Dr. Nicolyn Woodcock is the director of the Asian and Native American Center at Wright State University. She currently lives in Dayton, and was born in Cebu City in the Philippines to an American father and a Filipino mother.
Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Nicolyn and Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) on February 23, 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): How do you self-identify?
Nicolyn Woodcock (NW): So my ethnic background: I’m Filipino American, and I also identify as mixed race. My father is white. My mother immigrated from the Philippines in 1985.
RC: So where were you born?
NW: I was born in the Philippines, Cebu City. My mom really kind of freaked out about her first pregnancy. And she cleared the bank account and flew to the Philippines one day without even telling my dad she was going to do it, and it was like 30 days before I was born.
RC: Oh, wow. So they were already in the states prior?
NW: Yes. So, she came to the states in 1985. I don’t really know the full details of the circumstances, but it sort of sounded like an opportunity to immigrate, a kind of marriage with a guy who I don’t even know. And then a couple years after that, she met my father. On their marriage certificate, it says 1987. So she divorced the guy who helped her immigrate here and then and married my father. They’d only known each other for six months, but it was kind of that pressure to make sure she could get a green card. Then I was born in ’89 and six months after I was born, my mom brought me to the states, so May 1990.
RC: And where were you guys?
NW: They were in Georgia at that time. We moved to Ohio in maybe 1994. Unfortunately, my father went to prison. And my mom didn’t know what to do. But my father’s mother, my grandmother on his side, she was up here in Toledo. And my mom was just like, “I’m gonna go there.” And that’s how we ended up in Toledo.
RC: What was it like growing up in Toledo? Describe your childhood.
NW: It was interesting. [We were] very much on the poor side of town. My parents got divorced in 1997, right after my mom got her degree, actually. And my father was an alcoholic. He was just not a very helpful person. So she raised us on her own. She brought my grandmother over from the Philippines in ’95 to help with babysitting and all that stuff after school. My Lola did that. It was kind of hectic and chaotic because we were pretty active kids. I just don’t really know how my mom figured out how to do all those things — take us to Girl Scouts, and my sister played sports and she never missed a game. I just don’t know how she did all of that while maintaining a full time job. She often picked up secondary, under-the-table work, too, on the weekends and stuff. So it was a little bit baffling. Now, when I think about it, there was probably a lot of struggle, but she figured out how to sort of hide that from us.
RC: Culturally was [your household] American or culturally was it more Filipino?
NW: It felt like a pretty good mix of both. One of the things I remember — and I remember getting very mad about this, cultural stuff that I didn’t really understand when I was younger — my mom would talk on the phone and she’d be speaking Cebuano, the language she primarily speaks. And my dad would be in the background like, “Hey, speak English.” Maybe he was paranoid that they’re talking about him or something. He’s also one of those typical American dads with an Asian wife who is eating all this Filipino food with gusto. And once my grandmother moved in, it’s just Filipino food on rotation all the time.
We went to a Catholic school and Filipinos are very Catholic. So, that was probably the other way that we got a lot of the cultural stuff going to church. It was St. Agnes over in West Toledo. They had a Filipino priest and all of these Filipino-specific kinds of segments of the Catholic holidays. There would be little parties at the community center at St. Agnes; that school and church closed at some point in my childhood, and that priest moved over to St. Catharines, which was in the same neighborhood. I feel like those were some of the bigger cultural points. We ate a lot of the food and when my grandmother lived with us, we went to church, but when she moved out, we really didn’t stick to the church thing.
RC: When you’re going through high school, did your ethnicity ever come up as different to others?
NW: Yes, that definitely happened. Even in grade school, I don’t remember there being any other people who identified as Asian, whether it was Chinese, Japanese or anything. And so I remember there would be a Thanksgiving potluck, for example, in elementary school, and my mom would send a pot and send pancit, this noodle dish, instead of the Thanksgiving food. And I would show up, like, “Oh my gosh, this is not the right food.” But then, we had — I don’t know if it was my birthday party or my sister’s — but at one point, a bunch of the kids had come over to our house for the birthday party, and my mom made egg rolls. And from then on, it was every time there was a thing at school where we would have to bring potluck food, and the parents would have to send food, people would want my mom to send egg rolls and they’d be disappointed when she didn’t because they don’t realize how hard those are to make. And so that definitely came up.
