Oral History Interview with Josel Tongson


Oral History Interview with Josel Tongson


Oral history interview with Josel Tongson, interviewed by Emilia Tongson




The Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies and the UC Davis Asian American Studies department holds intellectual control of these recordings. Usage is restricted for educational, non-commercial purposes only. For other uses, please contact archivist Jason Sarmiento at ajsarmiento@ucdavis.edu


Audio Recording and Transcript




Emilia Tongson


Josel Tongson


E. TONGSON: It is May 28th, 7pm, my name is Emilia Tongson, and for the oral history project in Asian
American Studies 150 at UC Davis, I am interviewing my mother, Josel Tongson, on her experience as a Filipino
immigrant in America. Good evening Mom.
J. TONGSON: Good evening.
[a shift in volume occurs as the recording device is placed closer to the narrator.]
E. TONGSON: When and where were you born?
J. TONGSON: I was born in Manila, Philippines, on April 16
J. TONGSON: 1964.
E. TONGSON: Where were your parents born?
J. TONGSON: My mother was born in Jolo, Sulu, one of the southernmost islands in the Philippines, and my father
was born in Abra, [which is] almost at the northernmost part of the Philippines.
E. TONGSON: Have you been to both of these places?
J. TONGSON: I actually have never been to my mom’s birthplace, but we’ve been like (sic) to my father’s
birthplace almost every summer growing up.
E. TONGSON: What jobs did your parents do?
J. TONGSON: My father was a lawyer, and my mother was a social worker. My father was at one point very much
involved in politics also; he was a governor of our province, although I hadn’t been born yet during his political
E. TONGSON: What jobs did you grandparents have?
J. TONGSON: As far as I do remember my parents telling me, my maternal grandfather was a pharmacist, although
my mother herself hardly remembers him because my mother was just like (sic) a few months old when her father
died in an accident. But I remember our mother telling us that our maternal grandfather was a pharmacist.
E. TONGSON: So that was your maternal grandfather?
J. TONGSON: He was my maternal grandfather.
E. TONGSON: Do you remember what your maternal grandmother did?
J. TONGSON: I think she was a homemaker. She was a housewife.
E. TONGSON: Do you remember anything about your paternal grandparents?
J. TONGSON: Hardly. I hardly have any memories of them because being one of the youngest in the family, I
don’t think I’ve ever seen them; they had already passed away when I was young, so yeah--that’s about it.
E. TONGSON: How many siblings do you have?
J. TONGSON: I have four brothers, and twelve sisters. [The narrator’s stomach growls, and she looks at the
interviewer embarassingly.]
E. TONGSON: We’ll edit that out. [on the narrator’s stomach growling.]
I came from a relatively big family. Although Filipinos are known to have big families but not as big as ours. And
note that all 17 siblings were born from one just single set of parents (sic). So no half-sisters or no half-brothers.
E. TONGSON: So coming from a notably large family, did you know any other families with just as many siblings
or even more?
J. TONGSON: Not that I know of.
E. TONGSON: In your whole life, in the Philippines and the United States?
J. TONGSON: Nope. I’ve heard of some but I don’t think they came from the same set of parents?
E. TONGSON: Do you have any theories why your parents decided to have a large family? Do you think that there
were any socioeconomic conditions at the time for this to happen?
J. TONGSON: I’m not sure if this is due to socioeconomic factors but I know our eldest was born during the 40s,
so I think that was the second World War, or after the World War.
E. TONGSON: And when was your last sibling born?
J. TONGSON: Our youngest was born in 1967, so between the eldest and the youngest there’s a 23 year gap.
E. TONGSON: Did any of your siblings move to the United States before you?
J. TONGSON: Oh yes definitely. And that’s how we eventually moved here to the United States, because one of
my brothers migrated here—I don’t remember which year—but he settled here in the US, and he eventually
petitioned for my parents, who in turn, petitioned for us.
E. TONGSON: So to be clear, one of your siblings—
J. TONGSON: Was an American citizen. He was an American citizen, and that made him eligible to petition for
our parents, who in turn became immigrants, and eligible to petition us, their children.
E. TONGSON: How did your sibling become a US citizen, do you know?
J. TONGSON: I don’t really know, but I do remember him working for a bank, and he started out in Guam, which
is US territory, and his job got him into different places in the United States as he got promoted, so eventually they
settled in the East Coast.
E. TONGSON: And when you started your process—did you also move to the East Coast?
J. TONGSON: That was our port of entry, the East Coast, so we didn’t come to California immediately—our port
of entry was New Jersey.
E. TONGSON: Why did you decide to move out of the Philippines?
J. TONGSON: It wasn’t actually our decision then; but because we were petitioned by our parents. Their petition
was eventually granted. Since we were still single then, it was not impossible for us to migrate here, as opposed to
my married siblings.
E. TONGSON: So you said that it was not your decision. How did you feel at the time that your parents decided
this for you?
J. TONGSON: I was both excited yet anxious, because we don’t really know what’s in store here, but from stories
