“Semi-American” is a term no one uses, because I just made it up for the purpose of this post. Honestly, a lot of the immigrant experience is hard to articulate because it can’t be generalized. So, “Semi-American” is the only way I can describe how I personally feel. Culturally, I’m not totally American. And, although my genetic makeup says I mostly am, I’m not totally Filipino. I am and will always be stuck between the two.
I don’t believe my parents could have ever prepared me for what my life would become after immigrating to America when I was in kindergarten. My dad might have been able to give me insight, he moved to the U.S. in high school, but it’s not like I was asking for it growing up. All of what I have learned about the Asian/Filipino American experience, I had to learn for myself.
Warning: This is a lengthy one. I have a really good memory, seriously. I also have a lot to say.
Lesson 1: You are different. Little things make you feel that way.
I have this really vivid memory from my first day of school in America. I had no idea what the word “Name” meant next to a line on the top right corner of my worksheet. Well, to be more accurate, I did know what the word meant but I’d never actually seen the word written down. I thought it was a question, and being the over-achieving six-year-old I was, I wanted to get the answer right. Well, I decided I had to cheat. So, I looked at the paper of the girl who was seated next to me. She wrote “Brittany.” I wrote the same. I caught on pretty quickly when I saw another girl wrote “Alice” and a boy wrote “Cody.” In the end, I wrote my name.
There was another time when my kindergarten teacher found out that I could read fairly well. I started reading at a pretty young age, in nursery school. In fact, I was the only one in my American kindergarten class who could read from the very beginning of the year. My teacher learned this about me when she saw that I was writing and spelling words correctly. She also heard me read aloud. One afternoon, she sat me down on our reading mat and asked me to read five pages from a chapter book.
I don’t remember what the book was, but I do remember coming across the state name “Connecticut.” In Filipino English, practically every letter of the word is pronounced. For example, the word “comfortable” is pronounced “com-fort-tab-bul” by Filipinos. Another thing that I’ve found in Filipino English is that, vowels are over-emphasized and stick to a long pronunciation. So, comfortable becomes “cOm-fOrt-tAH-bULL.” Well, I read Connecticut and said “cOn-nECK-ti-cUt.” My teacher corrected me and said, “No sweetie, it’s Cun-netti-cut.” MY BAD!
I still have moments like this where I feel like I can’t understand something, or come across something new that isn’t new to other people. It’s not that frustrating, nor does it make me feel any less than anyone. I just feel awkward and think, “DUH, SHAYNE! DUH!”
Lesson 2: You’ll never be completely understood.
When I was in high school, my parents decided that my two younger siblings needed the same Filipino experiences my brother and I had. We went to the Philippines as a family during the holidays of 2005. However, my two younger siblings stayed behind with my maternal grandmother and aunt. They ended up staying there for two and a half years. They went to school, learned how to speak Tagalog, and were completely immersed in Filipino culture during their formative years.
I would tell my friends that I had two younger siblings who were in the Philippines and they all had the same reaction. “YOUR PARENTS JUST LEFT THEM THERE? DON’T THEY LOVE THEM?”
NO! THEY DIDN’T JUST LEAVE THEM. AND WHAT THE HECK, DUH! WE LOVE THEM! ULOL!
Granted, I don’t know a lot of other Asian/Filipino American families who did the same, but it was tough to explain the reasoning behind it. I tried to say, “Well, my parents just want them to understand exactly where we come from.” It’s hard to explain that to someone who only knows life in one place and sees the “motherland” as just another vacation spot. More about this later.
Lesson 3: You will be stereotyped. You won’t be okay.
Even though I did grow up feeling like I was different, I was raised in a town where there was, and still is, a prevalent immigrant/minority population. Growing up, I was never on the receiving end of any blatant racism. There were as many Asian, Pacific Islander, Latino, African American kids as there were “white” kids. No one was a total minority or majority. Everyone was understanding of each other’s differences even when they couldn’t grasp those differences. I still think it’s that way. (Related: You can read about my hometown’s diversity in schools compared to the rest of the U.S. here.)
The only bad experience I’ve ever had was in recent years. I was in an elevator when a woman asked, “Where are you from?” I didn’t know what to say. Since I spent most of my life in the same town I said, “Here. I’m from here.” She looked at me up and down and said, “BULLSHIT YOU ARE. WHERE ARE YOU FROM?”
