Stacey Litam

Dr. Stacey Diane Aranez Litam is an assistant professor in the counselor education program at Cleveland State University. She is also a researcher and public speaker on topics related to Asian American experiences and mental health. She currently resides in North Olmsted, a suburb of Cleveland, and was born in the Philippines.

Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Stacey, Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory), Logan Sander (editorial director at Midstory) and Samuel Chang (president at Midstory) on February 6, 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 identify your ethnicity?

Dr. Stacey Litam (SL): I identify my ethnicity as a Filipinx and Chinese American woman. I was born in the Philippines, but I spent most of my life right here in Cleveland, Ohio.

RC: Tell me about how you grew up.

SL: Growing up as an Asian American kid in Cleveland, Ohio, I think it can be really difficult. I know for myself, it was hard to find folks who looked like me, who shared my values or even ate the food that I did. When I was a kid, compared to other cities, like in Los Angeles and even New York, there aren’t as many Asian Americans around. And so because I didn’t see folks who looked like me or thought like me, or even were raised like me, I didn’t realize [what it really meant] that I was Asian until maybe I was in my undergraduate in college. But I think that seems to be a shared experience most of us talk about as Asian Americans who grew up in Ohio.

RC: When you were growing up, what were some of the things that your family did to celebrate heritage that was different from the mainstream?

SL: You know, looking back, my mom was really wonderful in trying to instill a sense of ethnic identity and pride in us. But when I was young, I was really ashamed about my identity as an Asian American person. She wanted to have an event that celebrated my 16th birthday. She wanted to have all of us, my three brothers and myself included, attend Filipino Christmas parties and New Year’s Eve events. And I remember thinking that I felt really embarrassed about that. I didn’t want to do anything that would set me apart from my white peers or put me in a position that might make me face discrimination. And so, for a long time, when I was growing up in Ohio, I really resisted and was uncomfortable and had a lot of shame in my identity as an Asian American woman.

RC: A lot of people might not know what some of those celebrations entail.

SL: I think if you ask any Filipino, the best part about being Filipino is the food. We have the best food ever. And I think, when I was growing up, part of the excitement I had in school was getting to unpack my lunch, and knowing that my mom was going to pack a really incredible lunch that I would be excited to eat. Even though it wasn’t the traditional peanut butter and jelly, and sometimes it kind of smelled a little bit different because there’s a lot of vinegar involved in our cooking, I eventually came to really find pride in that and look forward to lunches, because I knew that Filipino food is like a chef’s kiss. It’s the best.

If you’ve never had Filipino food, you can think about it as the comfort food of Asian countries. There are not a lot of vegetables. But there’s a ton of braised meats and rice, and it’s a lot of sauces. So, one of my favorite foods growing up is my mom’s chicken adobo, and also her poncit. When I was growing up, and more recently, now for any big celebration, we have what’s called a boodle fight. And that is when we have banana leaves all across the table, we set up the table with like mounds of white rice and shrimp and Peking duck and adobo and poncit or noodles, and it’s just all over the table. And then everyone eats with their hands. And it is a sort of a shared collective community experience. But it’s pre-colonial in nature. And so it’s very, I don’t know — I think that food tastes better when you eat with your hands. I can’t explain it. Filipinos know.

Logan Sander (LS):  Do you have any good memories when you’re growing up? Any specific memories growing up with moments that you become conscious of your identity?

SL: Oh, yeah. The first memory I had where I realized I was Asian, I was sitting in Spanish class in my high school. And we had an international student. She sat all the way across the room. And I remember thinking how weird it must be for her to be the only Asian in class. And then I have this moment of reckoning, like, “Oh, wow, I’m the other Asian in class.” And that was the first time that I realized that I was different from my white counterparts. I was a freshman in high school. And it didn’t really come back again until my undergrad. I did quite a bit of undergrad at the University of Cincinnati. And there were a couple of different Asian student groups on campus. And I actually was kicked out of one because I wasn’t Asian enough. I didn’t speak the language fluently. I didn’t speak Tagalog fluently. I didn’t speak Chinese fluently. And so, I wasn’t welcomed back. Then the other one was a Filipino American Student Association. And that one was much more welcoming. And there’s actually a term for that in Tagalog, it’s called kapwa. It’s a sense of deep community. And it was really nice to have folks who looked like me and could share some of those values that I also held.

