I’m a poor excuse for a Filipina-American. Growing up, I detested most things about my culture: the clothes, the religion, and perhaps most vehemently, the food.
Despite being a curious child, I never asked about our mother-country. Of course, my grandparents, particularly Ma, loved to talk about it, but I would only listen with one ear, the other always tuned into whatever cartoon was on the TV. If Batman was talking, rest assured I was listening.
My brother and I were understandably Americanized by both our parents and my father’s parents. When they moved here (the U.S.) as children, both of my parents quickly assimilated at school. While growing up, we rarely heard Tagalog or Ilocano (another dialect spoken by my dad’s side of the family) in our own household. We weren’t really given the opportunity to learn the language.
Consequently, I developed no interest or pride in my culture. It even went so far as I thought our food was weird (quite possibly gross), and not nearly as good as Chinese food or McDonald’s. The only dish my brother and I liked was chicken adobo, a simple stew made from soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, bay leaves and pepper. Often, we still opted for fast food. Chicken nuggets and French fries ruled our palettes.
I often felt like the only kid in Carson who didn’t care that I was Filipina. Everyone else loved the food, wore Barong Tagalog shirts to family gatherings, and went to church every Sunday. Many of my friends joined Filipino clubs and organizations, leaving me alone to pooh-pooh their enthusiasm.
Despite living in a very large Filipino-American community, I learned nothing about Filipino culture outside of my own home. There was nothing about Filipinos in our history classes until perhaps eighth grade, when I found a small section about the Philippine-American War in my textbook. Not surprisingly, the subject had no real substance and it remained a mystery.
During high school and my first two years of college, I didn’t think about what it meant to be Filipino. By then I had already decided that it didn’t comprise much of my personality. As I got older, I realized that outside of my hometown of Carson, not many people even knew what a Filipino was to begin with. I spent a summer in Ithaca, New York and attended Boston University for a semester. In both places I was constantly asked, “So what are you? Chinese?” Even my current boyfriend, who grew up just nine miles away from my hometown, hadn’t heard much about Filipino-Americans before meeting me.
Ma’s death nearly two years ago changed everything for me though. In reliving my life with her and acknowledging my life without her, I started remembering the hints of culture that my grandparents subtly weaved into our upbringing. I ate more Filipino food than I thought, such as Filipino egg rolls (lumpia), Filipino chicken soup (tinola), and Filipino beef stew (caldereta).
I became more curious about my family’s personal history, and questioned my dad about it, verifying his information with whatever Pa told me.
I learned that my great-grandpa was among the first wave of Filipino immigrant workers to come over in 1906, when there was a need for sugarcane workers. He and his oldest son went to Hawaii to make a fortune. His son, Mike, was only 18 when he decided to stay in the States, eventually moving to Southern California, while my great-grandpa returned home to gamble away his share of the wealth and father more children.
When Pa was old enough to have his own family, he soon decided that moving to the United States was the best thing he could do for his young family. In 1968, he contacted Mike, whom he’d never met, and saved enough money to move to Carson. He left behind Ma, my dad and my aunt until he earned enough money to move them to the United States. My grandpa had a college education in the Philippines, but that meant little in the new country so he worked in a textile factory. It took him more than a year to save enough money. To cut costs, he lived with his brother, and when the rest of the family finally came over, they stayed with Uncle Mike until they could afford their own house down the street.
My dad was nine years old when he left the Philippines. In many ways, Filipino immigrants, especially younger ones, have an easier time assimilating because they already learn English in the Philippines. When they come here, many try very hard to downplay their accents. To this day, my dad and my mom (she moved here when she was 14) both barely retain the inflections that would make it apparent that they were born elsewhere. Consequently, I cannot pronounce anything in Tagalog or Ilocano that doesn’t make it painfully obvious that I’m a native U.S. citizen.
Just the other day, I held open the apartment building door for an older Filipino man. He looked at me, asked me if I was Filipina, and when I answered in the affirmative, he smiled and said “Salamat po,” which means “thank you.” I desperately wanted to tell him “you’re welcome” in his own tongue, but I completely blanked out and could only answer him in English.
I figured the best way to delve into my culture was through the food. I even started testing out some Filipino recipes that I had eaten when I was younger, but only if I could remember the names of the dishes. My culinary attempts greatly amused Pa, because whenever I started cooking a recipe, I would call him right away to ask him how he would normally cook it. The first time I made chicken adobo, he asked me if I even knew how to work the stove. (It’s apparently a running joke between Pa and my dad. I’m 23 years old and they still like to think I can’t do anything for myself.)
I’m a poor excuse for a Filipina-American, but I’m trying to be better about it.
A few months ago, while David and I were having lunch, I started asking him questions about his family. His roots couldn’t be more dissimilar, as he’s a second generation American. He can’t even pinpoint when his family first emerged in this country. In a sense, his past is a little more muddled than mine, but I’m sure that if he did some research he would unearth so much.
As for my family, I can only trace as far back as my grandparents’ parents. Not to be morbid, but one of my goals is to sit down with Pa and just interview him before he dies. He has a wealth of information and I never anticipated this strong desire to learn so much more from him. I want to record the family history with video, audio and an extensive family tree.
The more I learn about my family and my culture, the more I obviously learn about myself.
When I was in LA last month, I came home quite late from a friend’s shindig to find my dad fiddling with Google maps on his laptop. He was squinting at a satellite photo of the Philippines, and when it was clear that my interest was piqued, he proceeded to point out where our family is from and where the rest of us still reside. I can’t remember all the names of the towns and villages, but I do recall an odd sensation come over me as I began to remember other stories Ma had told me when I was little. Some of our family is still very poor, and a few of them still live in a very rural area. Such a contrast to the life I lead now.
Some day I’ll visit the homeland. A part of me is excited by the prospect, but a huge part of me is afraid. My brother and I would stand out so much. Physically, we’re just much larger and taller than most other Filipinos (according to Dad, anyway.) My brother is slowly learning Tagalog, and I hardly know a lick of it. I’d also like to share that experience with David, as he’s been so supportive of me learning more about my culture. Well, I like to think of him as being supportive, but really he is in it for the food.
I’m just going to end this long spiel now, otherwise I could probably type away the evening.