Strangers easily turned friends
The older I get, the more and more my cultural identity matters to me. I’ve already written about my identity as a first-generation Filipina-American many times since starting this blog this year alone, and yet I keep finding new ways every single day to love myself for my heritage and my identity as it pertains to that heritage.
It was by my fellow Filipina-American, feminist, activist, and beautiful friend Jazlynn that I was first introduced to this concept earlier this summer at the Social Justice Training Institute I attended. Ka is the Tagalog word for “you,” and putting it in the context of the word “community” becomes an incredibly meaningful way to say that community starts with you. Or, of course, directing that saying at myself, community starts with me. As a sociology major with a drive to work with people, as someone who started a diversity club in pursuit of a community I needed, as someone whose experiences as an only child motivate me to constantly create relationships with others, I absolutely love that sentiment. It’s a wonderfully culturally relevant way of saying the age-old adage “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Community, kammunity, it can start with me no matter where I am.
“Diaspora |dīˈaspərə| (from Greek διασπορά, “scattering, dispersion”) the movement or migration of a group of people, such as those sharing a national and/or ethnic identity, away from an established or ancestral homeland.” (Source)
Diasporic life is incredibly unique; you’re constantly at the crossroads of conforming to the dominant culture (assimilation) or outright rejection of that dominant culture, and then constantly dealing with the consequences of internalized racism or being othered.
But for all its difficulties and challenges, there’s a community among and within that diaspora. There’s that word again: community. I love the importance of community in Philippine culture. I love the hospitality we treat everyone with, Filipinx or otherwise. I love that when my mom or dad and I are at the local Meijer at home, as soon as we spot another person with remotely Filipinx features, we completely light up, excited to run into someone who shares our culture.
“Taga Pilipinas siya,” my mom will murmur to me under her breath. They are from the Philippines. I’ll nod in agreement, or sometimes, I’ll be the one who leans over to my mom and whisper, “I bet you they’re Filipino.” I’ll say it quietly, and all in English, of course, because regrettably, I’m not nearly anywhere as fluent in Tagalog as I’d like to be.
Then she’ll ask them, “Pilipino ka ba?” Are you Filipino?
My mom never gets it wrong. I hardly do, either. It’s easy for us to identify other Filipinxs whether by physical characteristics or accent. Though I myself don’t “look” traditionally Filipinx, I pride myself on having picked up the ability to recognize others. I’m thankful for that ability every single day. Even if I might not act on it, spotting a Filipinx family or overhearing Tagalog in public brings me so much joy. It’s like a little taste of home in a society where the dominant culture is not your own.
Strangers easily turned friends
I’ve already written about the joy being abroad has brought me with regards to my cultural identity and the confidence and satisfaction it brings me when participating in cultural exchange with people from countries around the world. But exchanges with people from the home country of my culture are a completely different story. I have two of that kind of story, and they both bring me more joy than I could even begin to articulate — but, since this is my blog, I’m going to try to articulate them anyway.
Airport goodbyes are the hardest…
…but mine was made a little bit easier by a new friend.
This time around, it wasn’t my parents who identified this fellow Filipina. No, Neddielyn, a TSA agent, had overheard my parents speaking in Tagalog while we were trying to figure out checking in my baggage, and she immediately approached us and offered us assistance, speaking in Tagalog to us right from the start.
Frayed and frazzled by the stress of having to say goodbye to each other, my parents and I instantaneously felt comforted. Here was a sense of familiarity in the stressful hustle and bustle of a busy airport. Though Neddielyn and my family were strangers one second, we were immediately connected through culture and language the next, and it made the heartbreak of two parents parting with their only child for a whole semester a little less painful. Neddielyn constantly reassured them and me in Tagalog as we made the preparations for me to go through security — she even let me slide into the priority line, already extending that hospitality and friendship I so love about the Philippine culture in the most gracious (and sneaky!) of ways.
This brief but meaningful interaction in the airport was a special treat. It was a blessing and comfort to cross paths with someone of our unique community, especially at such a stressful time. As much as my parents and I celebrate the Philippine culture among the three of us, it will never not be special to run into another person or people who also share our culture, no matter where it is.
A blessing in the shoe section
Since arriving to Glasgow, cooking chicken adobo and bistek encebollado, speaking to my parents, and trading language lessons with my friends from other countries had been my only sources of celebrating and practicing my culture. I’m grateful to have friends with whom I can share things like Balang on Ellen, happyslip’s YouTube channel, or even Black Eyed Peas’ “Bebot”. Sharing the food, language, humor, and pop culture icons unique to my culture has been so thrilling.
Of course, I’ve been quite satisfied in doing all of that alone, but part of me was still craving interaction with other Filipinx individuals. Though I’ve been well aware as anyone of the demographics of my current country of residence, there’s still a part of me longing for true kinship, to interact with people I could connect with on a cultural level even deeper than what I’d been enjoying thus far. (Does that make me selfish? Entitled? Asking too much?)
Last month, I was treating myself to a bit of retail therapy at the Primark in the Glasgow city centre. (Context time: I don’t have class on Fridays, Primark is Forever 21-esque paradise in terms of prices, and the Glasgow city centre is paradise in terms of shopping in general.)
