Kain na!” (“Let’s eat!”) my mom yells from the kitchen, where the smell of pizza makes my stomach growl. My sister walks in, returned from an outing with her friends, and my father glares at her shoes until she sheepishly removes them and places them by the door, as my grandmother, in her tsinelas slippers, huffles by.
These cultural clashes have been a part of my life since I was born. I grew up with a love for hamburgers and pancit (one of my favorite Filipino noodle dishes) played with Barbies and did my Kumon, and had hundreds of titos and titas, most of whom weren’t my actual uncles or aunts. And I am so glad for it. I love being Filipino and knowing where my roots are!
It wasn’t always this easy, however. Growing up in a school where I was one of the only Asian kids and the only Filipino kid, coming to terms with the fact that I was different was difficult. On bus rides home from school, I’d deal with people pulling the corners of their eyes back to look “Asian,” and people would try to speak the “ching-chong” language to me. In the cafeteria, I’d be ashamed of my delicious home-cooked meals, or baon, because of the looks I’d get when the smell of the food hit my classmates.
As a small child, being different hurt a lot. I loved being Filipino, but I didn’t like standing out. I hated that you couldn’t see my eyes when I smiled, hated my flat nose and my round face. I dreamed of getting the tape that gives you double lids and pictured myself with a small nose. Like soggy cereal surrounded by milk, I soaked in the white standards of beauty and found myself disintegrating under the slightest push.
When I grew older, this insecurity of my differences developed further into a struggle with my own identity. So many Filipino Americans feel the same way I did: too Filipino to be American, much too American to be Filipino. I was stuck in limbo. I was ashamed that I didn’t know who Jose Rizal was and couldn’t speak Tagalog, and I was embarrassed that I listened to Christmas songs by Jose Mari Chan instead of Michael Bublé.
The first time I felt content with this battle of Filipino vs. American was when we moved to Illinois, where many of my mother’s friends from medical school at the University of Philippines lived. Almost every weekend, we’d meet up with the barkada, our group of Filipino friends. I’d marvel at the tables full of lechon kawali (dangerously addicting crispy pork belly) and adobo (a meat dish usually marinated in a mix that includes vinegar and garlic), then, with my full plate, sit down to watch “The Princess and the Frog.”
For the first time, my two worlds collided perfectly.
As the years passed and I left Illinois, I realized that I didn’t have to be Filipino or American, that being Filipino American was OK. It was OK to idolize Lea Salonga and love Lady Gaga, and most important, I realized it wasn’t just OK, it was wonderful to be able to enjoy both sinangang (garlic fried rice that my father loves) and American-size buckets of chicken tenders and fries.
As I met new people in high school, I realized how much people were genuinely interested in the fact that I was Filipina. Finally, the days of childish mocking were gone, replaced instead by friends who loved lumpia and listened to my dad’s stories of life in the Philippines. I could open my baon with no disgusted looks, just genuine questions of what I was eating.
It can be difficult to be different, but in the end, as cliche as it may sound, it is what makes life worth living. Learning about my different cultures and my history has made me fall in love with my heritage, and overcoming the struggle between two worlds gives me full ownership of my identity.
I don’t think I’m quite done in my exploration of being Filipino American, but I am much more content with who I am. For nearly all children of immigrants, I’m sure that there is a search for identity and a struggle between cultures. But the beauty of America is that this is a melting pot. We can revel in burritos, bubble tea and burgers, and our differences only enrich us further.