Made in the Philippines

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.



Filed under Writing

23 responses to “Made in the Philippines

  1. jina

    BRAVO! So well said and so proud of it!
    This is so awesome how you wrote this…… you always do!
    Love you, Jess!

  2. I love this metamorphosis. Beautifully written.

  3. So, so beautiful. Just like you. What a rich heritage you have and how wonderfully you celebrate it here!

  4. Beautiful: You, your heritage, and the grace with which you show us both.

  5. Great post! It is wonderful to see other Filipinos who are proud of their roots. My kids are mixed, but I am really trying to instill the “pinoyness” in them.


  6. Nicely put!

    We live in a very WHITE suburb of Pittsburgh, PA and my kids are routinely presented with this scenario. Even though I birthed them and can vividly recall every part of the process, they look nothing like my light hair, light skin, blue eyed, Northern Italian self. My oldest (who hates being referred to as Asian) loves to whip out the “Pacific Islander” race description because this often leaves her peers (and many teachers) with a “huh?” expression. Whereas my older son loudly and proudly proclaims he’s 1/2 Filipino to all who inquire (which are often too many) and the youngest goes with the ethnic group who is willing to show him the most love (no loyalty there!) They are finding their level of comfort with their ethnic background and are beginning to love the unique look they each have.

    I’m going to have them read this post. They’ll get you!

    • It took me awhile to get over all the constant questions about where I was from. There was even a little bout when people would ask, “What’s your race?” and I would answer, “human.” I was a snarky little turd sometimes.

      But then I realized that people were genuinely curious about knowing more about me and my heritage, not because I was a novelty in a not-so-very diverse town, but because they no longer wanted to remain ignorant. And that is always a good thing.

  7. Marianne

    I echo the above sentiments. This is really beautiful. And congratulations!

  8. Thanks for embracing and sharing your heritage with us. To me, the most beautiful people in the world are those who are comfortable in their own skin. You’re one of those. 🙂

  9. Lovely. I don’t know what I am, so I tell people I’m Mennonite.

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  11. This is a great post; I love reading about how others have learned to accept (and embrace) themselves. And you are beautiful! Those pictures you post of your family look like the pictures they put in frames when you buy them.

  12. Great post, Jess!

    I do think our culture has made big strides from being prejudiced against other cultures to being curious and fascinated with the differences.

    I’ll probably be hitting you up for more recipes now…

  13. Through my children’s karate studio, we met two lovely Filipino families with whom we’ve become close friends.

    Whether we’re hanging out at one of our houses or camping (RV and tent) or at some martial arts event, they welcome everyone; share generously; give of their hearts (and their food ohmytheamazingness!).

    My blond-haired blue-eyed pale daughter calls their girls her “sisters” and over the past six years, we have been through so much together – joy, sorrow, challenge and success.

    I’m forever grateful for the richness the Reyes and Sales families bring to our lives. And the fried bananas. Not gonna lie.

  14. I want to be at you all’s dinner tables from the sounds of it 🙂 I never have a problem being forced to eat delicious food. Good stuff!

  15. You have literally just written the story of my life. Except I’m not Filipino. Or from Alabama. Or a woman. Okay, so maybe I shouldn’t say “literally”.

    Being a Puerto Rican in the military, I’ve had quite an identity crisis as I lived in various places. I guess I can relate so much because I lived for 6 years in Mississippi and I felt exactly as you described it. I even had one guy ask me if I spoke Puerto Rican!! #asif

    I’m proud of my heritage but I’m also proud of being an American. But neither one of those really define me because I’m so much more than my flag, my food, my hair or my skin color.

  16. Well written, Jessica. What a beautiful metamorphosis.

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