Jason Tengco’s journey from the Bay Area to the Beltway

White House advisor on Asian initiatives Jason Tengco with first lady Michelle Obama

By Maricar CP Hampton

There was a time Jason Tengco was embarrassed to be called Filipino. He grew up in the Bay Area, an all-American boy who wore only Abercrombie & Fitch fitted shirts and colored contacts and used bleaching soaps to whiten an already fair complexion.

“I was born and raised in the suburbs of San Francisco called Foster City, which is surrounded with white wealthy families. So there were times when I wasn’t always proud of being Filipino,” he said. Amid such WASP-y surrounding, he aspired to assimilate and “not to be different.”

All that changed when he went to college at UCLA and became a member of the Samahang Pilipino in UCLA.

“I was exposed to issues that affect us. We talked about intersection of identities, what it means to be Filipino. That was when I really became proud of my identity,” he said when interviewed for this article.

The turnaround must have felt like an epiphany because he has since been waving his Filipino identity and carried it with him all to the way to Congress where he was a legislative fellow , and now the White House where he sits as an advisor on Public Engagement for the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islander (AAPI). Part of his dual role as advisor is to serve as the initiative’s liaison to the AAPI communities and also to be the voice of Asians when the White House discusses federal programs.

“I did an internship in Congress before my junior year in UCLA and that internship completely changed my life and made me (want) go to Washington one day,” he said.

In Congress, he discovered how Filipinos were not as engaged in both the policy and political levels.

“There’s Cris Comerford and other Filipinos who are chefs and other things, but there are no staffers working on policies and doing outreach,” he noted.

He offered a theory on why this is.

“I think it’s just like growing up. Our family doesn’t really get politically involved and they don’t necessarily encourage us to go into politics. Coming from the Philippines I feel like they have a different perspective, that the Philippines is so corrupt and their voice doesn’t matter and that kind of transferred to us and there aren’t that many that want to go into politics,” he said. “And there could be more (reasons).”

Jason’s parents came to the U.S. on student visas and went to San universities for their MBA. His father, now retired, worked as an information technology engineer with Hewlett Packard; his mother currently works in real estate.

“My parents were pretty liberal with me growing up,” he said. “They let me make my own decisions and stay out with my friends, as long as I was responsible and communicated with them.”

One little regret he had growing up. “I wished that they had spoken to me in Tagalog.”
“My parents did not speak to me in (Tagalog) growing up because they sort of wanted me to speak proper English with an accent. And if they speak to me in Tagalog that might take away from me learning English properly.”

As an intern, he remembered running into President Obama at a West Wing lobby.

“My jaw dropped when he walked out, and I told him I was an intern for the National Economic Council. He shook my hand, and said ‘Keep up the good work.’”

From that internship, he became a fellow with the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies under Rep. Mike Honda. The transition from APAICS to the White House Initiative was just a matter of time.

Soon, he was sounding like one of these Capitol Hill wonks steeped in the Beltway jargon and talking to the youth about empowerment.

Focus on the 3 Es, he would urge Filipino American students and young professionals.

“Let’s Educate ourselves about how issues affect the FilAm community that includes history and culture. Engage: Ensure that our communities are engaged. Not every person is going to be in the forefront of every issue but it’s important that we engage the community around how certain issues affect them. Finally Empower. I want to reiterate mentorship and the role that mentors played in my career development. I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for them,” he said.

Jason and a friend, Kate Nicole Blanco, created Jeepney Hub, a social platform that seeks to help the FilAm youth “design their path to success.” It begins, they said, with knowing who you are and then asking yourself where you want to be. Just like Jason who at first lost his identity, and then found his way back with a lot of support and affection from his family and community.

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