This Filipino American Memoir Confronts Privilege, Sacrifice, and Colonialism’s Legacy
Albert Samaha examines centuries of family history from pre-colonial Philippines to Trump-era America in his memoir "Concepcion"
Like the complex Philippine history the book aims to depict, there is no single sentence that can sum up Albert Samaha’s Concepcion, especially when he renders that history through the lens of his own diasporic family, dating back to his ancestors’ first encounter with Europeans. Though nominally a memoir in the sense that it tracks Samaha’s life as a second-generation immigrant child in Northern California, his search for a stable identity as a teenage football player caught between cultures, his fraught relationship with his Trump-supporter mother as an adult, Concepcion uses these moments from the recent past to jump across centuries and explore the imperialist circumstances that brought them into being, a history that the United States continues to ignore because of its role as the Philippines’ former colonizer.
Samaha’s primary strategy for getting an American readership to face this history is to tell it through his own family members, which renders it both intimate and urgent. Writing about his great-aunt Caridad, an informant for the Americans during the Japanese occupations whose quick thinking prevented her death by sword, Samaha writes: “Her fate was one of countless breaks to swing our way, unearthing reminders that before a moment hardens into the past, it exists in a suspended fragility of the present.” Caridad was the first person from Samaha’s family to immigrate to the United States, and without her, neither Samaha nor Concepcion would exist in their current form.
Samaha and I spoke a week before Concepcion’s publication in a room at the Bowery Hotel overlooking the New York skyline. It was an appropriate location not only because a sizable portion of the hotel’s staff is Filipino, but because one of the book’s main questions is how to balance current prosperity against the sacrifices of previous generations, on familial, diasporic, and existential scales.
[Editor’s note: Meredith Talusan and Albert Samaha were briefly colleagues at BuzzFeed.]
Meredith Talusan: It really struck me reading the book how it’s simultaneously epic because it covers hundreds of years of history, but also generous in the sense that including your whole family in a memoir, which is usually thought of as an individual act of putting one’s perspective onto paper. Was that your vision from the beginning? How did it evolve?
Albert Samaha: The structure was the hardest part. But eventually, I came around to this idea that a central theme in the book is the way the past imposes itself upon the present, that we can’t escape the past, that we are still entrapped in its ripple effects. And so, to sort of jump back and forth in time, in sometimes vast distances of time, to me, offered an opportunity to show how true that is, and to show how that actually works.
The other thing in my mind was I wanted the book to be a bit disorienting in time and space, because that’s the experience of being an immigrant, of coming into a new country. You come in and you have to figure it out. “Where am I? What’s the restaurant? Do I tip? Do I not tip? Where do I get a job?” All these little discomforts of being an immigrant, where I feel like people like me who is not an immigrant oftentimes will, I think, think of the challenge of immigration in kind of very macro terms, which is that you’ve got to learn the language and get a job and get a visa. But what I hear from many of my immigrant friends and immigrant relatives, the stories they tell, it’s always like the little things, like the first time my grandfather had stepped into an elevator, and what buttons to press, or the time that my mom first went to Paris and was struck that you could try out all the perfumes. They’ve got these little aspects of experience that stand out in their mind.
MT: You’re talking about how the past illuminates the present, but then I feel like also one of the effects is that it makes the past feel more like the present, right?
I was wondering to what degree you were aware, or did you want to make what people perceive as history come alive? Especially, I think, in an American context where there’s a lot of denial and a lot of avoidance around specifically this history and specifically the ways in which America and the United States have behaved towards its major former colony.
AS: Totally. And I intend to apply that even broader in the sense that I think history, on its face, can feel inevitable, especially what we learn about in history books, where it’s like “Oh, of course, when you have a general as capable as George Washington and a legislative mind as brilliant as Thomas Jefferson, you’re going to create an exceptional nation such as America.” And that inevitability washes away the arbitrariness of history, and the fact that oftentimes the people who win win by chance just as much as by merit, like Cortez did not know that he was carrying on his boat the germs that would defeat his enemies.
And so, I think a theme I really wanted to unpack in the book is all those inflection points where things could have gone a different direction. And I think this was one of the central questions in the book where I asked if my mom’s sacrifice was worth it, if she should have come. But that begs the question: what other paths were there along the way that we might have missed?
I ultimately realized that the only way to get across the idea of how fragile the present is one hundred years ago is to make one hundred years ago feel present, and to try to bring the reader into that world as much as possible, and see the figures not as historical epic figures, not as like myths, but as human beings, whether that’s Magellan or Lapu Lapu or Rajah Humabon.
MT: One of the other aspects of the book that really struck me is your engagement both at a historical and at a personal level with you and your family coming into an American culture that has this entire history, especially around white supremacy and Black slavery and anti-Black racism. How do you feel about the book in terms of intervention into this entire history while at the same time, we still live in an America that is so deeply oppressive to Black people? How do we as Filipino people situate ourselves within that racial paradigm?
