‘My Heritage’ Reading (Using AALR Tarot Deck)

The month of May is both Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM) and Mental Health Awareness Month. What other fitting way is there, to celebrate and engage in these designated themes that perfectly coincide with each other, than to do a tarot reading–using a tarot deck from the Asian American Literary Review. 

The AALR Tarot Deck is part of the organization’s project called Open in Emergency: A Special Issue on Asian American Mental Health. The project re-centers the APIA community in the discussion and narrative of mental health, using art-based methods and approaches to focus on the hidden aspects of our individual and collective psyche, connected to our identity and heritage, that medical psychology fails to excavate. (In no way am I denouncing medicine or institutional healthcare–these are necessities that every person has a right to have, regardless of financial status or having any pre-existing condition–but I am referring to how, even with advanced medicine, the problems that are deeply rooted in our cultural heritage and lineage cannot be easily treated with it.)

The 22-card tarot deck features original art and text, in collaboration with artists, writers, and poets, to craft a “self-care package” that helps to unpack the depths of APIA trauma and wellness through tarot reading. What makes this tarot deck special is that it is modeled after the Major Arcana of a traditional tarot deck, but replaces the traditional archetypes with “figures drawn from Asian American life”.


Original Tarot Spread: ‘My Heritage’

To gain the full experience of using the tarot deck, I developed an original spread that touches on “the Asian American life”, utilizing the images and texts provided on the cards. I modeled the spread after the Celtic Cross (a commonly used tarot spread) and the “Isang Araw at Tatlong Bituin” (One Sun and Three Stars) of the Philippines flag.

Before I break down the steps of reading this spread, I would like to note that this is something that I developed for my Self, in relation to my Asian American identity. In using this spread with this particular deck, I find that I am able to delve deeper into my own Self and explore areas of my heritage that I have yet to understand and to come to terms with. However, that does not mean I do not welcome others to try this spread for themselves; I invite you to utilize this spread in your own excavation of the Self. I ask that you give respect to something I created by giving credit where it is due, should you feel compelled to use this spread in the readings of others. Thank you for your consideration; and now, here is the breakdown.

Components of the Spread:

  • The Querent (middle card/sun’s face) — Drawing from the Celtic Cross, the first card symbolizes the person in question. The middle card essentially asks, “Who am I?” The question can refer to the Current Self, the Overall Self, the ‘True’ Self, etc. This is the most important card of the spread because it represents the beginning of one’s self-discovery into their heritage.
  • (Key) Aspects of Self (circle of 8 cards/sun’s rays) — The eight cards that surround the middle card symbolize “key” aspects of the person in question. I say “key” in quotation marks because these aspects are particular to your Self, in connection to family, community, society, upbringing, mentality, attitude, and all other things that shape the Self. These “key” aspects are broken down further into three categories:
    1) Crown — Drawing from the Celtic Cross, the crown card(s) symbolize your hopes, strengths, influences, and aspirations. These cards show the parts of your Self that you are most proud of or most open about.
    2) Shadow — Drawing from the Celtic Cross, the shadow card(s) symbolize the hidden parts of your Self that you have yet to confront or acknowledge. Typically, this would refer to your subconscious; whatever lies beneath the surface is something that might hinder your Self from progressing or moving forward. These cards represent the things that you will have to face.
    3) Clutch — Drawing from two of the cards in the Celtic Cross (i.e., “Approaches” and “Environment”), the clutch card(s) symbolize the significant features in your life that will help you to become a better version of your Self. The clutch also represents what motivates or encourages you to go deeper into your Self, so that you may find healing, inspiration, or a new outlook or approach that will assist you to move on to the next step.
  • The Path(s) Ahead (draw of 3 cards/the stars) — Drawing from the final card in the Celtic Cross (i.e., “Outcome”), the star cards symbolize what lies ahead in the journey of the person in question. Much like the stars above us that help us find our direction, in times when we are lost, these cards represent signs that one should keep in mind while moving forward in the search for ‘future’ Self. They can be foreboding symbols or warnings, but they can also be glimpses of future accomplishments. Whatever the star cards seem to say, they give assurance that the path ahead will definitely be essential to developing and healing the Self from past traumas, disappointments, and downfalls.

