I loathe the term all American. It’s always attributed to some blond-haired, blue-eyed good ole boy or girl who is the standard by which people of color are held up to. It immediately tells us that we don’t belong. That we are outsiders. That we will never be good enough. It doesn’t matter what we’ve contributed to this country or even that we’ve fought and given our lives for this country. If we don’t “look” American, it doesn’t matter how well we speak the language or how long we or our ancestors have lived here – we still aren’t welcome. We are not treated as American because we are still not seen as American.
This concept of people not seeing me for who I am has affected the way I carry and define myself. I was born to an Irish mother and a Filipino father, but I don’t look like either. I can pass for white, but never Filipino. I identify as a woman of color, but I’m not very colorful. The paleness of my skin has always made me feel like I can’t fully embrace my brown side because of how people see me and probably how I see myself.
Growing up, my parents deeply influenced my identity. I want to preface this by saying I deeply love my parents and this isn’t an attempt to call them out on their faults. I’m writing this to show how I’ve come to the conclusions I’ve come to and how I’ve come to identify myself based on my background.
That being said, my Filipino-American father has completely assimilated to American culture, so much so that I sometimes ask, “You know you’re brown, right? I know you live in Coeur d’Alene, ID, now, where you are the entire Filipino population, but you’re still brown.” All joking aside, I feel he has in many ways neglected to keep our Filipino culture alive. He may cook typical Filipino dishes sometimes, but only because he wants to eat them. I don’t feel like there’s any sense of pride in our culture, even though he does say he is proud to be Filipino when prompted.
The most disheartening part for me is that he didn’t teach us Tagalog because he said he didn’t want us to have an accent. I questioned whether me not having an accent was more important than preserving our culture. He didn’t say it was, it was just how he felt at the time because of how it affected him and the opportunities he feels he may have missed out on.
Then, it dawned on me: the privilege I have as a first-generation American on my father’s side. I get to embrace my Filipino side and keep it alive without having to deal with the struggles that my father and so many others who immigrated to this country had to endure. Thinking of what he and countless other immigrants went through in this country makes the next thing I’m going to write even more painful.
My mother is in many ways a typical white American: claims patriotism and passion for her country when questionable and offensive things fly out of her mouth. Or demands that people speak English here in America but is furious when the restaurants in foreign countries don’t have English translations on their menu. Oh, the irony! When I was younger, driving in the car with her in our predominantly Asian neighborhood was a contemptuous experience: “Learn how to f*cking drive!” “Go back to your f*cking country!” “Go back to where you came from!” Those are the ones that stood out and still stick with me as I sit here and think about it.
If these people, like my father – her husband – were supposed to go back to where they came from, then where do I belong?
I still feel the same emotions that I felt when I would watch her, tears welling in my eyes as I sat there quietly imploding. I would ask her how she could say such terrible things when I was part Asian to which she would reply, “You’re not Asian, you’re Pacific Islander.” My own mother couldn’t even see me. And for a moment, I would forget she was my mother as I thought to myself, “Who do you think you are, white woman, to define who I am?” But maybe that’s why she said those things, because in those heated moments, she would forget that I was her daughter. My mother. Telling people that I identified with to go back to where they came from. To go back to their country. If these people, like my father – her husband – were supposed to go back to where they came from, then where do I belong?
I’ve struggled most of my life trying to establish my own identity and how I define myself. Many of my earlier conclusions had been a consequence of how others perceived me to be. In a sociology class back in college, we read an article by Yen Le Espiritu subtly titled “We Don’t Sleep Around Like White Girls Do,” about Filipino immigrant mothers not wanting their daughters to be like American girls because of their alleged promiscuity. We were then instructed to break into small groups and discuss. My group consisted of my friend Aileen, a Filipina-American, and two, I think, Italian-American girls. We were about to start discussing when one of the girls started ranting and I remember it going something like this:
“Oh my God, like, I am so offended that they would say that about us. Like, I know so many Filipino girls and they are, like, the biggest sluts. Like, how dare they just say that we’re all like that, that’s so offensive. I can’t believe they think like that, like, how rude!”
She took a beat and looked at Aileen.
“Oh, my God! Like, I have this Filipino friend and her mom is, like, always rearranging the furniture in their house. That’s, like, all she ever does. Every time I go over there, the furniture is, like, always in a different place. . . . I bet your mom does that too, huh?”
I don’t remember exactly what Aileen’s response was as I sat in dumbfounded silence, but I remember the tone being along the lines of, “F*ck no!” I just stared at the girl, a look of confusion that seemed to have paralyzed the rest of my bodily functions as I wondered if she had the capability to get through the title of the article.
