ON BEING FILIPINO AMERICAN
When I arrived in Monterey, California, with my family as a youngster, I knew only one way of living – the Filipino way. Suddenly transported to a world that I had only dreamed about and seen in movies like Rebel Without a Cause, I was deeply conscious of my Filipino-ness and about how I projected myself to my newly found American friends. Not only did I look different, my peculiar traits and habits, honed by years of observing traditions and respecting the values of my parents and elders while growing up in the Philippines, stood in stark contrast with those of my peers. During the first season of my arrival in the new world, I was intimidated by what I perceived to be my inadequacies. Being the only Asian among a circle of mostly blond and blue-eyed kids my age, the need to fit in was so strong that I was prepared to do virtually anything to be accepted.
Stranger on a Different Shore
The Monterey Peninsula in those days was predominantly populated by white Americans. There were hardly any Asians, save for a few Japanese families and even fewer Filipino family dependents of former Philippine Scouts stationed at Fort Ord as U.S. soldiers. If there were other immigrants to speak of, they were the second- and third-generation thoroughly Americanized Italians and Sicilians whose forbears were drawn to Monterey’s climate and the fishing industry that resembled their native Sicily. The Monterey city telephone book in those days read like an Italian parish’s birth registry, suffused with names like Aielio, Anastasia, DiDonato, DiLorenzo. Lagomarsino, Lucicero, Maiorana, and Cutino, the last having a special significance to me. Such was the demographic composition of Monterey when we arrived in 1957.
Though I never felt discriminated against by the Italians or the Americans because of my race, I felt a self-imposed pressure early on to emulate my peers and assimilate into the American culture or be consigned to oblivion. I learned my first lesson in assimilation on the very first day of classes at Monterey Union High when I wore to school a pair of Chuck Taylor’s Converse tennis shoes as was then de rigueur at San Sebastian, whence I left the previous summer. At the school bus stop that morning, I drew stares from nearly everyone in the crowd, but no one said anything. Strangely, the first person to break the silence was a fellow Filipino son of a former Philippine Scout who derisively commented that, "Bok, hindi na Pilipinas ito." Maybe it was his way to help me adjust in the only way he knew how, I wasn’t sure, but to this day I remember my mother feeling the pain of my humiliation when I told her what the Filipino kid said to me.
John's class picture at San Sebastian College for the 1954-'55 school year. He is seated in the front row, the third from the left.
The Acculturation Process
Because of this jarring experience, I began to observe American kids closely. I imitated the way they dressed, how they spoke, and how they acted in various situations. I felt that if I did not wish to offend or be ridiculed again, I had to adapt to American cultural norms. I soon found myself frequently looking into the mirror, checking to see if I looked "American" enough. To conform with the fashion of the age, I wore a crewcut and the uniform of the typical American teenager as typified by James Dean and Sal Mineo in the movie, Rebel Without a Cause: blue jeans and black or navy-blue nylon jacket over a white T-shirt. I practiced speaking a brand of English spoken by my peers. In the classrooms and in the cafeteria, I made mental notes of the popular expressions and slangs of the time and incorporated them into my still-growing vocabulary. To help dispel my Filipino accent and intonations, I watched television shows like Gunsmoke and the Three Mouseketeers as soon as I got home from school. I also watched Dick Clark’s American Bandstand to learn the latest American dance craze. But even at that young impressionable age, I always knew that somehow I had to retain my identity as a Filipino, at least when at home or around fellow Filipinos.
Before long, I sensed a marked difference for the better in the way my newly found friends related to me. It also helped tremendously that I happened to drive one of the most eye-catching custom cars in Monterey in those days – a lacquer black, two-door Bel-Aire Chevrolet lowered to the ground with extra teeth in the grille for looks - cruising the main drag of downtown Monterey with a goddess from Mount Olympus personified by a blue-eyed second generation Italian by the name of Jo Ann Cutino seated next to me. (See also: The Monterey Peninsula)
As I continued to refine the superficial manifestations of adjustments that I considered essential, I discovered that my view of the world was changing as well. For example, I no longer found the curious Filipino trait of staring at or making fun of the physically-challenged a sign of superiority, but found it to be abhorrent instead. I learned that orderly queueing, then unheard of in the Philippines, was a microcosm of the orderliness of American society.
Throughout this slow but methodical process of acculturation, I was in effect systematically incorporating newly learned values into my existing ones to a point where these differing values became almost one, complementing rather than contradicting one another.
John in Alexandria, Virginia in 1968, two years before he got married.
Overlapping Cultures and Values
Today, I find myself comfortably situated among my peers, navigating my way smoothly in both worlds – the Filipino and the American worlds. Among other things, I have incorporated positive American values that enrich my life, such, for example, as being less chauvinistic than my contemporaries in the Philippines or embracing the traditional American sense of fair play. Add to this mix, the Arab culture that I have been exposed to for the past 33 years by virtue of my being married to a Palestinian. Thus, I feel equally at home enjoying pinakbet one day, burger and fries the next, and makloba the day after.
The interpenetration of cultures in today’s increasingly borderless global community has all but made racial categorization irrelevant. What, by the way, is a true American these days, or a true Filipino? Unless one is a native American, one cannot say unequivocally that he/she is 100 percent "American." In the same vein, it would be preposterous for an individual to say that he/she is 100 percent Filipino, because there is no such thing unless he/she is a Zambales Aeta. After more than 400 years of western rule, Filipinos are a racial mix that defies absolute categorization. This being the case, I don’t think I can state with conviction that I am only American or that I am only Filipino. Instead, I feel fortunate to have a dual identity and, that, as a result of this intermingling of values and my exposure to, and familiarity with, both American and Filipino cultures, I believe I have become a better individual, more knowledgeable and open-minded about diversity and new experiences.
Despite this dual identity, there is no denying that I am as Filipino as one can possibly be. The American experience has not diminished my passion for the old country. Images of Philippine rural scenes still strike a chord in my heart. The stirring notes of Lupang Hinirang still bring a lump in my throat just as hearing The Star-Spangled Banner played at the beginning of NFL football games gives me goosebumps. My taste buds remain oriented to Filipino cooking, and I speak of barrio Salaza pridefully and in reverent tones. This will perhaps explain why, in the discussion forum, Salaza, Palauig, Zambales, is an integral element of my signature. Although the passage of time has taken its toll on my syntax, I speak Tagalog fluently. I am also confident that my knowledge of Philippine history and current events is just as good as the next Filipino’s.
On the other hand, because I have done everything that was necessary to completely immerse myself in the American culture, I also consider myself a full-blown American. Even if at times I find myself at odds with the U.S. government’s stand on a host of social and foreign policy issues, in general, I identify with the American ethos and aspirations. Thus, my opposition to the war in Iraq, for example, is a reflection of my disagreement with the reigning administration’s foreign policy, but not necessarily an indication that I am anti-American.
On Being Filipino American
Many overseas Filipinos choose to become Americanized or Europeanized by discarding their Filipino values. I don’t think this is necessary. Because I didn’t want to lose my Filipino identity, what I have is an amalgamation of values. By strictly maintaining the Filipino values I learned as a kid in the Philippines while adapting to American values to deal with the present, I believe I have succeeded in finding that comfort zone between the two cultures. In adjusting to the American way of life, I have been careful not to lose myself during the process, always making sure that what was important to me in both worlds stayed with me. Thus, while I still cling to the ageless lifeways of my Filipino roots, I am also proud of my present constitution as a full-blown American and of my ability to understand the soul of both cultures. This, to me, is the essence of what it means to be a Filipino American.
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