Note: I promised myself to write something every week, but I’ve struggled with this post. Whenever I try and write something easier, this looms in my head. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining or looking for sympathy or anything. I just needed to write this internal struggle with myself to maybe gain some… clarity? insight? focus? direction?
Filipino. Most the time that’s the box I check off when I fill out forms when the ask for ethnicity. Sometimes I’ll check off “Pacific Islander” if “Filipino” isn’t an option. Sometimes when I get in my head about the definition of what race is and ethnocentrism and I’ll check off “Other,” I feel like I’m stickin’ it to the man. I assume a lot of people who were born to immigrant parents, or perhaps moved here when they were really young may pause when they have to fill out these forms because it’s not quite right. Sometimes “Filipino-American” is an option, but more times than not, the option is just “Filipino.”
I have this vivid memory from my first visit to the Philippines. I was probably about four or five when my parents took my sister and I on our first trip to visit family. Like a lot of memories are from when you’re five, a lot of it is a haze. We might have been to Aritao, in Nueva Vizcaya, where my mother grew up, we might have been to Maasin in Ilolio where my dad grew up… or was it Manila or did we go to all of them? When I try and think back on the trip, all I get are flashes of family, dirt floors, playing in mosquito nets, the heat and the joy of lying on the floor watching the lizards chasing each other on the ceilings.
But I do I remember waking up one morning and an uncle coming up to me and trying to speak to me in Tagalog and I couldn’t respond. He repeated something over and over, like repeating it would make it easier for me to understand. I looked around for my mom, not understanding. However, what I could understand was the growing frustration in his face and I remember the shame I felt when he finally switched to English and said “You are not Filipino. You do not speak Tagalog.”
“You are not Filipino.”
I remember going to my mom, burying my face into her and crying. “I don’t speak Tagalog, I need to learn to speak Tagalog.”
My first words were in English and my parents have only ever spoken to me in English. I know a lot of first or second generation friends who have varying levels of speaking their families native language. From being around my Lola and other aunts and uncles and listening to my parents talk to friends and family, I can understand a lot of Tagalog or at least can understand the gist of something said to me. I can most definitely tell when my parents or someone else is talking about me.
I’ve never really prodded them about why they never taught me Tagalog or Ilocano. I suppose they’ve always wanted me to identify as an American first and foremost, which I suppose I do. Whenever I try and speak Tagalog, it’s clumsy, accented and pronunciation isn’t right. It’s embarrassing and I’m uncomfortable and that fact makes me even more uncomfortable. I hear that voice in my head “You’re not Filipino.”
And it’s true. It makes me feel uncomfortable calling myself Filipino. Although I do sometimes call going to the Philippines as “going back home” I know that it’s not really. Sure, I eat Filipino food, I’ve read a bit about Filipino history and keep up with Filipino events and politics. I’ve been to Filipino gatherings and church functions. I get a laugh from watching TFC, the Filipino Channel, but I still find it a lie to call myself Filipino.
But don’t get me wrong. I love that I come from such an interesting and diverse culture. I love that I grew up eating with my hands, using a tabo, eating rice and longganisa for breakfast, having anyone else who was filipino treating me like family, listening to drunken karaoke during family parties. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’m proud of my roots and it’s helped shape the way I see the world but that doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with what it means for my identity and what it means for me living as an American. Going to the Philippines is always a culture shock. Yes, when I’m there, I’m surrounded by people who look like me. It’s not weird to be my height or skin color but I know that I’m spotted right away as being an American. I dress differently, I hold myself up differently and the moment I speak, I know that I’m not the same. I’m the other. I’m American.
Like I said, I’m pretty sure my parents have always wanted me to identify as an American. We don’t talk about it much, but they’ve done so much and left so much back in the Philippines to raise a family in the US. Although I have a lot of cousins here and my parents have always been a part of their local Filipino community, it’s not surprising that I grew up in the minority. The area of South Philly I grew up in was mostly white. In elementary school, I was one of three colored students in my class of thirty, which was actually a high percentage compared to the rest of the school. At that age, looking different from everyone else was enough to make me feel like an outsider. Most of my classmates were pretty friendly and being non-white for the most part wasn’t an issue. But it was surprisingly many of their parents that made me feel like an outsider. I remember a friend’s dad speaking to me as if I didn’t understand English almost every time they had to interact with me. And feeling like an outsider still happens everyday.
There’s nothing that makes you feel less American than someone asking you “Where are you from?” because you really know what they’re asking. They’re not looking for “Oh I moved here from Philly” because sometimes they’ll follow up with “Oh, but I mean where were you born?” And as much as I want to tell them if they want to know the address to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, they can fucking google it, I usually bite my tongue and respond politely, “Philadelphia, but my parents are from the Philippines.” Because your fragility is showing and I don’t want to be it’s target.
Even though I’ve grown up only speaking English, ate my Happy Meals, held my hand to my heart during the Pledge of Allegiance, watched with my classmates when those towers fell, feared for my family members lives who joined the armed forces, paid my taxes and everything else a good goddamn American should do, I still, on the regular hear “Go back to your country.”
“Go back to your country.”
On one hand, there’s all of this struggle in my head about what it means to be both. There’s this deep longing to feel truly accepted here and there’s a lot of anger behind this need to explain and justify that I belong here. There’s this shame that I don’t speak Tagalog and yearning to try and figure out how I can feel more “authentically” Filipino than this sham that I feel like I put on. But I know deep in my heart that I wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s complicated, but I love my Filipino culture. Despite the racism and the worrying political climate, I also love being an American. No way in hell do I want to live any where else. I love this quote from Jose Antonio Vargas about what it means for him to be an American.
To me, what it means to be an American goes beyond your place of birth or the documents you have, back to when throngs of Irish, Italian and Eastern Europeans crossed the Atlantic Ocean in search of a better life, no papers asked. What it means to be an American is less about who you are than what you are about— how you live your life, how you contribute to this country, how you pledge allegiance to a flag hoping and praying it will make room for you. What it means to be an American is in the hearts of the people who, in their struggles and heartaches, in their joys and triumphs, fight for America and fight to be American every day.
There’s so much else I want to say.. But I think I’ll leave it here for now.
Filipino-American. Hyphenated. Not really either and I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be both.