In my personal experience with tarot reading, I have discovered interesting things about myself, ranging from concerns of the moment, future worries, and curious inquiries. Though, I should disclose that I am still an amateur in tarot (give or take, 3 years of experience; 7 years of interest). Nonetheless, developing this tarot spread (and using a specific tarot deck inspired by the Asian American life) that connects to my Asian American Self, has helped me to consider where I am in my journey of Self and how I am unpacking the unspoken parts of my own Asian American life.

Before I explain my personal “Heritage” reading, I would like to offer tips that I have learned along the way, on how to get the most out of any tarot reading:

  • Follow your intuition. This is the most commonly given advice, when it comes to tarot reading. To listen to your intuition, you must breathe. Take a few breaths; focus on your breathing, which will help you clear your mind. Use as much time as you need to dispel any distracting thoughts so that you can feel like you are in the right headspace for the reading. Instead of ‘thinking’ of what cards to select, try ‘feeling’ the cards–allow your hands to hover over the cards, go with your gut feeling, and you will see that the cards you chose ‘on intuition’ are the ones that relate the most to you.
  • Use a ‘focal piece’ to enhance your reading. If you have trouble with clearing your mind of distracting thoughts, include an object that can help center your mind in occupying the space. The object can be (but not limited to): a crystal or a stone, a personal good luck charm, a totem that holds symbolic meaning, etc. If the breathing thing isn’t enough, then hold the object in your hands and concentrate on its solidness, texture, shape, temperature, or whatever. Close your eyes and try to “see” the object in your mind; let it be the only image to occupy your mind, then imagine it in the space with you. Place the object down (or continue to hold it), then proceed to choose your cards.
  • Mix up the deck in whatever way you like. Tarot cards have a significant purpose, but they are still a deck of cards. You can shuffle them, cut the deck into numerous piles, throw them in the air and collect them altogether, etc. The point is that there is no special or rigid way to mix up the cards, when you do a reading; just make sure that the cards are randomized. (Be careful not to lose any from the deck, should you throw them in the air…)

My Personal “Heritage” Reading

Please refer to the image below, as I explain the components of my personal tarot reading. Interpretations are my own. The quoted and italicized descriptions of each card derive from the text included on the back. All credit is given to the authors of the work.

Total number of cards shown in this spread: 12. | I positioned the cards this way, in random order, based on my intuition. | The upper 3 cards are “star cards”–please read below regarding their position in this reading.

The Querent (middle card): #18, “The Prisoner” [Figure wearing an orange jumpsuit and a pair of handcuffs, with a wall that suggests being inside a prison cell.]

“Who Am I?” — I am a “prisoner” of a colonized heritage. I am the descendant of other colonized prisoners that were forced to adapt the culture, the speech, the beliefs, and the attitudes of the colonizers. I have been removed from my mother culture, due to the circumstances of migration before my birth, assimilation into the dominant, Americanized culture since childhood, and internalization of walang hiya into my adulthood. But I do not see myself as someone serving a life sentence of shame, anger, and hatred of my heritage. Rather, I am in the process of jailbreaking–otherwise known as “decolonization” by my mentors. I “impart visibility to those wanting to be seen” because we have been “invisible to mainstream society” for far too long and “often stigmatized within Asian American communities” for far too much. In my position, I have the ability, the resources, and the courage to break free from my colonized imprisonment. But I am not just breaking myself out; I am also setting free the ones that came before me and have longed to see beyond the bars.

“Key Aspects” of My Self — Crown Cards (top inner circle, from left to right):

