What It Feels Like When the Most Important Chef in the Country Looks and Sounds Like Your Mother


My workshop partner and I count the number of tables that fill the gala hall.

“Sixteen by eight,” he says.

I look around and sigh a little. Of one hundred twenty-eight tables at the East Coast Asian American Student Union’s annual post-conference dinner, a grand total of one table accommodates the Pilipino delegation to the conference. It’s a full house tonight, with Asian American student organizations coming in droves from up and down the coast to attend workshops and listen to empowering speakers in the heart of DC.

The difference in numbers between us Pilipino delegates and most other Asian student association is staggering, but what we lack in numbers, we make sure to make up for in volume and spirit.

ECAASU is a time for Asian student organizations from every hue of our collective student population to mix, mingle, and crystallize the notion that was born in the 1970s: that Pan-Asianism and education lead to empowerment. The folks at UniPro lend a hand to the discussion of effective communication skills and charity, and I make my debut as large-scale conference speaker. For the Fil-Am student, ECAASU can be a chance at interacting with high-profile community leaders, while tasting the fruits of their own labor.

And it is in that milieu that we young, emerging Pilipino leaders find ourselves invited to a closing banquet, to eat with newly-made friends and foster blossoming partnerships. We’re underdressed and a little restless, like the younger delegates we came here to inspire (someone makes a joke about this being Prom 2.0). We’re getting ready for some Grand Hyatt-quality banquet food. We’d all be lying if we said we weren’t primarily here for the food.

Speakers come and go from the mic. Introductions are made. Students receive awards. The featured speaker is next. She approaches the microphone. She’s shorter than I expect her to be. She looks so very different in person, compared to the photos of her in magazines and online.

She looks and sounds like my mother.

This Pilipina woman is Cristeta Comerford, the first female and first Asian American executive chef at the White House; she was selected by Laura Bush and cooks for the Obama family today. “Shatterer of ceilings,” my workshop partner goes on to post to Facebook. Everyone is listening. She is educated, bright, and talented. Everything that you expect in a featured speaker. Except she looks and sounds like my mother.

Featured speakers aren’t supposed to do that. They’re supposed to be taller or whiter or blacker or skinnier. With tasteful salt-and-pepper hair. In either a power suit or a full-fledged banquet gown. They’re supposed to be CEOs of hedge fund banks or whatever. Politicians. Company executives. Actors who do a lot of philanthropy. People with doctorates and fellowships. If they represent America, they’re supposed to have scrubbed away any accent that would give away they allegiance to a motherland. But Cris Comerford embodies none of that. Her training is in food, and that training spans continents, and her accent is garnished with the coconut, vinegar, and jasmine of a country very far away. If I stand next to her, she would go no higher than my chin.

And yet she commands the room. She closes the conference and offers us its lessons on a presidential plate. She jokingly apologizes that she isn’t the one who cooked dinner for us tonight, and everyone in the room genuinely sighs in disappointment. Two thousand of Asian America’s upcoming leaders, most of them probably exhausted from the day’s events. She is our focus, as she shares with us her spirit, and gives body and thickness to the Pilipino notion of kapwa – she allows us to see ourselves in her, as she sees herself in all of us.

Our table stops paying attention to our plates, our phones and each other, and I can tell that every pair of eyes is fixated on her, standing behind a podium seven tables away, because all of us children of Pinay women are thinking the same thing.

After the speech, I have the pleasure of shaking her hand. They are worked, calloused, and tell the story of a woman fashioning meals fit for literal kings in the most important house in the world. We crowd around her and call her Tita Cris because we are all feeling famous and confident, putting her hands in ours. A handshake with Barack, the man who eats the meals, can wait another day. These hands, the hands of the woman who creates them, feel just like my mother’s.

