18 July 2010

qualifiers for the "Fil" in Fil Am?

I was having lunch with a bunch of folks the other day. It was a fairly diverse group of eight or nine, and there was an older gentleman at the far end of the table.

At one point in all the conversation, someone asks him where he's from. "The Philippines," he answers. While many of the folks sitting with us start asking him questions about how long he's been in the US, and what brought him here, he ignores all that chatter, immediately focuses in on me and asks, "Are you Filipino too?"

"Well yeah," I say, fully knowing we had sized each other up and mentally tagged each other earlier. He acknowledges our newly confirmed connection happily with that "I knew it" smile and right away my mind prepares for the inevitable:

"So when was the last time you went home?"

Aww dang, here we go.

Of all my closest friends and family who happen to be Filipino, we mostly fall into two basic categories:

1. Born here, still here.
2. Came here, stayed here.

In each case the answer to "So, when was the last time you went home?" is measured in years. More often than not it's measured in decades. And for some, the answer is some tapdance around the idea of "Well, to go back assumes you've actually been there once first, right?"

Do people go back? Absolutely. But for most folks I know the honest truth is that it only happens when someone dies. Vacation? The elder statesmen in my family would rather head to Europe.

Perhaps I'm not paying attention when the same scenario plays out for people from other countries. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that Filipinos are the only group I've seen that throws that question in within two or three sentences of finding out someone's heritage.

Does my answer make me any less "Filipino"? If I've been away from the motherland for some extended period of time do I lose my right to spell it "Pilipino"? Is there a recertification of some kind to allow my to call myself "Pinoy"?

What about my cousin who proudly wears his Pacquiao gear and flies the Philippine flag over the door of his home? (Wait, I can still cheer for Pac-Man right?)

There's a certain pride that someone should take from their heritage. My parents are both Filipino and my blood traces back to those islands just as it does with millions of others here in the States. And while I take pride in our common roots, I have to acknowledge that I've spent the majority of my life here, and am as much American as I am Filipino.

No, the rosary doesn't hang from the rear view mirror in my car, and I didn't wear a barong when I got married. My son knows to 'bless', but he's the only one would have picked that up if I survey all the kids at the next gathering. (Does that make us Fobby?)

I welcome the chance to meet other Filipinos, hear their stories and discover the other things that connect us. I welcome it the same way I do for people from any other country on this rock. We can do it over pancit and rice, or over deep dish pizza. Just go easy on the "when were you back" stuff, because the next thing you know you'll be asking me how many dialects I speak.


Stephen Dypiangco said...

Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I'm also a Filipino-American who feels just as much American as Filipino. Although I grew up near Filipino family members and friends, I was surrounded by people of many different cultures. I still am.
After not paying too much attention to my Filipino heritage, I finally started to care when I hit my late 20's. I decided to go on a trip "back" the Philippines for the first time since high school. Currently I'm in the process of turning video footage of that trip into a feature documentary, which I've entitled Home Unknown. I'm hoping that this story will resonate with fellow Fil-Ams who are now curious about what being Filipino means to them.
If you are interested in learning more about the project, here's the website: http://HomeUnknown.com
I'd love to hear what you think. - Steve

Lydia said...

I am also Fil-Am. Born and raised in the States. I recently got my dual citizenship to the Philippines. My first trip there was in my early 20's and my next one was 11 years later. I lived in the Philippines for six months and now plan on spending half the year there and and half in the States.

The questions you ask are important ones. How do we qualify our pinoyness and our right to claim that for ourselves? I really relate to your question, 'If I've been away from the motherland for some extended period of time do I lose my right to spell it "Pilipino"?'

For the longest time I felt like I didn't have the right to claim identifying as Pilipina with a "p". My parents were part of the wave of immigrants that came in the late 60's. They didn't pass on the language to me or my sister who was born in the U.S. In fact, like many from that wave of immigrants, they intentionally kept a lot of the culture from us. The message I internalized was I am not supposed to be of that place and that it wasn't mine to claim - sadly. Internally I was deeply longing for a place in my community, but felt like access to it was denied to me.

I've learned that I have to define my relationship to homeland and claiming my Pilipina identity on my own terms because honestly, there isn't any support to do that from elders here in the States, not in my experience at least, not where I grew up in Seattle. For me personally, it's important to actually be in the Philippines and to reclaim language, but that doesn't make me more pinoy than you or anyone else.

I believe the critical questions where we can come together as Fil-Ams are how do we claim our Pilipino identities for ourselves and how can we acknowledge each other at the same time? How can we support each other and fill in the gaps with knowledge, history, and acknowledgement? How can we vulnerably and safely share our stuggles with coming to terms with our identities and the pain, shame, and celebration that the journey holds?

Gene said...

Lots of good points here. Many could lead to long discussions on their own. When I think about all my own life and concepts of 'self' I have to remember that my parents had their own struggles just getting here to the States and trying to make a life for their family.

Coping with and raising a child in a culture so different from what they grew up in must have certainly created challenges, along with consequences intended or not.

Understanding that can go along way to help figure ourselves out and hopefully guide the next generation.

Stephen Dypiangco said...


I totally agree with you about taking into account our parents. I've only recently begun to comprehend how little I know about their lives and true personalities. Instead of looking at them as my parents, I'm finally starting to look at them as people.

Gene said...


I think every person should find out more about the histories about their parents. Alot of times those stories just get buried in their memories, and never get spoken. Probably not on purpose, either. Those experiences helped shape who they were, which in turn helped shape what we became.

Similarly, as parents we should probably be telling our kids more stories too! Don't let those experiences go unspoken. Or else they'll get buried in the ground with us when the time comes...

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