Fil-Am culture'

NextDayBetter's NYC Event: Great Food. Great People. Great Ideas.


When I first walked into the room for NextDayBetter’s NYC event last Saturday, May 3rd, a single word popped into my mind: snazzy. Held inside the Center for Social Innovation, the space invited attendees in with pulsating music, coconut sake cocktails, and a big blue kitchen with a sea of Pilipino food samples. The intimate and casual yet energized vibe of the room said, “Hey there, let’s get together over good eats and drinks and change the world.” 10259824_487996607967843_5724835120809291114_n

The event kicked off with a tableside chat with featured chefs from Bibingka-esk and Masarap Supper Club. The chefs shared not only their culinary concoctions but also their stories of how they began pursuing their love of making Pilipino food professionally and intend to play a role in its evolution.

“I want Bibingka to be the next chocolate chip,” declared Binbingka-esk creator Eileen Formanes.

NextDayBetter Co-Founder Ryan Letada then took the stage and posed to the room:

“What can we do to collaborate and exchange ideas to make the next day better?” He explained that the presenting speakers were asked to share their stories because they were all individuals who took risks and made breakthroughs for themselves and their communities.

Below are short summaries of their inspiring talks:


Geena Rocero, transgender model and founder of Gender Proud, discussed the need for political recognition of transgender identity and the right to choose one’s own gender marker on identification documents. When one’s gender marker doesn’t match how a person feels on the inside or looks on the outside, it turns regular activities like applying for a job, voting, or even opening a bank account into highly stressful and embarrassing situations.

“Imagine constantly divulging the most personal thing about yourself,” she proposed.

Teach for the Philippines Fellow Leah Villanueva spoke about how the dream of making a better Philippines is an attainable one, but it can’t be achieved without improving public education. Currently schools in the Philippines suffer from high dropout rates, overworked teachers, and frequent electricity outages among many other challenges.

“These kids deserve so much more, our country deserves so much more,” Leah noted.


Restaurateur Nicole Ponseca chatted about how Maharlika and Jeepney were the first Pilipino fusion restaurants to truly own Pilipino food without apology, duck fetuses and all. Rather than hiding the less mainstream aspects of Pilipino cuisine, Maharlika held a contest challenging participants to eat as much balut as possible in five minutes.

“If you’re embarrassed about anything, whatever it is, you got to turn it around and make it a sense of pride,” Nicole encouraged.

Although the founder of Rappler couldn’t be there in person, Maria Ressa recorded a video in which she introduced Project Agos, a real-time disaster reporting platform that harnesses mapping, social media, and crowd sourcing so that relief responders “can visually identify areas in need of help or relief and what exactly is needed.”


Matt Grasser and Team LDLN held a tech demo in which they showed how the device and mobile app they designed could be used to create makeshift Wi-Fi networks in the event of an emergency, such as Typhoon Haiyan. Through these low-cost devices, people on the ground would be able to communicate with relief services even if power sources are down.

Airforce veteran Lourdes Tiglao shared her experiences as a member of Team Rubicon, a disaster response organization comprised of American military veterans who want to continue utilizing their skills after returning home. Team Rubicon was deployed in Tacloban after Typhoon Haiyan hit and acted as first medical response for many victims. Tiglao met several Pilipino veterans who were enthusiastic about the idea of creating a Team Rubicon in the Philippines.

Photo credits:

All My Closest Friends Are Pilipino... Is This A Problem?


Queens, New York. Not only is this borough my home, but it is the most ethnically diverse urban area in the entire world. Tell me, then, why are 90% of my friends Pilipino? Fast forward to college: New York University. Despite 22,000+ undergraduates, I find myself deeply involved in a Pilipino-based community. As a testament to the ubiquitous Pilipino-ness of my friend groups, I just scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed and went through posts by 25 people before encountering someone not Pilipino. I have always loved rooting myself in the Pilipino community, but as someone who prides herself on a doctrine of diversity, I just realized my own hypocrisy. It seems like I only hang out with Pilipino people, I am only active with Pilipino organizations, and I focus all my energy on the Fil-Am community. Is this something to be concerned about? It is not as if I look at people with a need to fulfill a quota: White friend, check. Black friend, check. Hispanic friend, check. I do not subscribe to tokenism. I do, however, want to hold a mirror to myself and understand why I gravitate toward Pilipinos. Am I losing out on something else by surrounding myself in a homogenous community?

