Balancing Act

By Franches Garay, FINDink Contributor

I have a birthmark on the skin right between leg and foot — a dark brazen oddity that planted its roots from, as my parents liked to tell me growing up, a Moringa (kalamungay) tree my mom used to eat obsessively when she was pregnant with me. The birthmark contrasted prominently against unblemished skin, colors merely coexisting. It was something that I continuously used to try to hide as a kid, a part of myself I was, in all essence of the word, ashamed of.

I wanted to cover up the brown.

Growing up, I don’t think I ever realized – or become fully aware of – my racial identity until I moved to America. Brown skin looked odd, out of place amongst the blanket of white. The colors contrasted against each other, colors merely coexisting. Two sides of the same coin.     

My mom – barely 5’2 but had enough tenacity and heart to move mountains (figuratively but also probably literally) –  had created something akin to paradise in a small, modest three-bedroom row house in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. To her, sacrifice had become synonymous to the American Dream, trading in long hours at the hospital in exchange for the opportunity to give her kids a chance in a world beyond all she’s ever known.

The thing is, I have a heritage molded so intricately into my being, have pride for a culture so boldly and unapologetically yet I feel as though I have forgotten. As if my past had been watered down, diluted to the point that the branches littered with Moringa leaves have died out as not to overshadow the growth of a new one in all its entirety.

I’ve noticed that throughout the years, my native tongue has become nothing more than a ghost in the system, embedded in the back of my throat laying dormant. It was, in a way, easier that way – to lose a part of yourself in exchange for something else that would produce the most benefit. In nature, it’s called survival of the fittest. In this sense, it meant slowly forgetting an essential part of who I was.

I wanted to fit in but my skin was brazen in its brownness, unapologetic in the way it spoke of the stories and the histories of the Filipino culture. It spoke of Spanish colonialism, mango trees, Lapu-Lapu, and a group of people whose heart and pride for their culture transcended into waves.

The Philippines is the place that marked my birth, the land that gave birth to my identity. To all I’ve ever known. I was a seed planted in the rich culture of the Filipino soil forced to uproot to find a home in a place halfway across the world. But, I did. I grew roots in Philadelphia, in Hartford, in every place I’ve been and with every person that has changed my life.

For a while, I didn’t know I could live as both. I have yet to learn how to let the two intertwine as one entity without losing parts of one to another. I have yet to understand how to spin around the two sides of the same coin without letting one fall flat. It’s a mixture of planted roots in two opposing soils, of tongues, traditions, and cultures.

I have yet to learn how to walk the tightrope of this balancing act but I have slowly let myself outstretch my arms into the sky like branches with leaves of both Moringa and White Oak.

 

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

Everybody Talks Everybody Talks, It Started With a Whisper

By Franches Garay, FINDink Contributor

An adaptation of my college admission essay.

For the longest time, I couldn’t speak.

It sounded foreign to my ears; words that were supposedly English weighed down by the accented lilt of the Filipino culture. Every word that came out of my mouth sounded wrong, sounded imported —  as if there was a glaring stamp placed on my head just to further set me apart from everybody else: “Made in the Philippines.”

The move to America had not been a surprise to me. My mom had gone to the States before the rest of the family and for the years she was gone, she would call every night telling me tales of North Carolina’s winter night and bustling lights — how little snowflake fell from the clouds and stuck to the eyelashes of blue-eyed strangers and how little angels imprinted themselves onto the sidewalks blanketed by pure white. Growing up, I knew my mom as letters on the back of stamped postcards and as whatever pasalubong in balikbayan boxes that brought my five year old a sense of temporary glee. I remember that my little sister, barely three at the time of my mom’s departure, would cut out pictures of her and tape it to our family photos because every one looked just a little bit emptier without her.

Prior to our move, every conversation revolved around America — it was a brand new world and a brand new adventure. My parent’s called it the “family’s greatest adventure as of yet.” Consumed with naivety and innocent expectations, I agreed. And in November of 2006, I uprooted everything I ever knew and left behind the only place I’ve ever called home.

I remember that I used to - sometimes even today - pronounce words in my head again and again before even considering saying something, just to make sure that I said it right. It was a routine I memorized, a security blanket I veiled upon myself before even contemplating opening my mouth. It's hard to describe in words; a complex process that involved a lot of polishing, a lot of straightening out the foreign, ragged edges. The tongue flicks swiftly to the center of the mouth to trace every edge and every curve of each letter and the vocal cords vibrate in a smooth cadence to shape the normal rhythm of the American syllables. The routine became second nature, like a law I made myself live by. For the longest time, I spoke in a volume just above silence, a short and clipped voice of a mere whisper. The less time they heard me spoke, the less time they would be able to pick the sentences apart for any mispronunciations. Often, the fear would leave me crippled and paralyzed. I became quiet, self-conscious. The fear consumed me to the point that the words I spoke would echo back into my own ears as a crowd of faceless people laughing. For years in the confines of a classroom, I stayed silent and when I did speak - which was a rare moment - I did it quietly in fear of being laughed at. Presentations in front of the class were my worst nightmares and conversations with others were short lived.