LS: Thinking back on your own childhood, and now raising your own children, how do you handle all of the complications that might arise? Or how you, for example, may or may not want to instill certain aspects of your heritage?

SL: So my son, at the time of this interview, is 18 months old, and we have another little boy on the way. My partner is white, and that means we have a bicultural child. And I wonder a lot about how to protect him, how to instill a sense of pride in who he is, as you know, a Polish American but also a Filipino and American child. We know that biracial individuals also disproportionately have higher rates of mental health distress. And part of that is because they don’t have one subgroup or one norm group that they can look to say, “Oh, you’ve had the same experiences I have. You look like me. You face the things that I have.” When in reality, I know our son is going to face very different things — he’s going to face very different challenges than those that my partner and I have faced because he’s different. And there might be a time when he might identify more with whiteness or more with his Asianness. And I also know that he’ll likely not quite feel like he fits in with his white or Asian or even biracial counterparts. I think we see more and more biracial kiddos in Ohio. And I think it’s really important that we find a sense of community, where they can connect with one another, and be able to leverage one another’s experiences and know that they’re not alone. And regardless of how they identify, they’re still worthy of love and belonging, because I think for many Asian Americans, that’s not a belief that we had growing up.

RC: Can you speak a little bit about how knowing or not knowing your heritage language influenced your sense of identity? 

SL: So the question about the extent to which language impacts ethnic identity development is a good one. And what we know is that when folks are not able to access their language, there’s a part of their identity that gets sort of stunted. Now, as Filipinos, the extent to which we have been able to historically access language has been politicized. So, you think back all the way to the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, it was actually not legal for Filipinos in the Bay Area to learn their language. They were forced to learn English in schools, and families often spoke English in the home. Now in my family, my parents didn’t teach us the dialogue. And that was intentional because they believe that if we spoke another language, or if we had an accent, we will be more likely to face discrimination. And so, it’s not until more recently that I’m trying to reconnect with my culture by learning the language, because I didn’t have access to that growing up. And I wonder how much different and how much sooner I might have really embraced my Filipinx identity, if I would have been able to speak the language and feel truly wholeheartedly like a Filipinx woman.

RC: Is that something that you think about for your kids?

SL: So, neither my partner nor I speak Polish or Tagalog fluently, but I do think it’s really important for our son to be able to speak both languages, especially because they’re both such important parts of who he is. And so what that means is my partner and I have to be accountable and learn the languages that we are raised in and part of that is practicing with family, so we’re able to give our son a different experience growing up, where he’s more able to access his identity and embrace his culture in a way that maybe we weren’t able to.

LS: In the last decade or so, or even within the last three to five years — especially with a lot of recent political conversation surrounding the American identity — has Cleveland changed?

SL: I don’t know whether Cleveland has changed over the past years, or whether I’ve changed over the past years. I think that people who identify as Asian have always been here, but I don’t know that I sought them out in the same way that I have following 2020, and following the sociopolitical discourse around anti-Asian hate. I think before that, I wasn’t really as strongly connected to the Asian community in Cleveland. And part of that was a privilege of, as Asian Americans, we tend to be perceived as closer to whiteness, and racial proximity. And yet, that doesn’t protect us from discrimination when it occurs. And so, for myself, following 2020, I think my Asian American identity really became much more salient compared to years ago. And because of that, I have a greater awareness of the resources available to my community. I feel more connected to folks in my community. And I find myself more actively seeking out friendships, relationships and connection with people of the Asian American diaspora. Whereas, I know that I very much took that for granted before. So, I don’t know whether it’s that the community has changed or that I’ve changed — probably a little bit of both.

