That Awkward In-Between: Being a Long-Term Guest in America
It has been close to a year since I moved to the US for business school, and strangely enough, this experience of being far away from the Philippines for an extended period of time has taught me far more about my sense of identity and nationality than my more than twenty five years living back home.
It should not be surprising at all that my “Filipino-ness” comes out more frequently while I am here.
When you move into a foreign place, your nationality becomes an extremely key part of your identity. It differentiates you, it helps people remember you, and it provides you with a source of community with other foreigners or migrants who may feel equally out of place. It is the invisible string that binds you, and ties you back home.
I have pondered about my own sense of identity frequently during my random Sundays at Dolores Park; being fortunate enough to be around a relatively multicultural place like San Francisco helps you see interesting nuances in groups and communities.
I would love to share with you some of these thoughts.
My identity can be shaped by the people around me, based on how I react to them
People refer to me as a Chinese in the Philippines, and as a Filipino in the United States.
This phenomenon has been a source of identity crisis for me since I was young, but it has been accentuated coming here. I obviously am not Chinese from the standpoint of my friends who come from China, but Filipinos I bump into randomly will often tell me, “You’re Filipino? I thought you were Chinese!”
That is the reality of being born in the Philippines, to parents who are ethnically Chinese, and to a culture immersed in the American values of individualism and liberalism. I bear within me the looks of East Asia, the heart of Southeast Asia, and the soul of the United States.
While I have thought about it from time to time, I never really had to grapple with providing clarity to my sense of identity while I was in the Philippines. There is a large enough Chinese-Filipino population that I can just put myself in that bucket. It sort of worked; people understood that I can speak Tagalog, while acknowledging that I do not “look” Filipino — an awkward in-between.
Being in the United States has, for the first time, forced me to make a decision about how to identify myself. I can call myself Filipino, Chinese-Filipino, or some complex statement like “oh I grew up in the Philippines but my grandparents are from Fujian”.
I never thought twice about it: I always called myself Filipino. Thinking about it now, I was subconsciously making and reinforcing my own decision of who I am. It was born out of a need to openly declare my identity to the world — a scenario I never encountered back home.
There truly is so much power to a word that is uttered, and there is an immense transformational impact to yourself when you declare the words: “I am…I am…”
Shared experiences, not looks, dictate your group identity and community
One of my most amazing, influential history professors back when I was in undergrad drilled in me the idea that nationality is defined by shared experiences, not by how you look (see Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined community).
I have embraced this principle ever since then, because that is what makes the tapestry of humanity so beautiful. We are able to connect ourselves to others based on certain bits of shared phenomena. We are connected to others at the point where we meet, regardless of where we originally come from.
The past year has given me an in-depth lesson in this concept.
For some cases, the connections are clear. I get along with my international classmates from Asia (especially Southeast Asia) because we are facing this similar, fish-out-of-water experiences. I get along with my classmates from Latin America because we have some shared cultural and historical context; Tagalog and Spanish share similar language structures and patterns.
Those parts are easy. What surprises me is the wide variance of connection I feel with the Filipinos I meet in the Bay Area (although I love them all equally). I could never find myself connecting to a Filipino-American as well as I could to an overseas Filipino worker; I find myself more comfortable with much older, first-generation Filipino immigrants than I do with their children.
No matter how similar we were physically, I realized that what creates a shared sense of community were the buckets of shared experiences we have (or did not have). Though we can both call ourselves Filipino, that term has a different definition to us individually.
That is perfectly fine and wonderful, we were just different: a Filipino national who “looks” Chinese, and an American national who “looks” Filipino.
These realizations did not just give me some high-level, ivory-tower socio-cultural insight; they have given me a source of emotional strength I did not have before. Knowing where and who I can be with in order to feel accepted and connected has given me a template to find my community outside of the Philippines: a home away from my homeland.
It has without a doubt given me a mechanism to cope with being so far away from the people who matter to me the most.
Home is where you are not a guest, where your identity has a certain sense of permanence and continuity
The combination of my declared identity and my insights towards shared experiences has allowed me to find and form pockets of communities during my time here in the Bay Area.
