For more than half my life I have been confused about where I am from.
I once wrote “FILIPINO” as my nationality on a student visa application form, and had my mother hurriedly correct it before I turned it into the embassy official.
I have memorized how to recount, “My family’s from the Philippines, but I was born in Texas,” to every inquiring stranger since I was a child.
I do not speak my “mother tongue”, and have been asked on more than one occasion to justify this.
I experience a myriad of pride and distaste, when strangers try to connect the dots for me about my own history.
I am inherently upset by the same corruption, poverty, and religious zealotry that probably drove my parents from their home country decades ago. But I latch fervently to my inheritance of unbridled hospitality, familial loyalty, and a universal perseverance to retain culture no matter how far we are spread around the world. In the face of constant struggle, Filipinos exert light-hearted humor and improbable optimism, an ability to laugh at life’s hardest moments. I see this inherently in my own family, and in the smiles of uprooted Filipinos I have met all over the world.
My time spent abroad has taught me the duality of self-perception against global understanding. Being identified openly by my race was something I became more familiar with once outside the comfortable bubble of the Bay Area. In many ways I have taken back the perception of who I am on the outside with the ink I’ve engraved onto my body, with the tone of voice I use when I speak.
But I have found myself asking, what is it makes me Filipino?
And what is it that makes me overwhelmingly more American?
I read somewhere that the best part of a country is also what makes it the worst. In the case of Filipinos and the Philippines, an ability to retain happiness in the face of adversity has also normalized suffering. Like those in heavily corrupted developing countries, Filipinos will retain the status quo that gets them by rather than upending the system, perpetuating immoral societal structures that exacerbate gaps between the wealthy and poor; they remain frustratingly attached to Western influences, the twisted vestiges left behind from centuries of colonial occupation. Maybe in a lot of ways, my own identity crisis mirrors that of my collective kinfolk.
There is a consensus in popular culture about the selfless demeanor of Filipinos; hardworking people whose natural tendency to give care has developed into an expansive diaspora of Filipinos abroad. Popularly, many Filipinos working abroad raise other peoples’ children, take care of their elderly, tend to patients in crowded hospitals. Just as with all of reality’s dual perceptions, this humble work ethic can also be seen as learned docility, a toxic reframing of our willingness to work in a system of unfair power dynamics.
I have seen how twisted cultural norms degrade a country I’ve hardly spent any time in. I have met many women and men who left everyone they knew to do backbreaking work, away from their families in order to support them.
When I lived in Paris, I stayed briefly with a distant aunt who I fought with constantly over the course of a year. Time has given me the power of forgiveness, because I finally recognized what caused the sharp edge of resentment in her voice whenever she looked at me. Bitterness from years of dealing with an alcoholic husband, of not having been able to raise her own children, from doing the emotional labor for a rich family that did not value her. Even then, this conclusion is very one-sided, observations drawn from such a brief time spent together, one that could never truly reflect the complexity of one woman’s life.
I rediscover new appreciation for my roots everyday. Yet I also find myself finding new reasons to be outraged, to bristle at the fact that an entire people has spent so much time under the vice of colonialism that assimilation now comes second nature. A rejection of indigenous roots, animist traditions that date back further than the tide of Spanish control. And I am unapologetically exasperated at an inability to see institutional Catholicism as nothing but a historical consequence of colonization.
My adolescence took me on a strange journey of acceptance, as I constantly rearranged the way I prioritized my ethnic identity. I have reconciled my hang ups over the years, while simultaneously realizing there are some things I may never make peace with. This especially applies to my perception and understanding of myself as a first world American citizen. I can’t help but balk at every backpacker that drawls on about the beauty of Philippines, their love for a tropical paradise that I never really felt authentically extended to the people living there.
But I digress since this can be said of any exotic country westerners choose to find refuge in. I am quick to accuse myself of the same behavior when I think of my attachment to Nepal.
What has fascinated me about life, especially in recent years, is the resurfacing of themes from my childhood that have manifested again in more nuanced and complex ways. My desire for purpose. My connection to my family. My power as a woman. The origins of my history.
Part of growth is realizing you cannot make homes inside of other people. The obvious secret one forgets is that you never have to feel homesick for the inside of your own skin. Despite our culture’s pernicious reverence for white skin, I have learned to love the darkness of my melanin, how it allows me to soak in as much light from the sun as I please. I have learned to celebrate my smallness, and to venerate that my beginnings trace to a time and a place out of reach from my realm of perception.
I may never truly know “what” makes me Filipino. I do know what it is that makes me my mother’s daughter. That I have inherited my father’s good nature. That I have my grandfather’s calloused hands, my grandmother’s enduring spirit. Even if, at the end of the day, I do not speak the language of my ancestors, I have found a deep sense of harmony between the identity I was born into and the one I’ve chosen to create. And maybe, at the end of the day, this is enough.