Editor’s Note: Though this article contains general details about a meeting in the Counseling and Psychological Services Department on campus, all meetings are confidential. None of the quotes that appear in this article are from any meeting. The quotes from Bo Aleanav are from a phone call with him after the meeting, and the quotes from Eric Pido are from a video interview conducted before the meeting by student Antonio Castellanoz.
All group and individual sessions in the Counseling and Psychological Services Department are completely confidential.
Real men don’t cry. Real men also don’t talk about family issues, real men don’t suffer, and real men are aggressive and assertive. Most importantly, real men never, ever, talk about their feelings.
All of those misconceptions and more are the targets of a new group on campus whose aim is to help Filipino men navigate a universal search: the search for who they are.
“Lalake,” or “boys” in Tagalog, is a new support group at SF State for male Filipino students to discuss and explore their cultural and gender identities in a safe, protected space.
It’s a place to talk.
Started through a collaboration between Filipino-American history professor Eric Pido and Ismael de Guzman, a university counselor, the group meets once a week in Burk Hall in the hope that an open forum can heal the wounds for men exploring what it means to be Filipino. Attendance is free and anyone can drop in, but the group starts promptly at 6 p.m. on Mondays.
The idea for Lalake came from the sheer number of male Filipino students that would come to Pido with the same identity struggles time and time again, he said.
So it occurred to him to bring these men together. Bo Aleonav, a 33-year-old graduate counseling student, was a new attendee in the group’s third session.
Aleonav doesn’t match the stereotype of a sensitive guy. With broad shoulders and a straightforward demeanor, it would make more sense to assume he was a quarterback than a counselor-in-training. But appearances can be deceiving, and Aleonav came to the group trying to explore the divide between Filipino and American ways of portraying love and gratitude.
He feels a strong debt to his mother for working hard to allow him to grow up and live in America. His mother lived in the United States for a time, but now lives back in the Philippines, and expects him to treat all of his family with the same feelings of indebtedness and respect he shows her, he said.
His deeply ingrained American values, however, are telling him to behave differently.
“I’m not showing (respect) to all of my siblings right now because the American side of me wants to see reciprocation of respect,” he said. His siblings have been taking advantage of his kindness, he said, not paying him back money he lent them years ago.
But his mother doesn’t see that as a reason to stop helping them or as a reason to question their life choices, and blames his American rearing for his behavior.
“‘You were raised there longest, I get that, but your sister was there for you, be there for them,’” Aleonav said his mother told him. This family struggle isn’t unique to just him.
Though the details of the group’s third meeting are private and protected, generalities can be sketched.
In the small room with bare white walls and white boards reminiscent of any classroom, some of the young Filipino men gathered around the table shared stories almost exactly like Aleonav’s: pressure from their parents to offer respect, money and gratitude without expecting reciprocation.
The concept is called “utang na loob,” pronounced “oo-tang nah lo-ob.” The conceptual translation of that is “internal debt,” or “lifelong reciprocation,” according to an article by Dolly Castillo, from Canada’s “Filipino Journal.”
Utang is “your debt” and “loob” means inside.
The upside of the concept is that there is no expectation of reciprocity. You give simply to give. But the downside, Castillo wrote, is that in modern times “it has been abused and misused to some degree.”
Aleonav and others at Lalake agreed that navigating “utang na loob” as an American was difficult.
“It’s a part of everyone. It’s the debt you cannot repay to anyone, no matter how much you do,” Aleonav said.
The debt is meant to be something every child owes the parent. In his American teachings, Aleonav expected respect returned in the moment, but the Filipino culture takes a generational look to gratitude.
It’s a very deep part of Filipino culture, those at the meeting said, and it’s that kind of cultural dissonance and pressure that Pido hopes his group can help students navigate.
Though catering just to a Filipino male population sounds like a small niche to serve, Filipinos actually represent 8.4 percent of SF State’s student body, according to the SFSU Data Book. That’s more than 2,000 Filipino students.
And the resources at SF State for male students in particular are not robust.
A look at the Associated Students, Inc. website, which lists clubs and organizations on campus, shows a healthy amount of women’s resources, from the Women’s Center to clubs centered around women’s issues. But as a man, or male student, resources are not as easily found.
One notable exception is the SF State’s SAFE place, a sexual assault and crisis counseling service which mentions that men historically are hesitant to seek support, and asks them to do so.
Lack of male support, and teaching men not to seek support, is ingrained in many cultures, Pido said.
“There’s a general sort of notion as a man you’re not supposed to feel what you want to feel, or have feelings around any sort of thing that happens to you in your life,” Pido said.
And he doesn’t buy it. Men need help with their feelings just as much as anyone, and helping Filipino men in particular is his mission because he has seen the dire consequences of hiding pain.
The story Pido’s family tells is that his youngest uncle died while cleaning his gun, he said. But in reality, his father’s youngest brother suffered from depression that no one was open to speaking about, least of all Pido’s uncle.
“In actuality he died because he shot himself,” Pido said.
Though the needs of the men in Lalake may not be as severe as suicidal thoughts, the goal is just as vital: to get Filipino men to go against society’s unspoken rules about masculinity.
He’s asking them to do what they may see as unthinkable; to confront their thoughts and feelings.
Reflecting back on his first time in the group, Aleonav said there wasn’t enough time to talk about everything on his mind.
“Theres so many things to talk about that day, so many themes. To talk about what is owed to you, to see what it means to be American,” he said.
Not having enough time to share all the thoughts the students wanted to share is probably the best problem Lalake could have — there’s always next week, as long as the men are ready and willing.
Additional reporting by Antonio Castellanoz