My ethnicity has always been one of the most predominate things about me. But ironically, it wasn’t until we moved from the heart of newly reunified post-WWII Germany back to America that I realized this.
My dad was then stationed in southern Alabama, and all of a sudden I started to notice that I didn’t look or sound like any of the other kids in my class.
For the first time ever, I was instructed, by the government or the census bureau or my fifth grade teacher, to encompass my race – an ancestral mingling of Filipino, Spanish, European, Indian, English – into one small checkbox: White, Black, or Other.
I was suddenly and often asked by teachers, classmates, and complete strangers if I was Spanish or Hawaiian or Chinese or Native American.
For the first time I truly realized that my hair was thick and black, my eyes the shape of almonds, my skin permanently tan and an envy in the winter.
Oh, but I adapted quickly.
Barely a year later, I had a perfect southern twang. I learned to smile and hedge when people asked me where I was from, pretending to misunderstand and answer, “Germany,” as if there was any truth at all in that answer.
I tried to make the Philippines sound like just a small portion of my bloodline, pointing out that my grandfather was British and quite white. I dreaded the beginning of each school year when teachers would ask us to raise our hands if we were, “White, Black, or Other.”
Eventually they (whoever “they” were) added boxes. White, Black, Hispanic, Other. And then: White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Other. By the time I was in high school, they asked us to “Check All That Apply.” That was even worse. How does a girl born in the Philippines but on American soil with ancestors from literally around the world answer that question? Can I actually Check All That Applied?
Yes, I was one hundred percent Asian. But that included a dash of British, a marriage of Indian, a war fought with Spanish blood, generations of native islanders born and bred and interwoven with the Whites, the Blacks, the Others.
Thankfully, my parents never once apologized for our Otherness in a very White or Black Alabama. They spoke Tagalog amongst themselves, even if we had friends over, even as they gaped at my parents’ native tongue. Every month or so we would get together with other Filipino families for a huge cookout, the food the food of my childhood, dishes I wouldn’t have to explain to other people, pronouncing its name slowly, Americanly.
As I grew older, my ethnicity became a point of pride. I began to relish in being considered “exotic.” People commented on my looks, the only real beauty of it in being different. A boy once told me he thought the Philippines was made up of the most beautiful people in the world. Another boy told me Filipino food was some of the best tasting food he had ever had. All of a sudden, I saw myself as part of an exclusive club, the Ethnic club. I wasn’t made in America; I was made in the Philippines.
And it wasn’t long before that pride in being different became a genuine pride in my heritage.
A culture I wasn’t so far removed from, generations of American living separating me from that small cluster of islands in the Pacific Ocean. No, I was born on one of those islands, just one part of my family’s very first generation of American-born children.
A culture of black-haired, tan-toned, warm-hearted people who insist, “you eat, eat!” as we gather around tables piled high with adobo and crispy pata, lumpia and torta, halo halo and leche flan for dessert, rice steamed in banana leaves. A culture as distinct and unique as it is all-encompassing and overflowing with generosity. A culture that runs through my blood and skin and memory, mingled now in the bloodline of my own children, with their fondness for chicken nuggets and pulvoron.
A culture that links me to my parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins.
A colorful, timeless culture rich in history, so very rich in flavor. A culture centered around family, tradition, hospitality and good food. A culture that seeps from my pores and gathers you in.
Welcome to the Philippines.