By Czaerra Ucol, FINDink Contributor
As someone from another large metropolitan city, I actually didn’t expect the change of living in New York City to be a shock to my system. I already understood how to read the MTA map and how to avoid eye contact with someone selling their mixtape on the sidewalk, so I felt that I would be able to fit right in. However, I found myself interacting with a whole other community that I never had back home: Filipino people that grew up around other Filipino people. My boyfriend and his friends told me about a yearly summer camp they participated in where they would learn about Filipino culture and it was like a dream to me - Wet Hot American Summer but for Filipino kids? I’m there! The feeling of “not being Filipino enough” creeped up on me yet again. However, instead of the source being my own family members, this was because of my peers that I should have (and now do) feel more comfortable around.
I’ll provide a little rundown of my beloved hometown/region of the USA for those of you not familiar; While the percentage of Filipinos among total area population are comparable between the Chicago Metropolitan Area and New York/New Jersey (1.38% and 1.15%, respectively, according to the 2010 census), Illinois - and the Midwest in general - is just too big. As someone that lives in the city (Portage Park on the Northwest Side for anyone curious), I think it’s a fair observation to say that all the Filipino people I know live in the suburbs. My own theory is that new Filipino immigrants, much like the rest of you in the US that read/watch the news, are probably weary of “all the violence” taking place in my hometown, in addition to the rampant antiblackness in the community that plays into their fear of the South and Westside. This mentality is what I believe to be a large contributor in why the Filipino community in Chicago is so scattered. There’s practically cornfields between me and the next Filipino person I could possibly relate to. While there are yearly events like Piyesta Pinoy (shoutout to Filipinos In Alliance at University of Illinois-Chicago for letting me dance with them) that I can go to where I can enjoy watching people dance and sing, there’s nothing really comparable to Jersey City and Woodside, Queens. There’s no concrete place in the Midwest I can say matches the level of comradery - perhaps the recently-opened Seafood City which I worked at this summer. My longing for a Little Manila to visit within close proximity like my friends who ventured to Chinatown or K-town after class has been something I’ve wished for my whole life but never realized.
To better gauge feelings on “feeling Filipino enough” amongst my peers, I released a survey requesting that they share some of their experiences growing up without resources like a Filipino summer camp, or active community center in order to learn more about their culture. The general consensus seems to have begun actively pursuing their identity as a Filipino during their late high school/early college years. Many note that most of their high schools didn’t even have a Filipino club, and could only find a sense of community during an event like Simbang Gabi every December. But, as we are not a monolith in terms of religion either, the latter also alienated parts of our community. “I feel like I missed out on a lot growing up because of [embarrassment], like joining Filipino communities (although, one other reason why I rejected these communities was because they were church-based, but the popularity of Catholicism among Filipinos is a whole other thing that I grappled with),” writes Julia from Colonia, NJ.
Others mentioned their attempt at trying to fit in with other Asian people in their community who were non-Filipino; “I used to be so jealous of west coast Asians because they had a cool group of Asian friends. Looking in retrospect, I loved that I grew up in the Midwest. I have such a diverse friend group and I'm glad I didn't grow up in the infamous Asian bubble.” says Isabelle S. from Chicago, now attending college in California. Kyra Y, also from Chicago, writes, “As a Filipino person I hated when people try to define Filipinos as "somewhat Spanish" or "somewhat Asian" when Filipino is its own independent and fully developed race and culture.” Trying to fit in with these non-Filipino groups were even harder for others, as noted by respondents who are of mixed ethnicities. I think it’s interesting to note these early realizations of the complexity of the ethnic background of many of today’s Filipino population.
I think every respondent - and to a larger degree, the entirety of the Filipino-American community, will have some sort of resonance like I did with this quote from Paul* from Chicago, who wrote, “...I felt like a stranger when I lived back home in the Philippines and even then back here in America.”
The biggest thing to gather is that there is no one way of being Filipino. You don’t have to write for FINDINK. You don’t have to be good at tinikling. You don’t have to love balut. You don’t have to be a one-stop shop on current events in the Philippines for others. You don’t have to speak Tagalog. You don’t have to be fully, ethnically Filipino. You don’t have to attend Catholic Church every Sunday morning. You don’t have to go to your college’s Filipino club’s parties if you’re more introverted and/or not really into drinking. You don’t have to read every book Jose Rizal has written. After reading the responses to my survey and talking to many Filipino-Americans, I’ve come to realize something that could basically be the lesson of a Disney Channel Original Movie: You’re never alone in your struggle to find out who you are. Hell, Moana, Mulan, Hercules, and dozens of other children's’ films have already shown us that we’ll be successful in the end no matter the struggle. It’s pretty cheesy, but I refuse to be a gatekeeper for who is and isn’t Filipino, and no one else should be one either.
My basic rule of thumb: You have a right to your salient identity as a Filipino-American, and are able to claim that in any way that you want. In times like now, where many Filipinos claim that being colorblind is the best route to take in a world filled with hate-fueled speech and racist marches, we cannot ignore who we are. Through our colonized last names and “vaguely Asian” features, we carry our people’s history - and we should be proud, not fearful.
Thank you to everyone that participated in my survey!
*Name has been changed for anonymity reasons.
Disclaimer: The views of the author do not necessarily represent the views of FIND, Inc.