Skip to main content

The Identity Crisis of a Filipino American

As most of you know, my parents were born and raised in the Philippines then migrated with my two older sisters to the US when my sisters were around 3 or 4 years old. My older brother and I were born in Brooklyn, NY and raised in Piscataway, NJ. My brother says he has some memories of Brooklyn, but I have none whatsoever, (but I still claim to be from Brooklyn if I want to sound tough to the kids that I speak to in New York). So growing up, I was exposed to some aspects of Filipino culture, and of course a lot of American culture. Does this make me a 3rd culture kid?

When you’re young, you can’t tell what’s Filipino and what’s American, and you just feel like a weirdo around everyone, except maybe some of your other Filipino-American friends, who might be going through the same confusion. It took me a while, but I came to the realization that Filipino-American is its own culture. I think it’s a pretty common experience for Filipino Americans to eat at a white person’s house for the first time and be totally confused by everything. Uhh, did you run out of spoons? Where’s the rice? You just grow up thinking that everyone eats with a spoon and everyone eats rice with every meal (except cereal and spaghetti).

When people would ask me where I’m from, I would panic. This is where the identity crisis began for me. My heart would race, and my palms would get all sweaty. It seems like such an easy question, but I honestly had no idea how to answer. Do I say I’m from the Philippines? I had never been there before, so I didn’t feel comfortable saying that. Do I say I’m American? Then why do I look Asian? Do I tell them where I was born? Do I give them my address? Yeah.. no. That’s just weird.

So in Kindergarten and First grade, when someone asked me where I was from, I’d just get all awkward, my face would turn pink, tears would well up in my eyes… and then the other person would probably think I was mentally disabled and move on with his or her life. I never really had to answer the question because people got bored waiting for an answer, or would come up with their own answer and I would just agree. I started experimenting, and when I got older I found out the best way would be to answer be to have the questioner clarify the question a bit, “You mean like where I grew up? In Piscataway” or “Like, my ethnicity? Well, I’ve got Filipino blood.”

I wonder if other Filipino-Americans went through this mini identity crisis.

I spent a good portion of my life trying to be Filipino. At least where I’m from, there was a lot of “Filipino Pride.” Filipino-Americans would flash the colors of the flag. They would know their 5 or 6 Tagalog phrases that would impress the Titas and Titos. Ako ay Pilipino! And then the few words that would make the other Filipino-Americans laugh, which usually included profanity. They would have those 1 or 2 Tagalog songs that they knew every word to that they could sing at parties, but normally didn’t know the meaning of the song. They would have their Barkadas, which were normally made up of all the other Filipino-Americans in the neighborhood. They would go crazy when someone would make a Filipino parody of some popular mainstream song like The Barong Song (instead of the Thong Song) or The Real Filipino (instead of The Real Slim Shady).

Or maybe I was the only one who did all that. No, it wasn’t just me. I had to emulating somebody.

But yeah, I jumped on that bandwagon. I had a huge Filipino flag in my room at one point. I knew how to count to like… 4 in Tagalog. I could sing “Nandito ako” like it was my national anthem. I knew I was supposed be proud of Lea Salonga and have a crush on Dante Bosco, and laugh really hard at every joke by Rex Navarette. And rejoice when Miss Philippines ever came close to winning anything. I knew I was supposed to get excited about joining the Filipino Parade in Jersey City (even though I hated it). I was supposed to get excited about buko pandan and halo-halo. I was supposed to gross out white people by talking about balut (even though I had never had it before). And I was supposed to know how to dance the Tinikling, well I only really did the basic step (but I did that basic step loudly and proudly). I even went to Filipino Mass every fourth Sunday of the month and thought it was crazy when people just stampeded up to received communion instead of filing in pew by pew.

But when it came down to it, I hadn’t the slightest idea of what it was really like in the Philippines. All that I just mentioned, that’s not Filipino culture, it’s Filipino American culture. It seemed to me that being Filipino-American meant knowing a bunch of buzz words that would impress people and trick them into thinking that you know Filipino culture. “Lea Salonga” “Balut” “Halo-halo” “Barong” to name a few. Oh, and “Jolibee.” (I used to get really excited about Jolibee, until I found out it was just a fast food restaurant. Why did I get excited? I don’t know, because everyone else did.)

At a certain age, I don’t remember when, but I became tired of trying to be Filipino. I’m not gonna lie, it was a relief. Trying to be Filipino was hard work! I was really bad at it anyway. I shouldn’t have to try to be Filipino, it’s supposed to come naturally. And if it’s not coming naturally, then maybe I’m just not Filipino. So, I stopped calling myself Filipino. Whenever anyone asked me where I’m from, I’d say, “I was born in Brooklyn and raised in New Jersey. Oh, my parents are from the Philippines, but I’m American. I’ve never been to the Philippines before (or later, I started saying, I’ve only been there once on vacation). No, I don’t speak Tagalog, but I’ve met the minimum requirements of counting to apat and I know all the words to Nandito Ako, but that’s all I got.”