I was in the shoe section, picking out some new shoes after already having to retire a pair I brought with me from home. I sat down on the provided bench for trying on shoes next to a woman on her phone. She looked to be about the same age as my mother, give or take a few years, and I knew immediately just from her facial features that she was Filipina. But she was intently concentrating on her phone, and so I decided against saying anything. And the culture of the Philippine diaspora in Scotland could greatly differ from that of the diaspora in the States, after all, and I wanted to be mindful of that. Like, do Filipinxs here acknowledge each other when out and about in public like they do in the U.S.? As much as I was craving for interaction with someone who shared my culture, I didn’t have the heart to risk finding out the hard way that the diasporic communities might be too different between our two countries.
I had just sat down again after getting up for the third time to search for the right size when the woman nodded her head towards my shoes and asked, “Okay ba?” Are the shoes okay?
Oh, my heart absolutely soared. I looked up, smiled, and with the biggest smile on my face and all the joy I could muster, I replied, “Opo.” Yes, ma’am.
“Ay!” the woman exclaimed. “Pilipino ka! Tagasaan ka ba?” You’re Filipino! Where are you from?
“Sa States, po,” I responded. From the States.
“Paano ka marunong ng Tagalog?” she asked. How do you know Tagalog?
That had been it for my limited conversational Tagalog, though I could still understand her. I explain to her in English that my mother is from Zambales and my father is from Manila, but I was born and raised in the Chicago area. She tells me she’s from Leyte, Visayas, and that she’s been in Scotland for over twenty years. We immediately connect as she tells me about how she always loves communicating with Filipinxs when she sees them out and about; “Here, Filipinos don’t really talk to each other in public,” she tells me, unfortunately confirming my initial hesitations. I explain to her that that’s not the culture of Filipinxs in the States, that I often see Filipinx strangers greet each other like old friends. We gush about how excited we are that she had guessed correctly that I’m Filipina, even though I “look Chinese or mixed.” I tell her about how I cook adobo and bistek, how I teach my friends words in Tagalog, about my studies and how I’m not going down the traditional route of nursing but rather pursuing a career in sociology. Much to my bashfulness, she praises me for my hard work, my wits, my height (unconventionally tall for a Filipina)… she surmises my parents must be proud of me, and I’m filled with the most sentimental, glowing feeling possible. To hear all that from someone who knows exactly what cultural weight it carries was so thrilling I could have cried.
We spend almost an hour just sitting in the shoe section, talking everything from life in the U.S., life in Scotland, cute boys, the new Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, my education, and it’s just like talking to one of my titas (aunts). When it’s time for us to part ways, we embrace, and I babble one more time about how much it means to me that our paths crossed. “You’re the first Filipina I’ve met since arriving in Glasgow,” I tell her, unapologetically expressing the enormity of this moment to me. She tells me to take care of myself, and we say goodbye. As she walks away, I’m filled both with sadness and longing for my family and the familiarity of home as well as pure joy that that exchange even occurred in the first place. (I wish we’d taken a photo together, but figured that might have been too much for having just met a stranger, regardless of our shared culture.)
Thankfully, I remembered her name, and successfully found her on Facebook after my mom excitedly encouraged me to stay in touch with her. (Immediately after the woman left, I had called my mom because I was just so excited at the little taste of home I had away from home. She was just as excited as I was, if not more. If I feel like an interaction with a Filipina was a little taste of home away from home and I haven’t even visited the Philippines, I can’t imagine what my mother feels like whenever she sees or even hears about someone from the country that really was her home for most of her life.)
Time for the regular concluding gush about how much I’m loving this study abroad experience.
It’s no simple statement and no secret that I continue to grow more and more in my cultural pride. Studying abroad is only providing me with more opportunities to celebrate and explore that pride further. I’m growing as a student, an individual, a Filipina, an American, a Filipina-American, a Christian, a daughter, a friend, every single second I’m here. And every single second, I am overwhelmed with joy and thankfulness at all of that.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this as an opportunity to think critically about this growth in my cultural pride, too. Specifically,
- What factors at home in the U.S. have made me feel limited in celebrating my cultural identity up until now?
- Are those factors part of my environment or are they intrapersonal?
- What can I do to address those factors?
In any case, I’m just happy to be here. I’m so thankful at all the opportunities to explore and reflect on my own self and life experiences while at the same time growing and gaining new experiences.
It’s about halfway through the semester. The impending finality of my stay here in Glasgow has been a huge source of anxiety this entire time, but I’m doing my best to soak everything in, from traveling to studying to spending time with incredible people to growing more in my cultural identity. There’s not enough time in the world to be blogging about everything that I want to be blogging about right now — the classes I’m taking, the sights I’m seeing, the food I’m eating, the people I’m sharing it all with, and the memories I’m making. But that’s okay. Like I wrote in my last blog post, it’s a good problem to have when the reason I don’t have enough time to blog about all these experiences is because I’m experiencing so much in the first place.
Tomorrow, I leave with six pals on a road trip to Isle of Skye, just the seven of us. Life is good as ever.