  • #7, “The Foreigner” [Monochrome image of three persons standing in single file, with the word “FOREVER” below their feet and a map of Asia and North America in the background.]
    I was born and raised an American. But my face, my hair, my skin color, my speech, my mannerisms, suggest “foreigner”. I carry my heritage on my body, in my throat, in my actions, with pride–but I also run the risk of being chastised for doing so. No matter how well I can speak English, how much education I have received in this country, how familiar I am with American popular culture–I will always be seen as a “foreigner” in a land that I have spent my entire life in. Even in the Philippines, my Motherland, I am also seen as a “foreigner” because of my light skin (compared to other kababayans), my American idioms and attitude, my lack of Tagalog or Bicolano. No matter where I place myself, I will always feel like a “foreigner”. However, I refuse to feel ashamed about it because being a “foreigner” means having the “opportunity to redefine myself,” to understand the intersections of my being. I have “a desire to define myself as opposed to being defined by others” because I know what connects me to my heritage, to my nationality, to my pride as a human being.
  • #14, “The Survivor” [Shadowy figure, with an overlay of black birds and a gray overcast in the background.]
    You’ve been through so much already. The situation at hand may seem impossible, but you have the ability to transform it to conspire in your favor. Now is the time to reap the fruits of your emotional labor. It is time to walk away from the shackling hands of the past. Your pain isn’t your identity, but a vestige of you as a victim. You carry the memories and histories of your people–they survived too.
  • #5, “The Mother” [Image of a woman holding a small child in her lap, against a yellow-pink-blue landscape containing a volcano and a mountain in the background.]
    The mother is the key to mastery of one’s past in order to learn from it. See history, search origins. In the present and for the future, the Mother reminds us to examine both our purpose for doing things and the value of what we birth into the world…My mother is a raised Pinay, raising her Pinay daughter to rise up. I thank her to no end for that.

“Key Aspects” of My Self — Shadow Cards (bottom inner circle, from left to right; my apologies for placing them upside down):

  • #15, “The Daughter” [A young woman stands barefoot on a pink sandy beach, underneath a purple night sky and a moon that watches her from above.]
    I am not as wise as my mother, but I do not like to admit that at times. That is quite characteristic of children that want to prove that they know more than their parents will openly acknowledge. But it is particularly characteristic in Asian families, where the children are taught humble themselves and show respect and honor to their elders. I was raised to be that way, especially because I am a girl, and girls should be more “quiet,” “polite,” and “ladylike”. But as I come into my adulthood and become a woman, within me is a monsoon whose tidal waves will crash onto the shore and slowly flood the lands. “The power flowing through the Daughter is oceanic, the rupture of pillow lava on the sea floor.” I come with questions, concerns, diagrams, sketches, unfinished stories, all because I demand to know more about my heritage. There is so much that I want to know, but as a daughter and a child of my parents, I must remember to remain humble and patient; the answers will unfold in time because the ocean is vast and beautiful.
  • #13, “The Lecher” [Blurred black-and-white photograph of a family, with a triangular portrait of a blurred face–presumably a man–positioned at the center.]
    I fear judgment. I fear that, even as I focus my energies on healing from trauma and anxiety, I am taking longer than I should to get anything done. I fear the eyes that I cannot see but feel their presence when I move, breathe, eat, walk. The eyes have voices that say “It is all your fault,” “Why did you let yourself become like this?” “How come you are so far behind your peers?” and so on… Maybe I am not the dalagang Pilipina that everyone believed me to be. My womanhood is always being compromised because I am torn between ‘holding my own’ and ‘being careful to not invite any lecherous misgivings’. My own womanhood, still at its early stages, has been treated as a space of negotiation, never as a fortress of my own ruling and dictation. But I must remember to “Care for the Survivor,” for she has endured so much in fighting many battles. She fiercely defended her territory from trespassers that attempted to claim spaces that do not belong to them. The Lecher has no power over me.
  • #22, “The Devil” [A creature with bat wings, ram horns, and a horrific-looking face expressing anger, sitting on top of a pile of bones and in front of flames.]
    When you draw the Devil in a reading, ask yourself what delusions you are clinging to and how they deny full personhood for yourself and others. The Devil reminds you to look at your own agency; not everything is out of your control.
    I continue to struggle in my decolonization process–sometimes, I cannot break free from certain attitudes or behaviors because they are connected to a baseless pride. I try to feel kapwa and extend my humanity to others, but there are times when I do not want to connect with others. I remain selfish and deny others of their redemption. I want to remain faithful to the Divine, but there will be times when I feel my connection has been broken or muted. I will feel that I have strayed from the path… and that is how I know “the devil” is at work. I remember how I am a “Prisoner,” but never to the devil; I have the ability to break free from delusions. By freeing myself, I am also freeing others. The Devil has not power over us.

