identity. Some people strongly identify as American. For you, what was that?
GK: Well, I am proudly a Filipino American. And I say that because I want to identify as that. I’m not just Filipino. I mean, I’m not born in the Philippines. I spent only a little bit of time in the Philippines. But culturally, Filipino. I mean, we grew up eating Filipino food. We grew up with my Filipino mom teaching us the Philippine traditions, and being with a Filipino family, continuing those Filipino traditions. So I’m very much proud to be a Filipino American.
But I think as far as the concept of identity when you’re younger, and you’re at a primarily white school and you stick out, you try your best to fit in, even assimilate. There’s this aspect of kind of, sort of, is it hiding your Filipino-ness? There’s this feeling of kind of putting that aside sometimes, right? And you want to prove that you can be more American to fit in. Right? And not that I wasn’t American. I mean, I’m born in Medina, Ohio, the same hospital as my dad, for God’s sake. Like, I’m American, that’s the noun; Filipino, that’s the adjective. Right? But I couldn’t quite get that across to the white kids at my school, if I’m being honest. And, they always treated you differently. And there’s this thing when you’re younger, kids don’t really know what the Philippines is. So they just know that you’re different. They just know that you don’t really look like everyone else. And I’m fair skinned as a Filipino — I’m mixed. But it didn’t matter to white kids, especially —you were different and we’re going to put you in a place, we’re gonna put you in a box, and we’re going to find you that way.
So, when I was younger, I think people thought I was Chinese. And what’s funny is we had a kid who was in the same kindergarten class as me, whose name was Akito. I haven’t seen him since like, second or third grade. But I remember we were walking to school one day … Akito moved from Japan to my kindergarten class in the middle of the school year, and Akito didn’t really speak English at the time. But I remember walking into school, and the teacher saying, “Oh, good morning. Akito.” To me! Akito and I don’t look alike. I mean, Akito is Japanese, I’m Filipino. We didn’t look alike at all. But to her, it was just like, “Oh, here are these two Asian kids” and we’re kind of just grouped in the same thing. And my mom always loves telling [this story]; actually, she thinks it’s hilarious. My mom thinks it’s funny, but I also think there’s an aspect of her proud of me for standing up to differentiate myself.
But that was with a teacher. And then kids were not as kind as teachers, so kids will assume that I’m Chinese or Japanese. And then I got a little bit older, and kids started thinking that I’m Mexican. And then they thought I was Hawaiian, or some kind of Pacific Islander. And then when I finally got through to them after reminding them so many times, “No, I’m Filipino,” then they’re like, “Oh, you’re Filipinian or oh, you’re Filipian.” You know, they couldn’t quite get the word right. Like, dude, I’m Filipino. It’s not that simple. This is just a reminder that we need more of that education of the world and our communities in the schools. But then even further, here I am, I was always treated like the Filipino kid or the Asian kid. It was a part of my identity and I embraced it, but I was also trying to prove that “Hey, I may be the Filipino kid but I want to be just as good at all these American things, particularly sports.” I wanted to be a pretty good football player. Me and my brother were both captains of the football team at Medina High School. And I don’t know how many pairs of brothers can say that. And I definitely know how many of them would be Filipino.
RC: There’s a sort of social status that comes with that, right?
GK: Oh, yeah, for sure. I want to prove that I’m good. I want to prove that I’m cool. I want to prove that there’s all these things that just because I’m Filipino doesn’t mean you have to treat me differently. Doesn’t mean I can’t do exactly what you guys can do. Because there was really that feeling when you’re younger, like, you’re different. And there’s stereotypes that come with being Asian American, and they put you in that box. So I want to break out of the box and prove that I can do these things. I can be an athletic person, I can be cool. I can give speeches at pep rallies. That was part of that identity crisis, in a sense.