RC: I was talking with someone about the connection of community, like what the Asian American community looks like and her experience. She was saying how, in more recent years, she feels like the wider ranges of ethnic groups are coming together under this Asian American umbrella. And that might be something that’s more of a modern experience.

SL: So what we know in the discourse is that there really hasn’t been sort of an Asian American reckoning where the entire diaspora has come together in a more collectivistic and universal way. And part of this is because there’s historical challenges in discourse that exist within Asian American subgroups. So when we say Asian or Asian America, that term is really an umbrella term and encompasses over 20 distinct groups, all of whom have their unique practices, religions, languages, and identities. And so, there really hasn’t been a reason for Asian Americans, as a diaspora to identify as this umbrella. I think for a very long time, we’ve been trying to disaggregate our identities and really embrace who we are as separate entities. And you think back to some of the more historical discourse between Asian American communities because of historical trauma and intergenerational trauma, now you’re getting really nuanced and kind of the relationships and the challenges that might exist between different countries, right? So you think about how Japan as a colonizing country during World War II impacted different countries like China and Korea, Laos and the Philippines, and so there’s still a lot of pain there. And prior to the anti-Asian discourse around the pandemic, we haven’t been a united front — Asians haven’t been a whole united front; we really focus more on our individual subgroups and cultivating our independent identities.

RC: Maybe we can talk a little bit about the experience of America as a first generation versus 1.5 generation, which might be I guess would be you or me because we did come from a different place but grew up primarily in America. And then there’s like a second generation, right? And so how are these generations different and how is their experience of American identity different?

SL: Yeah. I actually wrote a book about this. And the book is really about intergenerational trauma and how the ways in which our experiences as children of immigrants impact things like scarcity mindsets, and insecure attachments in relationships, and even difficulties in maintaining boundaries and workplace settings. What we know is that the kind of immigration experience, immigration pattern that you face, largely impacts the kinds of perspectives you hold as a person. So, I myself identifying as a 1.5 generation, Filipinx Chinese American woman, I was born in Quezon City, Manila, but I moved to the States with my mom, my dad and my older brother when I was two. So, this means that as a member of the first/1.5 generation, my focus growing up, the messages that I internalized from my caregivers, my parents are focusing solely on survival and assimilation. My parents, like many other immigrant parents, worked so hard to make sure that they could give us the opportunities that they didn’t have access to in their home countries; they worked tireless hours to ensure that we had food on the table, clothes on our backs and access to education, at the expense of their own care, their own self-nourishment and their own mental health. So, because our immigrant parents didn’t have the privilege to reflect on things like psychological well-being and balance, because they were so focused on assimilation and survival, there’s sort of this disparity between the ways in which immigrant children and parents connect emotionally; there is this disconnect because now we have the resources and the privilege to talk about mental health. And our parents don’t know how. Compared to second-generation, third and fourth, so on, who have more access to things like creativity, they have more access to different opportunities and choices. Because they’ve now moved past a survival stage, and they’re able to thrive. So, the first generation is typically focused on survival. And the second one is typically focused on individuation. What do I want to do apart from my family? And that’s also when tensions can arise in family systems. Because parents might say things like, “I sacrificed for you, how could you be so ungrateful? How could you go into fine arts when, you know your father and I, became doctors and lawyers and engineers?”

LS: Do you mind telling us how your parents emigrated here, and then also what their occupations were?

SL: Yeah, so, my experience of immigration to this country really parallels to a lot of Asian American immigrant experiences. So, in the Philippines, my father was already a physician. He was a practicing oncologist or a cancer doctor. My mom was a pharmacist. So because like many other immigrants, my dad wanted to provide a better life for his children.He came to America. Now, what that means for many folks is that he has to redo his residency and redo his training, even though he’d already done it many years before in our home country of the Philippines. So for five years, my dad was living on $100 a month and had to find a way to pay rent in a small attic in Midwest, Ohio, where the winters are brutal and he couldn’t afford heat. So he would moonlight at the hospitals because residents were given a free meal, and he would sleep on cots. He would have to make this really challenging decision every month, whether to buy food or buy a phone card to call my mom back home in Quezon City. So, when I was two, which was the first time that I met my dad, when we came to America, my mom, who was a pharmacist, gave up her career to make sure that she could raise us well.