An epiphany occurred to me at the Journey of a Brown Girl launch, when I was introduced to the idea of "kapwa." I've heard this word echoed around the community but never understood it. It is an essential concept of collective identity in intrinsic Pilipino psychology, theorized by the likes of Virgilio Enriquez and Katrin de Guia. Sarita Echavez See defines it in "Gambling with Debt" from American Quarterly:

"Kapwa, often translated as a 'shared inner self,' can be understood as a worldview based on profoundly collective forms of mutual recognition. According to sikolohiyang Pilipino scholars like Virgilio Enriquez who forward the study of 'indigenous Pilipino psychology,' in the colonial context kapwa can be interpreted as a kind of friendliness, hospitality..."

My first thought: So there's a word for it? I never guessed the deep bond I have felt with Pilipinos – through exchanged glances with strangers on the subway, the way I root for Pilipinos in any competition, or how my ears perk up at the utterance of any Tagalog – could be summarized so succinctly. There is a smile when you know someone is Pilipino without saying so, and a smile that says I've known you my whole life. It takes a matter of minutes to connect over shared histories, and I have always felt this, but I had never known kapwa. It encapsulates the phenomenon so perfectly.

Perhaps this is the underlying reason why I have found my closest friends in fellow Pilipinos. I have deeper levels of understanding and relation to someone who identifies with my love for Pilipino culture, origins and conflicts with Pilipino traditions, or shares my taste for cultural references, food, and words.

The reason I take issue with recognizing my almost exclusively Pilipino cohort of friends is that a comfort zone bubble forms. Growth and learning come from exploring the unfamiliar and exchanging with diverse groups, but I rarely get pushed to step outside of my Pilipino-centric interests. I wonder if I am subscribing to preference or circumstance. I wonder if I should consciously make an effort to step outside of the Pilipino community. I wonder if this whole line of thinking is flawed.

I do not have answers – only a desire to spark dialogue. Thanks to kapwa you will find a familial bond with other Pilipinos no matter where you go, but who is to say you would not discover that within others?

Source: tumblr

Traditional Dance In the Hands of Fil-Am College Clubs

The author, far left, in 2008 with her Townsend Harris High School tinikling dance group Flip 'N Funky Fresh.

“Culture and the arts are potent forces in national development. With its colors and contrasts, our cultural heritage unifies our race, and gives it a national identity that lends pride and dignity to every Filipino” – Corazon Aquino, 1991

1, 2, 3! 1, 2, 3! The clicking sound of bamboo sticks slapping against each other for tinikling is an all too familiar rhythm. That dance is, after all, the quintessential introduction to Pilipino culture taught to kids in community youth groups, adapted for high school international nights, and ubiquitous in cultural productions by university Pilipino clubs.

The first time I learned the dance, I was 13. I eagerly joined a group performing tinikling at my church as an earnest attempt to connect with my heritage. Naturally, we used PVC pipes in lieu of bamboo, wore white tees and denim shorts instead of native garb, and choreographed our traditional dance to none other than Destiny’s Child’s “Lose My Breath” and Ne-Yo’s “Stay With Me.” Body rolls were involved. At the time, it felt like a worthy homage.

Fortunately, I’ve since discovered the rich offering of folk dances beyond tinikling: the graceful balancing act pandanggo sa ilaw, the flirtatious hat duet subli, the masculine coconut dance maglalatik, the stoic, haunting janggay, the regal singkil, and countless others.

Every year, I see Pilipino clubs at universities put on innumerable showcases of our native culture in dance competitions, pageants, and Philippine cultural nights (PCNs, or “barrios” as some call them.) A hodgepodge of interpretations of “traditional” dance appear on stage, from meticulously rehearsed, authentic displays to barely recognizable, loosely-interpreted traditional dance: pandanggo sa ilaw performed with flashlights, maglalatik fused with step dancing, and tinikling liberally peppered with breakdancing.

