Today I will meet up with my family from the states; they happened to plan their trip to the Philippines during the same time I was already here for my rotation. They came to bury my uncle and the program is going to allow me to go with them. I am so excited to see them, be with different people who already know me and get a different cultural experience. I’m especially excited to see my cousin Abby, who is about 10 years younger. She called me aunty and I like it. I’m finally old enough to gain a special title.
After being in the Philippines for a few days, I am really enjoying myself. I identify culturally as mostly African-American, due to where I grew up and what I was exposed to. But I don’t really look fully black. Actually, I’m surprised anyone thinks I am part black at all. My fairer skin and long wavy hair sets me apart. All my life, I was the kid who looked different. You know how on the first day of anything, when no one knows each other and it’s time to “form a group” or “pick a partner” for an icebreaker? It’s appearance that tends to gravitate people to each other. Blacks group with blacks, whites group with whites, Asians group with Asians. I don’t look like anybody. No one ever really knows my ethnic background, but they know it doesn’t match theirs. I am always the last person standing by now, it’s happened all my life since kindergarten through medical school.
But being here seems different. Filipinos all look different, from super fair to dark brown. Their eyes aren’t as slanted like Koreans or Japanese or Chinese. Most of them have straight hair, but I see quite a few walking around with curly hair too. I grew up in Texas, North Carolina and now live in Ohio. Up until now, I have probably encountered less than 20 Filipinos who were not family members. After growing up with a limited idea of what “typical Filipinos” look like, I can really appreciate the diversity here. And I look like them.
When I go to the stores, people instantly start speaking to me in Tagalog. It makes me feel good, even though I have no idea what they are saying. I fake the conversation until it reaches a point where I really need to understand, like what the price is. Even when they have to convert to English, they probably just think I am a “Filam” or a Filipino-American who grew up in the states and isn’t fluent in Tagalog. My ethnicity doesn’t become an interesting question or a common conversation starter. Here I’m obviously Filipina. I look like one. For the first time in my life, my physical appearance blends in with everyone else.
To plan the extra trip with my family, I told the program director about my background and why I was asking to leave the program to be with my family. I was grateful that he is allowing me to go with them, but knowing that I was part Filipina backfired on me. I have a sense of what it means to be African-American but not what it means to be Filipina. I do not know much about the culture or customs but the program director thought I didn’t need those lessons. “As you probably know,” he would start, before a Filipino cultural pearl would leave his mouth. 90% of the time, I didn’t have a clue. “That’s why I came here, “I thought, “to LEARN these things.”
One aspect I have exceled at is food. I came here to taste and learn as many Filipino dishes as possible. I know which ones to ask for by name, and I am open to trying all others. I have already begun my scavenger hunt of “authentic” Filipino foods I want to try. I find kutsinta and puto at the mall. I frequent the pandesal bakery shop a few steps away from my house and buy bread multiple times daily. It is warm and soft, and slightly sweet. I never had any pandesal like this in the states. I feel like a local. Sometimes the others complain about eating rice all the time (we even have it for breakfast). I love it! When I’m at home, there is no way Adrian would let us eat rice all the time. I’m gonna live it up while I’m here.
Anyways, back to my cousin Abby. She grew up in California, where there the Filipino population is so big, there is a Filipino channel on TV. She is the daughter to two full Filipino parents who both speak Tagalog. Her grandmother is my aunt, who is an ok English speaker, but really prefers to communicate in Tagalog. Since I speak approximately zero Tagalog, without them, there is no way I could go and meet my Philippine family. They will help bridge the language divide and teach me the things I need to know so I don’t come off as rude or make a complete fool of myself.
I meet up with them at the mall eating dinner with my aunt’s brother and sister in law. Auntie and her brother (we’ll just call him uncle) are laughing and speaking quickly in Tagalog. Abby is sitting there too, quietly and not really participating. I whisper to her, “What are they talking about?” She replies, “I have no idea. I don’t speak Tagalog.” I am shocked. I have my excuse; my mother came to the US when she was six and she was encouraged to speak English. She doesn’t speak Tagalog, or even have an accent, unlike her brothers. She couldn’t teach us what she didn’t know herself. But what happened to Abby?
Turns out everyone always just translated for her. Filipinos learn English and Tagalog, so her family spoke English at home and during family functions, people would summarize the conversation. People thought she would learn it eventually, but eventually never came. Another generation robbed of an essential component of Philippine culture: the language of Tagalog.
It’s so sad. And embarrassing. How can I claim to be a member of a people, and not even speak my language? My cousin echoes my sentiment. We talk about what it means to come and visit this country, to be among our people and experience this together. I thought I needed her to translate and teach me the culture. Instead, we will be equals on this journey, sharing this experience for the first time, together. And I like that dynamic better. Abby and me, two fake Filipinas trying to learn as much as we can so we can become real Filipinas. Better later than never.