I was raised here, Lady! Calm down!
That was the only time I felt like living in a place with a great immigrant population was a double-edged sword. It was nice to grow up in a melting pot, but it wasn’t always that great for people to assume that I wasn’t from around here. I hate it when people don’t think I don’t have an authoritative view of my own hometown. Although I did have to immigrate here, I really don’t know how life is anywhere else. I went home that day in complete shock and with the realization that ignorance (the kind people choose to not change) will always exist.
Lesson 4: You might be judgmental of the second generation.
This is something I’ve had to come to terms with about myself. It isn’t the best attribute of my personality, of anyone’s personality. We don’t want to be judgmental people always throwing around their opinions, I mean what kind of #lifegoals are those? Still, I find a hard time relating to people (mostly American born and raised Filipinos) who talk about the Philippines like it’s this magical mountain of rainbows, unicorns, butterflies, booze, and boobs. Okay, maybe not exactly that.
Philippines is home to me. It will always be. It’s a place full of history. It’s not just a place to get drunk and swim in the ocean all day. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do that if you so desire. But, I still think it’s worth your time to learn about why they have these festivals, what it means to the people, the kind of implications that come with celebrating it. You might find that you shouldn’t even celebrate it AT ALL because you don’t want to support the history behind it. Like, what if you found out you were celebrating the genocide of native people? Do you really want to support that? IS THAT WHAT YOU’RE ABOUT, BRUH? I mean, come on! Philippines has 7,107 islands. Learn about them; learn about your people!
My point is, immerse yourself in your culture. Filipinos are so westernized already, our history is bound to get lost if we don’t educate ourselves and those who come after us. I honestly believe that the Filipino in Filipino-American is dying. We’re slowly limiting our understanding of our culture to misrepresentations that generalize the Filipino family and traditions within them. It’s really, really sad.
Lesson 5: You might not know who you can relate to.
This BuzzFeed video showing Asian Americans thanking their parents for their sacrifices tore me to pieces. It also made me realize, again, that I’m not like a lot of Asian American kids who are born and raised here. My life story shares more similarities with my parents’ than it would a Filipino kid’s born and raised in southern California or Anywhere, USA.
I was there with my parents, going to the embassy, getting the physical exams, vaccinations, crying when we were lost in Taipei because my mom couldn’t navigate through the airport. I know what it’s like trying to adapt to a new place when your communication skills are lacking and no one gives you the time of day. It’s hard.
I also know what it’s like to witness your parents working odd-jobs that they’re over-qualified for, too smart for, and weren’t what they went to college for. I think the greatest sacrifice I’ve ever witnessed was my mother settling for a job at a dry cleaner’s. All the while knowing full well she could have been a CPA or an accountant at some firm. But, getting that license takes time, people question your education when you come from a third-world country, and you need money now.
When my friend showed me that video, I didn’t know how to feel. Was it more fitting to relate to the children of Asian immigrants? Or, should I be touched because the parents’ stories are similar to my own? I still don’t know. I might not know where I really fit in the whole scheme of things, but I’m glad I can see both ends.
When I visit the Philippines, it doesn’t completely feel like home. I’ve been in Anchorage for so long that this is the only place I truly know. But home to me is more than just where I’ve had to settle for more than half of my life. The foundation of who I am is 100% from that little province in northern Luzon. There are things I would never do, things I’ll always do, and things I’ll always think about because of where I came from.
No one will ever understand me completely. No one has to, but I think it’s essential for people to understand this part of who I am. It’s important for me to always be self-aware, never lose sight of where I came from. Honestly, the older I get, the harder it is for me to remember that part of my life. So, I keep talking about it. I look for every opportunity to do that, to celebrate it, and to remind myself to never forget.
My thinking is, there’s a kid out there who’s going to live through a similar story as mine. There’s someone in Philippines right now who knows that America is a destination for her family. She’s going to move over her when she’s young, and she’s going to have to deal with what generations before her had to learn. I feel responsible for her, and I feel like I have to let her know it’s going to be fine.
BRB, gonna cry Primetime Bida tears.