For every crew I see striving to do traditional dance justice, there is another itching to reinvent, break out, ditch, even, the antiquated choreography. A “cultural” portion is often pegged as a requirement for qualification, and you can’t help but see traditional dance turn more into an obligation than a genuine homage. I've seen some clubs give all of thirty seconds of their seven minute set to a hastily put together folk dance.

NYU's International Filipino Association performing singkil at the Battle of the Barrios 2010 competition.

Why do we even bother to “be cultural” and learn traditional dance? What is the value of portraying them accurately or not? In The Day the Dancers Stayed: Performing in the Filipino/American Diaspora, Theodore S. Gonzalves explains that second generation Fil-Ams use traditional dance to reconcile the conflict of in-betweenness. After growing up Americanized, PCNs are an alluring effort for identity-seeking young adults to reclaim ethnicity.

Dance, after all, is a universal language and educator. Even if a Fil-Am doesn’t know Tagalog, which is a common case for many young Fil-Ams today, repeating the steps of our ancestors offers that connection to heritage that students who join Pilipino organizations seek. However, the experience can seem second-hand and diluted after learning from YouTube clips that learned from YouTube clips that learned from dance troupe’s YouTube clips.

The Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company that started in the 1950s is one of those authorities–their singkil video alone has 300,000 views and counting. The company, which tours internationally and even inspired its own national day in the Philippines (May 27), popularized folk dance as we know it. To a fresh eye, the elaborate presentation, trained facial expressions, and detailed costumes look as traditional as it gets. What we don’t realize, however, is that even Bayanihan’s presentation of traditional dance is skewed. Barbara S. Gaerlan, author of “In the Court of the Sultan,” claims that Bayanihan’s singkil dance in fact shows an orientalist portrayal of Muslims featuring over sensualized females, costumes borrowing from Arabia, and bare-chested males in a way typically offensive in Muslim culture.

Still, the dramatization of the dances are undoubtedly entertaining. Perhaps this is what it boils down to. When we are showcasing our culture to an audience of outsiders, who wouldn’t want to amp up theatricality?

I brought up this dichotomy of accurate traditional dance versus reintepretation to Dr. Kevin Nadal recently, and he challenged me with a thought: Isn’t dance about art?

Art is meant to change, be open to interpretation, and molded in personal experience. If that means tapping your cultural side by infusing tinikling with the latest hit on all means, bump that track and bring out the bamboo sticks.

Photo credit: Don Gutierrez

Emerging Leader: Amanda Andrei

amanda Age: 24 Hometown: Woodbridge, VA Current Residence: Ashburn, VA College of William and Mary, 2010 Anthropology and Math minor

Meet Amanda Andrei, an Artificial Intelligence Engineer at MITRE Corporation.* Essentially, she does everything from building computer models to working on organizational change management with various government agencies in the Washington D.C. area.

Andrei, a multifaceted Fil-Am, is also well-versed in the realm of creative and performing arts, which has been quite influential in her life. Since high school, she’s been involved in acting, directing, making props and assistant producing. In her senior year of undergrad, she took a playwrighting class and wrote the award-winning play Every Night I Die, which is set in rural southern Philippines during the 1930s. It has had staged readings in Arlington, VA at Little Theatre on the Run, and has been performed at the 2011 Capital Fringe Festival and the College of William and Mary.

“It’s important in life, being able to tell a story,” Andrei reflects. “Theater is very fulfilling. I love creating for the sake of creating and touching the human soul. Theater is the most effervescent of the arts, so you never get the same show twice; it’s never the same [and only] there for that moment, so it’s really precious.”

When thinking about her identity, Andrei takes both her Pilipino and Romanian heritage into account. She writes for Asian Fortune, a newspaper based in DC. In college, Andrei yearned to learn more about the Philippines. She explored her connection to her roots while participating with the Fil-Am organizations at UVA and William and Mary, being actively involved in FIND, and while studying abroad at Ateneo de Manila University.

Andrei would like to see the Fil-Am and Pilipino community cultivate the arts.

“I’ve taken writing classes, and there have been times where I have questioned my identity in the writing of my pieces because I didn’t know if anyone understood, [and have thought to myself] ‘Should I be less brown?’”

