I want to bring in here a different perspective on growing up, since I was born in the Philippines,, then moved back when I was 14 (after naturalizing in the process, so yes, I am a U.S. citizen), then shuffled between the two countries since then. It might also help that for most of my life there, I didn’t grow up in a predominantly Filipino place; rather, I lived in Pittsburgh, where there are only 1,000 Filipinos in a metropolitan area of two million. I was the only Filipino in my entire school, and only one of six in my school district. (I spent five months in Seattle though, if that’s any consolation.)
I was raised by a Filipina mother and an American stepfather in white neighborhoods, so there was significant pressure to assimilate, even if for the most part the transition came in quite easily. This happens with all families, but there’s a reason why Filipinos are called America’s “invisible minority”, where we’re known for assimilating so well. Sure, my family was an English-speaking family, but I remember a time when we were about to leave for the U.S. that my mom asked my sister and I to “soften” our accents so that we’d sound more “American”, since apparently Filipinos are known for their “harsh” accents. I remember my stepdad telling us to not eat with spoons, since that’s not how Americans eat (though we’d do so when eating Filipino food).
In retrospect, looking at it now, it feels as if I was to be ashamed of being Filipino, and becoming more American ultimately meant being just that. My diet, for one, changed significantly: from rice, we went to bread, except when eating Chinese food or the occasional time we had Filipino food at home. Being transplanted from an environment where everyone was bilingual (or trilingual in school) to where everyone only spoke English meant I started forgetting my Tagalog/Filipino and Chinese (a mistake my mom now regrets, since now she sees how valuable Chinese is), to the point that whenever I was in the Philippines, my grandmother’s cook would threaten me with a whack to the head with a coconut if I even dared to speak to her in English. I had to get used to using seatbelts regardless of where in the car I sat, which is the complete antithesis of riding in a Filipino car. I found it simply astounding that in school, no one wore uniforms, and it was liberating to choose what I wanted to wear.
Whenever we’d visit family, it’s almost always the white side (a.k.a. my stepdad’s side). Normally, my interactions with my Filipino relatives are limited only to the summer, either when I’m physically there (a hard feat since, well, everyone’s in school during the American summer, and it’s always wet) or when I’m with family members. But even those change as well: I was losing track of all the titosand titas I’d used to see back in the Philippines. I was speaking more English because my Tagalog couldn’t cope. I was, in a sense, becoming the other.
Being a Filipino sometimes has its advantages, though. In the fourth grade, I was able to scare off a bunch of fifth graders by counting from 1-10 in Tagalog. I breezed through Spanish class with no sweat because of the rich vocabulary the Spaniards had imparted upon the native language of the Philippines. I was friends with everybody regardless of color. My teachers, the guidance counselors, the school librarian and even the secretaries took a strong fascination in my country, its people and its culture, and in the process, the more I tried to impart to them that information. I was, for much of my childhood, a walking billboard for the Philippines, and probably even for Asia, since most of my Asian friends (who were either Chinese or Indian) actually were born in the U.S. and spent their entire lives there, unlike me. People were, at least in my part of the world, generally curious about the Philippines — a country they have never encountered before and probably may never encounter — and they wanted to know more. A lot more.
Now, looking at it and having spent a significant period of time outside the United States, I’ve found that being a Filipino in the United States was a very liberating — if not surreal — experience. It gave me the chance to find myself, my place in American society, and in the process build bridges that I certainly hope will stand the test of time. I’m grateful, and always have been, for the opportunities I had and received while there. But at the same time, as an immigrant, you will always feel different. Perhaps this is why today, I’m relieved a bit when I find Filipinos in any country that I visit, if only because I love having a little reminder of home every now and then.
I’ve always been proud of being an American. Like Carlos Bulosan before me, America is in the heart. But at the same time, my heart tells me that I’m Filipino, and I can’t forget that no matter how hard I try. I guess being a first-generation immigrant to America helped me find myself that way.