Happy February, lovelies! it's been a while, but we are very excited for everything we have in store for this semester! With Battle of the Bamboo this month MFAS coming up real soon, we've got a few more roundtables planned that you won't want to miss! In the mean time, here's a rundown of our last roundtable from November surrounding the topic of how our cultural heritage plays a role in shaping our Filipinx-American Identity.
With us were Kevonte from Eastern Michigan University and Kevin from Purdue University. During our discussion, we talked about our ethnic backgrounds and how they influence how we identify ourselves.
[Also to explain the cover image – If you're not familiar with the show Steven Universe, Lars is a character who was revealed to be of Filipino descent! Like many of us with roots in the Filipinx diaspora, he struggles with expressing his own identity on the show, just like how we all might be looking for the words to describe our own cultural identities.]
First, let's open up the floor. Tell us about your family's story.
KEVONTE WHITE: Both of my parents are African-American and my mom is half Filipino. I grew up in a very ethnic household; we had a traditional Black family.
RIO VILLORIA: What was that like growing up in traditional black household? Knowing that you were part Filipino, do you mind digging a little deeper?
Kevonte: It honestly doesn't seem much different from growing up in your typical minority household. You know, I had strict parents, there was the love of food, love of music. Music food and family are very big in the African American Community. And even though we all have our differences, we always focus on family and being there for each other. I'm very grateful to be able to see both sides of my heritage in that aspect. As a kid, I had a fairly normal childhood; nothing major.
Rio: What did you think about that part of you, and how did that part of your identity affect you growing up?
Kevonte: I did a 23andMe, and it definitely made me want to learn more about my different cultures; the Indian side of me, the Filipino side of me. It wasn't something that I grew up with, but something that I still have to learn. That's what was a bit frustrating to me… When I joined Kapamiliya, I wish I had known more about the organization earlier.
Rio: What types of challenges did you face?
Kevonte: I felt upset that I didn't learn about more about my own culture before I got to this point. But I do feel like I'm reclaiming that now. I keep learning new things; it's just like a whole new culture coming at me, but I'm glad to be learning about it. There are some overlaps between my different cultures; for example
Rio: What other kinds of overlaps do you see between cultures?
Kevonte: I would say that family orientation is very similar. One thing I do know that is common with people of color is that we don't really talk about mental health, particularly Black community. You have to be quiet about it, like it's shunned upon.
SARAH HIDALGO: During the last roundtable, we kind of addressed that, within the typical Filipino household; it's interesting that there's also that same mental health stigma within the African American community as well.
Rio: That's a really interesting things that I'd like to speak more about, but let's move forward and give Kevin a chance to share his story.
KEVIN TEE: I feel like I have a very interesting background as well... So growing up, I always thought "oh I'm Filipino," and then once when I was 10 or 11, my parents were like, "no you're not, you're Chinese". My parents were speaking Tagalog all the time, but culturally, our background is technically Chinese. On both sides of the family, my grandparents were born in China, then they moved to the Philippines. Then my parents were born in the Philippines and they moved to the U.S. So technically we're from China, but It's kind of weird because I always associated more with Filipinos. You know, my parents spoke tagalog in the house, I had ninangs and ninongs who were all Filipino, and we always had Filipino food. I didn't have a lot of Chinese friends in high school, and I hung out with more Filipinos. I also have dual citizenship, so I'm both a Filipino and American citizen. Naturally, I just gravitated more towards being Filipino.
Something interesting that happened more recently... so my mom is actually adopted. and for mother's day, I bought her a 23andMe DNA test as well. It turns out that she's 99.5% Filipino, meaning that I'm pretty much at least half Filipino. One time my mom and I were talking, and I told her that I felt like I was raised more Filipino, and she was like "no you're not", but my uncle sitting next to her said "actually he's right–he grew up in an mostly Filipino environment." My parents grew up in a more Chinese environment, with the buddhist temples and Chinese traditions, although they didn't adhere to them as much.
Rio: How long did your parents keep instilling in you that you were fully Chinese? It seems that you were raised in a mostly Filipino environment, did that just kind of stick with you?
