Azi Jao is a sophomore at Oakland High School and a producer at Youth Beat, a nonprofit organization that teaches digital media skills and provides job training to teens in Oakland. Jao’s story is the first in a series of youth perspectives produced by Youth Beat members that The Oaklandside will publish in the coming weeks and months. Jao’s video was created as part of the short documentary, “Of Oakland,” a Youth Beat student film that explores how empathy exists within different spaces and communities of Oakland. You can RSVP to see the film in its entirety at Creating In Place: Take 2, Youth Beat’s virtual screening party and fundraiser on Tuesday, May 18.

For the first years of my life, my cultural identity revolved around my home country, the Philippines. I grew up eating rice with everything and was taught to always use “po” and “opo” every time I visit my lolos and lolas (my grandparents). 

But we were different from your average Filipino Christian household.

This story is part of Amplify Oakland, our series of first-person stories shared by Oaklanders in their own words.

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Amplify Oakland is supported by a grant from Akonadi Foundation.

We never did the sign of the cross. We never had religious relics or rosaries. We believe in God and are still considered Christians, just a different kind: the kind where women are not allowed to cut their hair because it is considered a cloak, the kind to never wear jewelry, never wear makeup, and always dress modestly. I always thought that I was bound to marry a man when I’m older.

My beliefs were limited—until I moved to Oakland. 

My first day of elementary school, I was shocked. I saw a lot of students and teachers who had different skin colors, and I asked so many questions during my first months there. I vividly remember asking a girl how she combs her hair, but she just laughed and said, “Obviously, with a comb!” 

I was introduced to the internet when my lolo bought us a laptop. From there, I started to learn different things about the world.

Now fast forward to 2021: The girl who thought that she would marry a man and be devoted to God is now queer, and has a questionable relationship with him. I always knew I liked people other than the opposite sex. But I didn’t even know that the LGBTQ+ movement was a thing, before I moved to Oakland. 

You adopt things when you live in a different place, even for a year:

I remember I used to have a so-called foreign accent, but now I have an American accent. 

I started skating because I like seeing the people who cruise around my neighborhood and I thought, “That looks cool” and “I want to try that!” 

I became obsessed with books because the library is literally less than a mile from my house. 

I became aware of different music because of the music I hear when I’m out. 

And I was able to form my own beliefs and values from hearing other people’s experiences and seeing them—and of course, from my own personal experiences.

I have other parts of me that I didn’t even know existed because they were hidden, and so pushed back by my old beliefs. But Oakland reached deep inside me and brought that out—and that’s why I love Oakland.

Azi Jao

Azi Jao is a student at Oakland High School, and a digital media producer at Youth Beat.