While working with the Smithsonian and the Organization of Chinese Americans, she learned the importance of education, arts, culture and outreach. She envisions this for the Fil-Am community in the DC area, particularly with the establishment of a safe space or program where Asian Americans and others can be trained in performance and writing.

“We need more of those voices and perspectives. It doesn’t always have to be about the Philippines; I’d rather have someone tell a good story,” notes Andrei.

Andrei offers the following advice to fellow Fil-Ams and Pilipinos.

"Don’t be afraid to spend money on your heath,” adds Andrei. “I pay for [and use] a monthly pass to the yoga studio, have acupuncture done and eat healthy."

"If you’re still in college, take some technical courses, such as math, computer science, or GIS. You may not like it, but to survive in today’s world, you should have that component,” Andrei advises. For those studying just hard sciences, don’t be afraid to get a minor in something else. “You need to have an interesting combination. Mix it up!” notes Andrei.

“Carve out your own space. You don’t have to do what everyone else is doing. No one I know really has it all; if they do, they’re really lucky. If everyone’s telling you what you have to do and what you have to be, remember to be true to yourself. Be practical, but still allow yourself to dream. Be open to the universe."

Photo credit: Dan Tran


*About The MITRE Corporation The MITRE Corporation is a not-for-profit organization that provides systems engineering, research and development and information technology support to the government. It operates federally funded research and development centers for the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, with principal locations in Bedford, Mass., and McLean, Va. To learn more, visit

Singing, Dancing and Crying: Thoughts on Pilipino Television

One great amusement of going back to visit my folks’ place in New Jersey is their love of Pilipino television. Throughout the day, the television blares a medley of emotive music and phrases in Tagalog. The sounds coming from the TV act almost like an alarm clock; I know what time of day it is, based on which show's opening theme reverberates down the hall. showtime-to-end-soon-abs-cbn

Growing up, I found Pilipino television to be absolutely maddening. “Teleserye” (or, Pilipino drama series) rotate every few months, though it can be hard to tell one from another. There is always an angel-faced “inosente” who never stops crying versus an angry “contrabida” who can be counted on to throw objects and dirty looks. The variety shows are even more bewildering. Scantily-clad dancers gyrate to repetitive pop songs and hand out prizes during game sequences to modestly-dressed winners hailing from faraway provinces, crying in gratitude to accept their winnings.

“These people are being exploited,” my sister said once, as we watched these shows together with critical eyes. And perhaps that is one reason why Pilipino television was and sometimes still is an outrage to me. There is an exploitive quality to these shows: human emotion and relationships are reduced to banal storylines. Glamour and status are reserved for roles played by actors with perfect pale skin and flawless figures. The true-life stories of the Pilipino working class are only told when contestants become champions in some childish game, and then these heroes-for-a-moment are whisked offstage and forgotten once the segment is over. It concerns me that this is what Pilipino culture looks like to the outside world: an over-the-top circus of nonstop singing, dancing and crying.

When I was younger, I often asked my family what value they saw in these programs. Allow me to paraphrase and translate my grandmother’s elegant reply. She said, “People who watch these have nothing to lose. I see hope when someone wins a prize.”

Now that I haven't been living at my parents' house for quite some time, these TV shows stir up more nostalgia than annoyance. Being home, in front of the TV with my parents is one of the rare times and places that I can listen to Tagalog all day, refreshing my memory and keeping the language alive. I can only imagine the joy and comfort the shows can give to Fil-Ams who had to leave their traditions, families and native tongues behind, like my parents. It’s a link to their home, and it’s become a link to home and roots for me as well.

The existing programs on Pilipino television may not be the perfect or even the best representation of the Pilipino spirit, but it’s the best we've got for now. And there are a handful of shows that convey true stories of Pilipinos of all backgrounds (“MMK” comes to mind). My hope is that the first generation Fil-Am community that I belong to will continue to be critical of Pilipino media. I hope that we'll strive to study the richness of our heritage and history beyond what Pilipino pop culture now offers, branching out to reinterpret what we have to create something even better, and more meaningful for future generations.