Growing up, I didn’t know I wasn’t Filipino.
As the child of Christian missionaries in the Philippines, my parents regularly reminded me that I was American and we were from “The States.” They didn’t remind me about the Philippines because they didn’t have to. That’s where I lived and that’s what I knew.
But I also knew I was different. There was a heavy American presence in the Philippines in the early ‘70s due to the Vietnam War, and on the streets Filipinos often called me “Joe” (as in G.I. Joe) – as they did to almost every male they thought to be American. Strangers would sometimes pinch my cheeks or touch my arms because my skin was a pale novelty. But at my school, thankfully, I wasn’t anything special. It was an international school and I learned in English among a hodgepodge of nationalities including Filipino, Dutch, Nigerian, New Zealander, and even American, to name the few I remember. (Curious side note: for me, the most exotic creature in second grade was a girl from Ohio who had curly hair and a strange accent.)
But I never felt more different than when we left the Philippines and arrived in Los Angeles. I tried gamely to fit in, but stumbles were inevitable. One painful memory was the day my teacher exploded in laughter when, during a school meal, I ate a hot dog in a manner I would soon find out was unconventional – I took tiny bites going left to right along the front of the hot dog, like I was nibbling an ear of corn, rather than eating it end to end. What did I know? What was a hot dog? If someone had told me to eat the hot dog the same way as lumpia, I would have been set.
But, as conventional wisdom tells us, children adapt. And I adapted. As I got older, the Philippines never seemed very far from me, as my family visited various Filipino friends in the area and my mother regularly cooked pancit and adobo. After high school and a few false starts, I attended Loyola Marymount University, a Jesuit university in Los Angeles that happens to feature one of the most prominent Filipino college clubs in the nation. I toyed with the idea of joining the club – crashing it, actually, since I wasn’t Filipino and I expected to meet resistance from the members – but I was hustling to graduate and didn’t have much spare time. Plus, I knew from experience that many Fil-Am kids in Southern California hadn’t even been to the Philippines. Maybe I was having a self-indulgent identity crisis. I disapproved of the group’s members, who I felt didn’t know enough or care enough about the Philippines (I’m sure I was wrong about that). At the same time that I passed judgment, I was also intimidated by them. They were “real” Filipinos. What was I?
And, years later, that question hasn’t fully gone away. Maybe writing this column will allow me to flesh the subject out a bit. Either way, there is one thing that isn’t the least bit ambiguous: I am very proud of my bond with the Philippines. I love the country, the people, and the culture, and am eternally grateful that I was born and spent the early part of my youth there. And it will always be part of me, even if you can’t see it on my pale face.