AS: It’s an ongoing question for all of us immigrant diasporists who are newcomers to this centuries-old struggle for America’s soul that Black Americans and white supremacists have been waging. The reason colonialism works is because it makes the colonized aspire to assimilate to colonists, right? And I think to the colonized, it’s like, “We could either die or starve, or do what the colonizers say.” And over time, it creates the colonial mentality, which many brilliant minds have written about in many different ways.
But when we think of colonial mentality, I think the term E.J.R. David has used is internalized oppression. The way that my mom didn’t teach me how to speak Tagalog, and the way we revere white culture, and want to assimilate white culture, want to talk like white people and dress like white people, all that, have the same jobs as white people. I think what that often leaves out is what that means to side with them, with white people. What it means is to side with the people who have oppressed Black people and Indigenous people and a lot of other people. And I think we only think about it as how we’re internally oppressing ourselves, and not often enough about how we’re actually externally oppressing others by helping to uphold the imperial caste system that has kept Black people at the bottom and many other Brown people close to the bottom for many years.
So what I hope to accomplish in the book is to reframe what it means to be colonized in a way. And I’m still grappling with it myself, you know? What are our responsibilities as Americans? I feel like the idea of asking about what you can do for your country is often framed from the right-wing perspective, where it’s almost this idea of “What can we do for our country?” is a taboo question, rightfully so in some ways because, no, we don’t owe anything to the country, right? It’s a country, and we are people who live here, and it’s not some loved one that we need to bestow any sort of reverence upon. It is a government institution. We owe it nothing. It owes us fair recompense for the taxes we pay. It is a transactional relationship, so let’s not try to make it bigger than that.
But I kind of want to rephrase the question of “What do we owe to the country?” in a different way. It’s not like “What do we owe to the U.S. government?” What do we owe to Black people? They are the reason that you and I have voting rights in America, because however Black folks are treated in America historically has been the bare minimum for how every other non-white group would be treated. None of us get treated as poorly as Black Americans, from a self-interested perspective even. Forget the morals of it. From a self-interested perspective, the worse Black Americans are treated, the worse that Filipino Americans can be treated. Ideally, everyone gets treated well, right?
So, for me, it was about honoring what it means to come to this country and to honor the country’s history. It’s not about, say, the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s not about knowing about Paul Revere’s Ride and George Washington’s cherry tree and about who signed the Declaration of Independence. It’s about looking at the history about who were the people whose blood and toil built the country? Who were the people who have suffered in order to push the country towards democracy?
MT: It’s fascinating how we’re talking about this in broad geopolitical terms, but the book coalesces this difference in perspective in terms of the relationship between you and your mom, who is a Trump supporter and believes in right-wing conspiracies, etc. Do you think of the book as a sort of template for figuring all of that stuff out?
AS: The first chapter of the book where my mom was getting scammed, I wrote that as it was happening. This book was an ongoing process. I was living it as I was writing it. One of the narrative arcs of the story is my own personal journey of understanding.
One of the quotes I have, the epigraph, was Maya Angelou who said, “Without willing it, I had gone from being ignorant of being ignorant to being aware of being aware. And the worst part of my awareness was that I didn’t know what I was aware of.” And I love that quote because it’s so true, man. Before you know what racism is, you’ve experienced it. And you’re just like, “Huh, that was weird. Why did that happen to me?” You know? And so I think the book is my effort to understand things that I needed to understand for myself. Even the way the book, I think, is structured subconsciously traces to the order in which I learned things, where we start in pre-colonial times.
A lot of the animating questions of the book stem from a reckoning with my own privilege, which is that I’m lucky enough to write this book in the first place, to be in a position where I had the education to write a book like this and have the time to work on a book like this. And it stems from this privilege that I did not necessarily see in the generation above me. So it’s like, “Okay, they sacrificed so I could have comfort.” Very classic immigrant story. But why is that the case? Why is it that they had to sacrifice to begin with, for my comfort? You know what I mean? When my friends’ parents didn’t have to sacrifice for their comfort, you know? And so it was sort of reckoning with my privilege. Like what was it over the course of all time, or at least as far back as I can trace, that led to me being born into the circumstances I was born into and allowed me to have these things.
And in a way, I sort of saw myself and every individual person as a sort of metaphor for America, which is that “Yeah, okay, richest nation, most powerful nation. What were the sacrifices made along the way?” To me, the real story of any empire’s rise is the sacrifice and suffering and toil that allowed it to happen. America would not span from a major continent between the two largest oceans and have all these natural resources if they didn’t genocide Native Americans. The wealth that the cotton industry was able to generate because of all the enslaved people who were purchased, bred, shipped in here, contributed largely to America’s original economic rise. So, America would not have the power it has if not for those oppressions. So that creates a natural guilt that I related to very much because I would not be able to benefit from the fruits from that bloody tree if my mom and my family didn’t come here and withstand the setbacks that the migrant generation experiences for the benefit of the second generation.