Kevin: It's something that just sort of stuck. Like, why should I try to be Chinese when everything else points that I am more Filipino? We still did some Chinese things though, like celebrate Chinese New Year.
Rio: Why do think your parents wanted you to identify more as Chinese despite you being immersed in a more Filipino environment?
Kevin: I think it's mostly to preserve the culture and they things they grew up with. It's something that eventually I want to do for my children to; have them grow up in an environment similar to what I was raised in and helped me grow as a person. Although my cultural and family values that I was taught were a result of being Filipino, and those are very important to me, and i'm sure it was very important to my parents too. My parents even kept the odd traditions, like never putting chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice because it's bad luck, and wearing red for good luck. Things like that.
Rio: That's really interesting. So your parents were experiencing a diaspora, but they still wanted to preserve their Chinese culture after moving to the Philippines. Was that kind of difficult for you experiencing that growing up, trying to preserve your Chinese culture while being immersed in Filipino culture, then moving to the States as well?
Kevin: I always felt closer to my Filipino culture growing up, my parents didn't really try to immerse me in the Chinese culture a whole lot (mostly just eating the food); but it definitely left me wanting to know more about my Chinese heritage; after I graduate I'm planning on going to China and meeting some of my family there, things like that. I also always try to learn more from my elders, like whenever I go back to the Philippines I try to talk to the about their life growing up and all their traditions, things like that.
Rio: Has not claiming a single cultural identity ever affect your confidence or self-esteem? Did you ever feel like you weren't Chinese enough?
Kevin: Oh yeah, definitely. For a while, before I gave my mom the DNA test, sometimes I felt like I felt like I was kind of fake for trying to be Filipino, because I thought I didn't have the Filipino blood in me. I never felt truly Filipino enough. But then I also never felt like I could truly connect with the Chinese international students at my school either. So it just felt kind of weird to be in between. It wasn't a huge deal for me, but sometimes it was a bit confusing since I don't identify 100% with either culture, but I am starting to learn a bit more about both.
Rio: I think there's a lot of unique experiences between both of your guys' stories; just hearing about the details of your family's histories shows how complicated cultural identity can be. I think one of the beautiful things about being in college is that you're able to broaden your perspective and get more involved in your own respective Filipino organization, and it's a place where you can claim parts of your identity that you weren't comfortable claiming before.
Now we can dive a little deeper on something that connects all of us, which is our identity.
Rio: First off, I'd like to discuss terminology; identity is kind of topic that is up to interpretation - there's folks that want to be called Filipino, and some identify as Filipino-American, and they feel connected to both cultures. Some people like to use the term Filipinx to be more inclusive of different gender identities. What terms do you guys use to describe your identity?
Kevonte: I identity as either Black or African-American. Mainly because It's what I grew up with and how I identified on medical documentation. It can get really confusing, because sometimes I want to put something else down for my race; I'm not just Black or African-American–I'm Filipino, I'm Indian, and I'm Scottish. I have all these ethnicities behind me, but I have to stick with one because that's what I grew up with.
Kevin: I guess I identify as Chinese and Filipino-American because I was used to having those three different cultures growing up. I was fortunate to live in a suburb of L.A., where all the cultures were celebrated, and it made me feel like I didn't have to suppress any part of my identity. I couldn't really get in touch with my Chinese side because there were almost no Chinese people where I lived.
Sarah: For me, I'm full Filipino and raised in the Midwest, so I identify as a Filipino American. It's interesting though because growing up as a Fil-Am in the Midwest is a lot different from growing up on the West and East Coast. Here, Filipinos are less concentrated and you don't really grow up around a lot of them unless you're in the city. So I'd say the environment that I grew up in has a large influence on my identity.
