What I've learned about being Filipino in America

Updated: Apr 4, 2019

Growing up, I didn’t really have a solid Filipino community. In elementary school there were only two Filipino kids including myself. In middle school, there were only about three including myself. At my first high school, there were about 20 out of 4,000 students. As a result, I didn’t really “feel” the presence of my culture, and anytime I let out a sliver of its small existence, I felt ashamed or judged.


For example, when we had to bring food from home, I made an extra effort to “Americanize” my food.


I didn’t bring any chicken adobo.


The rice was kept at home in the rice cooker.


I didn’t bring the sinigang in tupperware.


Instead, I bought tuna sandwiches, chocolate chip cookies, goldfish. And of course: Lunchables. I tried to make myself look like everyone else because I was absolutely terrified of looking or being different. I didn’t wanna hear any “Ew what is that?” or “What’s that smell?”


Another example is when my mom would sometimes call me during school. She would converse with me exclusively in Tagalog. Normally, at home, I would respond back in Tagalog, but at school I tried to only speak English. I didn’t want to hear “What are you saying?” or “That’s not English.” I remember one time I accidentally let my Tagalog slip once and someone actually asked me, “OMG Tim do you speak Asian?”


I never really knew how to respond or feel in those types of situations. Should I be offended? Should I not? As a result of this complex embarrassment, I tried my absolute hardest to conform to everyone around me because I felt too “Filipino” at school. Whenever I was at home, the language spoken was Tagalog like 80% of the time. Dinner was rice and sinigang. Sometimes my mom would make Filipino desserts and we’d go to a family friend’s house. All the adults would talk about Filipino movies, game shows, celebrities, or what life was like back in the Philippines. These were the only true moments in time where I got to partake in my culture. However, I had no idea what they were talking about. I didn’t know who Sarah Geronimo or Gerald Anderson was. I’d hear names or phrases being thrown around, but I never understood any of it. Sometimes I'd watch Filipino movies or listen to OPM songs, but very seldom. Additionally, I wasn't taught any history about my culture in or out of school. I wasn't taught why things in the Philippines right now are the way they are. I wasn’t taught the current problems that are affecting the Philippines during this time. I wasn’t taught about José Rizal day. Whenever people asked me where I was from or where I was born I'd say Balayan, Batangas, and when they'd ask where that was, I would respond “I don’t know.”


Then it really hit me: I don't know anything about my own culture, yet I self-identify as Filipino-American.


Going to school didn’t help at all either. Granted, I am living in America, where the focus is mainly on the history of the United States; however, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve learned and read countless pages about World War II. Every. Single. Year. It was the same information over and over again. Yet, every single year I never read a single thing about the Philippines, even though it was taken over by the United States for about half a century. There was even a Philippine-American War. While there were a few times that textbooks mentioned our history, it would only be as long as a couple paragraphs. Living in America has taught me that for many Filipino-Americans, as well as other minority groups, part of having white privilege includes American history being a required course, while my history is seldom taught even as an elective. While attending college, I couldn’t even find one elective geared toward Filipino Studies. From the lack of support and educational resources available to us, especially in the Midwest, I believe part of the problem stems from the fact we as Filipino-Americans are weirdly okay with this. We continue to become less and less visible, or part of weird trends that don’t accurately represent our culture.


However, none of this is meant to scrap or disregard our current progress at all. Having recently attended the EPYC retreat this past year at Seattle, I’ve learned so much about what our current Filipino-American community is doing throughout the country. In Seattle, Fil-Ams are currently fundraising to create a refurbished Filipino community center. In addition, this past September, UC Davis launched the first ever Filipino Studies program. All of this progress sounds great, but we are capable of doing so much more to spread awareness about our culture.


So keep eating your Halo-Halo.


Bring adobo to lunch at school.


Keep arriving on Filipino time.


Dust off your Magic Mic a little.


Learn to play the guitar or piano or learn to sing.


Be unapologetically Filipino.


These are comical ways that we all know too well and laugh about, but they are still apart of who we are as Filipino-Americans. We hold these idiosyncrasies next to our heart because it’s what makes us feel the most comfortable and brings us joy as Filipinos living in the United States. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s more to us than that.


The point of all of this isn’t to self-ridicule, point fingers or blame anyone for our lack of knowledge. The point is to shed light on this issue that the majority of us who identify as Filipino-Americans don’t know what we don’t know. It was literally only this year when I truly felt disconnected from my own culture, even though it was the first time when I was exposed to so much of it. We are a generation to that is defining what it means to be Filipino-American in this new age, and each one of us is on a journey to understanding where we fit between being Filipino and American. The first step in solving any problem is recognizing that there is one. So my question now to you guys is: what can you do to cultivate your own Filipino-American identity?

Thank you to my new Pamilya for an amazing retreat :)

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