It wasn't until recently that I realized that I let a fear so irrelevant dictate who I was. For the longest time, I made the mistake of continually fearing I would make one. For the longest time, I was unable to speak, not because I physically couldn't but because I wouldn't let myself. For the longest time, I silenced myself for the approval of others.

It took me a while until I was able to realize that my voice was just as important as anybody else's. Though still slightly tinged with a Filipino accent, my voice is a stamp I now wear with pride and honor: "Made in the Philippines” and damn proud of it.

 

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

Where is home?

By Czaerra Ucol, FINDink Contributor

Adapted from a finsta post after I arrived back in the U.S. after a vacation in the Philippines. I went this past winter break, but before that, the last time I went was in 2006 for my 8th birthday.

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where is home?

is home Chicago? i often tell people at school that the taste of deep dish pizza is very personal to me. whether you consider it real pizza or not, it has deep connotations with my childhood for me. this windy city - where barely any of my friends live anymore - now feels empty. those that i would take the bus home with after school are now thousands of miles away. my bedroom that i painstakingly painted my favorite shade of bright yellow when i was a child, with my father, is now merely a guest room. my childhood home was often the first stop for some family members that first immigrated to the US, but now at night i no longer hear loud conversations in Ilocano from the dining room. i walk the streets of my neighborhood late at night and no longer have anywhere to visit, no one’s house to stop by. certain sidewalk cracks remind me of a former partner, or perhaps a quintessential part of my adolescence. but that is all they are to me - memories of a past life. i am an adult ghost in my childhood fantasies.

is home the Philippines? they say distance makes the heart grow fonder, but after 12 years, its hard for these faces to not be reduced to merely a yearly notification of a “happy birthday” facebook message. it’s hard being close when you have an entire ocean between you. i remember my grandparents’ home in Bacarra - my brother, my 7 cousins, and i would all sleep together in one room, staying up all night and exchanging stories about America and the Philippines. the night before my 8th birthday was so exciting. now we are all older, our family has grown - 3 more cousins have been born since then - but we are all just as similar as before. i’ve never had a family reunion before, and yet this past winter, i visited a town where literally everyone had the same middle name as me. this inexplicable connection drew us together, and it was almost like i had never left. my mom often speaks about how we all inherited our great-grandfather’s wisdom, and i see that now. we visited his grave. i hope we are making him proud.

a week after i left the Philippines this past January, my grandparents’ home in Bacarra - empty and abandoned - was bulldozed. we visited it before we left - it had been looted. there were scattered photographs of my mother’s childhood tossed carelessly on the floor. we scavenged everything we could. i wonder what remains in the rubble now - or what it will look like the next time i see it. hopefully, it will not be another 12 years.

is home New York City? my biggest fear of moving to this city and going to such an esteemed school did not seem very scary to me when i was an ambitious 18-year-old - i was ready to take on a new challenge. but now, i am 19 (soon to be 20, about a week from writing this). college humbles everyone - at least, i hope it does. i often speak about how as someone raised in a large city, i am used to my life now. and while i am used to taking the subway or uncomfortably ignoring people selling me their mixtape, i was unprepared for the loneliness of the concrete jungle. however, i have forged a new family - one comprised of my friends, my partner, my filipino club members, my roommate - everyone that i’ve met along the way and has stayed has been nothing but supportive of me.

while i am grateful, i can’t help but continue looking for home. my dorm has housed many, many people before me. but this is not the place my mother offered to make me arroz caldo when i was sick, nor is it the place where i encountered an old notebook filled with old love poems written by my grandmother when she still had her eyesight.

i have almost been on this planet, existing, feeling, living for what i hope to be 1/5th of my life. perhaps the search will become easier along the way. maybe one day, i’ll be the diasporic individual able to reconcile the birthplace of my parents with the city i was nurtured and cared for in and the city where i’ve come into my own.

but for now, i will share these slightly ramble-y thoughts with you all.

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here's a short, cute little video documenting my trip to the philippines

 

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

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. 

A Shout from the Diaspora: Your Filipino-ness is Valid

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.