I was in the 5th grade when I was criticized for being Filipino. Before that, I never really put much thought into my ethnicity and culture. I went to a private catholic elementary school the years before, and while I was bullied quite a lot, it had nothing to do with the color of my skin or the way I looked (one of my bullies was Filipino herself), but more so to do with the fact of just being incredibly shy and unable to stand up for myself. For the most part, things have changed for the better when I moved to a public elementary school, but that’s when my perspective started getting challenged.
The perpetrator was a boy, Korean, and, to my dismay, someone I liked and considered a friend. It was during lunch hour when he and I started talking about how to say things in different languages. With the very limited Tagalog I knew, I introduced myself accordingly.
The first thing that came to his mouth was, “You guys don’t have an alphabet like us.”
There are a lot of interesting things with this statement. The first being how he addressed the entirety of all Filipinos as “you guys”, the second being his usage of the word “us” to refer to what I can assume are Koreans in their entirety. The most interesting thing was of course him pointing out that tagalog didn’t have a unique alphabet, meaning that we used the Latin alphabet to write tagalog textually. He said it clearly in a prideful manner, but while I felt defensive for that moment, I didn’t know how exactly to respond back.
His next statement was even more interesting: “Filipinos aren’t asian – they’re just Pacific Islanders.”
I mean, I didn’t really have a historical perspective on the Philippines at the time, and my parents had never properly taught me Tagalog for fear that I may not grasp English if they confused it with something else. Geographically, I knew that the Philippines was located farther down south within the continent of Asia and that North and South Korea, Japan, and arguably China are somewhat clustered above. So easily I thought, well, maybe he has a point.
And then the years went on, and I’ve made better, smarter, not-as-rude friends, with whom half of them happen to be Asian in someway, and I continued to be on the cusp between identifying myself as Asian and identifying myself as just… Filipino. Whatever that means. I didn’t have any Filipino friends in school, as I came from a high school that may have had about 6 Filipinos in total out of the 700 in my graduating class, so no one really challenged or confirmed my own thoughts about how I saw being Filipino. It was strange because throughout high school, while I had a good amount of Asian friends, I never fell into the large clique that existed in our social hierarchy. I wonder if it was because my personality was a little too strong, or I didn’t really fall under the “studious Asian” stereotype, but regardless, it only enforced the uncertainty I had.
That thought process actually went on until freshman year of college when I decided to join the Filipino organization at my university in hopes of changing my social life somehow, not because I wanted to hang out with Filipinos particularly. Needless to say, I started meeting people that I had more in common with than ever before. From the very first meeting, I was instantly surrounded by people who had grown up in similar backgrounds to mine, with similar experiences, from growing up eating the same food to having big Filipino parties.
However, along with feeling welcomed and part of a large family, I had come to realize how little I knew about my roots and the cultural and historical aspects that come with being Filipino. I was amazed at the backgrounds of some of the people from my organization: some learned Filipino dances at a young age and even performed them at events, some speak Tagalog or another dialect fluently or just as well as they know English, and some are so deeply invested in the political and social issues concerning Filipinos that they have such a rich knowledge of the nation’s history and development. It made me think: why wasn’t I brought up in the manner? Did my parents think little to teach me about these things? Don’t get me wrong, my parents are lovely (most of the time), but it is so strange to me that my upbringing had been missing this sort of element that could have helped me understand myself better in the long run.
And I suppose the real reason why I was never taught tagalog was because to them, it wasn’t practical. Economically, it would have gotten me nowhere here in America. Socially? The few Filipino friends I’ve had outside of school didn’t know how to speak tagalog either. Whenever I’m at a party with a large group of Filipino family and friends, the kids – that being me – are separated from the tagalog conversations at the dinner table, mainly because none of us knew the dialect well enough to join in.
Perhaps it’s because Filipinos have been enforced the notion that there is simply no need to teach the dialect, that English is enough, especially living here in America. There is a lack of need to enforce Filipino culture because in many ways, the Philippines are not enforcing it either. While Filipinos have an easier time than most immigrants in assimilating to American culture, the downfall is that we weaken our voice when it comes to speaking up for our own race, culture, and ethnicity. I am a result of this process.
But I think now that I have this awareness, there is hope. Because here I am now: glad to say that I am an American but also a Filipino, and there is no longer any confusion on that part. And while no one had taught me what it meant to be both before, I have acknowledged my ability to give my own meaning to the identity through expanding my experiences in getting in touch with my cultural heritage.