“Key Aspects” of My Self — Clutch Cards (to the left and right of middle card):

  • #11, “The Shopkeeper” [Man stands behind a counter of merchandise, holding a price sticker gun and a large broom in his hands.]
    This card is often associated with community, which is a necessary and honest indicator of how bad things are, while also an example of the redemption in small talk, lottery tickets, and cold beverages.
    The community that I belong to is the one that has shaped my life. As a grown individual, I have come to realize certain aspects of my community that I do not feel proud of–the legacy of colonial mentality that has forced us to compete against each other, to internalize shame of not being “American enough” or being “too much like from the province,” and passing down those “values” to future generations. It pains me to witness this and not have the courage to speak up… But I also have hope for the community, in its way of gathering people into a communal space and remind each other of the homeland. My community revels in food, music, and dance that have traveled across the globe. My community speaks of nostalgia for the Philippines they left behind years ago. My community raises its children to re-member these things, in hopes that we carry them with us into the future. As part of this community, I hope to capture our essence, our life, our pride, our history in my creative work.
  • #0, “The Ghost” [A sketch of two trees, drawn to be mirror images: the right-side-up image shows a group of people lounging around the tree; the upside-down image shows three figures hanging onto the tree branches.]
    The Ghost is your Ancestor and your shadow. The Ghost is me. Hungry, I am your history. […] Don’t you know I am always walking among you? I made you a person of this land. I make you a person of this land. […] How have the forces of history brought you to this moment?
    My search for answers, for history, for ancestry will guide me to the greatest self-discovery, that which will set us free. 

The Path Ahead (Star Cards)

Initially, I was going to form these three cards into a triangle around the inner circle, in order to replicate the position of the Tatlong Bituin on the Philippines flag (when hanging from its side). But when I read the text of each card, I felt compelled to put them together, in the order that they were drawn from the deck:

  • #10, “The Farmer” [A sketch of a human figure in workers’ clothes, holding a shovel and a coolie hat in their hands, with a stance of pride from doing hard work.]
  • #12, “The Adoptee” [A small shadow figure of a child walking among a torn government-issued document–presumably an adoption notice–underneath a dark night sky with a full moon.]
  • #9, “The Ancestor” [A sepia filtered portrait of an elderly woman with a small child next to her–presumably her grandchild–with a red human heart at the bottom of the portrait and blue birds at the top of the portrait.]

These three cards are connected to the Querent card, in that I am in search of knowledge to set my colonized Self free. The Farmer “is an observer of both micro and macro shifts in energy, and imparts her wisdom to those willing to put in sweat equity and passionate about growth and change.” The Adoptee “urges you to examine inheritance, and how someone else has brought you to what you think is yourself.” The Ancestor “symbolizes the chiasmus one tends to make between past and present when one makes sense of history.” Like the Adoptee, I attempt to piece together the sparse histories of my personal past, my familial past, and my collective past–all of which give me a sense of who I am and where my lineage and heritage come from. I look to the Ancestor, whom I barely know and have never met, but serves as my guiding light into the rich history of my people. And in order to do all that, I must be like the Farmer and develop the skills that will enable me to dig, to plant, and to cultivate all of the stories that I wish to rise up from the earth.

Through this ‘Heritage’ reading, I gained a better idea of where I am right now. I continue to do research on my personal history, which extends to the history of my family and of the Philippines, through migration, displacement, and inheritance. I am where I want to be, especially as a writer; through engagements with other individuals in their decolonization process or with groups that care deeply about APIA-specific issues, I feel more inspired and encouraged to continue the work.

The development and the reading of this tarot spread would not have been made possible without the incredible work by The AALR and their collaborators.

I especially would like to thank the authors of the text for the Major Arcana that appear in this reading (in order of card appearance): Margaret Rhee, Konrad Ng, Tanwi Nandini Islam, Maya Soetoro-Ng, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Mimi Khúc & Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, Sharon Suh, Brandom Som, Shawna Yang Ryan, Simi Kang, Matthew Salesses, and Gerald Maa. I am also thankful for the other authors that make up this deck; without your beautiful words and images, I would not be able to understand other aspects of myself.

A special and eternal thanks to my Sister, Jana Lynne Umipig, for introducing me to decolonization over a year ago, through Raised Pinay, which is more of a mesmerizing journey to discovering my ‘true’ Self than a concept. You, and our Sisters, came at a necessary point in my life where I needed direction, only to realize that there were stars above me.

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