“We have to talk”
Diversity at work ... and at home
By Susanne Janssen
Damiana Paras grew up in the Philippines, a country marked by different influences over the centuries from China, Spain and the U.S., but not really within a diverse society.
However, even if that country doesn’t have a lot of immigrants, she was used to building relationships with people from different cultures: “When I encountered the Focolare, I had the experience of meeting different people from different countries in Europe — and I enjoyed it.” She remembered how the Gospel-based experiences that the Europeans shared were universal, and she felt enriched by their world views and ideas, as they were by hers. Her six children also participated in Focolare youth meetings, and she encouraged them to be open to diversity.
Nineteen years ago, the Paras family decided to move to the U.S. Starting over in Los Angeles wasn’t easy, but she soon found a job at the county, with very diverse coworkers. Suddenly, she was experiencing the great variety of cultures, which, however, often don’t mix and mingle. She observed that most people try to stay within their own ethnic group.
The Filipino-Americans who welcomed her immediately were no exception, but she felt the need to build relationships with everyone instead of just going the easy way. “I decided to have lunch only from time to time with the Filipino group, because I wanted to go beyond these borders to join others — Armenians, African Americans, Vietnamese, Mexicans and so on. She learned a lot about their cultures and made many new friends, starting with sharing some food for lunch.
Not only did she broaden her horizon and become integrated in her new hometown, but it also created a positive atmosphere at her workplace. After some time, she was promoted and is now a supervisor of eight employees of varied cultures. She continued encouraging everyone to mingle and share their traditions and be a gift to everyone as they were to her. Her team not only received recognition for consistently achieving monthly goals but also received an award for Best Teamwork in their office.
However, workplace and family are two different things. Most of the children of her extended family and friends got married to other Filipino Americans. The advantage is easy to see — you know the culture, the expectations and unwritten rules. It wasn’t so for her children, who already at a young age were taught that each culture has richness to offer. So when in 2009, her second daughter, Chiarelle, married Dan, a Latino, who was living on the East Coast where her daughter was attending college, it wasn’t a surprise. Then a year later, her oldest son, Giovanni married Shaimaa, who is of Middle Eastern descent.
Damiana was aware that there will be challenges that will surface along the way, so she decided to spend time with each of them separately to get to know them. She shared a lot about her family, also trying to explain the bond that is typical for a lot of Filipino Americans, and the love and unity due to the effort to live the spirituality of communion together. She asked only one thing from them: to add to the treasure of the family, which is the love and unity among each other. “Both of them share these values, and that made it easier.”
The challenges came after the arrival of the grandchildren when her children with their spouses started to set rules for their households. Although the Middle Eastern culture has a lot in common with the Filipino culture, Shaimaa had struggled to adapt to the dynamics of the large family. Damiana’s family would take a break amid chores or even postpone events just to be with family. Relaxation for them was dining with joking and updating, watching movies or playing family games together. Shaimaa, who comes from a small family, would rather use her time finishing all her chores and then relax at home instead of going anywhere, which would mean the hassle of bundling up the child and packing a thousand things. Damiana asked herself what more she could do to deepen their relationship. She started to visit them on her days off to see how they were or to help them in any way. It was during these times that Shaimaa asked for advice from Damiana on how she managed to raise her six children when they were growing up, or that shared her uncertainties and concerns.
Damiana also encouraged her husband, and eventually later the rest of the family to change their Sunday Mass schedule and church to where Giovanni and Shaimaa go, so they could see them on a regular basis. This led to enjoyable family brunches together almost every Sunday.
Dan, who was born and raised on the East Coast, was used to resolving issues by privately talking before things get out of hand, no matter the other’s age or culture. Instead, in the Filipino culture, the elders are very much respected and listened to. No one says, “We have to talk!” to their elders; instead the elders are the ones to tell you what to do. In a couple of these conflict situations, Dan asked Damiana if they could talk. Feeling the sting initially, she agreed to be open. Actually, after seeing together how to resolve the issue, there was a newly felt unity between them. However, it hasn’t always been easy. Damiana recalled one incident when she and Dan had a misunderstanding over the giving of sweets to her grandson after dinner. Dan grew up with sweets as treats for special occasions, while in Damiana’s family, sweets are desserts, the concluding part of the meal.
Damiana felt disrespected when Dan confronted her about the situation. On the other hand, Dan felt undermined as a parent. “I felt I was being restricted on how to express my love as a grandmother,” she remembered. She was tempted to distance herself to avoid all this undeserved stress and useless discussion over petty things. She let days pass, while Dan kept texting her asking for a chance to meet and talk things over. Damiana purposely did not respond to his texts, “I was not ready to talk with him. I wanted to make sure that when we meet, I could let go of my hurt feelings, my angry thoughts, my ego, my culture, so that I could listen to him 100 %,” she explained. Finally, after a few vacation days, she felt ready, and they met at a nearby restaurant. “In that meeting, I listened with all my heart and soul to Dan until I felt I had the light to love and speak to Dan as I would to my own son.”
Dan wrote, “That dinner ended beautifully. We each stated our positions and more importantly, affirmed our true love and respect for each other. When we agreed to start over, what could have fragmented the family actually made our bond and that of our families stronger.”