I remember — I might have been in seventh or eighth grade — we were at a football game for the high school. We had arranged for us to go there as a group to this high school football game, but I overheard some kids outside the bathroom. Because my parents went with us as chaperones and my mom was one of them. I heard some kids outside the bathroom making fun of her accent. That was the first time it had happened. And we’ve all been going to school together since we were in kindergarten. And they’ve known my mother for most of their lives at this point. They weren’t my friends, they were kids that I just sort of felt neutral about. Then I was like, “Well, now I guess you’re my enemy.”
RC: So how did that make you feel, whether or not you wanted to be identified?
NW: I think those are some of those moments that I remember feeling different. It wasn’t until those moments would come up, because for the most part, I was mixed race. And because I didn’t look super Asian to people, it often just went unremarked upon, and it’s those moments when you sort of look at yourself or kind of hear someone, you see yourself reflected back and you’re like, “Oh, wait, they see me differently than I see myself.”
RC: Did you ever experience this ethnic differentiation when you are in other places? We have talked about this in terms of being in the Midwest being specific to our experience as Asian Americans.
NW: That kind of Midwest Asian American experience didn’t really strike me until I went to college. I went to Kenyon College, which is in central Ohio. It’s rural, just northwest of Columbus, but only about 20% of Kenyon students are from Ohio. And so they’ve got upwards of 80% coming from all over the country internationally. Some of their biggest feeders are this area of California in the LA area. And then there are some pockets of New England and a couple of suburbs of Chicago where a lot of kids come from. It was really then when I was meeting Asian American kids who had grown up in California, who grew up in high schools where everyone was Asian. Then they’re feeling like, “Oh, I’ve come to this white place in Ohio, and I’m out of place.” But when I went to college, I was like, “This is it. These were the most Asian Americans I had ever really been around who were my own age.” And that was really exciting for me. But I also realized what it meant to be Asian American was very different for them, because they had a much stronger cultural transmission from their communities than I had.
RC: So how much of that was learning how to be around other Asian Americans for yourself, learning how to be Asian?
NW: Yeah it was as if it was kind of a weird relearning, or learning other people’s perspectives and other people’s traditions. I would say the majority of the Asian American friends I have, or that I made in college, their backgrounds are Chinese or Taiwanese. So I was learning for the first time about Lunar New Year. I had never heard of it, let alone participated in any kind of celebration before my first year of college. Because Filipinos could do so many Catholic things— the Lunar New Year is not really on our radar, even though there is a fairly big Chinese diaspora in the Philippines. Just things like that. It was sort of just relearning and learning.
I think this kind of happens to everybody in college that you don’t start asking questions about why your experience was like that until you’re in these classes that are asking you to do that. In my case, I was in these African American literature classes where we were asking all these questions about race and talking about it in terms of Black and white. Well, I wanted to ask these questions about Asians. How can I do that? I had a professor, she’s a Latina woman, and she was teaching a class on women’s autobiography that I took and she assigned Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. That was the first opportunity I ever had to apply those questions to Asian American experience. And I remember reading that book and just feeling so deeply like my experience is finally reflected to me on the page of a book, but not really realizing until much more recently, upon rereading it, that my experience was not there, not at all like Maxine Hong Kingston’s. Because in part, because she grows up in California in a Chinese ethnic enclave, and in a fully Chinese household. And not to mention, it’s like the ’70s and all of that. But whereas I have a single-parent household, I have a white father, I have this neighborhood where nobody looks like me, and the school where I feel like I’m the only Asian American person walking around here most of the time. But I just kind of grasped onto that first image I ever saw myself in a book that someone assigned me to read in class, and ran with that.
RC: It impacted you aspirationally, pulled you into this world of Asian lit.