Rio: So I grew up in a suburb outside of D.C. on the East Coast where there is a lot of diversity. I actually did have some Filipino family friends growing up, but it's strange because I never felt truly connected. We would get together and have Filipino parties, but we mostly just connected with food and sometimes church in that aspect. For some reason, I never felt strongly or deeply connected to my Filipino identity. The Filipino kids I grew up with were also very Americanized– we fit in very easily with our peers and were happy to claim our American identities. So I definitely identify as a Filipino- American, although I do want to connect better with my Filipino identity. My family has always been accepting of assimilating ourselves into American culture; I don't see that as an negative thing but It did contribute to me not knowing as much about the Filipino side of me.
Kevin: I actually have family that live in the D.C. suburbs as well. They tend to reject being Filipino, and they'll say things like "oh, I don't like being Filipino", "I'd never date a Filipino", things like that. I think a lot of it has to do with their immediate environment, like where they went to school. Where I went to had a lot of Filipinos around me growing up, and so it was easy for me to accept that part of my identity.
Rio: That's exactly how I felt. I went to a private school, where there was even less diversity than in public schools. It just wasn't the coolest thing to be Filipino; I always felt pretty inferior, and at times I wished I wasn't Filipino. I dealt with a lot of the Asian stereotypes people had which aren't always positive, I did kind of buy into a lot of that, but I never felt bullied for it. It's weird how personally, a lot of it was all in my head, but it still felt very real to me and it affected me a lot. I think When I was younger, it made me very timid, and in high school, I was trying to compensate for my insecurities and I expressed my self in not the healthiest ways. It's strange because even though I look Filipino, I had Filipino friends, and I even spoke Tagalog as a kid, it was difficult for me to embrace that part of my identity.
What do you think are aspects of your cultural identity that are common with the Filipino-American experience? What does being Filipino-American mean to you?
Sarah: I think being Fil-Am means being resilient, it means putting yourself out there, and it means standing up for yourself in a place where people might try to walk all over you. But I think it also goes back to culture and family, because at the very root of things, your family and the way you were raised is all you have. It's who you are essentially; when you strip away all your privileges that come with being "American", whether you want to claim it or not, the Filipino aspect of our identities still stands.
Kevonte: Being African-American, it's very similar to what Sarah said; Family and culture is at the root of everything. In the African-American community, you are taught how to stand up for yourself, about privilege. You learn that law enforcement is not always going to be there for you, so you need to pick and choose your battles. There's backlash for standing up for certain causes, so you need to be careful. I didn't take this into account until I got older, but I feel like I've had the advantage having the story of our ancestor's struggles told and talked about more frequently than other minorities. It's important to learn about the challenges that we face, and what other people are facing as well; we're not the only ones who have struggled to get to where got to be.
Rio: I really agree with that stance of context mattering a lot. Groups that may be seen to have less privilege might have advantages over certain other groups. In certain spaces, different minorities have more privilege than others; I think recognizing every privilege that you have helps you understand the struggles of others better, and that's a really great point that you brought up. What about you, Kevin? How do you define your Filipino-American identity?
Kevin: A lot of it has to do with how I was raised to treat other people; I try to treat everyone as if they were family. You never know what people are going through, and it never really hurts others to be friendly. That's definitely a trait that I get more from being Filipino. With the Chinese, you're also taught to be humble and to try to hide parts of yourself sometimes. My parents taught me not to show off, and be more low key and down to earth. Luckily I grew up in a very open-minded and welcoming environment where I felt more free to express myself.
Rio: My belief is that everyone is free to identify how they want, and they are allowed to claim parts of their culture that they feel is genuine to them. In terms of the Filipino identity, there is so much variation in what we call Filipino; there's so much diversity between different islands, tribes, and all the different histories; and it goes even deeper into different family histories. Because of all this diversity, it makes me a lot more accepting of each person's own definition of 'Fil-Am'. The way I think I define it is based on your family and how they raised you. I also have some Chinese ancestry in my family, and that's reflected in somethings that my family does; like my grandma likes to play mahjong, and we eat pancit canton, which is based on a Chinese dish.
At the end of the day, I base being Filipino-American off of what my family does and how they've raised me. Growing up in a America, that's the only thing that I have to cling to which I can claim. It kind of goes into that whole immigrant/Filipino value of being family oriented– it's the environment we grew up in and the way we were raised that has a real impact on our identity ♦︎