and experiences of our fellow Filipinos who migrated to the United States, we actually can tell that there were more
opportunities for them to prosper.
E. TONGSON: What year again exactly did you move out of the Philippines?
J. TONGSON: That was in 1990.
E. TONGSON: Did you move anywhere else before settling in the United States?
J. TONGSON: Nope. I just grew up in the Philippines.
E. TONGSON: To clarify, you grew up in the Philippines, and did not leave the Philippines until 1990?
J. TONGSON: Not to migrate, but I got the chance to visit other Asian countries because of my job. But otherwise
it was only in the United States that I moved to.
E. TONGSON: So you moved to the United States in 1990.
J. TONGSON: Yes I did.
E. TONGSON: How long did you stay?
J. TONGSON: I stayed here for seven years, until I decided to move back to the Philippines to settle down, and
raise my family.
E. TONGSON: What led you to decide to raise your family in the Philippines, as opposed to the United States, in
terms of opportunity?
J. TONGSON: It was a mutual agreement between me and your father, that we raise our kids in the Philippines,
because we wanted you to still grow up knowing who your grandparents are, from both my side and your father’s
side. And at that time also, your father had a steady, booming business, so between the options we had here and the
options we had in the Philippines, we thought it best that we raise you and your sister in the Philippines. We wanted
to make sure that for your first seven years or so, that you grew up with us, you knowing who your grandparents are,
and growing up with your cousins, and learning the culture, until you were old enough to be brought here to the US.
E. TONGSON: So you said that my father had a booming business—where was he exactly, at the time throughout
your immigration timeline?
J. TONGSON: He was actually in the Philippines, never out of the country. He had a build-and-sell business, which
was flourishing then.
E. TONGSON: What was your job before and after migrating?
J. TONGSON: In the Philippines?
E. TONGSON: Yes, what was your job in the Philippines before you arrived in the United States?
J. TONGSON: Immediately after graduation I got a job, and I was in the pharmaceutical industry. I was a
pharmaceutical representative—a medical representative, a sales representative.
E. TONGSON: Did you find yourself doing the same job, or working in the same field after coming to the United
J. TONGSON: Nope. Just like everyone else who migrates to the United States, you have to take on any job, and
start on from whatever job you get into.
E. TONGSON: What was the job that you first got into, upon migrating?
J. TONGSON: My first job was working as a sales associate in Macy’s for a few months, then I moved onto Wells
Fargo bank as a personal assistant, and from then on, I got a job at the county of San Mateo, working as a fiscal
E. TONGSON: Which of these jobs were on the East Coast, and when did you make the move from the East Coast
to the West Coast?
J. TONGSON: I actually didn’t work on the East Coast, because at the time we were just waiting for our social
security card, which was one of the requirements to be eligible for legal employment. So that was our port of entry,
but we only stayed there for a few months, after which as soon as we got our social security card, and we were
eligible for employment, we moved to the West Coast, where my parents were.
E. TONGSON: Where were your parents throughout this whole timeline? Were they already in the United States?
J. TONGSON: Yes, they’ve been in California.
E. TONGSON: Did you have any thoughts about America before moving here, or any expectations, and did they
J. TONGSON: Expectations in terms of travel opportunities. I knew then I shouldn’t be expecting the kind of job
that I had in the Philippines. But I was also very optimistic that I could get into a job with the skill set that I brought
with me because I had a college degree from the Philippines, so I was able to get a job immediately after we moved
E. TONGSON: Do you think that your English speaking abilities affected your opportunities of finding a job here?
J. TONGSON: Definitely. It made us more confident during interviews, it made it easier for us also (sic) to express
ourselves, and I guess some employers know that Filipinos are comfortable with speaking the English language
because back in the Philippines that’s the medium of instruction.
E. TONGSON: Could you talk more about English being the medium of instruction?
J. TONGSON: All throughout my education, and in the Philippines, all subjects are taught in English except for our
subject in Filipino, obviously. But otherwise, all subjects, whether minor or major subjects, are taught in English.
E. TONGSON: If you were taught in English, how did you become bilingual in the process if you spoke English
most of the time? Or, did you speak English most of the time?
J. TONGSON: Well in school, during class hours of course you’re expected to speak English, but during breaks
you would normally speak to your classmates, your schoolmates, in Tagalog, which is the major Filipino dialect.
And at home, we also spoke another dialect, so we were actually speaking two Filipino dialects, and English as well.
E. TONGSON: So you say at home you spoke different dialects?
J. TONGSON: Our parents were not that fluent in Tagalog, but they spoke to us either in English or Ilocano, which
is their original dialect.
E. TONGSON: Did you speak both English and Ilocano still, after moving to the United States?
J. TONGSON: Oh yes definitely.