But now it’s like, people are always assuming I’m Puerto Rican. Like my neighbor, who lives literally in the same lot as me. He’s like, “Hey, man, nice to meet you. Are you Puerto Rican?” And I was like, “No, man. I’m Filipino.” He said, “Are you sure?” That’s kind of a running joke about how the mixed kids kind of have to put up with that sometimes, but it’s alright. I think it’s a reminder that Asian Americans are not a monolith. Asian people are not a monolith. We look differently. Yes, there are some stereotypes about us. And there are some things that we share, but at the same time, every person has their own unique identity. And I’ve got mine.
RC: A lot of people that I interviewed say that when they get to college, that was like a big moment. Because oftentimes, they find the Asian Americans or Asians there. Is that something that happened to you at Kent State?
GK: My program was mostly white. And I remember for one of my journalism courses, we actually traveled to Europe, and we did some reporting in Estonia. There was probably 20-25 students in the class. I remember one of my professors was writing a report for the university that was like a diversity report. It was basically like, “Hey, can you tell us how many students in this class are from a diverse community so we can put in some report talking about how we attract students of color for this program?” And he came up to me to ask me basically, because he was like, I’m not sure what this guy is. So I had to explain that “I’m Filipino, if that’s what you want.” But also I was the only person of color in that entire class. And then when we were in Europe, you know when you travel throughout the EU, the European Union, you don’t have to provide your passport when you’re traveling, right? You can go from one country to another. But when we went from Estonia to Finland for a weekend, border patrol asked for one person’s passport in that entire class, and it was mine. It was a thing where it didn’t surprise me. And it was the kind of stuff you put up with in your life before.
After I graduated, I learned about the Asian American Journal Association. I remember graduating and thinking not only that I wish we had the chapter there, but Kent State didn’t have a Filipino Student Union. We didn’t have this there. I remember graduating and regretting not being the guy to think, “Oh, I should create this, I should build this.” Not that I knew of like a ton of like other Filipino students at the university. My sister went there, so we could have had at least two of us. Same as with my high schoo,l too. But there was definitely a yearning for that. We spend all this time when you’re younger trying to immerse yourself. And then you get older and you get this stronger yearning for community because you want to be able to reference musicians, or pop culture, or jokes that maybe a Filipino will get, but probably my friends won’t get. And you want to share that more with people, right? Or, when a professor does something weird, that’s a little bit ignorant, or when someone starts sounding a little bit crazy and out of pocket, you want to have that other Filipino or Asian American, or even person of color to be able to share that with, right? The older you get, the more you yearn for that.
RC: So what differentiates your being here and the issues that are covered here? Are there any differences?
GK: Well, I can tell you that the populations are different. Cleveland has a place that’s about 3% Asian, in Cleveland proper. You go to Los Angeles, and that’s completely different. I think what’s different is, as a journalist you think about — Okay, if you want to be there, to be someone who stands up for Asian Americans in a newsroom, you might have more people on your side in a place like Los Angeles, where they are going to be more Asian Americans in the area. Here, there’s not as many of us, so perhaps we got to fight a little harder, perhaps we got to really understand that this is not as much of the journalistic fabric in the area. You know, we have to maybe fight harder against news directors and management to make sure that these voices are being heard.
RC: Do you have a vision for what’s next for you? And also what’s next for the community?
GK: I do want to serve Cleveland as much as I can. And I think long term, Cleveland is the place for me. I think long term, Cleveland is a city that really can be great in a lot of ways, and Cleveland can be a place that deserves all the diversity that it can get. I think Cleveland, historically, is the first major city with a Black mayor. And Cleveland is a place that isn’t shy about putting on for the Black communities around here. It’s a majority Black city. There’s no reason why we can’t have more people of color here in the city thriving. And I hope it becomes that place. I’d like to do what I can to help it become that place. Through storytelling and journalism, and fighting for that representation, I think that can go hand in hand in a lot of ways. I’m not a policy guy, I’m not a politician. I’m here as a journalist, but I think that journalism can have an effect on things like that.