A few moments later, she proceeded to show us a picture of her sister at prom then told us, “But, my mom has to, like, hide it when my grandfather comes over because he would freak out if he knew she went with, like, a black guy. But, I just don’t get how you don’t like black people. Like, they are so cool. They’re, like, such good dancers.”
Done. We were done. We looked at her then at her friend, whose face seemed to plead, “I’m sorry. Yeah, I know I come in with her every day, but please don’t associate me with this stupidity.”
We walked out, Aileen venting as I listened. Then, Aileen turned to me, saying, “And she didn’t even acknowledge you. She knows you’re Filipino, but she didn’t ask you if your mom arranged f*cking furniture. And you know why? It’s because she doesn’t see you as Filipino.”
I hadn’t even noticed. Maybe because my mom’s white and I automatically assumed she knew that even though she didn’t. Or maybe it’s because I didn’t know what I was.
Yes, I’ve technically always known that I’m part Filipino and part white. But I didn’t feel like I could be Filipino because I didn’t look like I was Filipino, as ridiculous as that sounds. I didn’t feel like I was able to claim this part of myself because I didn’t physically resemble what someone would typically picture when they imagined a Filipino person. But it’s not just me. It seems like most people I meet have questions and concerns trying to define or question my existence.
“You don’t look Filipino.” Well, yes I do. Because I am. But I never say this. I just nod and smile politely.
“Do you speak Tagalog?” No, but I’m learning. I still criticize my father for not teaching me to, you know, carry on our culture and save me a ton of money.
“Do you speak Spanish?” No! I’m Filipino.
“You’re so white.” Yeah, I know. I used to spend a lot of money and a lot of hours ruining my skin under tanning beds because my paleness seemed to put off people. So deep was my tanning obsession that when my husband sees old photos of me, he feels inclined to give me a Jersey Shore nickname. My own mother remarked on the whiteness of my skin to which I replied, “Uh, that’s your fault.”
“How did you get this?” I was asked this the first time I used my Philippine passport in Manila. As I approached the two Filipino customs agents, they looked at me warily as I got closer. They looked at my passport and asked how I had gotten such a document. I didn’t understand so I asked them what they meant and they just repeated it. I said I just applied for it. They looked at each other, looked at my passport, looked at me, then asked, “You’re Filipino?”
Proof! I had proof that I was Filipino and they still didn’t believe me.
We’re constantly told that we identify too much with one side or aren’t enough of the other and vice versa depending on who declares themselves the authority on our identities at that given moment.
In high school, I distinctly remember walking into the Filipino club orientation and walking right out because I didn’t feel like I belonged there with all the “real” Filipinos. This constant feeling of not belonging or not being “enough” is something that I know many people of mixed ethnicity struggle with regardless of what their mix is. I’ve found that a lot of mixed people can relate more to each other than to others of their same ethnicities. We’re constantly told that we identify too much with one side or aren’t enough of the other and vice versa depending on who declares themselves the authority on our identities at that given moment.
So where do we belong? Who are we? Why can people not see us?
I recently spoke with a dear cousin of mine who is Filipino and black, and she reiterated these same feelings I have of feeling lost. Feeling like we don’t really belong in either world. She told me about a biracial woman she saw on an episode of Needles & Pins that spoke so poignantly of being mixed race. After we spoke, I immediately went to my television to find it. The episode was based in New Zealand and focused on the Ta moko, traditional Maori tattooing. The episode featured many Maori people of mixed race who spoke about the difficulties of having ancestors who are both the oppressors and the oppressed. But these young people were in the process of rediscovering their history and reclaiming it through decolonization. One of the women reflected on her mixed-race identity:
“I thought my weakness was that I was half Maori or half Jamaican . . . on and out of different kinds of worlds. I never really felt that I belonged and that’s how I carried myself. And then I realized that those weren’t my weaknesses and I wasn’t half of anything. I was completely Maori. Completely Jamaican. Completely myself.”
“Yeeeeesss,” I cried to the television. This. All of this. I’ve always felt like I wasn’t enough because I was considered to be half of each.
But I’m not half. I’m not missing anything. I am a whole human being.
Even if people may see me as something different, it does not change who I am. People will always try to define me and put me into the box they feel I belong in. But how I feel is who I am and whether people see that does not matter. What I am matters. And I am completely Filipino. I am completely American. I am completely myself. With my brown hair, my brown eyes, and my yellow-tinted skin, I am all American and I belong here.
We all do.