Fighting to be (part) Filipina

Did you know I am part Filipina?

I am, and I have the family tree to prove it.

Even though I grew up in a very ethnically diverse neighborhood in Los Angeles, I was always asked “What are you?” When I moved to the Pacific Northwest as a teenager, I stuck out like a sore thumb at my Junior High school in the suburbs of Portland. I was the short brown girl amidst a sea of tall Caucasian kids. I would answer “What are you?” with a mind-boggling list of my many ethnicities that would leave people stunned. For the record, my mother is Filipina, Irish, French and Spanish. My father was Japanese, Okinawan and Scot.

I am multi-racial.

A mixed plate.

Hapa haole.

Heinz 57.

My children and I have been described as looking “ethnically ambiguous”. We simultaneously look like every race and no one race at all.

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The faces of “ethnic ambiguity” aka being part-Filipino. Photo credit: Life N Light Photography

 

Growing up multi-racial often comes with the feeling that you don’t really “fit in” anywhere, but I identified with the Filipino side of the family because I was raised by my maternal grandparents. My grandfather came to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1932. He landed in Seattle and took a train across the country to Boston where he worked for a few years before enlisting in the Army during WWII.  My grandmother was an Irish/French beauty from New Orleans. Because my grandmother was Caucasian, I didn’t get the full Filipino “immersion experience”. For instance, my mother, aunt and I don’t know any words in any Filipino dialects. When we would express an interest in learning, my grandfather would always say, “We live in America. We speak English in this house.” Ironically, it never stopped him from speaking to my great-grandfather or his friends in “code”, and he never lost his accent.

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My grandfather in Boston in the 1930’s.

I got tidbits of the culture mostly through extended family and the universal language of food. In fact, the only Filipino words that my mother, aunt and I know are the names of dishes we love like pancit, adobo, bibingka, lechon, lumpia and conversely, the ones that make us cringe like balut, dinuguan and pinapaitan.

Did you know I am part Filipina?

I am, and I have the last name to prove it.

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I married the love of my life at Kaka’ako Park in 2015. His last name is 10-letters long. I still haven’t perfected my signature and we’ve been married for over a year.

Fast-forward to my 50’s and I’m married to a Hawaiian/Filipino/Portuguese/Puerto Rican man with a big Filipino last name and I’m living on O’ahu. Within two weeks of moving on to the island, all the Filipina aunties are quick to point out that I’m not Filipina enough.

In the store I heard:

Aunty: Your pirst name?
Me: Brigette. B…
Aunty: P ass en Paul?
Me: No, B…
Aunty: B ass en Boy?
Me: Yes. [I continue to spell the rest of my first name]
Aunty: Your last name?
Me: [in my best Filipino accent I say my last name]
Aunty: Dat es a Pilipino last name you know…
Me: Um, yes. I know…
Aunty: I can spell dat. Dat es Pilipino. [pause as she studies my face] But, you do not look Pilipino.

Over the phone I heard:

Aunty: Dat es a Pilipino last name.
Me: Yes, I know.
Aunty: Oh, but you do not sound Pilipina!
Me: Um, I guess not. I was born and raised on the Mainland.
Aunty: Ohhhh, you are not Filipina…

In my head I would answer, Yes I am, dammit.

Soon after these two encounters, I came across this shirt at Savers and knew I had to buy it.

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Did you know I am part Filipina?

I am, and I have the shirt to prove it.

What do I need to look and sound like? Am I too dark? Too light? Does my slightly pointy nose give away my tablespoon of European blood? Do I need to buy the Tagalog version of Rosetta Stone? Am I just a Pinay “wanna-be” ?

That childhood feeling of not belonging started to hang heavy on my heart. Back home in Washington we have Filipino friends, most of whom are from the hālau our family has danced with for ten years. The majority of them are from Hawai’i. I felt Filipina around them, so did I incorrectly assume that I could “pass” here?

Perhaps.

I was raised by and surrounded by Filipinos for most of my life. Filipino blood runs through my veins. It was the country where my grandfather was born. Through him I learned about things like work ethic, humility, love of family and Jesus, that showing up three hours late to a party can be forgiven if you bring a big pan of pancit or lumpia, and that every family should have a machete. Obviously, that’s not a comprehensive list of lessons learned, but I believe I learned culture through his heart, the values he modeled and in the simplicity in which he lived his life. I married a man with way more Filipino blood than me who embodies all those same values/qualities/sensibilities, including machete ownership (which ironically was handed down from his Filipino grandfather).

My self-doubt began again when I spelled my (married) last name to older Filipina women. Frustrated, I told my father-in-law about the conversations that were clearly bothering me. He listened as I vented, paused for a moment and said, “You are Filipina enough. Don’t let them tell you any different.”

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My father-in-law is one smart man.

Did you know I am part Filipina?

I am.

Author’s note: October is Filipino American History Month. Today (10/6/16) is the 14th anniversary of the passing of my grandfather. I wanted to write about my experience being part Filipina, and often being labeled “not Filipina enough”, and encourage others to write their stories as well. Our stories are powerful and run the full spectrum from hilarious to tragic. What’s yours?