We all come from different backgrounds and each have a story to tell, and it is important to talk about what makes us unique and to give us a chance to know and understand a person.
A Pacific Islander myself, as it is Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage month, I wanted to take the time to speak to that portion of diversity that lies within the Air Force.
Tinian is a small island in the Pacific Ocean that I call home. It is one of the islands that make up the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and home to my indigenous people, Chamorus. With a population of about 4,000 people, there are no shopping malls, movie theaters or fast food restaurant chains on Tinian. However, what you will find are locally owned cafes, mom-and-pop stores and beautiful beaches.
Growing up, my family did not have much, and life was hard. Employment was heavily dependent on political party affiliation. For example, if your political party were to win the election, you would most often times be guaranteed to have a job. In contrast, if they were to lose, most often times you would be unemployed for the duration of their term. This weighed heavily on my parents growing up, and led to periods of financial insecurity for our family. In search of a better opportunity for us, my parents decided to move to Guam when I was 13 years old. Guam is a 30-minute flight from Tinian, but is a more developed island.
Upon graduating from high school, I did not have a plan. I thought about following in my dad’s footsteps and becoming a mechanic, but with the cost of tuition to get me through college, especially coming from a household that did not have the financial resources, it felt like too big a struggle. In my family, college was not a serious option. Everyone saw the military as a pathway to success — the best choice available. So, there I was, stuck between going to college and joining the military. My brother was the one that encouraged me to enlist, and I did so in April 2014. Seven years later, here I am, grateful and with no regrets on my decision.
When I joined the Air Force, I went from a girl from the small island of Tinian to a military service member living in the United States. It was a huge culture shock! I quickly realized I had a different outlook on life than the people around me. I only knew the island lifestyle growing up, which is easy-going, and moved to an environment where everything felt so fast-paced and overwhelming. It took some time, but I eventually got the hang of things.
However, to this day I still find it amazing how I am seeing all these places that I only saw on the television as a child, and I still find it incredible how diverse this country is. Living in the U.S. mainland has changed how I look at life; I was so tunnel-visioned, and now I am more open-minded and able to view things in different ways.
Nonetheless, I have had my fair share of negative experiences as well. Having an accent came with challenges for me as I was mocked and laughed at. On occasion, I would have to repeat what I had said because of my accent. It felt humiliating at times, especially in social settings and made me want to change the way I speak, making sure I pronounce my words properly like simple words such as salmon, oven or saying “A/C” or “air conditioning” instead of “aircon” just so I wouldn’t be ridiculed.
Most of the time, I would prefer not to talk just out of fear that I would be teased again. In one instance, I remember being asked a question and as I was about to answer I could see the smirk on the other person’s face. I was mocked right in front of my peers. Looking back, I wish I had stood up for myself or had told someone about it to address the situation.
Having this experience definitely made me a better Airman, wingman and supervisor because it’s times like these that add the authenticity of genuinely caring for my peers and being there for them. I am able to provide insight to others that may have been through or are going through similar things, letting them know that they are not alone.
If we continue to be kind, open-minded, and have these uncomfortable conversations rather than instant reactions, we can learn from and teach one another. While creating a safe space for Airmen, I think we could really make a difference; I believe this will bring about positive change in the Air Force. We must ensure that our Airmen not only feel but also know that they have a voice and understand that their voices matter.