karangalan kah-rahng-AH-lahn (Tagalog)
n. dignity; self-respect; uprightness

When contemplating my cultural identity, I’ve often found myself comparing myself to others who are “more” Filipino than I am. I was not born in the Philippines. Though I can understand it fluently when I hear it, I can’t speak Tagalog. And as I have heard many times throughout my life, I don’t even “look” as Filipino as others who share my culture do. But, I’ve come to realize that instead of mooning over what I am not, I must focus on celebrating what I already am.

I am the child of Filipino parents who immigrated to the States in the late 80s/early 90s. My father is from Manila. My mother is from Zambales. My family tree — which is massive — extends its branches from the Philippines to Germany and everywhere in between. I only see some of my extended family maybe three or four times a year, maximum: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and a cousin’s birthday if we’re lucky. But I swear, I meet a new family member at every family function — maybe someone’s flown in from the Philippines for the first time, or we’ve just never happened to cross paths at other holidays before. Even though they’re family, I can hardly keep most of their names straight. And I know there are still tons of family members I’ve never met or even heard of before.

This is an old, old photo of even older friends, taken in 2011 upon briefly reuniting with my elementary school squad of Filipina friends years after we’d gone our separate ways

Though I rarely see my extended family, there have been other ways in which I found myself engaged with a Filipino community. In the first ten years of my life, I was lucky to grow up in a diverse enough neighborhood where it was not difficult to see and befriend someone who looked like me. It was normal. It was easy. I didn’t feel like the other. I grew up immersed in much of the Filipino culture, hearing other friends and family speak Tagalog and make jokes about our accents or sing karaoke at every party.

The following ten years were spent in a relatively less diverse neighborhood. Where I had my “squad” of Filipino classmates and family friends back in my childhood hometown, in this new city, I was in for an unpleasant surprise. It appeared that I was the only Asian American in my fourth grade class, and I immediately and painfully learned the hard way that that made me an easy target for bullying. While it sucked, it was ultimately a milestone for me in my cultural identity. It was the first time I was made aware that being Filipino-American is sometimes not “American enough” by some people’s standards, that cultural differences could be exploited for the sake of dominance and comedy rather than celebrated for the sake of appreciation and tolerance. But thank God my parents listened to my cries and transferred me to a private school where at least I was one of three Filipino classmates in my small class. Thank God that school happens to be part of a larger Catholic parish which has a massive Filipino population, epitomized by its Filipino choir.

Simbang Gabi, 2014

Thank God my mother pushed me to play violin with the music ministry there, effectively plugging us in to that community.  And thank God our parish is part of a larger network of churches who have similarly large Filipino populations that gather to celebrate Filipino holidays and other cultural traditions. Thank God for all that, because it’s been the most accessible way for me to stay connected with my culture throughout the last ten years.

That second decade of my life has just come to a close, and I’m onto my third one now. And I’m at another milestone in my cultural identity. During the school year, I live in an even less diverse area. I am one of approximately sixty Asian students on my college campus, and of that population, less than twenty of them are Filipino. This is what’s brought me to cling to my cultural identity more than I ever have in my entire life. It’s what brought me to celebrate the Filipino I am rather than the Filipino I am not, because here, embracing my identity as a first-generation Filipino-American who can’t speak Tagalog or tell you the first thing about what it’s like in the Philippines is so much better than erasing my experiences for the sake of fitting in more easily.

I recently had the pleasure of being a part of my friend Stella’s “Embracing Beauty” project. (Stella happens to be one of the other < 20 Filipino students on campus, so thank God for her, too.) This project features underrepresented minority students on our campus dressed in clothing traditional to their culture. I was so excited when she asked me if I could be a part of it. I eagerly went home and grabbed the beautiful barong tagalog I’d taken for granted before coming to a campus so desolate in unique and traditional clothing. I was excited to share this part of myself–I wanted others to see this, I wanted to reach people, I wanted to tell people that this is what diversity looks like. In the week leading up to the shoot, I had been so focused on what it could mean for others that I didn’t anticipate just how much it would actually mean to me.

I’m not going to lie: at first, I was so uncomfortable. (For one thing, barongs are stiff and itchy and I was nervous I was going to start sweating and it would show right through the thin material.) I felt vulnerable. Here I was, strolling through campus dressed in clothing that was traditional to me but very untraditional to my classmates. People walking past were doing a double take or just downright staring. I felt echoes of the sense of otherness I’ve experienced throughout my life, the sensation of sticking out like a sore thumb.

I found myself thinking, That’s right. This is what students here look like, too.

But the discomfort lasted only a moment, and instead it was replaced by an overwhelming sense of pride that I’m still feeling even as I’m typing this post days later. As more people passed by us, staring at the embroidered unique fabric, I found myself sitting up straighter and lifting my head higher. I found myself thinking, That’s right. This is what students here look like, too. I am not afraid to show that. Upon getting photographed in my barong outside the signature main building which represents my college in all of our photos and publications, it felt like all of me was a student here now. It drove home the fact that I don’t have to give up being Filipino-American to be just as much of a student here as anyone else. That I don’t have to assimilate. In fact, I refuse to assimilate. The shoot lasted for less than thirty minutes, and yet, it was one of the most empowering moments of my life. That isn’t an exaggeration. In a society where people who look like me are constantly made to feel like the other to the point where to avoid this othering, we have to adopt the dominant culture’s clothing or norms and give up our own, to stand in the midst of a campus criticized for its lack of diversity wearing a barong tagalog means more to me than I could possibly express. It drove me even further to more pride in my cultural identity than I’ve ever felt before.

So, no, I may not have been born in the Philippines, but I am still of Filipino blood.

I may not remember visiting the Philippines, but I hear it every day in the voices of my mother and my father as they recount story after story to me.

I may not speak Tagalog fluently, but I can still tell you when I feel hiya, laugh when my mom is being kulit, or get annoyed when someone is very ma arte.

I may not “look” Filipino — I am tall and skinny, and my features sometimes seem more Chinese than anything, but I can still rock a barong and eat you under the table when the lechon is out.

I refuse to let any of that change or dwindle away just because celebrating my culture is currently less accessible to me. I am a first-generation Filipino-American. My life has shaped my cultural identity, and my cultural identity has shaped my life.



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