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Family Finds Affinity for American Life

ASIAN IMPACT: Fourth of Four Parts

April 19, 1987|MARK ARAX | Times Staff Writer

Joven Gahon left his native Philippines with his wife and three young daughters in 1983 and arrived in America armed with a simple philosophy for survival: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."

For the most part, Gahon has done just that while living amidst a large population of Filipinos in the eastern San Gabriel Valley. The 42-year-old accountant, who waited 13 years to obtain U.S. visas for his family, is not bothered by the prospect that his children might one day marry non-Filipinos.

In fact, since settling in Azusa, he cares little whether his daughters, ages 9, 13 and 15, observe the customs and traditions of their homeland. He asks only that they "respect their parents," his oblique way of requesting that they steer clear of the alcohol, drugs and premarital sex that surrounds them.

"It's not as if I want my children to forget their Filipino culture," he said. "It's just that I have to be practical. Times change and we are here now. The Philippines is behind us. It's history already."

Distinguishing Factor

It is this willingness to relinquish tradition while retaining the basic underpinnings of Filipino life that distinguishes the Filipino immigrant from many of his Chinese and Korean counterparts in the San Gabriel Valley.

Filipinos are predominantly English-speaking and Roman Catholic and come from a country that has a long association with the United States. As such, they assimilate more easily into American society than Asians, who share a Confucian tradition and often are not absorbed into the mainstream for a generation or two.

"Back in the Philippines, we have adopted so many ways and customs from the Americans that when we come here we don't have the adjustment problems that many Asians do," Gahon said.

This affinity for American culture is particularly true of the Filipino population of the eastern San Gabriel Valley, which has doubled since 1980 to an estimated 25,000 and is made up mostly of professionals who first settled close to downtown Los Angeles before moving to the suburbs, according to community leaders.

"There are no more Aquino-Marcos politics here," says Conrad Bituin, who left the Philippines in 1974 and now lives in Azusa. "We are now either Reagan, Deukmejian or Bradley."

But others say the inclination to adopt America wholesale is a bit overstated. In many ways, they argue, Filipinos living in West Covina, Baldwin Park and Hacienda Heights resemble their Chinese and Korean neighbors.

Welcome Designation

Recognizing basic similarities between them, Filipinos, Chinese and Koreans generally welcome the designation "Asian/Pacific Islander" given to them by schools and government agencies because it has the effect of increasing their overall numbers and political clout.

Moreover, Filipinos, like Asians, are drawn to America by educational and job opportunities for their children. And, as with Asians, their choice of community here often is dictated by where relatives and friends arriving before them have settled.

Gahon, for example, said he choose to live in Azusa to be near his wife's family, which left the Philippines a decade earlier and settled in Azusa. At the time, Gahon said, he did not know that a Filipino business and residential community was flourishing in the hilly landscape of nearby West Covina.

Although not as pronounced as the suburban Chinatowns that dot the western San Gabriel Valley, West Covina's "Filipino Hill" does feature a Filipino doctor's office, real estate firm and print shop, two Filipino restaurants and three Filipino markets where residents shop for specialty items such as dried fish and a noodle called pancit .

On weekends, hundreds bowl in two Filipino leagues. "Politics isn't the bottom line anymore," said Raul Medina, an insurance company executive and resident of Diamond Bar who belongs to one of the leagues. "It's important just to be together, to play and have fun as Filipinos."

Monthly Celebration

Gahon said he keeps his culture alive by joining 25 other Filipino immigrant families, all natives of the municipality of Cavinti, each month for an evening of food, drink and dance.

And while he considers himself a fully assimilated American father, Gahon is not above invoking the weight of tradition when one of his daughters tries to test him.

"The first year we were here, my eldest daughter came home from the sixth grade and told us that she had found a boyfriend," Gahon recalled. "We were shocked. We told her the idea of a boyfriend was a very serious matter back in the Philippines.

"We told her what it meant and that she was much too young for such a thing. After a little discussion, she was enlightened."

Gahon now struggles with another crisis. "A few months ago, that same daughter began putting mousse in her hair," he said. "My wife told her that simplicity is beauty. So far, my daughter doesn't seem to be listening."

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