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Filipino roots, American soil

Updated: Jan 18

Photo by Femi Henry-Chia and Rebekah Grace de Guzman

A while back, I saw a TikTok where an interviewer on the streets of Manila asked Filipinos, most of whom were college students, "Are Filipinos-Americans real Filipinos?" And, to my shock, most of them said something like, "No, not really." They elaborate on how Filipino-Americans can reap the benefits of the American Dream, with all of its principles and privileges. To them, this makes Filipino-Americans more American to the point that there is no Filipino left in them.

Entrance to Camp John Hay (image by Zaldy Comanda of Manila Bulletin)

Of course, this is an issue with American glorification. When I went to the Philippines last December, we stayed at Camp John Hay in Baguio City. As a former American military base during the Philippine-American War, I wondered why the name stayed as John Hay despite how traumatic the war was– to which my aunt responded, “We’re suck-ups.” It's, unfortunately, the consequence of centuries of colonization ending with the United States on an absolute ego high after WWII being the ones responsible for you. (But hey, we got Jollibee out of it!)

Though the undoing of American and Western glorification in Asia is very important and needs to be addressed in those spaces, it is the root of my insecurity about the Filipino half of my Filipino-American identity. My authenticity as a Filipino has never been fully validated by the community of homegrown Filipinos around me. Case in point: when I’m asked if I can speak Tagalog, I say “Konti lang, po,” which means “Only a little bit,” and I get a disappointed sigh and a “But you need to learn!”

This lack of Tagalog speaking skills results in conversations with my extended family that are lost in translation. Part of it, according to them, is because I “talk like an American,” and that means they don’t understand my nuances and slang. I’m told to slow down, and slowing down becomes hounding on my personality (“You’re too loud!”), my dreams (“Are you sure you want to be a screenwriter?”), and my morals.

I can’t help but feel hurt when they say, without even a second to think about it, “You need to remember where you came from.” Though I live in one of the most multicultural cities in the States, I’m still constantly reminded of it. We fall under the model minority myth, and in my youth, I succumbed to it. Even still, we are known notoriously as domestic helpers, cleaning staff, and nail ladies. A sense of inferiority led my dad and many other Filipinos to fall numb to Pinoy baiting.

And that brings another moral: “Your family comes first.” My dad likes to recount how when he came to the States, “I only had the clothes on my back and one hundred dollars in my pocket.” My mom sacrificed her education toward becoming an engineer and instead came here. Why? “So you can have a better life.” It’s a phrase that all of my fellow first-generation immigrants know by heart, but we know they mean it. For that, I’m always grateful for my parents. For that, I’ve set myself out to make sure it was worth it for them.

Despite all of this, I know why they would think I’d put myself first no matter what. It is my dreams, my personality, and how I talk– to them, I am American. To them, Americans can pursue their passions; they don’t care about what anyone else thinks. They know I value those things, but why has it become my whole identity to my people?

Pia Wurtzbach winning Miss Universe 2015 (image by Getty Images)

If anything, I’ve retained the Pinoy pride in my blood. I love being Filipino. If I were ever on death row, palabok and lumpia would be my last meal. I scream the lyrics to Paligoy-Ligoy by Nadine Lustre. I call Olivia Rodrigo my “ate,” which means “older sister” in Tagalog. Even when I was seven, I cried when Pia Wurtzbach won Miss Universe in 2015. I’m so proud of my people’s work and what we’ve accomplished.

I felt a part of myself crack when I saw this now-deleted TikTok of a Filipino “calling out” a Filipino-American for wearing a stole of the Filipino flag at her college graduation. He claimed that she violated a Filipino law in which the flag of the Philippines cannot be worn as a costume, going on to say that this “foreigner” couldn’t even do the bare minimum of researching the culture.

“Foreigner” became a buzzword. Filipino-Americans were rightfully upset, myself included. She wasn’t even parading the flag as a costume; she wanted to wear it to represent her heritage on one of the most important days of her life. Though the foundation of our identities is grown on American soil, our roots are still Filipino. No one has the right to deny that.

So. The question of whether Filipino-Americans are real Filipinos. To the college students in the TikTok video, I have this to say to you:

You'll never know the late nights while watching Pacquiao games. You'll never know the joy of doing tinikling well into your young adult years. You'll never know the bliss of singing songs in our mother language together. These things may never be Filipino to you, but for us, they keep us close to our heritage. They are the pieces that we needed to pick up and put together in this foreign land. And that's what makes us real Filipinos.

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