NW: Well, reading that book, Maxine Hong Kingston — that changed my life. I was a psychology major before I read that book, and I changed my major. I declared English, well, I added it as a second major, actually. That was my first move. Later, I dropped the psych major and was like, I’m going all in with English. Then eventually, I got a PhD in English. But it was reading that book and being able to just have that conversation with my professor that let me know that that was something I could do, that I could study Asian American literature. It was going to be hard to do at Kenyon College because there was no one on the faculty who did that, but she helped me figure out, how do I apply for graduate school in a way that I can make that happen, and, we did it.
RC: Did you grow up speaking Tagolog?
NW: No, I only grew up speaking English. And I think my mom always kind of intended to teach us, but she just didn’t have time. She was working so much. And then with her free time, she was so busy running us to all of our extracurriculars that it just never happened. The Filipino Association had language classes, but they were Tagalog classes. She didn’t want to enroll us in Tagalog classes, because that’s not the language that my family speaks, or that would be useful to us, if we go back to visit, even though Tagalog is the national language of the country. And so that was maybe a missed opportunity when we look back at it retrospectively.
But I really want to go back and learn it. I do. And I’ve thought about it. I even applied one year, there’s a language institute at the University of Wisconsin every summer, and that focuses on Southeast Asian languages; Tagalog is just one of several that they offer. I got in one year while I was still in college, but the cost was, I just couldn’t swing it. I still think about doing it because you can go at any time. And now I do have money I could spend on that. But also, am I too old to learn a language, especially in a six-week immersion program?
RC: I’m really interested in your writing and the concept that you’re grappling with, especially, you talked about, the typical America. The sorts of thoughts swirling around the idea of typical America and then the idea of the Asian American — how are they parallel?
NW: So I think that this whole research project just started with reading this book, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. That was published in 2014, I think. And she sets it in a fictional town. This is not a real place. But she calls it Middlewood, Ohio. She describes it as being an hour from Toledo. So that was sort of the first hook for me. This book is about Asian Americans and it is about Northwest Ohio. So I was already really excited to read it. It’s a really tragic book, because on the very first line of the book, the girl, the main character, commits suicide. And it’s really a tragic story about how she just doesn’t feel like she fits in in this town. They’ve come there because her father’s a college professor and he teaches history. He’s Asian American, he’s Chinese American, and he grew up in Iowa. And the mother in the family is a white woman. And mother and father met while they were in college at Harvard. But this was the only job he could get when he was leaving Harvard with his PhD, and so they go to humble Middlewood, Ohio. It’s this college town of 3,000 people and she’s basically saying, “We’re the only Asian people here and we never talk about it. The only other person who understands my experience is my brother.”
But there are all these hints in the novel that there are other people in town that she could probably make a connection with. There’s another Chinese family, you would think, because there’s a Chinese restaurant. And they specifically talk about how they don’t really order food from the restaurant because the father doesn’t like the food or something like this. There are all these other characters that are kind of in the background who are Black or Latino, but they’re all just kind of isolated from each other, and maybe all experiencing the same kind of racial isolation — this feeling of animosity.
There’s this really moving description that I write extensively about in this article that I hope will be published someday, where she just reflects on how she constantly feels like everyone is watching her. When she gets on the bus, and the bus driver is like looking at her and staring for too long. She’s in the grocery store, she’s in a restaurant, or she says, people look at you, and then they start speaking loudly as if you couldn’t understand them if they just spoke at their normal volume, because they’ve already assumed she can’t speak English, or things like that. And it’s a whole page long. It’s one of the most moving things I’ve ever read. I didn’t personally feel that when I was growing up. But I know those moments when you just sort of feel like you fit in, that your whole life is going normally, and then someone reminds you that they think you don’t fit — that you don’t belong.
NW: At some point, I was describing this to someone else, and they were like, “Oh, does it have anything to do with the Middletown studies?” And I was like, “What are the Middletown studies”?” So, I Google that and find out about these Middletown studies that were done in the 1920s. These researchers from New York showed up in Muncie, Indiana, and just did all this research. They wanted to find the all-American city, and they specifically describe it as a city that didn’t have a large foreign-born population. So basically, they wanted a city where there weren’t a lot of immigrants, and they wanted a city where most of the population was working class. Because there’s thinking about this industrial revolution and factory work and all of this. So, they specifically target Muncie, Indiana, for whatever reason, and the researchers are from New York.
