Someone: “Where are you from?”

Me: “I’m from Chicago!”

Someone: “No, where are you REALLY from?”

Me: “... I was born and raised in the city of Chicago. My parents were both born in the Philippines.”

This scenario happens more often than you’d expect. Pin straight black hair, olive skin, and slightly almond-shaped eyes are quite the conversation starter. When I’m in the United States, people seem to quickly notice these features and label me as “different” or “exotic”. I never know if I should be offended or flattered.

I have always been extremely proud of my culture. In high school, I was in Filipino club for 2 years, performing traditional dances like the popular bamboo stick dance, “tinikling”, and the acrobatic bench dance, “sayaw sa bangko”. (If you want to see the live action version, check out this video of my senior year performance!)

In college, I knew I wanted to continue learning about my culture and connecting with people who shared the same upbringing and interests, which is why I joined Filipino American Student Association (FASA). This past school year, I served on the Executive Board as one of the co-Social Chairs, helping to recruit members and organize social events for the organization! In April, I was elected as one of the co-Presidents for the 2018-2019 school year! During the election process, I was asked about my perception of being Filipino-American and how to incorporate more Filipino culture into the organization’s social event. If I was being honest with myself, I didn’t think I knew that much about Filipino culture. So when my mom presented the opportunity to travel to the Philippines in May, I jumped at the opportunity. I thought it would be the perfect chance to educate myself about Filipino culture and reconnect with my relatives.

After an extremely hectic school year, I was ready to relax and enjoy time with my family. The last time I visited the Philippines was ten years ago! I barely recognized some of my family members, and everything I saw seemed like something new. In a way, I was experiencing a form of culture shock. I grew up eating Filipino foods like chicken adobo*, pancit bihon*, sinigang*, and lumpia*, but these were foods I only ever ate at home. It was shocking to see these foods readily available at almost every restaurant we went to! 

My relatives were constantly complimenting my lighter skin tone (compared to theirs). In the Philippines, lighter skin is associated with a higher social class because it correlates with less time spent outside working under the sun. Skin whitening lotions, soaps, and other products are constantly being advertised on television and billboards. Yet, I was looking forward to tanning my skin while in the Philippines, lounging on the beach and poolside.

Language was the biggest form of culture shock to me. My parents have always spoken Tagalog around the house since I was little, but they never formally taught it to me. After years of hearing it, I started to piece a few words together and I can understand most of the language, but I am unable to speak it. Tagalog is the national language of the Philippines, but there are many other different dialects spoken throughout the islands. Additionally, English is another official language of the Philippines. All of my relatives in the Philippines normally speak Tagalog in everyday conversation but had to use English around me to make sure I understood everything. I felt embarrassed that I was unable to converse in Tagalog. Unlike in the US, I suddenly felt like I wasn’t “Filipino enough”.

Yes, my physical features give me characteristics of being Filipino, but being born and raised in the United States allowed me to experience a melting pot of different cultures. My recent trip to the Philippines allowed me to connect with family and friends and helped me to realize that I don’t need to be afraid of being “too American” or “not Filipino enough”. I just so happen to be a mix of both cultures. So when someone asks me where I’m from, I will still respond with my hometown of “Chicago” but I am also proud to add that I am Filipino-American, and I will always call the Philippines “aking paraiso” – my paradise.

[1] Chicken adobo is chicken meat marinated and cooked in vinegar, garlic, peppercorn, and soy sauce.
[2] Pancit bihon is thin rice noodles cooked in soy sauce and citrus, usually with meat and/or seafood and vegetables.
[3] Sinigang is a sour soup made with tamarind. It can include any combination of pork, salmon head, shrimp, and vegetables.
[4] Lumpia are similar to egg rolls. It includes a filling made of minced meat and/or vegetables wrapped in a thin pasty wrapper then served deep fried or fresh.