Today, even though I’ve fallen in love with this country and I’ve learned a LOT more about true Filipino culture, I still don’t consider myself Filipino. I act offended when someone thinks I’m Malaysian, Japanese or Korean. (Then I question if the person who thinks I’m Korean or Japanese has actually seen a Korean or Japanese person before because there’s nothing Korean or Japanese about how I look.) But really, I still consider myself a foreigner.

I guess I’ve come to accept that I’m not quite Filipino and I’m not quite American. Or maybe, I’m 100% American and 100% Filipino. No, that sounds way better, but it doesn’t feel as accurate. At the end of the day, I’m Filipino-American. How much of each isn’t important. I live here in Cebu now, and I’m still happily discovering things little by little about Filipino Culture. I’ve spent time in the cities, I’ve spent time in the province, I’ve spent time with typhoon victims, I’ve spent time with the rich, I’ve spent time with the poor, I’ve spent time with elementary students, I’ve spent time with children, I’ve spent time with college students, and with Young Professionals. Each person and place tells a different story about Filipino Culture, and it really opened my eyes to what the Philippines is really all about.

The funny thing is now that I’ve accepted my Filipino-American-ness, I’m again trying to be more Filipino. But now, my reason for it isn’t to find my own identity, but because I want people to be comfortable around me.  (Locals seem to be super shy around foreigners.) I’ll always be Filipino-American, so this whole trying to be Filipino again is probably all in vain, but at least I’m trying!

To all my Fil-Am readers: Please don’t get so caught up in the Fil-Am world. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it isn’t a full picture of what being Filipino really means. Spend some time going deeper than those buzz words and really discover true Filipino culture. It’s beautiful. More beautiful than what Fil-Ams typically think it is. The history, the art, the symbolism, the lifestyle, the values. It’s worth taking the time to appreciate your heritage.


Bulay one day decided to quit her job and move to Cebu, Philippines in order to learn how to love—especially to love the poor. Her main mission is with Pure Heart Philippines, but she's also doing other volunteer stuff while traveling every once in a while and having a ton of fun! Follow me on all my social media outlets: YouTube! Facebook Twitter Instagram Tumblr

6 thoughts on “The Identity Crisis of a Filipino American

  1. Hey Maria you don’t know me but I’m also a Filipino-American living in the Philippines. I read alot of your posts and I can relate so much to your experiences. It has been tough adjusting to the Filipino culture because I also speak very little Tagalog but reading your site has helped me get some new perspective on things. I just wanted to say thankyou for sharing your experiences and I hope you continue to update this site.

