It’s a not-uncommon cross-cultural story: A child flies away from his home country and is adopted into a whole new world. He grows up trying to be like the people around him, but he’s different. Maybe he should deny his past and just fit in. But denying who he is comes with a price. Embracing his true identity and exploring his heritage comes with a price, too. It’s an epic struggle, and the non-stop battles threaten to become his identity.
It’s the story of Superman.*
This past week, my wife and I watched last year’s Man of Steel on DVD. Following a trend in super-hero cinema, it tells the gritty, complex, discordant story of a superhero. And, of course, there’s action—so much thunderous, building smashing, ground shaking, tank-fisted action. In fact, right before the umpteenth fight between equally matched super people, my wife said, “Oh, not again.” The movie is entertaining, but it’s nearly 2 1/2 hours long, and with battle after battle, with the ultimate outcome never in doubt, all the excitement became . . . uh . . . boring.
A few days later, we watched another film about people landing in a new cultural landscape, leaving friends and family to try to make a difference in their own lives and those around them. This one is a POV documentary from 2011 called The Learning. It’s about four women from the Philippines, some of the 600 Filipino teachers, recruited by the school district, who teach in inner-city Baltimore.
“I only see America in television movies, in pictures of books, or in magazines,” says Dorotea, one of the four. “I haven’t had a picture of what America really looks like. . . . So this is it. This is America, where the dollars are found.”
Yes, these teachers can earn up to 25 times their salaries back home. That means they can send money back to the spouses, children, and parents whom they’ve left behind.
When she returns to her family after the end of the school year, Angel takes her five brothers and sisters, mom, and dad on their first-ever shopping spree. The money doesn’t seem enough to buy all that they want.
Grace, who has stayed in touch with her infant son by video chat during her time in the States, returns to the Philippines to find a boy who looks away and doesn’t want her to hold him.
“I know in the long run I will be in a better position,” she says. “I really have to suffer the consequences of what I did and what I’m doing.”
Rhea, who shares victories with the students in her special-education classroom, faces setbacks in her family life. While she’s away, her husband is arrested for selling drugs and faces the possibility of life in prison.
“I had this dream, you know, of going into a far place, bringing him wherever I go, and we will start something new—just us, no parents, no friends,” says Rhea. But her world has changed. “This is defeat for me. It’s like I’ve been fighting for so long for nothing.”
With tears, Dorotea says that this, her 24th year of teaching, is “full of adjustments, full of disappointments, full of hurts, full of . . . full of ill feelings.”
One of her high-school students tells her, “I wouldn’t leave my family if I was you. I’d stay over there. . . . You like it in the Philippines?”
Dorotea nods her head.
“You like it over here better?”
Smiling, Dorotea says, “It’s a very tough question.”
The four ladies of The Learning are real-life superwomen, which means they’re strong, but they’re not made of steel. It means they’re not actually superwomen. They’re conflicted, vulnerable, less-than-perfect. They fight battles, in the classroom and in their thoughts. One battle comes after another. But the ultimate outcome is certainly in doubt . . . and it’s anything but boring.
Directed by Ramona S. Diaz, The Learning originally aired three years ago. It is currently making an encore appearance online and is available for viewing through May 12.
*For a deeper discussion of Superman as Third Culture Kid, see Katherine Alexander’s “Clark Kent and Third Culture Super Power.”