Self-Reflection in Aisle Five: Finding Myself at Red Ribbon

By Czaerra Ucol, FINDink Contributor

Finding yourself is a really daunting task. Just the thought of how far inward you can study your own self - kinda like the expanding brain meme - can put one off of looking more deeply into their identity. But, like the weirdly adventurous person I am, I decided to jump right into it!

For those of you that don’t know me, I came into college as a Chemistry major on the Pre-Med track. I had always envisioned myself becoming a doctor in the future, and once I became one step close to that image, I realized it’s not what I wanted at all. I still love the complexity and thrill of solving a problem right when it comes to STEM, but my motivations for majoring in Chemistry had faded once I saw the cut-throat and competitive community surrounding me. The one happy part of my first semester of college, however, is what sparked my journey into self-reflection: I had decided to take Tagalog to fulfill my language requirement. I myself do not speak Tagalog, and honestly neither do my parents since both actually speak Ilocano more often.

I had expected a dry lecture - much like the language classes I took in high school - but what I received was much more. My teacher (Professor Agnes Magtoto) took it upon herself to teach her students not only the language of the Philippines, but the history and culture. Tagalog became my favorite class, and that’s when it dawned on me; I wasn’t a “different” person from the Czaerra that was passionate about solving math problems. My love for complexity paired with my lingering confusion over what it means to be Filipino-American suddenly paired and led me to the most obvious decision I could make - switching my major to Asian Pacific American Studies.

Now, most of my classes this semester are dedicated to my new major, and being surrounded by so many other Asian/-American people just as excited about learning as I am makes me feel like I’m not alone in my endeavors. Now that I’ve begun to tackle the academic way of exploring my identity of being Filipino-American, I decided to expand my horizons and try to apply myself in the “real world”. How did I do it, you ask? Simple: I got a job.

But it wasn’t just any job - I had gotten a job at Red Ribbon located inside the newly created Seafood City in Chicago. For those of you that may not know, Seafood City is a gigantic Filipino marketplace that sells everything from ube halaya to dinuguan. I actually already worked another job, but as a millennial struggling in our capitalist society, I applied for another job and got it. The reason I picked Red Ribbon was because I felt that while food service in general is a difficult job, being the face of an integral part of Filipino culture and being surrounded by people that look like me would help soften the infrequent blows to my confidence.

I was really shy at first; I was actually one of only two Filipino-Americans on the crew at the time. Everyone else was an immigrant from the Philippines, ranging in age, aside from one other Mexican-American worker that was my age. Going into work, I felt alienated from the rest of my co-workers at first when they would joke with each other in normal-speed Tagalog, which is much faster than the snail’s pace speed we speak Tagalog in during my language class. My fluency level isn’t that high, so customers that spoke to me in Tagalog were very dismissive of me when I’d answer in English. Like, clearly I understood you enough to reply, so why would you then ask, “Are you Filipino?”. Sigh. Even the supervisor that had interviewed me for the position asked if I was Filipino.

It was a weird feeling; Among non-Filipinos, I was very clearly Filipino, but among other Filipinos, I was very clearly separated as American. I guess I should have seen it coming; While the two groups (Filipino and Filipino-Americans) do share a history, at a certain point - ie. whenever your family immigrated to the US - we split off into congruent yet still different struggles. But, I couldn’t exactly voice my deeply personal questions while a customer was complaining to me about her halo-halo being too cold. Yes, that happened. I don’t know what temperature she expected ice to be but… yeah…

I strictly went into my second job thinking that, as a short-term job, I wouldn’t make any close friends. Well damn, was I wrong. I guess you could say this was my first “real” job - my first job was/still is that of a music teacher’s assistant - and so I’ve never had experience in the food industry or with customer service. I always felt really burnt out because I would have to teach in the morning at work at night, but I’m the sort of person to not let others worry about my own problems so I tried not to let it bother me. Over time, though, the older women working there took me in as their little sister and the people my age were like my cousins. The shared hardships suddenly clicked and the Filipino inclination to describe all relationships with other Filipinos as familial started. In my moments of being burnt out and unable to stand all day at the register or carry cakes, I remember little moments like my co-workers buying halo-halo for me and letting me unofficially take a break. I also remember all the conversations we’d have when the day had winded down and basically no customers came into the store an hour before closing. They’d tell me about their partners, their kids, where they’re from in the Philippines - they really opened up to me.

I think I was taken aback just because I had never experienced older Filipino people treating me as an equal instead of someone younger than them, if that makes sense. The (perhaps unintentional) generational gap between, for example, me and my titos and titas at family gatherings was a very real issue I had always dealt with; but now that I’ve turned 19 and gained my own independence, it was nice not being looked down on and respected even more by my “elders” - I put it in quotes because they’re only 10-15 years older than me and want to preserve their youth (sorry, ates!).

Of course, there were times I’d still feel alienated. Obviously, no amount of simultaneous mopping of a bakery floor or stuffing leftover ensaymadas into our mouths is going to solve the problem of immigration and lack of connection to the motherland felt by the diasporic community. My co-workers would be talking about what community colleges they’re going to and the fact that I had been able to be accepted by an out-of-state school, and it being NYU, was shocking to them. I realized the bubble of academia had swallowed me up once again and made me blind to the people I’m really supposed to be talking to in order to further my understanding of what it means to be Filipino.

You can read as many Filipino-American academic papers as you can, and you can have the purest intentions at heart, but it’s important to ground yourself by remembering individuals in the community you’re trying to connect to. Productivity in terms of making progress in your path of self-identification doesn’t have to be anything big like being able to write a whole article about it; it can be comprised of smaller steps as easy as making a friend you can share your love of being Filipino together.

Disclaimer: The views of the author do not necessarily represent the views of FIND, Inc.