“That baby is so white,” a stranger said aloud at the grocery store, alarmed at the sight of a dark Southeast Asian man carrying a pale baby girl. It was 1998, potentially 1999. I wish I had my own recollection of that day, but the “white baby” was me.
This day was nevertheless interesting. It was the day I became known as “the white girl” in my family, something that oddly stuck with me throughout the years, growing up as a Filipino-American kid. It was my alternate identity, like my own weird version of Hannah Montana to Miley Stewart.
Both of my parents are Filipino and came to the United States shortly before I was born. I grew up hearing them speak Bisaya (a Filipino dialect), but I was almost exclusively spoken and read to in English.
From very early on, I identified as Filipino American. But as the years passed, this identity of mine became confusing, and at times it diverged into two separate entities that clashed.
Flash forward to 2003. “Bye, my palangga,” my mom said as I took my first step onto the school bus for my first day of kindergarten. At the time, I didn’t know what “palangga” meant (later on, I learned that it meant “beloved”). I was reading and speaking English at a second-grade level, but my Bisaya vocabulary was limited to common household words, pet names and frustrated exclamations. Occasionally, my parents would put on “Mga Awit Bulilit,” a DVD of Filipino children’s music videos. I sang along to “Bahay Kubo” and “Pen Pen de Sarapen” religiously by reading the Tagalog subtitles. I never learned the English lyrics. Nor did I ever learn the difference between Bisaya and Tagalog, the most commonly spoken language in the Philippines.
In fourth grade, I sat down at the sticky cafeteria table and excitedly opened my lunch, ginaling with white rice. “That looks like dog food,” my best friend muttered. “Is that Chinese? Aren’t you Chinese?” a boy asked. “I’m Filipino,” I said for the 100th time, not sure why I even bothered to explain it again. I knew I would be met with “What’s that?” and “Can you teach me words in your language?”
“I can’t really speak it,” I would say, followed by expressions of disappointment. “My language” was English. How could I teach my friends a language that was practically foreign to me?
At school, I was the stereotypical Asian kid who usually did well in school, had strict parents, took off my shoes upon entering the house and ate “weird” food with a fork and spoon instead of a knife and fork.
But at family gatherings, I was the whitewashed, Americanized girl who couldn’t understand Tagalog or Bisaya and was unaware of what life was like in the Philippines. My aunts, uncles and cousins would speak drawn-out sentences in Bisaya and tell me to respond. “I can’t really speak it,” I would say, followed by the same disappointed looks I would get from my classmates. Only these stabbed harder. They came from people who knew what they were talking about, while I didn’t know a thing. Even if I slightly understood what they said, I always hesitated to respond, fearful of butchering the pronunciations.
I already had enough criticisms constantly hanging over my head: “You need to get a tan,” “Why didn’t you ever learn Bisaya?” “Your hair is so thick, it looks so unkempt.” I didn’t care to be reminded of my other perceived flaws that made me “less Filipino.”
From a young age, my fair skin, unruly brown hair and language inabilities made me feel like an outsider in my own family. To my peers unaware of Filipinos and Filipino culture, I felt like an imposter. I confused myself with the ideas of not being Filipino enough, not being American enough or being too much or too little of either.
It was only recently that I finally became completely comfortable with the identity I had assumed in the very beginning: Filipino American.
My advice to anyone else who has felt like an outsider in your family, an imposter to your friends or both: You aren’t.
I know, it’s really frustrating to hear your mom gossiping about you over the phone to your aunt in a language you can’t even understand. Yes, it’s irritating when people ask you to speak words “in your language” or ask, “Where are you really from?”
I could go on and on about the annoyances (and there are many more I haven’t experienced and therefore can’t speak on).
In spite of them, your identity is yours, and it can’t be altered by other people’s perceived notions of “less.”
You are not “less” of a person because of the languages you can or can’t speak, the color of your skin, the texture of your hair, the food you eat or the way you eat it.
You are your own complete person, and while you may not always be able to speak for other people who share your identities, you also shouldn’t always let other people speak for you.
I am Filipino American. I eat my ginaling, sinigang, adobo and rice with a fork and spoon. I know every song on the “Hannah Montana” soundtrack, the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the tune of the Philippine national anthem, among other great music pieces.
When I graduate from this American university, I hope to one day visit the Philippines and contribute to the place my parents once called home. One day, I will be able to hold a conversation in Filipino — not only to respond to my relatives’ gossips about me but also to reach another population of people and connect more closely with my culture.
I am still growing and learning, but I am enough.