By Shea Formanes
About the author: Shea ranks fourth in the 1st FilAm History Month Essay Writing Contest sponsored by the Fil-Am Press Club of New York in October 2018. A senior at Bayside High School in Queens, she is a book worm and loves to write short stories, poems, and essays. This one is a great piece.
106,985,564 people. As of October 9th, 2018, that’s how many Filipinos are in the world. A reported 3.4 million Filipino-Americans live and work in the United States, many of them Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), who provide for their families. No matter where we are, Filipinos come from a culture that’s survived generational wars, political corruption, and the occupation of countries that sought to take our land.
Despite this, we’ve worked doggedly as nurses, doctors, bankers, teachers, or human resources managers. We are a culture that values generosity, kindness, and family. Yet no one acknowledges our existence.
To be Filipino-American means reminding yourself that the world hasn’t forgotten about you or where you come from. It means living in a country that’s published thousands of volumes about choosing what defines you: the culture you’re raised in, or the culture that you choose.
It means giving up one’s culture in favor of the mainstream, embracing a culture synonymous with being accepted. Being American first and Filipino second is an important distinction many first-generation American Filipinos make.
Of course, it’s not their fault. America doesn’t try to remember Filipinos. Perhaps it’s because we’re mutts, a combination of almost every Asian culture in existence.
Maybe it’s because when we walk out in public, we’re every other ethnicity except our own. And when we correct people, we have to pull out a globe as proof that the Philippines is a real place.
Even in media, the limited roles for Asians almost never permit Filipinos to break through the monotony of geeky best friends, rocket scientists, or that weird guy who really likes rice. We are Asian, which to America, is our only characteristic.
For years, I’ve been mistaken for almost every ethnicity or nationality under the sun, including (but not limited to): Peruvian, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Korean, Native American, Spanish, Portuguese, and Mongolian.
In my entire life, I’ve only seen a Filipino as the lead role in an American film twice: Jake Zyrus (then Charice Pempengco) in Here Comes the Boom and Dante Basco in The Debut. Outside of my family, I know very few people who look like me.
Growing up, my movie role model was Lilo Pelekai from Lilo and Stitch, because she wasn’t only eccentric, compassionate, and brave, but she had dark skin, black hair, and a weird-sounding last name, like me. As a Filipino-American, I looked for representation in any place I could find it. And in the rare case that I did find something, it felt like validation.
Filipino-Americans don’t have many acts to follow. Since there are so few of us, we are obligated to navigate our own paths, travelling to all corners of the world to help others in ways you could never imagine. A Filipino-American has to learn how to live beyond a label, to shape an identity beyond the fact that we’re Asian. Maybe that’s why you can find so many Filipino-Americans involved in the arts, where the only limit is one’s imagination.
In finding one’s path, a Filipino-American has to remember that they need to lead the way for future innovators, creatives, and game-changers. To do so, they have to remind themselves to never forget where they came from. Remember to call home, stop by for dinner to eat pancit, lechon, sinigang, chicken or beef adobo. Hold on to simple things, like eating everything with rice, taking off your shoes when you enter the house, asking your guests if they’re hungry, and making everyone a part of your family. Taking simple initiative allows a Filipino-American to be a part of something greater than themselves: a part of a people united not by blood, but by a desire to find the small, comfortable things in life, helping others see that along the way.
At 17, I don’t speak a lick of Tagalog, which is something I resent beyond reason. I was born in the United States, and I’ve only been to the Philippines five times in my life. Despite this, I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can about the language, its structure, why some words have different meaning depending on their arrangement, for the past decade. With my growing rolodex of Filipino vocabulary, I’ve been trying to respond to my mom (in English) as she speaks to me in Tagalog, analyzing bits and pieces through context clues.
While I usually screw up the translation, a part of me feels victorious whenever I translate something correctly. I may not see people that look like me, but I take comfort in that I’m making an effort to understand my culture, where I come from. It helps give me direction, that I’m connected to something ancestral and important to my family.
In that moment, I’m no longer an American Filipino. I’m a Filipino-American.