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Ode To An Ocean, Where West Is East of The East

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TR_PacificOcean
The Pacific Ocean, as seen from Redondo Beach. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Only in America could people whose heritage hails from within and around the world's largest continent be considered a single demographic group: Asian/Pacific Islander Americans, also known in community circles and demographic-speak as the acronym "API," are a diverse lot, in terms of nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, and custom.

In both my participation in the API community and in my own personal life, API Americans, especially those born and/or raised in the U.S., have had an affinity for associating with each other, whether it's schoolchildren playing video games, or young adults promoting API artists and entertainers, or older adults supporting fellow APIs in elected office.

Already familiar with the differences, I've often wondered what does actually bind us together. One can point to a common and unfortunate history of being on the receiving end of a similar kind of xenophobia and stereotyping. Others can point to black hair, rice and typically strong family units, with elevated regard to its elders.

But there's another commonality -- The Pacific Ocean.

So inversely little-regarded as the ocean is large, the great Pacific doesn't just represent mere geography, but it bears great symbolism.

Every American of Asian or Pacific Islander heritage has had to cross the Pacific, either on their own, or through through their heritage.

Chinese laborers from Guangdong sailed for months in the 1850s to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. My parents from the Philippines took airplane flights lasting several hours in the 1960s to work in hospitals and laboratories. Different times, same ocean. Guided by varying currents, we arrive on these shores in waves.

Where Mexicans find their border with the United States in the form of a checkpoint, a river or a fence, for Asian/Pacific Islanders, the border is a 64 million square-mile body of water, over 12,000 miles at its widest, and 36,000 feet at its deepest. How big of a border both geographically and psychologically can one find sticky humid tropical climes back home, and dry desert heat on the other side? Or a crowded, bustling urban bazaar on one side, and a sprawling, exurban shopping center on the other? To say nothing about the language (or languages); whether it be English or Spanish, it may not easily be pronounceable, or even readable at all. And for native Hawaiians, they didn't cross the border, the border crossed them.

The Pacific Ocean also represents the greatest of ironies, where not only is The West located toward the east and The East is located west, but the same sea that Portugese explorer Ferdinand Magellan so named in 1519 because he found it relatively calm and peaceful, would become the largest theater of global warfare some four centuries later.

Yes, the ocean in its seemingly infinite vastness also carries with it its own darkness: Whether it's the stark human-rights realities of human trafficking and the sex trade, or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a sprawling testament to excess and ecological neglect, or the volumes of 2011 Japan tsunami debris, gradually making its way toward our shores as floating mementos of tragedy.

I'm often reminded of those Asian/Pacific Islanders who come here not just to seek opportunity, but to seek refuge from war, natural disasters or oppressive regimes. The migration, not exactly planned. The transition, always difficult. The novel and recent motion picture "Life Of Pi," a story depicting a transpacific voyage borne out of tragic circumstance, couldn't be more of an appropriate allegory for them. For these real-life Piscine Patels, they too will not easily forget their own bengal tigers that they had to face.

Often times, whether I'm sitting on a knoll in the Palos Verdes Peninsula, or standing knee-deep in the surf at Will Rogers State Beach, my eyes would look horizon-bound toward the west so my mind and heart can see the East, reflecting on how my heritage has spanned an ocean that's larger than all the continents combined. I am part of this great Pacific Ocean, and this great Pacific Ocean, through its grandeur, its crests and its murky depths alike, is a part of me.

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"City Rising: Youth & Democracy" follows the stories of youth leaders, allies and organizations as they challenge institutional and systemic issues through civic engagement. Learn more about the people and organizations featured in this season.