Gender & Identity, Life

I was proud of being a whitewashed Filipino

Not knowing the language doesn't make me any less of a Filipino.

I was around 11 years old when I labeled myself a “whitewashed Filipino.”

I was in the sitting area of my local beauty salon, anxiously waiting for a haircut. I wanted to get out of there fast. The salon was no more than 10 minutes from my house, located in a part of the city densely populated by Filipinos. Every time I stepped foot onto the premises, I felt I was transported into a foreign land.

The salon’s ambiance was familiar to me — the stylists’ piercing cackles and gossipy tones, the air thick with hairspray and the faint scent of lumpia, Wowowee blaring in the background on the television screens — but I was still uncomfortable. Why couldn’t I just get my haircut at a quiet, “normal” salon?

A girl walked in. She looked around my age. She was clearly a frequent customer, because she marched right past reception and started talking to one of the stylists in Tagalog. Soon enough, all the other stylists were enchanted with this girl. I didn’t understand what they were saying to each other. She said something, they laughed. They said something, she laughed. I became annoyed. What was so spectacular about her? And most importantly, why did I care so much?

I decided I hated this girl because she was obnoxious. How obnoxious of her to speak Tagalog when we were in America, right? That night I wrote in my Yahoo! 360 blog that I found it annoying when Filipino girls “showed off.”

It’s been 10 years since the salon incident, and I never really understood why I felt so resentful until now.

I was born to Filipino parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines in the 1980s. They never taught me and my siblings Tagalog, or any other Filipino dialect. To this day, I still don’t know why my parents didn’t teach us  – or, if they tried to, why they didn’t continue teaching us. But I’m not going to blame my parents for this.

I’ve been shamed a lot for not knowing Tagalog. Understandable — not knowing a language is a pretty huge disconnection from a culture, and that causes a lot of people to question how Filipino I actually am. And that hurts.

Seeing that girl interact and converse with these adults at a level that I could never achieve immediately detached me from Filipino culture. I flashed back to instances where I awkwardly stood before long-lost relatives who tried to ask me questions and then think that I was rude for not answering them immediately, when really, I just didn’t understand what they were saying.

I felt jealous of the salon girl, and ashamed of myself. I started cultivating that shame into defiance, and I started turning up my nose at anything that was remotely “too Filipino.” Four years later, when I visited the Philippines, I kept my mouth shut for the entire summer, picked at the food, and stayed inside in the air-conditioning instead of going out and exploring my dad’s hometown. I laughed and agreed whenever someone told me I “didn’t seem Filipino” instead of questioning it or being offended by it.

I didn’t completely deny my ethnicity — I just felt that it was never an important part of who I was.

Today, I proudly yet reluctantly call myself Filipino. Reluctantly, because I’m embarrassed that I was so proud of being whitewashed. I don’t want to be whitewashed, and I can’t be whitewashed. I can’t deny my family’s background. If I were to have children, I can’t raise them without them knowing anything about my ethnicity.

Being Filipino is more than simply knowing the language. It’s the loud exclamations from my dad as he yaps with his family back home over Skype. It’s how sharing a meal is as important as the time and love it take to prepare it. It’s the warm, welcoming, and thundering qualities of my loved ones. Not knowing the language doesn’t make me any less of a Filipino.

I still go to that salon — they’re the only ones who know how to cut and style my thick, coarse hair. Since then, I’ve realized my mom probably took me there in the first place because it reminded her of being back home.

And I’ll embrace that in any way that I can.