E. TONGSON: Do you find it difficult to communicate or to relate after moving to the United States, even though
you were proficient in English?
J. TONGSON: Like communicating with your coworkers, is that what you mean?
E. TONGSON: Sure—coworkers, or people who are not immigrants…employers…
J. TONGSON: Just knowing the English language I suppose made it easier for us to communicate with our
coworkers, and getting through the interview process.
E. TONGSON: Did you like working here in the United States, over working in the Philippines?
J. TONGSON: Oh yes. I mean, if I was (sic) looking into long term goals.
E. TONGSON: And what were your long term goals? Do you remember when you first migrated?
J. TONGSON: A long term goal would mean having a stable job, eventually owning a home someday, and being
able to avail of medical benefits on the side, which is something that’s a bit far-fetched in the Philippines.
E. TONGSON: How is it far fetched in the Philippines?
J. TONGSON: Unless you’re born very, very rich, and unless you inherit something from your parents, like a
house, or some other properties, I don’t think it’s that easy for you to eventually own your home in a few years’
E. TONGSON: Did you find yourself owning a home in a few years home after migrating to the United States?
J. TONGSON: I really couldn’t tell because I was only here for seven years until I decided to move back to the
Philippines to settle down.
E. TONGSON: In these seven years, did you stay with family, or did you stay on your own?
J. TONGSON: I was living with my six other siblings, so we were sharing a home. We all chipped in to be able to
pay for the rent and other common expenses, so that was our setup.
E. TONGSON: And where was this home, or did you live in multiple [homes]?
J. TONGSON: In seven years’ time, I think we moved around three times. It was because—not that we were
growing in number—but we were looking for something more comfortable for us as we got better jobs.
E. TONGSON: Throughout your first seven years in the United States, did you and all your siblings live together,
or at some point did any siblings move out, or move back, like you did?
J. TONGSON: Initially, we first lived with my brother and his family, but that [wasn’t] a permanent setup because
[there were] seven of us here, in 1990, so the moment we got ourselves a job, we had to move out of my brother’s
place. So that was probably a couple of months staying with my brother and his family, until my siblings and I were
able to afford a place of our own.
E. TONGSON: After seven years you returned to the Philippines and raised the family. Correct?
J. TONGSON: Yes I did.
E. TONGSON: At what point did you decide to come back to the United States?
J. TONGSON: My husband—your dad and I—decided to move back here when you were old enough—when you
and your younger sister were old enough not to need the care of a babysitter here in the U.S.
E. TONGSON: Did you find the transition easier the second time you returned to the United States?
J. TONGSON: Not easier, because I already had a family to think about. Unlike the first time I moved here—I was
just single then, so everything that I earned was just for myself.
E. TONGSON: I’m guessing you found it more challenging, having to raise two children this time?
J. TONGSON: [It was] more challenging, because I now have a family, but I would say it’s more rewarding as
E. TONGSON: When you came back to the United States, how did you choose where in the United States you
would settle down?
J. TONGSON: I still wanted California, because this is where most of my siblings are.
E. TONGSON: Were you open to other locations?
J. TONGSON: I guess I could have been, if I didn’t have any other option, but obviously California was like our
first choice, and since my family, my siblings, and their families are all settled in California, except for two other
siblings who are in the East Coast, it was a more logical choice and I guess I feel more stable raising my family here
in California.
E. TONGSON: Given the choice, hypothetically, if your siblings were not here before you in the United States,
would you have migrated on your own, or have been the first sibling, out of your family to migrate first?
J. TONGSON: It would probably depend on the circumstances, if I’m offered a good job—a promising one that
would make me financially stable—then I probably wouldn’t have second choices about moving here.
E. TONGSON: When you moved a second time to the US, what location did you end up living in specifically?
J. TONGSON: We’ve always been in South San Francisco. So when we came back here, with you and your sister
and your dad, South San Francisco was still our choice. And we first stayed with my sister, which is a very common
setup among Filipino families—to always accommodate family members, especially during their first few months in
the United States.
E. TONGSON: Did you find that getting a job might be easier, or less challenging after having been in the US
previously for seven years, and then having more work experience in the Philippines after that?
J. TONGSON: I probably would have thought that way, but I guess it didn’t work as expected, because I [was]
away for too long, and 12 years was significantly a long period to be away from work, and out of work in the US. So
when I came back here it was more challenging because I couldn’t go back to my previous work anymore. There
was more competition to start with, because I wasn’t that young anymore and I had a family, so those factors
affected the kind of job I was able to get into.
E. TONGSON: What was the job that you were able to find after moving a second time?
