By Isidora Torres
Fear. I’m five. I was playing in the kindergarten area, asking the boy next to me if he wanted to play. He responded “What? I can’t understand you.” I didn’t realize I had asked in Ilocano. I froze. My teacher said, “Please only speak English.”
Survival. Fast forward, I’m seven. Placed in an ESL class in San Jose, California. My mom had to bring my birth certificate to prove to the school that I was born in the U.S. and that English is my first language. Sweet Valley High was on TV and it was all I watched, I bet they didn’t have to deal with this shit.
Love. I’m ten. I learn how to sing Jessa Zaragoza on karaoke because of a recent trip to the Philippines. I love being in Pangasinan, driving in tricycles. I cry my heart out when we head back to the airport. My grandpa and grandma reside there now – they had finally said goodbye to America and Rosales, a municipality in Pangasinan, was home.
Assimilation. Age thirteen. The rise of the AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) screen names. While creating my own, I lean into being Pinay, Pnay or Pnai. I don’t recall how I knew what Pinay meant aside from seeing other younger Filipino girls do it. I join Asian Avenue and start memorizing words from One Voice. I see me in their lyrics, laced with young pop love and optimism. I start saying I’m Pacific Islander because that’s how the cool Filipinos started to call themselves.
Belonging. High school finally comes and I learn about Tinikling, apparently a cultural dance that so many of my Filipino classmates knew about. I didn’t know – my family had never brought it up. I knew the “ocho ocho” but Tinikling wasn’t on my radar. To double down on my Filipino-ness, I join the Filipino American Student Association (FASA). It was mostly about lumpia, Tinikling and America’s Best Dance Crew. Everyone joins Kaba Modern or the Futures. I guess that’s what happens when you’re from the Bay.
Acknowledgement. Sitting here in my couch in NYC at 29, I scroll on Twitter seeing fellow Filipino gals say, “I’ve only recently found pride in being Filipino.”
Growing up, I never doubted I was Filipino. Physicality dictated that immediately. Seeing my mom’s brown face was a constant reminder that I was not a part of America’s obsession with White, Eurocentric features. I often found myself wishing I was born White as that was all I saw on TV. White people had the freedom to be themselves in all kinds of life situations: Sweet Valley High really fucked me up. Life for me never felt as sweet or conventional.
Culturally, the Filipino artifacts still remained, anchoring themselves into my world. The large wooden fork and spoon, eggs with Spam for breakfast, bagoong, and even the colorism. But it was never quite enough to feel Filipino. That’s the thing about growing up as a first gen and as a child of an immigrant – you toggle with both worlds, unsure how to navigate either. Not to mention there’s a layer of social conditioning that seeps into your mind of how you should be.
Assimilation has always been in our people’s survival kit. That’s what happens when you are a country steeped in roots of colonialism. Assimilation is survival. According to a 2008 Measuring Immigrant Assimilation in the United States report, immigrants from Vietnam, Cuba, and the Philippines enjoy some of the highest rates of assimilation. It’s what drove most of the immigrants in the U.S. in the ‘60s. It’s the reason why my grandpa, Crisanto, changed his name to Chris. We had to appear socially palatable – our objective was to blend in, maybe even to our own cultural detriment. I never realized I was “assimilating” into broader White American culture as much as I didn’t want to be lonely anymore. I wanted to have friends and that meant taking part in American culture by downplaying the things I knew about being Filipino. To some degree, my parents took an unconscious role in allowing me to alter my sense of identity to fit the American ideal. It was English only, all the time. You don’t realize how that impacts you as an adult, when you only understand remnants of your family’s native tongue.
Somewhere down the line, the language around being called Pacific Islander or Asian American was bestowed upon me and others. It was an interesting time to see where folks had connected with. I was never sure (still not sure) if it really mattered. Asian American as a label felt too large, especially when it usually meant Chinese or Vietnamese. Where did Filipinos stand? All it signified to me that I was part of a group, who to some degree, understood the unspoken “otherness” that was slowly creeping on to me. It was confusing but I also didn’t have the words to articulate this feeling. It was like umami for negativity.
The concept of an “identity” didn’t have weight on me until I started living in New York City. Like every young person who moves to the “big city,” it was a time of self exploration and discovery. It was the first time I felt empowered to own “it,” whatever the hell “it” was. My 20’s lent itself to unpack some thoughts I had about being Filipino: What did it even mean to be Filipino? What did it mean to be a Filipina? So I did what I did when I was seven and looked to the media. And this might be a shock to you (it shouldn’t), there are very few examples of Filipino representation in American media. So I went to the next best thing – literature. I devoured Mia Almar’s “In My Country” and Elaine Castillo’s “America is Not the Heart.” I wept watching Jose Antonio Vargas ”Undocumented.” The stories of diaspora, assimilation and sadness resonated all too much. You ever felt like someone was watching you the entire time? That’s how I felt – I finally felt seen. The feelings of fear, survival, love, assimilation, belonging and acknowledgement were all wrapped by these authors’ words and visuals. It all started to connect for me in small ways – I could start stringing words to articulate how it feels to be Filipino. And honestly, it was a lot of pain. Our people have g o n e through some shit.
To be honest, I still don’t have it all figured out. I started writing more about it – making the feelings tangible. I want to see my words as a throughline to these feelings. I’d like to say that “yes, I’m fully ingrained in what being Filipino means in 2019 America” but I can’t. I wish I could say I threw myself into every corner of our history and culture but I didn’t. But I am trying. And I think that’s okay – figuring out the hard stuff takes time. Look at our parents and look at ourselves. Going on Twitter and seeing this similar revelation with women who I don’t know but have this gravitation towards centering ourselves around FIlipino-ness is comforting. I’m not the only one and I think that’s been what I’ve been looking for.
It’s all a work in progress.