Samuel Chang (SC): Tell us a story of a moment, an experience, a memory whatever comes to your mind, whether it’s by your childhood, whether it’s a recent memory, that kind of exemplifies where you are, why you want to be the person you are today.

SL: My last name is Litam, which is ethnically ambiguous and it is so by design. So my great, great grandfather from Hong Kong, his name was Tam Li, T-A-M space L-I. And around this time, there was a lot of anti-Asian discrimination. And so to protect his progeny, he transposed his name from Tam Li to Litam, because he thought it sounded more white. And in this way, he could protect his children and his children’s children. So my father’s side, the story of who we are and what we value is around survival. 

And on my mom’s side, we see how survival is amplified even more powerfully. So, just a couple of weeks ago, we were in the Philippines visiting our family. And one of the reasons we went was because my Lola or my grandmother just turned 91. This means she was only six years old when the Japanese army occupied Manila, took our ancestral home and burned it to the ground. To prevent being killed, raped and murdered, my great-grandfather took his five daughters and fled to the Taal Volcano and Lake, where they hid for a period of four years. So my Lola tells us stories about resilience. My Lola tells me stories about not rocking the boat, about ensuring survival and about working hard to make sure others around you are safe. So, these are the messages that I internalized through my Lola, through my mom and through myself and these are [some of the] the same messages I hope to instill in my son. I do think it’s really important that we remain strong for one another, with the caveat that to be strong is also to be vulnerable. And to ask for help, especially when mental health issues arise, is still something that we continue to see movements around in mental health diasporas. We still have this stigma around mental health help-seeking and beliefs that asking for help is vulnerable and weak. But actually, I think that’s a sign of strength. And I think that when it comes to who I’ve become, and who I hope my son will become, it’s really around resilience and reframing how resilience can look different based on where you’ve been, but also who you want to become. 

RC: Are these experiences the reasons why you do what you know?

SL: Yeah. So my training is as a mental health professional. I’m a fully licensed clinical counselor in Ohio. And when I was first developing my specialization, I knew that there were so few Asian American mental health professionals in the area. And I also noted that a lot of us were struggling. Filipinx Americans have disproportionately higher rates of suicide compared to other Asian American ethnic subgroups. And I knew that I wanted to be able to leverage my identity in a way that could help protect my community. So originally, my goal was to be a counselor, and just to work with my clients. And then at some point, in my process, I thought, okay, if I am doing this well, and I really want to increase my impact, then what might it look like to increase that in a meaningful way? So, I pursued a Ph.D., knowing now that was likely also part of my internalized script of how do I prove that I am worthy enough. How do I get my parents proud? What’s next on my list, to do, to make sure my parents recognize that I’m worthy and valuable? And then through my role as a Ph.D. — I have my Ph.D. in counselor education and supervision — I now have the privilege of teaching other folks how to be counselors to work with a variety of folks, including Asian Americans. And so, that’s how I ended up being where I am today.

SC: What do you hope for your community? 

SL: Today is February 6, 2023. And I share that to contextualize where I am, in my mind, in my heart and kind of within the context of greater sociopolitical discourse. So, what I hope for Asian Americans, not just in Ohio, but also across the country is for us to feel safe. Oh, boy, hang on [crying]. I know a lot of us have worried about whether it’s safe to go to dim sum. I know, myself, I’ve worried, is it safe to go to Chinatown? Can I, should I, could I possibly go to a grocery store where I might be targeted and killed or hurt? Are my parents safe? How much do I have to worry about my parents, my loved ones’ safety? My hope for our community is for us to be able to just feel safe.