Sarah de Leon
A Filipina Compromise
I Became a Writer instead of a Comedian because it seemed more Practical.
On May 12th, 2021 - I was published in Pipeline Artists. This is an essay about my family background and how I became the writer I am today. To read the article on their website, visit: https://pipelineartists.com/a-filipina-compromise/
I became a writer instead of a comedian because it seemed more practical.
If I remember correctly (and normally I do), I never really chose to be a writer. As crazy as this sounds (and normally, I sound crazy), writing chose me.
Before you stop reading because you think I sound pretentious, let me explain:
I think humanity has lived this long because we have a collective spirit. There is this force that connects all of us. When we are born, we get a piece of the spirit. The human spirit.
There is the caretaking part of the spirit. The teacher. The part that loves nature. Sports. Politics. You get the idea.
We all get a little piece of the human spirit that helps the world work. I knew from a young age that I was given a creative piece. I was meant to become an artist of some sort.
A Filipino family’s worst nightmare.
“You should become a nurse,” said my Mama, who judged me silently about my priorities. Passive aggression at its finest.
I laughed and told my Mama that I could never be a nurse. Or a Doctor. Or a CNA. Or really any healthcare professional.
I can’t stand dealing with blood.
Plus, I had my own mission in life. My biggest goal as a kid was to become the class clown. The funny one. The joker. The prankster. I just wanted to make others laugh.
When I was younger, if you had asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would have told you I wanted to make people happy.
If you had asked me to specify how, I would have said I wanted to become a writer and try to help people through words.
If you had asked me what I really wanted to do when I grew up (which no one ever does), I would have told you I wanted to become a comedian.
When I told my grandmother, Mama, I wanted to be a writer, she ‘tsk’d’ and shook her head.
“Do not become a writer. You won’t make any money.”
I can blame my Dad for her concerns. Her very harsh, but very valid concerns.
You see, my father, my Mama’s firstborn, dreamed of becoming a musician. He was a hippie who wore his hair down to his waist. Based on the pictures I have seen, he looked more like a punk rock white woman than a Filipino man.
He played the bass in a grunge band. He wrote poetry and lyrics with scribbled handwriting in nice, leather-bound journals. He sketched light wisps of thin black ink onto scraps of paper that vaguely resembled faces and shapes.
A true minimalist.
He had a whole future of creative passion ahead of him until he knocked up a 19-year-old. My mother. His 18-year lease to fatherhood.
I was born on my grandparent’s anniversary. Sort of. I think a more accurate way to describe my birth is that I was forcibly evacuated from the best studio apartment I ever had. I was a little over two weeks late. After a whole day of excruciating labor, the doctors had to just pull me, kicking and screaming, out of my mother.
Because even as a fetus I knew life was going to be hard.
Dates were a big thing to my grandparents. The fact I was born on their special day held deep meaning to my Mama. I gave her hope that maybe, just maybe, I would not follow in my father’s footsteps.
My grandparents had traveled from the Philippines to America in the hopes of having a better life. She wanted her family to have better opportunities and not live in poverty. And how did my father repay them? By moving his family into their home during their golden retirement years.
And I told her I wanted to become a writer of all things. One of the most underpaid, over-saturated professions ever.
Seriously. You can’t spill a cup in an L.A. coffee shop without it leaking onto a writer’s shoes and laptop bag.
My Mama’s fear was that I, too, would become a sinful, rebellious, poor artist. Just like my father.
And boy, did I.
Irony is the dark shadow that follows me, laughing. I didn’t even want to be a writer. I wanted to be a comedian.
But do you know what would have happened if I had told my grandmother that I wanted to be a comedian of all things? A profession somehow more underpaid, less practical, and more irrational than becoming a writer?
I didn’t want to find out.
I never tried to tell my Mama, or really any member of my family, that in my heart of hearts I wanted to just focus on comedy. I didn’t tell my teachers. I didn’t even have the guts to say it out loud to my friends until I was 23.
Admitting that comedy had always been my priority in life felt dirty, somehow. Immature. Embarrassing, even. This essay is my version of coming out of the comedy closet.
From a very young age, I was put under a lot of pressure to do good in school so I could make something of myself. Whatever that means. After all, I had an Asian stereotype to fulfill, grandparents to please, and a white picket fence to earn. Growing up in a poor household created marriage-ending financial stress and made me scared of what the future would hold if I didn’t live up to my potential.
Whatever that means.