A lot of the book, and also a lot of the sort of divergence between my perspective and the perspective of my elders, is from my position of privilege. I have the privilege to sit down in a lounge chair and think, “Hmm. How did I get all these luxuries?” You know what I mean? While if you’re the migrating generation, you ain’t got time for that shit. You’ve got kids to feed. You’ve got jobs to apply for. You’ve got so much happening. And that’s why I think in the first chapter, I had a line about how there’s something about being in the second generation that makes it easier to look at this, because I’m not the one who lived the sacrifice. I’m not the one that made the migration. I’m the one on the front row who benefited from inside, up close. And I think that’s sort of at the root of it. It’s a lot easier to care about other people of oppression when you’re not the one at the heart of the oppression. But if you feel you’re being oppressed, it makes it a lot harder to care about somebody else being oppressed before anyone deals with your oppression.
And that’s part of the reason why my mom and I have diverged, because I’ve had the luxury of a very specific experience growing up and going to good schools in Northern California, being around a diverse collection of students, going to Columbia for journalism school, having jobs in these places that allow me to pursue my dreams and pay the bills and live the life that my mom dreamt for me. And so, for her, it’s like, yeah, this country is amazing. It all worked out. I’m happy. I could take care of her now. But for me, it’s something that I feel complicated feelings about, because these are successes that she worked for and wanted more than anything and sacrificed for. To her, they’re like unequivocable wins. But for me, as the person living it and benefiting from it, the natural question is like “Who had to sacrifice for these benefits? And how do I feel about that?”
MT: And is it worth it?
AS: And is it worth it?
MT: It’s interesting that being both writers, we both have this privilege that you describe, being paid in the ways that we are. But also, I can’t help but think of the meta-question that this book obviously involved extensive amounts of labor on your part. Speaking of toil and hardship, it might be a different form, but still. And it’s your second book. And I was wondering, as I was reading about the history of Filipino labor and the way in which Filipino identity is so tied to labor, that that’s one of the ways that we get ahead is that we work more than other people. Is that something that was present for you, and continues to be present for you, as you work in your life as an editor and an author? How do you contend with engaging with cultural reproduction, engaging with labor? And do you still feel like that’s still our path as Filipinos towards success in a country where our position is fragile?
AS: I’ve been told I have an unhealthy relationship with labor. You can interview any of my exes for that. I mean, I joke about it. It’s very easy for me to say I’m a workaholic because my work entails typing on a computer. You know what I mean? I can sort of romanticize working long hours because my long hours are sitting on a computer. So, that said, and maybe because of that, maybe because it’s a job that I consider much easier than the jobs any of my elders or ancestors had over the years, I’ve always sort of felt a duty to make sure that I squeezed every drop of juice from that fruit. I mean, I’ve always sort of been raised to really see the virtue of work ethic. My dad and I share that similar flaw (I probably got it from him) of just this idea that you get ahead by working harder than everybody else. So, ironically, I might have gotten it from the Lebanese side of me.
I mean, it’s almost cliché to say that being part of an immigrant family involves thinking and caring deeply about working hard to prove your worth. And I do think that, at least subconsciously, and maybe even consciously sometimes, there was always that driving force of proving yourself worthy of the opportunities, of the sacrifices. I always knew. Even before I knew the details, I knew generally that my elders sacrificed for me. I didn’t know the scope of that sacrifice or the depth of it, but I knew that they had left their country to come here so that I would have more opportunities, whatever that meant. So there was always that impulse to not squander those opportunities. Even within my family, I was the spoiled one, I was the privileged one, because my dad had a lot of money. And even though my parents separated very young, his child support was able to ensure that she didn’t have to work all the time for many years until I was ten. She didn’t have to work. And no problem going to Catholic school in grade school, elementary school. So I had more toys than my cousins.
So I always had this sense that I was more fortunate than even other people in my own generation, my own family. And I wanted to make sure I didn’t waste that. And I think, psychologically, perhaps what that did to me was to create this sense of value in putting in the hours. Not even a value. Like a reverence to it. I really do revere it in a way that my mom wishes I revered the Bible. Even before I was a writer, when I was a football player, I’d come in at 6:00 a.m. before school to lift weights and do some drills on the field by myself afterwards. And I think it was because I had opportunities that some of my closest friends and cousins didn’t have. I didn’t want to let people down. I didn’t want to let them down. I didn’t want to let my parents down. And I think that’s just sort of carried over. It’s like a mix of all those things, the sort of inherent Filipino work ethic, kind of immigrant “prove your worth,” and then also there’s like “Don’t squander the privilege that you have,” all sort of combined together, I think, to create the psyche I have now. I mean, two books in, I still haven’t taken a book leave.