Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Question of Identity

I am a Filipino-American, or as Filipino colloquialism would suggest, “Fil-Am”. Not many of you would know thus, but for many first generation Filipino-Americans, like myself, we often struggle with our IDENTITY. Amongst my non-Filipino friends, I am THE Filipino. Amongst my Filipino friends, in the Philippines, I am THE American.

However, I never really know where I fit in within both cultures because I constantly question: Am I Filipino or American? Here in the Philippines, I try to blend in as a “Filipino” but my body type, accent, and attitude is the typical American. While in the U.S., my long black hair, dark skin, and clique of Filipino friends make me “The Filipino.”

I realized early on that I could never be wholly Filipino or wholly American. I also learned that I could neither find comfort in being wholly Filipino nor wholly American. Instead, I find solace in the THE HYPHEN. That middle dash in between Filipino and American. That hyphen is my signifies me..standing on the precipice of two cultures and trying to embrace both.
Growing up, my mother denied me one thing, my language.

My mother and father were immigrant workers in the 1970s. They struggled financially all their lives and worked odd jobs like fast food restaurants, maintenance, hotel cleaning, cafeteria workers, florists, etc. They weren’t college  nor high school educated so you can imagine how much pressure they placed on my brother and I to do well in school.

Throughout their struggles they came to the hard realization that America is a difficult place to live. They encouraged my brother and I to learn English and they spoke to us only in English because they believed by having a different accent and by speaking our native Filipino dialect we only differentiate ourselves in society. By being different and being blatantly Filipino we only encourage stereotypes, judgements, and fewer opportunities because people would look down on us.

This denial of my culture was further exacerbated by the American system. For those of you who do not know, America likes to place people in neat ethnic boxes. When you apply for a divers license, college, or taxes you have check off which ethnicity you belong to.

In my case, when I applied for college I had to check off one of five boxes: Latin American/ Hispanic, Asian America/Pacific Islander, African American, Caucasian, and OTHER.

So, naturally, being a Filipino American, I asked where do I belong? Am I Latin American, simply because we share the same Spanish oppressor? Am I Asian-American, simply because the Philippines is considered part of the Asian region? Am I Pacific Islander, simply because I live amongst of Polynesians? Or am I an “Other” because even my own government cannot place me in the right category? Where do I actually fit in?

If not a Filipino..then an American..if not an American..then what type of American? An “other” American?

At this point in my life I have lived in the Philippines for more than two years and even now I find it hard to blend in to Filipino society. I have yet to fully grasp the language. In fact a lot of my Filipino friends bemoan my inability to understand Filipino jokes and sayings. My literal translation of everything and backwards attempt at speaking Tagalog is abysmal.

Moreover, my attitude has put me in trouble more than once when I get into heated discussions for supporting same sex marriages, stem sell research, freedom of choice for women, and reproductive health. I am very forthright in what I want and I am also very outspoken when need be. When I try to speak in Tagalog, everyone laughs and when I speak in English everyone cringes and they run away with an excuse. Even being an American in the Philippines is difficult!

In the end, I realize that I will spend the rest of my life struggling to reconcile the differences and I will always be stuck in the middle, like the hyphen, continually belonging in the middle and precariously balancing both worlds in one. I guess in the end, you cannot call me Filpino or American. Perhaps the U.S. government cannot recognize me as Filipino-American. In the end do not call me “fil-am” just the hyphen.

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