If I had to forfeit a career in law, I think my next biggest career aspiration would be to become the editor-in-chief of a fashion magazine.
I love fashion. I could go into great lengths to why British Vogue is way better than American Vogue, how Bretman Rock would have been a way more interesting invite to the Met Gala than James Charles, and I will defend The Devil Wears Prada as the greatest movie of our millennial time until the day I die.
Though the untrained and misinformed may think that my passion for fashion stems from vanity, I would argue that it comes from necessity. When I think about fashion, my mind makes connections to how emblematic it is to the arts, politics, and furthermore: representation–although who is to say that all three are mutually exclusive?
I grew up being a very shy boy in small-town Michigan and even more rural yee-haw Ohio. As the ading of two siblings, I always had a model of what it possibly meant to be Filipinx American in the Midwest. At the advent of my brother and sister moving for college and careers, however, I was left alone to figure things out. Being the new kid at two different schools was stressful enough, but being one of the only Filipinx Americans, and even Asian Americans, produced a lot of anxiety. It is an isolating feeling to not know who you are as an angsty middle schooler. It is even more chilling when there is a missing element of cultural identity.
Yet as one does in the 2000s-2010s, I consulted the internet for answers. In my search for my own Filipino American identity, and in between watching subbed episodes of Naruto and creating a fantasy life on The Sims, I found the social media blog site, Tumblr.
In the mix of pale-soft-grunge quote graphics and numerous fandoms for various fictional universes lied a subset of young Filipinx Americans curating posts related to their personal, lived experiences as youths in the diaspora. It was a community that I could relate to because we shared the commonality of being Filipinx American.
But what it boiled down to back then was that I really thought that these kids were so cool. They were creatives who drew incredible artwork, took amazing photos, and dressed super stylishly. The sense of a shared cultural value system brought me in, and the fact that these folks at the same were so bravely putting themselves out there to be unapologetically themselves inspired me to be creative.
I always had a creative side to me; my whole family does actually. My brother was a talented musician who played the piano, guitar, and trumpet. My sister was also a musician who played bass guitar and lead vocals in an edgy 90s/early 2000s band. Not to mention that she had excellent 2000s style with her low-rise jeans and cropped cardigans.
When I was all by my lonesome, it was these Filipinx Americans on Tumblr who sparked a renaissance of creativity and passion for Filipinx heritage within me. I started writing more, casually taking photos, and wore black skinny jeans to school. I made collages of pictures I printed and taped them to the walls of my room. And even though I picked up guitar because my siblings knew how to play, I also learned ukulele because it seemed like the thing to do if you were a Filipino boy. These were big steps for me to become more daring, and therefore, my creative self.
Removing rose-colored glasses and looking back at it all, such a time was absolutely cringy. We can be humbled by the era of wearing 3D glasses with the lenses popped off and wearing snapbacks like they would go out of style the next day… because they practically did. Not to mention that I just laugh at all of the pictures of my younger self who really thought that upwards camera angles and overexposed filtering were true craftsmanship. If you see these pictures, I beg you not to surface them–y’all already got the cover photo which fulfills the quota of cringy Christian pictures. Regardless, this space was formative to my identity as a Filipino American.
At the same time, there was a fine line between discovering the authentic self and trying to fit into a social construction of being a “cool” Filipinx American. I felt not Filipino enough sometimes because I didn’t speak Tagalog (although now we can have a conversation about how Tagalog may not truly be the central diasporic language but that’s another blog post) or that I was too dark-skinned to look Filipino. Geography also complicated things. In the Midwest where there is already a more spread out and sometimes smaller Filipinx population compared to our coastal counterparts, representations in mainstream and social media are even more potent as influences. Especially as a young Filipino American who was very impatient to figure life out, it was a difficult journey to preserve my agency.
The biggest takeaway from this time in my life is that identity is experimental as it is personal. Culture is something to be shared and celebrated but it also is dynamic and is constantly shifting with the times. Moreover, the personal is political. I believe that the formative of identity does not happen in a vacuum. Rather, it is dependent on the historical and systemic factors that impact communities in empowering or even oppressive ways.
The idea of being Filipino enough is a question I had to realize had no wrong answer. As I grew up, I slowly realized that my ethnic and cultural identity is not measured by a list of things I can do or produce. My Filipino-ness is my own to claim which is in constant shift based on the world around me. Perhaps I didn’t affirm that to myself until I got to college, where I had the opportunity to interact with so many other Midwestern Filipinx Americans and Asian Americans at large.
FASA at the University of Michigan was the springboard for me to hear more perspectives and narratives from Filipinx and Filipinx Americans around not only the Midwest but also the United States and internationally. It was a privilege to have many conversations with my barkada, ates, kuyas, and adings which allowed me to form a more nuanced perspective regarding representation, identity, and the diaspora.
As we are in the middle of May, or Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I feel these reasons are especially important to consider to open up conversations about representation. I will always dedicate my love for fashion to the Filipinx Americans on Tumblr with usernames that I no longer remember. But this community was also a starting point for me to think critically about the importance of representation and its implications. To have the Filipinx American identity be shifted by the world around us means that it also cannot be separated from other identities like gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. Kind of like a really good outfit where each piece of clothing and accessory works with each to seamlessly pull off something beautiful.
The idea of representation is already so broad. While we should celebrate the increases of Asian American representation in the media, we can always aim for more diverse Asian American portrayals. How I understand it is in terms of conundrums. I think that is it completely okay to be critical of the things you are passionate about and that you love. While we celebrate representation and heritage, I feel like it is also crucial to be comfortable with uncomfortable conversations that divide us (e.g. anti-blackness within the Asian American community, sentiments around affirmative action, how the model minority is a wedge that divides us and other communities of colors, etc.) Representation does not also end with the media too. Important fights are to be had to ensure that space is made for Filipinx Americans and Asian Americans to be in important fields of academia and politics. Wanting to be more visible in the mainstream, and to come from outside the margins, also means that we must empower ourselves to be more civically engaged citizens. Media is not the only form of representation where the Asian Pacific American voice is needed but also in civic duties, including things like voting, calling elected officials regarding important social and policy issues, and electing people in all levels of government who also share an Asian Pacific American experience. In doing so, we may dismantle the systems that tell us that we must fit into certain boxes to feel Filipinx enough.
I will always have a soft spot for Vans shoes and a Herschel backpacks because of the Filipinx American kids I observed from my computer screen in reblogs. But as a young adult, I am more cognizant of the fact that my Filipino American identity is not something to be performed by checking off every single trait or different lived experience that other Filipinx Americans around may possess. That is to say, to me, Filipino American identity is about celebrating both similarities and differences. And maybe my wild pipe dream of becoming that EIC of a fashion magazine comes from stressing the importance of diversity. Because we should definitely celebrate the strides of current wins in the media such as Crazy Rich Asians and how we might all painfully relate to Lara Jean from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, but we should not forget about what particular narratives are missing. It is within such success stories but also the lived truths at large where communities can be empowered. It is also important, in my opinion, to not wait and step forward and share as well as amplify a variety of Asian Pacific American voices when given the privilege and opportunity. Like how there many different ways and changes in the way someone dresses, representation is also very much so dynamic, personal yet contextual, and daring.