So they come in and they have a total bias where they just look at everybody like they’re backward, small-town people who don’t know anything. But when they published the research in 1929, it becomes a bestseller. Everybody loves it, because they’re like, “Oh, this place, I see myself in this book.” Humble, hard-working, working-class people were enamored by this story that they were telling about middle towns. They anonymized the town by calling it Middletown for the book. So it became this whole kind of middle-town phenomenon. I don’t know at what point the middle town and the Midwest got conflated. But that’s where this led: the image of the average American, the sort of ideal white-picket-fence, hard-working middle class — not too wealthy — that sort of got tacked on to the Midwest as what people think the Midwest looks like. So anything that looks different from this sort of seems out of place to them.
And I think when I was telling people I was moving back to Ohio, they sort of were like, “Oh, why would you do that?” That’s the same picture that they have [of the Midwest]: that there’s nothing prosperous here, that it’s kind of boring, that it’s a small town even though it’s a city that is surrounded by all these rural areas. I was like, “It’s a little weird that we’re going on 100 years, and that’s the image that still dominates.” But I guess the insidious thing about those Middletown studies is that they very deliberately excluded narratives — data of the Black residents of Muncie, Indiana, for example. Like I said, they specifically chose Muncie because there wasn’t a large immigrant population there — at least an immigrant population that wasn’t European in origin. So that sort of solidified this kind of whiteness that people associate it with the Midwest.
So once that seed was planted, I brought those two things together and started thinking about, maybe this author [Celeste Ng] should have named this town Middlewood literally in reference to those Middletown studies, and this sort of thinking about that global image that we might have. Well, I don’t know if it’s global — but at least this image across the U.S. seems pretty consistent with what people think the Midwest looks like, and how this family lands in the Midwest… They’re constantly comparing themselves to that image and finding that they don’t measure up in some way.
RC: You’re processing that experience yourself. And I think the story that we’re living today is one that hopefully isn’t tragic, or is more on the level of: “I’m providing a different narrative from Middletown.” I sort of love that when people ask you why you’re coming back, you’re like, “Well it’s not whatever you are thinking.” You’re sort of paying homage to a place that hasn’t always been super open?
NW: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. I don’t know if it’s paying homage, but definitely having a different narrative. One of the biggest criticisms of that novel, and so many other novels, is just that all they do is sort of talk about the bad — like the racism and then the tragedy that kind of follows from experiencing racism. I’m not saying that we have to always have a narrative of overcoming racism. But life wasn’t that bad here. It isn’t that bad here. There’s a lot going on here that people just don’t see.
Here’s one thing, I guess, when I’ve been traveling. I’ve realized that everyday life looks really similar everywhere you go. For example, one time I decided to go to Arkansas for spring break — to Little Rock, Arkansas — and people were like, “Why did you go there? What did you do in Little Rock?” Actually, I did the same things I would do in Cincinnati. I went to these restaurants. I walked their Riverfront Park. I went to the art museum. And the real reason I had gone to Arkansas was because they had opened a museum at the former internment camp sites an hour, hour and a half from Little Rock. There were two sites there. They opened the museum in this train station that was in between the two sites. But that’s where people would have arrived at that train station, and then been bused to either one of those camps. I wanted to go there, actually, to explore Asian American history. But that is not the first thing that came to mind when I was answering people’s questions about why, of all places, I went to Little Rock, Arkansas for spring break. But the first thing I wanted to do was tell them about this really awesome, Southern Asian fusion restaurant that I went to…just got them excited about Little Rock as a place, or even just got them excited about — actually, every city that you go to has all these things that are exciting to do, if you just know where to look. Then I hit them with the deep, sad history that I went there to explore at that museum.
I think it was explaining to people that I’m coming back because this is home. I lived outside of the state and I tried to make home and work and all of that somewhere else. And something made me feel like I just want to go back home, not because Ohio is the greatest state ever. We’ve got some really weird and bad politics right now in this state, and that’s all a problem. But my family is here and I have a lot of friends here. If you know where to look, you can find Asian American community where you live, where you want to find it.