What it Means to be Filipino-American
By Jeanne F. Jalandoni
(About the author: Jeanne is the second placer of the 1st Fil-Am History Month Essay Writing which was sponsored by the Fil-Am Press Club of New York in October 2018. Jeanne is a visual artist by profession who obviously can write magnificently as well.)
I sat comfortably during my senior year at New York University, awaiting the start of my Asian-American Studies lecture. Without much knowledge on early Filipino-American experiences, I excitedly anticipated a history lesson on successful Filipinos who migrated to America. However, my professor led his presentation with political cartoons depicting Filipinos as uneducated, childlike, and having ape-like features. When he asked the class to share our reactions, my friend turned to me and prodded, “Don’t you want to say something?” I had a formal understanding of American racism, but I never had to confront the history personally. I felt conflicted that the history behind my American identity was one that dehumanized Filipinos. So even though I understood the cartoons reflected my national heritage, my family, and myself, I was frozen and didn’t say anything.
This inability to defend my heritage stemmed from my childhood. I grew up confronting alienating remarks from classmates and tirelessly making light of my hairy arms, wide nose and cultural differences that were dubbed ‘weird’ and ‘ugly’. Being the only Filipino-looking girl cornered me into believing that I had to like what the majority liked and be disgusted by what they found disgusting, in order to prove I was just as cool, pretty, and American. In high school and college, I thought I’d find solace joining Filipino clubs. I was excited to enter a room full of others who finally looked like me and understood my cultural references. But they always seemed more Filipino. They’d laugh over curse words and phrases they knew in Tagalog and tried to bond over discussing typical Filipino meals with me. Because these were not my experiences, I lost motivation in attending club meetings and accepted that I wasn’t Filipino enough. When asked about my origins, I would say, “I’m American”, and reinforce this by explaining that I’ve never been to the Philippines or speak Tagalog. My parents raised me to assimilate to White culture, as a way of fitting-in with my peers, and to pronounce my last name as “JA-lan-doni” instead of “HA-lan-doni” to avoid confusion. I grew up obsessing over the Beatles, with teenage dreams of being a punk rocker and playing tennis professionally. My parents further assumed “un-Filipino” roles by encouraging my artistic pursuit and luckily never forcing me to become a nurse.
Although I felt isolated in my Filipino-American experience, I finally found relatability with my bicultural friends through post-collegiate conversations on identity. I began researching Philippine history because I desired to create avenues to dead ends of my ancestral knowledge. I also started questioning the point of labeling myself as ‘American’ if I would always be seen as foreign. I finally decided to forfeit my internal game of tug-of-war between being more or less Filipino, and declare that it is impossible to assign an umbrella definition of being Filipino-American because the diaspora of Filipinos in America holds an infinite amount of experiences.
Therefore, my definition of being Filipino-American can only be my definition alone. It means confronting looks that question what country my wide nose, brown skin and almond eyes came from. It means respecting the traditions of my family and inheriting qualities like resourcefulness and infectious smiles. It means overhearing my parents and titas’ tsismis in Tagalog and only being able to respond in English.
Most importantly, being Filipino-American means inheriting the power to create a legacy for other Filipino-Americans; proclaiming that we are not more or less of one culture, but a complicated, diverse combination of both. (Featured photo by Grace Labaguis of Synergy Production and Marketing; Jeanne with 2nd prize sponsors Fernando Mendez of Fiesta in America and Laura Garcia of NAFFAA New York.)