It’s Saturday morning on move-in day for my first year of college. All my things are crammed into the trunk, under the seats, and in front of my siblings’ feet. The tank is filled with gas for the long ride. Everyone is excited and my dad turns the radio to his favorite country station, where the dial stays for all five hours of the trip. But I don’t mind it. I love country music. Growing up in Virginia, it’s played at the grocery store, neighborhood barbecues and especially concerts and festivals. Country music is part of the all-American culture I grew up in, but in many ways — maybe because of its more linear heritage — it doesn’t quite match with my multilayered and more complex Asian American identity.
My parents grew up in the U.S., so it was actually my grandparents who immigrated here from the Philippines: one pair during the ‘50s and the other during the ‘70s. My mom was not taught Tagalog (a native language of the Philippines), and my dad only comprehends the language; both spent most of their lives in Virginia. They are the most “American” Asian Americans I know, allowing me to date in high school, listening to me as I confided in them about my relationships and encouraging me to follow my passions in pursuing a career path. My parents also aren’t very connected to the Filipino community, choosing to avoid much of the politics and happenings in our hometown, which has naturally affected me. I attended predominantly white schools for most of my life, and aside from regularly attending church and sharing meals and our love for music and dancing, I didn’t have much exposure to Filipino culture.
It was in my junior year of high school, though, that I transferred to a school with a large Filipino population. I was so excited to finally be around other kids who looked like me and to learn more about parts of the Filipino culture that I couldn’t from my family. But it wasn’t what I thought it would be. When getting to know other Filipinos, I was usually met with the assumption that I shared similar cultural experiences and knowledge, but my family hadn’t retained many tangible elements of Filipino identity, like language. As I began spotting more and more differences between my experiences and those around me, I started to worry that I was a stranger to my own identity, and I felt like I was doing something wrong. I would often receive comments like, “You act so white,” or “You’re one of those whitewashed Filipinos,” or even, “Are you not proud to be Filipino?” I was hurt and disappointed to receive such judgment from a community to which I had been longing to be more connected. I decided that maybe I didn’t want to be connected to it anymore. Maybe I wasn’t truly a Filipino, and what I needed was to find belonging somewhere else.
I steered clear of Filipino and Asian groups for the rest of high school and through my first year of college and instead found a place of belonging amongst Hispanic and Black communities. I actually felt more welcomed in these spaces where we shared a lot of cultural experiences, despite our different ethnic backgrounds: We grew up listening to the same musical artists and experienced community through the sharing of food, and music and dancing were always a part of celebrations. But the biggest reason I felt more welcomed into these non-Filipino friend groups was because although we shared similarities between our cultures and values, I wasn’t actually a part of their ethnic groups, so I was never held to the same standards and expectations as they might have done with others who were.
I remember talking to some of my Hispanic and Black friends, and some of them had experienced the same invalidations of their identities with their respective ethnic communities as I had amongst Filipinos. One of my Black friends didn’t always speak with the same accent or cultural vernacular as her friends and family, so she was often labeled as “whitewashed” growing up. Another one of my Black friends enjoyed music genres that differed from the R&B and hip-hop that her friends and family listened to, and she was often invalidated in her identity as well. As I spoke to more and more of my friends, I realized that something I thought was so unique to my experience with my culture was actually something that many others felt, too. And the question of “Why am I not enough?” became “Why are we not enough?”
I could no longer place blame on the Filipino community alone since the issue of invalidation extended to other communities as well. In my second year of college, I decided to join a Filipino cultural organization and return to the community that had hurt me, that I still hoped would accept me. When introducing myself to this group, I would often lead with the preamble “Oh, I don’t speak … ” to prevent any comments they might have about my identity and to provide some justification of who I am. I was actually accepted by this Filipino community, just as I had longed for. But to be honest, joining this group wasn’t the full-circle moment I had expected it to be, when I would finally reconcile with my Filipino identity and pride.
Instead, it was through talking about my experiences with others that I eventually found this reconciliation. What I learned through drifting in and out of the Filipino community is that language and cultural behaviors and artifacts are not what define one’s identity. If I am proud of who I am and where I come from, that alone makes me valid in who I am. My family has its own unique story of immigration, so if I exhibit both my heritage culture and American culture — to whatever degree that may be — I am not invalid in any of those spaces. I am a product of history. And I am proud of that history and who I am. I wrote about these reflections and shared it with my writing class last semester and found a sense of empowerment through expression. I started telling other Asian Americans about my perspective to explain that with immigration comes children like me in future generations. And I continued conversations with my non-Filipino friends who seemed to feel lonely in their communities just like I had, and in our shared experiences, we found belonging.
During that car ride, when my family was taking me to college for the first time and we were happily singing along to our country station, I had no idea about the journey and transformation that would begin after I arrived at my destination. Country music, though it courses through my veins, will never fully encompass my Asian American identity, but I can still appreciate and revel in all the ways that it does. And just like the choruses in my favorite country songs change in the slightest ways to reveal a story that has progressed and evolved, I now tell a different narrative about what it means to be Filipino American. Rather than trying to escape that part of myself, I now embody a contented acceptance. And I no longer give the preamble “Oh, I don’t speak … ” in an attempt to justify my identity. Because my identity doesn’t need any justification.
Photo credit: Brett Jordan//Unsplash