That whole day, I didn’t have a single conversation about how tired anyone was or how late they had stayed up studying or how boring last weekend’s parties were. Those learned pleasantries and inconsequential discussions were replaced by exchanges of knowing looks and appreciative smiles while everybody chanted together:
One, two, three, four
We don’t want your racist war!
Five, six, seven, eight
No more killing, no more hate!
Except I didn’t shout. I mouthed the words silently, but I couldn’t actually say them. The moment everyone started chanting and marching in unison, that old feeling crept back up. While everyone else was taking a stand against war and injustice, I was back at the pep rally, taking my own stand against being part of the group, even if the group was advocating for something positive that I agreed with. So what if the chant “No justice? No peace!” didn’t capture the complexity of what was happening in Iraq? No chant ever could. And yet I couldn’t join in. Once again, I felt myself refusing to become part of something larger than myself. But this time, I wasn’t proud of myself. I was ashamed.
My first job out of college was as a field organizer for a healthcare workers’ union in San Francisco. I was responsible for the roughly 3,000 Chinese-speaking homecare workers in the city, most of whom were women were my mother’s age or older who spoke only Cantonese, making my fluency in Mandarin totally useless. To say that job was outside my comfort zone would be like saying Pluto is a bit far from Earth, but I had wanted to challenge myself, and this job definitely did that.
Luckily, the job kept me way too busy to think about myself. When I’d been there a month, the union organized a strike at three local hospitals that had been taken over by a healthcare megalith called Sutter Health that had instituted major cuts in wages and benefits while issuing lots of memoranda outlining expectations of increased “productivity” and “efficiency” (translation: “work harder for less money, mmmkay?”). Since I was the youngest and the most recently hired employee in the union’s homecare division, I was the first one given strike duty. I’d been assigned to the picket line outside the emergency-room entrance, known as the “Filipino nurse station” because, with the exception of one Burmese man and two Filipino men, everyone there was Filipino and female.
When I got to my station, I saw a couple of women setting down massive tinfoil pans on the communal table.
“Can I put these pamphlets here?” I asked one of them. “They’re for interested passersby.”
“Is it food?” she asked.
“Not really,” I said.
Another woman, who introduced herself as Terry, came up and patted me on the back. “Don’t worry about her,” she said. “You’ll start to get our sense of humor soon enough.” She offered me a plate heaping with rice and eggs and Spam, then she pointed to the tinfoil covered pans. “Pancit, for later,” she said.
It was the best breakfast I had ever eaten.
Soon, a crowd of women—probably between 30 and 50 in all—had gathered around me. One of them said, “Are you our new picket-line leader?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“You look 18,” another woman said.
“Oh,” said Terry. “This is a good place for you to get started.” And it was. It truly was.
After everyone had filled their stomachs with Spam fried rice and pancit, I heard someone say, “It’s time.”
“Oh, like time to picket?” I asked.
“No, that’s later. First, we dance.”
Terry brought out her boombox and played Filipino pop hits by Otso Otso and Pamela One and Bulaklak, and everyone danced in line and egged one another on and had very elaborate dance-offs. I didn’t know how to swivel my ass in the shape of the number 8 like these women did, but I loved watching and learning from them. They joked about setting me up with their sons and told me I was an “honorary Filipino” because I ate more pancit than anyone else.
At times, it felt like one big, long-ass dance party, but it wasn’t. All I had to give up for the strike was my eight consecutive 13-hour days; the striking workers were sacrificing far more. One of the them first introduced to me as “the guy to know.” This was Bong.
“Bong?” I repeated.
“Bong,” he said, then mimed smoking weed out of one.
“Nice to meet you, Bong.”
Bong had just bought a house with his wife in Sonoma County, a two-hour drive from San Francisco, which left them pinched for money. They had two young kids, one of whom was a newborn, and Bong had started working double shifts at the hospital.
“A few times, I fell asleep at the wheel on the drive home. It’s a long dark commute, you know?” he told me.
Striking workers got 70 percent of their regular pay, which wasn’t enough for Bong to make ends meet. He confessed that if he didn’t somehow come up with more money by the end of the month, he would default on his mortgage. “How am I supposed to go home and be a man?” he said. “How am I supposed to be a father and a husband and tell my family we might be homeless next week?”