The American Dream redefined

‘Forty Years Of Writing In America’
By Ludy Astraquillo Ongkeko
Jack Bacon & Company

By Allen Gaborro

There is something rather intimate about Dr. Ludy Astraquillo Ongkeko’s book, “Forty Years Of Writing In America.” The work not only has a contemplative and reflective aura about it. It also, especially with subsequent readings, radiates with a personal tone and gravity that touches on the author’s collective experiences as a Filipino in America. Ongkeko’s experiences, much of which came about as a writer and as a teacher, span some 40 years and two very different, yet historically interrelated cultures and societies.

The immediate image that emerges out of “Forty Years Of Writing In America” is one of Ongkeko as a female émigré who strongly identifies with both her Filipino heritage and with the United States, which is for her “a new world renewed.” Ongkeko sees America this way because she initially lived in the U.S. before returning to the Philippines. She eventually chose to settle back in the former. With both the Filipino culture and the American ethos having an active and constant presence in her life, it was to be expected that Ongkeko would ponder whether Filipino immigrants should say “Home is where the heart is,” or ask if “Home is where its hearth is?”

Several key themes are expounded on in “Forty Years Of Writing In America,” all of which have been painstakingly chronicled and organized by its author. It is Ongkeko’s intent to disseminate these pertinent themes to Filipinos back home and to Filipinos in the U.S. so that they can ruminate over them and gain a more thorough awareness of their bifurcated identity.

As a citizen of both the Philippines and then later, of the United States, Ongkeko was deeply sensitive to the swirl of contending influences she was exposed to. Ongkeko’s reading of her own sense of culture shock in America is quite perceptive and alert to the multitude of factors that inform how an expatriate like herself registers the world around them.

Ongkeko reminds us that there is no perfect formula for dealing with the effects of culture shock. Rather, she thinks that perhaps it is the peculiarities of an individual personality that constitute the primary elements that will make all the difference in fathoming and integrating into a new culture.

Ongkeko received her education first at the University of the Philippines and then as a graduate student at the University of Southern California (USC). As a university student, Ongkeko shared a passion with her contemporaries from other Filipino families for learning and getting a college education. In “Forty Years Of Writing In America,” she speaks to this passion as she quotes Philippine Consul General Armando C. Fernandez: “A college diploma ranks as the number one ornament in any [Filipino] home.”

Ongkeko continued to envision education as a worthwhile investment as she passed on its intrinsic value to her children. Ongkeko’s three children excelled in graduate school, something that came as a relief to her for she was concerned upon her emigration to the U.S. that they might “veer away from education.”

Contemplatively, Ongkeko imagines an alternative definition of the American Dream that does not correspond with how it has been traditionally defined. How she visualizes the American Dream is based on a less materialistic perspective than what American society has predominantly become accustomed to: “Answers pertaining to the fabled American dream are not all tangible; that dream is not measured in possessing grand real estate properties; it is not evaluated by bank deposits; it is not measured by material comforts.” Ongkeko also writes that “the quest was for that one yardstick which involved attaining higher education,” an aspiration that she cared deeply about for herself and for her children.

“Forty Years Of Writing In America” is a cornucopia of historical narratives, autobiographical sketches, social and political commentary, and observations on personal, everyday activities like cooking and the raising of a family. Other than a bicultural and bi-national dialectic that is crafted into her book, finding a common thread in Ongkeko’s wide-ranging work is not as easy as it looks since she apparently projected it to be many things to many people.

But this refrain from putting forth a singular thesis is balanced by Ongkeko’s dedication and uncompromising focus on the various issues and positions that unite Filipinos and Filipino Americans of every generation, political persuasion, and socio-economic background.

Allen Gaborro is a freelance writer. This book review is being republished with permission from the author.

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