J. TONGSON: I actually worked with a private company, which eventually closed, and then I moved on to working
part-time with a church until I was able to get a full time job with a nonprofit organization.
E. TONGSON: What was your specific position or job at the private company, the church, and then the nonprofit?
J. TONGSON: With the private company I was an office manager, so when the company folded up (sic.) I moved
to a church. The position was part time, working as an office manager also.
And then, when I got myself a full-time job at a nonprofit organization, I worked as a volunteer program manager
and senior program manager. After having worked at a nonprofit agency for five years, I finally decided to move on
and do a career switch. I got myself a job [with] the state, so I’m now a state employee, because with my age, I’m
thinking more of a job that would be more stable and that would offer more benefits such as retirement.
E. TONGSON: Did you find that your academic experience, or going to college in the Philippines helped in finding
any of these jobs in the United States?
J. TONGSON: Yes definitely, although I don’t know to what extent, because I don’t know how I fared compared to
other applicants.
E. TONGSON: What did you study in the Philippines before moving to the US?
J. TONGSON: I earned a degree in Bachelor of Arts, with a major in Philosophy.
E. TONGSON: We’re going to change the subject really quickly—after you moved, did you notice anything
different between first generation immigrants and the Filipino American community?
J. TONGSON: Like I’m a first generation immigrant?(sic)
E. TONGSON: Yes, I think so—I would say, essentially, the difference between the community that was already
formed here after a generation or two, versus the community of those who just moved?
J. TONGSON: Yes. There is. So it kinda (sic) worked both ways. On a positive note, I would say that you felt the
need to belong to a Filipino community for support, for connections, for social interaction, but also—on the other
hand, you kinda (sic) feel different compared with those who have been here for a long time, and you can see how
far they’ve gone and prospered, as opposed to yourself, who is just relatively new here, and career wise, you’re just
starting out.
E. TONGSON: Did you find yourself engaged with any communities, and if so what were they?
J. TONGSON: I’ve always been involved with our church community. So most of the activities that I was involved
in, and most of the Filipinos that I interacted with are the Filipinos in our church community.
E. TONGSON: Were you able to find a similar sense of Filipino community at your jobs?
J. TONGSON: Not really. we didn’t have a big population of Filipinos in my job—not big enough to call a
community, although I had fellow Filipino coworkers.
E. TONGSON: Your job experience has mostly been managerial, correct?
J. TONGSON: Yes, except for my current job now, which is not a managerial position—which is fine with me, it’s
something that I traded with so that I could get benefits—as opposed to a nonprofit, in managerial position, but with
hardly any benefits.
E. TONGSON: And you said you work now with the state, correct?
J. TONGSON: Yes, I work now with the state, as a motor vehicle representative [at the] DMV.
E. TONGSON: Your experience has mostly been in an office setting, correct?
J. TONGSON: Yes, public service, and interaction with people in the community.
E. TONGSON: Do you know of any family members, or any friends who have any connections to the farming
community, or labor, or care taking?
J. TONGSON: None that I know of.
E. TONGSON: Did you know that a significant amount of Filipino laborers in California specifically have been in
the agricultural industry and the service, care taking industry?
J. TONGSON: Like caregivers?
E. TONGSON: Caregivers. Was that common knowledge in the Philippines before immigrating here?
J. TONGSON: I’m not really quite sure, but I know a lot of Filipinos in Hawaii are employed in businesses that are
agricultural in nature.
E. TONGSON: Do you know of any family members or friends who work in the US in the healthcare industry?
J. TONGSON: Yes. My older sister is a nurse, and my younger sister is a dentist. I have another older sister who
works for the Jewish Home for the Elderly. I have another sister in the East coast who also works as a nurse, and one
of my nephews is now a nurse also.
[A pause occurs at this point, to check if the device was recording.]
E. TONGSON: The time is now 7:39, and the interview has ended. Thank you mom, for having this interview with
me, and that’s it, thank you, the end of the interview.
Interview Finding Guide for Oral History of Josel Tongson
Early life and family history. Family and New Jersey as an entrypoint during migration.
Migration, working in the U.S., long term family decisions and settling down, language at home, and social
implications of migration.
Going from East to West Coast, living with siblings in the U.S., moving back to the Philippines after years of
migration, employment history, moving back to the U.S. after raising a family.
Finding community, struggle to find employment, family members in healthcare

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Date Added
February 9, 2021
Filipino Immigrant Oral History Project
Item Type
Oral History
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“Oral History Interview with Josel Tongson,” Welga Archive - Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies, accessed October 16, 2021, https://welgadigitalarchive.omeka.net/items/show/711.