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.