The Conundrum Of Being Filipino-American

Updated: Feb 8, 2020

I first knew I was different when I was playing on a jungle gym with a blonde-haired boy, Andrew. I was six or seven. I remember his blue eyes staring at me asking me why my nose was like that. He gestured using his finger to flatten his nose. I felt a new pain in my stomach. It was the first time I was introduced to the shame of being different, but more importantly, not being white.

I felt like I couldn’t go to my parents with my confusion. As a first-generation Filipino, I knew even at this age, my immigrant parents had their own troubles navigating this society. I believed that I had to handle this on my own and ultimately internalize it for years.

Obviously, Filipino parenting was different in comparison to my non-Filipino friends. My parents were providers in the straight forward sense of the word. A roof over our heads, Lechon on the table, helping us apply to college. Unfortunately, there was limited emotional support. I don’t blame them, how could I when their world was so different from mine. I could never talk to my mother about boys or body shame. Their answers were typically centered around religion, or to pray. In this confusing time, I asked them what was I, Filipino or American? They said I was American. But I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I didn’t feel American. I didn’t feel like I looked American.

Since then, I grew up thinking that in order to be accepted I had to fit in. And that first meant to be disconnected from the heritage I came from and acclimate as much as possible to our white overlords (I'm being facetious, but in this Trump-era time we are in, am I that wrong?).

Having the gift of hindsight, I’m able to see now how confusing it was. Everything around me, media, my school, advertisings, never showed minorities, let alone Filipinos. We were subconsciously and consciously told we were less than. And the accepted few minorities that could be ‘seen’ were the ones with the most caucasian features (ie. Halle Barry).

We need expanders, people we relate to, with the same voices and faces, to prove that we too can rise. The ones who go down an unknown path then come back to show us how to get there. This caused me to wonder, in this day and age of more openness and diversity, where are all the Filipinos? Why are we invisible?

Filipino-Americans have the highest rates of assimilation to American culture, we are the second largest Asian-American demographic, second only to the Chinese. After English and Spanish, Tagalog, our main language, is the most spoken language in California. California, if separated from the US, is the 5th largest economy in the world. So why, to this day, there isn’t a full-blooded Filipino politician or entertainer or mogul that I know of? Ok fine, one, the lead singer of Journey.

What’s puzzling is that, culturally, we are entertainers. We sing we dance. Fucking well. We are your cover bands, doing it even better than the original bands. We win Miss Universe, multiple times. We are the first product of hybrid colonization, Spanish plus Asian. We are firey but also loving. We are natural caretakers. We are born with empathy in our blood. How in a time, where we need more empathy than ever, why are we are sitting back? And our food? We take the pork thing to a whole new level, even Anthony Bourdin thought so.

I believe the answer boils down to many variables, but here's a few:

Colonization runs deep.

Being colonized for 300 years by the Spanish can build unhealthy DNA that’s past down. “Yes, sir” mentality.

We’re too nice.

Our kind nature can be to a fault. We are island people and easy, so it left us vulnerable to be conquered by everyone. Spain, Japan, China, America. And we then take on their culture forgetting our own. We aren’t wired to advocate what we actually want but to be submissive to others.

Our Asian programming.

Generalizing here, but Asians on the spectrum of bold and assertiveness to more meek, fit on the latter side. We veer towards shyness and agreeable. It’s a beautiful characteristic, but tough in a fast-paced global society where, unfortunately, aggressiveness still wins and limits are abilities to get ahead.

Survival vs. Thriving

Our culture is far from the American dream ‘if we dream it we can do it’. Our immigrant parents taught us to navigate this world by surviving not thriving.

From Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, there are two parenting styles: Concerted Cultivation and Natural Growth. Concerted Cultivation is when a parent’s attempt to nurture a child’s individual talents by organizing activities and incorporating support of being an individual. These parents start to encourage their children to develop reasoning skills and asking questions in order to advocate for their needs. Natural growth, on the other hand, parents typically are working and doesn’t schedule a time for their children’s cultivation, promoting their talents and interests. They are taught to follow commands without negotiation which follows us until adulthood when dealing with authority figures, we are more quiet and inactive, not asking questions, but obeying. Most of us were wired to work hard, not focus on our interests and talents, but to take a straight line of “success,” a safe job that is steady and consistent. Is this the real reason why we are all nurses?

Filipinos are known for working hard, being some of the most hospitable people on the planet, and value family and community. I think of my friends, family, the way I was raised, and I’m proud. But it’s my own responsibility to break the pattern of hiding. To not fall on the inherited DNA I was handed from my cultural background or from society, but hold a vision for myself, trust who I am, and have the courage to stand up. This world doesn’t benefit from anyone staying small.

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