Photo credit: Kristina Rodulfo

You Bring Out the Filipina in Me, A Poem

In the spring of my junior year in college, I decided to write a poem every single day for an entire year. This project evolved into something much more. I decided to continue writing until Commencement exercises, until the day I had my diploma in hand. Today, my project stands at 390 days, with 391 individual poems; early on in the project I had so much to say, that I ended up writing two pieces for one day. During this journey, I expected my pens to pour out my thoughts and troubles. I wanted to make space in my cluttered mind, and be at peace with myself. So, I kept a paper with me at all times, scribbling in the margins of class notes and my planner. Any emotion that I was feeling, or event I was experiencing, I tried to capture it in a concise handful of words. At the end of the day, I’d sit down for about an hour to piece together my thoughts. Most nights, I’d begin three or four different poems before deciding on a common theme or concept. Then, I’d just go with it. This often meant most of my poems were written between the hours of midnight and 3:00am.

In February of my senior year, I attended the East Coast Asian American Student Union (ECAASU) conference. I went with a few of my closest friends from William & Mary’s Filipino American Student Association; we embarked on road trip from Williamsburg, VA, down to Duke University in North Carolina. There, we had the opportunity to meet amazing leaders in the Asian American community and participate in various workshops.


As a young writer and poet, I immediately chose to attend the "Spoken Word and Activism" workshop, facilitated by Bao Phi. In the workshop, we watched and discussed 1700% Project: Misaken for Muslim, a piece by Anida Yoeu Ali, which challenges racial profiling and hate crimes against those perceived as Muslim or Arab. Afterwards, Phi shared some of his own pieces. One that stood out was titled You Bring Out the Vietnamese in Me.  I connected with the piece instantly, as it inspired me to write my own version as part of my poetry project.

It’s been a year since I wrote this poem. I’ve only performed it a couple times before some close friends, but I’ve been too afraid to share it because it never seemed relevant for any of the open mic events I’ve attended. After my project ended, I started reading through all of my poems, from start to finish. It’s really interesting to see how my writing has evolved over the course of my project.

Originally posted as Day 314, I present it to you now. Maybe I’ll have the courage to perform it on stage one day.

Inspired by: Sandra Cisneros’ “You Bring Out the Mexican in Me” and Bao Phi’s “You Bring Out the Vietnamese in Me”



You bring out the Filipina in me.


The jeepney-riding miracle worker. The island sweetheart of art. The gutom na ako, but not really in me.



You bring out the Filipina in me. The war-stricken tropical paradise, pained by martial law under Marcos, trampled by the feet of Imelda and her closet of over a thousand shoes.


The anti-Colonialist mindset that might set the world on fire. The tainted skin that refuses lightening creams. The Illocano and Kapangpangan and Tagalog and Spanish rolled into a single dictionary in me. The easy to assimilate into American culture because of English-infused classrooms in the motherland.



The Magandang Gabilechon-eating, Soon-to-be doctor and lawyer in me. The OFW working in the Middle East, sending remittances back to children, or the daughter of a US Navy officer, for he joined the Americans out of necessity. And yet you still bring out the true Filipina in me.



The young, activist peacemaker, that yearns to clean up corrupt acts that plague the Philippine Sea. The “I want to return to the homeland to give back” because that all I’ve worked for. The wealth of knowledge, once I graduate from college, need to make a difference in me.



You are the one I turn to, and turns to me for love, for my home is built with always-open doors. With it’s plastic-covered couches, fully-stocked pantry piled high with cans of Spam, dried manga, sweet condensed milk walis-swept tiled floors, and sometimes kneeling on piles of kanin for being naughty in me.



You bring out the feisty, ghetto-fabulous wannabe itim in me. Yeah I said it. The lover of all R&B


and jammin’ to old school rap in me.



You are the rays of sun on my very own flag, the guiding stars that surround me.


You have taught me the truth of mahal kita and salamat, for I love to give thanks when it is not required.


Oo : you, have been woven into the mosquito nets that shield me. You are the protector of me.