Apart from the very welcoming overseas Filipino community here, I have felt deeply at home conversing with the security guard who holds the morning shift in my office building (he has been in the US for almost twenty years!), the cashier lady in our school dining hall, the chef that manages our school’s executive dining program, and the bartender in the nearby karaoke bar.
It is during those brief conversations with them that I do not feel like a guest. We have no need to identity to each other who we are, and our self-identities from back home simply emerge. We speak of experiences and memories that are deeply embedded in our soul, with a sense of permanence and continuity that persists irrespective of how long we have been away from home.
We speak about our love for 80’s love songs (especially The Police and Air Supply), for boxing, for basketball (generally LA Lakers), for family. We talk about this persistent sense of hope and love, that radiates despite how bad the local headlines on the Philippine Daily Inquirer appear to be. In these shared moments, I feel at home.
While shared experiences may start with nationality and community, I find them to be a gateway to building and bridging new experiences with people who are different.
I hope my talk of discovering my identity does not make it appear that my time here has been unpleasant or unwelcoming. I am a very grateful guest here that simply fears losing the memories of home. In fact, the Bay Area is probably the closest one can get to an experience of Manila.
I have made so many wonderful, lifelong friends during my time here, and it is precisely their acceptance and their celebration of my differences that has emboldened me to be more firm with embracing my own sense of self. It is knowing the fact that they will accept me for whoever I choose to be, that I am able to reveal my identity with pride.
I find that having clarity with who I am does not gate me against other people who are different. Rather, it has simply given me a better understanding of the emotions and conflicts that I feel during my time here. It is important to understand the difference in feeling deliberately excluded, from just feeling different. The latter is an opportunity to forming new relationships and finding growth.
A better understanding of myself has been key to forging more authentic relationships with people who are different from me; it is a gateway to bridging those gaps, no matter how foggy those connections seem to be at first.
After all, how can you form meaningful connections with people, if you are unsure about who you are?
One of the closest friends I have made here is an American from SoCal with an Italian-Armenian descent. We have totally different work backgrounds.
We have almost nothing in common on paper from a “shared experience standpoint”. But looking back, I believe what has allowed our friendship to blossom was the fact that he gave me the space to embrace all parts of myself, my nationality, my identity, and beyond. I am thankful for the courage he has given me to celebrate being me.
As another anecdote, I recently went to a Filipino Independence Day festival here in San Francisco, and spoke for two hours to the gentleman selling Filipino books in a stall. We spoke about authors like Nick Joaquin and Sionil Jose, only for me to realize afterwards that he was born in California, did not speak Filipino at all (he was a retired Spanish teacher and a librarian). He has never been to the Philippines either. Yet, that shared passion for the literature and culture so close to my heart has bound us together, and we have been friends ever since.
It does not matter where you are from, if you meet people where they are.
You be who you are: the freedom of embracing what stirs your heart
Let me close this note by sharing an interesting, amusing (to some, hopefully) childhood transition.
As someone who grew up with an awkward sense of identity crisis almost his entire childhood, I can attest that there is an indescribable, unbounded sense of happiness in choosing who you want to be, and you will go through plenty of transitions before you get to this point. I am still, in fact, figuring this out.
So where am I on my journey? I grew up being immersed, almost completely, in Chinese culture. I went to a Chinese high school, watched (voluntarily!) Chinese TV series, and listened to Chinese songs. I have a photo of myself with a traditional Chinese costume, and I probably still have a stash of red envelopes stashed in my desk. My Mandarin was even half-way decent that I bet I could find my way in China.
It was only when I started working, both in finance and in education, that I began to identify myself more firmly as a Filipino (without the ethnic prefix). Maybe it was because entering my adult years has granted me the freedom to make these decision on my own? Maybe it was because my work, especially as a teacher, has drawn me closer to the students I work with.
Whatever that is, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to figure out who I am; to escape some awkward in-between and declare my own identity in all its complex dimensions —my nationality, my spirituality, my philosophy.
This process continues for me today, and I am extremely thankful for the freedom and the space that my time here has granted me. I am learning to wholeheartedly embrace the lightness of one’s being, which can be summarized in a simple phrase:
You be who you are.