And to think, I once couldn’t figure out why I’ve had high-functioning anxiety since I was seven. At least this fun trait improved my comedic view of life. I’m sure Larry David would attest to that.
I did not want to be a writer. All I wanted to do was watch movies and TV, read, and occasionally socialize to make people laugh.
Because making people laugh is just the best.
Laughter joins people together. Laughter is a joyous celebration, even if only for a few seconds. It is pure. It is happy. It reminds me of late-night sleepovers and family dinners.
Humor is the ultimate medicine. It is the best way to make people happy.
And the best part?
You also benefit. For every laugh you give, you can get one in return. It is the best form of currency. It is the most selfless way to be selfish.
It is my love language, and in my humble opinion, it truly is the best way to love.
Laughter is not the most effective way to make money. Real money. Cash money. The shit you need to have access to shelter, food, clean water, and healthcare.
Because for some reason we must pay for all this. The bare necessities to live.
You’ve probably heard of pay-to-play. Have you realized we also literally have to pay-to-live? We pay to live and play the game of life. Both the board game and our existence. Except the difference is with the game, we get a choice to play. (Remember, I’m the one who had to be forcibly yanked out of my mom).
So I didn’t want to disappoint my grandmother by becoming a comedian.
I decided to disappoint my grandmother by becoming a writer instead.
I felt as though this was a fair compromise for a first-generation Filipina to make.
Writing came naturally to me. It was my best subject in school, and according to every teacher I have ever had, I had a knack for it. The profession beckoned me somehow. Even when I wasn’t trying to write well, my work would be good. (Not trying to brag, I swear.)
I clung to this one inkling of talent I had and stuck to it. I may not be able to cook, belt show tunes, deal with blood, or play the guitar. But I could write. So I stepped into my spirit-given role as a writer.
I figured with writing, I would have a better chance to "succeed" (conventionally speaking). Writing would be the best way I can make people laugh, but still have a decent shot at making an honest living. Writing would allow me to have the house, the kids, the holidays, the vacations, the college education, the clothes, the food, the white picket fence …
The American Dream.
And this was, after all, why my grandparents sacrificed what they had for their family. This conventional, American life was what my Mama wanted for all her grandchildren whom she loved very much ... even if she was rare to show it.
If I become a successful enough writer, I would have a chance to make as many people laugh as much as possible for as long as forever.
The human spirit wanted me to be an artist, but one who could go above and beyond to make her family (above all, her Mama) proud. As a successful writer, I could do my best to take care of the world.
Which is sort of like a nurse, but instead of wounds I would help to heal hearts.
Like all Filipina women, I was blessed with the power to cure. Help. Heal.
Just ... through my written words.
The fall of 2014, I went to college to become the next Nora Ephron. My grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s shortly after. She sometimes didn’t even remember my name, so I didn’t expect her to keep up with my career.
She died in 2018. She was the last of my grandparents to pass, all of whom were gone after a long battle with some form of Alzheimer’s or dementia. Irony pointed and laughed at me again. By the time I was old and courageous enough to talk to any of my grandparents about their prejudices and who I truly was, they were gone. All I have left of my grandparents are the details I had observed, and the words they said that had stuck.
I don’t remember truly bonding with my Mama. But I remember, so vividly, every eye roll, every ‘tsk’, and every sentence she muttered under her breath in a language she never taught me. I know there was more to our relationship than these small moments. Of course I did. But when I placed a flower on her casket, all I could think about was everything that wasn’t said.
I don’t know if she ever changed her mind about what she had said all those years ago about my vocational choices. If she was proud of me for following my dreams—at least the dreams she knew about—I will never know. She never said. Not to me, at least.
I don’t know if she ever approved of me for who I truly was.
But on the bright side (there’s always a bright side), in the process of becoming a person my grandmother could be proud of, I became a talented writer with a lot of support from other close friends and family members.
I did not want to be a writer ... at first. But maybe, just maybe, it is where I will shine the brightest and be able to make the world laugh one smile at a time.
Plus, I am bad at improvisation, and I don’t have the heart to be heckled on a stage. I once forgot my lines in a play and nearly wanted to blow my brains out. (A joke in poor taste because this was a play about the Vietnam War and PTSD.)
And even though I won’t ever actually hear her say it, hopefully, one day I will write something—anything—that would have made my Mama proud. If not for what I wrote, then because I made a shit ton of money, and I’m not living with my in-laws.
Photo: Sarah's father, Reuel (Ray) de Leon, with her cousin, Alannah.