    1. Hey there, I’m just going through my comments now. It’s great to know others can relate out there. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Hey Maria,
    I was browsing through different articles on filipino identity crisis and stumbled across your post. I can definitely relate to your experiences of filipino pride and being a filipino american. I thought I’d share my experiences too.I too am a filipino american, with first generation parents. My father is from manila and my mother is from a province up north. Although I can’t speak tagalog, my parents raised me in light of filipino culture and tradition. I’ve been to the Philippines many times and traveled to manila and the province. Of course, my perspective changed when I visited there when I was 21 compared to when I was in late elementary school.
    Being a filipino american here in new york city has lead me to realize the definite identity crisis or the divide between inherently traditional filipinos and basic filipino-american culture. “Trying” to be Filipino is a problem itself, and you are right in saying that being a filipino should come naturally.
    What I have encountered in my years growing up is the push of the tradition from first gen immigrant parents to their children. Adhering strictly to filipino values and customs. Of course when I visited the Philippines all of what I grew up with concerning basic teachings of my parents was the norm. Living in new york city, an area evident of cultural diversity, filipino core values of course aren’t the norm. We are taught at a young age to keep these filipino values and traditions at our core despite the dynamic and multicultural society we live in. However as we get older, our views change and our values and identity of being a true filipino becomes skewed because we live in a multicultural society in which we have to learn how to communicate and live with people of different backgrounds and walks of life.
    In terms of the filipino pride of filipino-american born people, it happens to cause a great divide. Many who are filipino american (born here in america with 1st gen parents) know very little of the culture. Perhaps their parents tried to instill the values but they chose to not delve deeper. They are taught common foods, phrases and gestures, and learn filipino ways through observation of family interaction or visits from relatives. There is a lot here to learn from but one can’t be truly 100% filipino unless they lived a good majority of their life in the Philippines from birth and then migrated.
    On the other end of the spectrum what I have experienced is negativity from pure filipinos; those from the motherland that have migrated here. On many occassions I’ve experienced their criticisms. For one: “You can’t speak tagalog? (Insert ‘nosebleed’ rant here’), you’re not filipino.” In my defense, my family speaks one dialect at home but tagalog to their other friends and co-workers. Their co-workers would even speak a different dialect in the workplace.
    These kinds of filipinos tend to be very judgmental as well and dismiss any kind of idea of accepting a filipino american as a ‘fellow’ filipino; but rather filipino americans just victims to the ‘american way’. I think they should broaden their perspective a bit and introspect. The philippines was a colonized country first by spain then by america. When you turn on tfc, gma, and the local news channels, the tagalog is not pure tagalog, but parts of english are mixed in. Many of the entertainer’s song picks and way of dressing tends to be american influenced as well. The government was initially established based on an american democratic ways as well. In this sense one may argue what does it really mean to be filipino and what is there to be proud of? I could list many positive things filipinos are well known for such as hard work-ethic, but where is the truly original aspects?
    I’ve had experiences where a filipino would ask me at a party: “oh you know what food this is? this is lumpia, this puto, this is a santo nino, do you know what a novena is?” or would spout different traditional phrases as if I didnt know any of them. On many occasions I had to assert myself saying i know what they’re talking about, how I grew up with them in my household, and how my parents being the first generation immigrants they are, ingrained so much of the culture in me. However, do I fully practice it and show my filipino ways 100%? I’ll admit I do not and living in an area where filipino culture is not the norm to other people, gives many foreign born filipinos a lot of frustration.
    While filipino americans need to be more cognizant of their own culture and lessen being overly prideful, full fledged filipino immigrants need to be cognizant of the multicultural diversity in the states. Broadening one’s perspective is the key to understanding others and increasing one’s wisdom. There is no harm in having filipino values at the core. What I have trouble with is the inability to treat others equally or the have a superiority complex simply because one’s values may be different than their own. The unfortunate truth is because of how prideful of a people we are and how poorly we respond to criticism, it is very difficult to alleviate the altercations between even own people, whether or not they are filipino american or 100% filipino.
    At this point in my life I do not think I can frequent filipino social gatherings or filipino cultural groups as I have done for so many years. The drama and the stress I’ve experienced is too great. In my experience, many of the filipinos I’ve met live with shame and insecurities and find ways to stress those around them. While that is a topic for another day, I’ll have to conclude that I consider myself to be Filipino and American, and I have to agree with you in saying that the percentage of which one does not matter. I think as long as I don’t forget what I was taught from my parents and how I’ve practiced it, then I am satisfied. Trying make other filipinos comfotable around me is a challenge itself and because of my experiences I do not think I could even live in an area heavily saturated with filipino americans. I look forward to more of your blog posts in the future.

    1. Hey there, K! Thanks for leaving a comment! I can relate so much to your story! Isn’t it interesting how different people define “being filipino”? I’ve personally never got the “You’re not filipino if you can’t speak tagalog” thing. However, I’ve met a few people (elderly and in the mountains) who don’t speak Tagalog, just Bisaya. Also, a lot of people here in Cebu prefer English over Tagalog nowadays. So I agree with you that you can’t even define “how filipino” someone is by their proficiency in Tagalog. (I don’t speak Tagalog either in case you were wondering.)

      I totally understand not wanting to go to filipino social gatherings. It came to a point that if I was ever at a social gathering (any social gathering, not just a filipino one) and a Filipino that I didn’t already know walked in, I would avoid him or her at all costs.

      At the end of the day, it seems there’s not much we can do but accept who we are, and accept who everyone else is, where they’re at, and at whatever percentage of whatever culture they are, right?

      Take care! And again, thanks for the comment!

  3. …smaller than 6 degrees of separation. Wow! …i just saw your vlog about Catmon and sister Mila (she could be a relative on the Nuñeza side of my mothers family in Catmon and I definitely know where Lola Coring’s beach is…I still remember her from way back. I say way back ’cause I’m 49 now, we left Cebu when I was in first grade and other than a handful of visits back (relatives passing away) I haven’t been back until December of 2013 (yeah you came before me by 5-6 months! hahaha) although I wasn’t born in the US I can identify with most of the crises you mentioned, my younger sister in Freehold NJ still feels the sting or shame of having the look of a filipina but not being able to respond in kind when asked about her filipina-ness by other filipino immigrants at gatherings and social events (she was 3 or 4 when we immigrated)….so she avoids the situation if possible.
    Anyhew, i was drawn in by the clickbait Ayers lechon and stayed around for the Bulay reveal leveraging a priest and a nun to get your mom to confess hahaha…I swear I saw a viog post detailing the purchase of your moped (motor) but can’t seem to find it now.
    Now living in Sogod where my grandmothers family had ancestral land, close to Catmon…oh and I ran into Brother Clément during the triathlon in Sogod and again at the Ironman in Mactan (assuming you know or work with these brothers?)
    I have a Phantom 4 Pro, intentions of one day capturing my sailing excursions around the islands (once I finished building the sailboat ;P)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *