Why I am a Failed Filipino

I’ve been back in the Philippines for two weeks now after my stint in Bangkok. A conversation this weekend that I had with a friend I last saw five years ago happened to be about one of my blog articles, or rather, the content in one that struck a chord with her: about being a failed Filipino. Arguably, her situation might be worse than mine, seeing she grew up in a Filipino family most of her life in the Philippines, and I spent but five years in Manila, in the international school bubble, speaking English, after having lived in America and Hong Kong.

Forget the fact I have an American passport and my language skills in Tagalog are atrocious. It’s a common theme in my life (and many other Third Culture Kids) where I don’t feel like I “own” or feel “connected” to my ethnicity or my nationality.

The Philippines is not my home; it’s familiar territory, but that’s all. I look like one of them, but I am not one of them, and this isn’t even because I’m Chinese-Filipino. They talk to my companions, whether they are my Korean or Chinese friends in English, knowing they are foreigners. They talk to me in Tagalog, and when I respond in English to let them know I don’t understand, they continue to speak in Tagalog, in a manner that implies I should know how to speak instead of trying to be more westernized by replying in English. Then after I finally get through a few tries, they realize, oh wait, this guy doesn’t speak Tagalog, he must be arrogant or maybe he’s not one of us. English then.

A few months ago, when I was here for work, this cultural confusion of associating my ethnicity with my mentality (theirs) came about when the term “nosebleed” was introduced to me, one of the many idiosyncratic Filipino colloquialisms (in English) to express themselves. Nosebleed apparently refers to being unable to talk out of either not understanding what someone else is saying that intimidates or embarrasses them, and too ashamed to speak.

The assumption is I would “get it” because it’s in English, and I speak English. But as Winston Churchill once said about America and Britain, “It is the language that divides us.”

“Learn Tagalog, then! It’s your heritage!” Unfortunately, I don’t feel connected to my heritage, this country is not my home, and Tagalog is only for a select few in the main part of the country, as there are over 88 languages spoken in the country, but the most widely-spoken one is, you guessed it: English. Besides: the people who want to move up tend to be the people who speak English and know no more than street Tagalog. When I do try to speak Tagalog working in development with the poor communities, what happens? They want to practice their English, even when mocking my inability to speak proper Tagalog. Can’t win.

“Go back to America then, if you don’t like it, don’t come here!” But America is not my home, either. I feel an even greater disconnect there. Especially from the Filipino-Americans. Their idea of what “being Filipino” is does not match mine, and I’ve been called “whitewashed” for not falling into their list of characteristics about what makes a person Filipino. Why does being “poor” in the Philippines denote “real” culture? Why does living in the wealthier parts and the very Americanized areas like Makati in Metro Manila automatically just make it “America junior” instead of the Philippines with a diverse cultural influence, not to mention the impact of globalization homogenizing the world?

“What kind of ignorant twat are you to be whining? It’s arrogant of you to not respect the culture of the country you are staying in. You’re ignorant and an idiot to not respect even your own culture!” Again: it doesn’t feel like it belongs to me, nor do I belong to it. I originated from it, but does a snake miss the skin it sheds?

I’m not trying to be Northeast Asian, North American, Third Culture Kid, or anything like that. I, like many of my compatriots, simply do not align with the usual characteristics that make up people’s ideas of what being Filipino is. Whether it is the definition of Filipinos in the Philippines who assume I must know the language because I look tan and am in the country, or the Filipino-Americans who think I’m just “whitewashed”, I am not one of them, as ethnicity as an indicator of culture is arbitrary to me.

What I do want to point out from my own insights is that just because you are not A, that does not lead to the conclusion you must be B. I am C: neither A nor B, but people are only used to A and B. What is C?

Well, if you have been a reader of my blog for a while, or you know me in real life, the real Johnny C is a guy who tends to have a few too many quirks that make it hard to associate and generalize with an entire age group, race, nationality, or any of the sort. I have no obligation on account of race or nationality, but I do acknowledge each of them in some way have contributed to the overall puzzle that is “identity” and my “self”, whatever that is.

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10 responses to “Why I am a Failed Filipino

  1. Grandma Jen

    “C” is who you’ve become and that is all that matters. A great person with a huge heart. I love you. Growing is ok but do not change the person whom I love.

  2. You’re an American. Your culture is likely mostly American and I could argue that you don’t actually have another culture since Filipino culture seems foreign to you. Your nationality (i.e. American) is not *just* a “passport”. Just because your parents or grandparents, etc. came from somewhere else doesn’t make you any less American. ALL other Americans (except the Native Americans) have ancestors that came from somewhere else.

    It’s really sad to see how Americans divide themselves. Brazil, for example, has a very diverse population, but they’re generally united as a country. Does Gisele Bundchen refer to herself as German? German Brazilian? Nope, just Brazilian.

    I’m not saying that you should deny your Filipino (or even Chinese) heritage, but your not a ‘failed’ anything.

    Is Jake Gyllenhaal a ‘failed’ Swede?
    Is Kristi Yamaguchi a ‘failed’ Japanese?

    By the way, what are the “usual characteristics” of a Filipino? Should all Filipinos abide by these said characteristics? If Filipinos do not display these characteristics, does that make them less Filipino?

    Do I fit in to your definition of Filipino?

    I was born and raised in Quezon City, Philippines and I have Filipino citizenship. I am fluent in English and Filipino**(note below). I’m a jeans and t-shirt kind of person (I don’t think I’ve ever worn a baro’t saya). I don’t watch noontime variety shows or telenovelas. I watch slapstick Filipino comedies especially if Eugene Domingo is the lead. No one in my family owns a karaoke machine and honestly, no one in my family can sing (well, at least). I don’t have a large family — my immediate family consists of 3 people, including me; and my extended family consists of 2 titas, 1 tito and 8 first cousins. No one in my family is a doctor, nurse, seaman, nanny, maid, engineer, etc. I graduated with a degree in Finance and people ask me all the time “bakit di ka nalang nag-nursing?” (“why didn’t you just take up nursing?”). While I do like sisig and kare kare, I don’t like adobo, sinigang and anything too “vinegar-y” and people think I’m weird because of that (apparently, we’re all supposed to have the same likes and dislikes; otherwise, we’re ‘maarte’ or ‘mapili’). My grandparents don’t live with us since they have their own place. I wasn’t raised to say ‘po’ and ‘opo’ (which, by the way, is a Tagalog thing, not a Filipino thing. Other ethnic groups in the Philippines don’t have ‘po’ and ‘opo’ in their respective languages), but I do call all my parents’s friends ‘tito’ or ‘tita’ whether or not they’re related to me. I wasn’t taught ‘mano po’, but I usually greet people with either a ‘beso’, handshake or a wave. 99.99% of what I buy is made in China. I don’t watch any kind of sport, including boxing and basketball. Hmm.. what else?

    ** Fun fact: Filipino is the national language of the Philippines, not Tagalog. While, it is largely based on Tagalog, they’re not the same thing because they differ in vocabulary.

    ** E.g. the Filipino word for airplane is ‘eroplano’, which is from the Spanish word ‘aeroplano’; while the Tagalog word for airplane is ‘salipawpaw’. I bet there are many so-called Tagalog speakers who would know what an aeroplano is, but they would be confused if you say salipawpaw. Another Filipino word is ‘katarungan’ or justice. The root word, ‘tarung’ is not from the Tagalog language, but Visayan (‘tarong’ = straight). In other words, Katarungan means ‘justice’ in Filipino, but it is not a Tagalog word.

    Am I less Filipino, because I don’t strictly conform to a figurative list of what you (or anyone else) think defines a Filipino? Will it make me more Filipino if I dress, act or look like a certain way? Should identity really be that limited?

    My point? What makes someone a ‘successful’ Filipino? If, for example, your definition is the ability to speak Tagalog, then I guess that rules out people who were born and raised in the Philippines, but don’t speak Tagalog.

    You’re an *individual* and just because you happen to be born a specific heritage by chance doesn’t mean you have to strive to fit your own preconceived notions of the Filipino identity. Filipino culture is regional and there’s no single Filipino culture. People from Mindanao are culturally/linguistically different from people from Visayas and Luzon. Northern Luzon is culturally/linguistically different from the Southern Luzon. Ilocanos are culturally/linguistically different from Tagalogs. Cebuanos are different from Tagalogs. Even Tagalogs or different from other Tagalogs–sure, there are similarities, but there are just as many differences between people individually.

    I don’t know if this sounds patronizing or rude or whatever, but I hope it doesn’t. That’s really not how I wanted this novel to be interpreted. Whatever your nationality, ethnicity, race, you’re first and foremost an individual with your own likes, dislikes, personality, beliefs, mannerisms, etc. Your identity is unique and as mentioned, just because you’re born a certain heritage does not mean you have to conform to characteristics that are typical of that specific heritage. If someone tells you that you should “learn Tagalog” because it’s your heritage**, tell them to learn baybayin, wear traditional Filipino attire, etc. That should shut them up.

    ** Tagalog is the language of the Tagalog ethnic group in the Philippines. Not knowing Tagalog doesn’t make one less Filipino. My friend was born and raised in Cebu and he can only speak Cebuano and English, but he’s still Filipino. Many tribal groups in the Philippines don’t speak Tagalog, but they’re still Filipino.

    • Hi Andy, thanks for your comment.

      Let’s assume you never read the fine “about me” or the tab that describes Third Culture Kids.

      Before you think this is an attack on you for your comment, let me diffuse any tension that you may have now and say that I agree with 95% of what you say, up until you characterize me for being “just” American.

      Firstly, when I wrote this, I said I am a “Failed Filipino” not because those are qualities I personally believe in, but what others superficially presume make up being “Filipino” and as the post indicates, it’s all very subjective. People in Manila and Filipinos in America have very funny ideas about what being “Filipino” is. So no, that is not MY definition, contrary to your response, and no, you don’t fit into THEIR definition. If it isn’t abundantly clear in my post, I reject that definition altogether and am right with you on how absurd it is.

      Secondly, I agree that Americans don’t need that hyphen to denote subgroups. However, these hyphened groups like to give themselves a certain identity which gives America a kind of “have your cake and eat it too” so that they are part of the melting pot that everyone is American, and tossed salad in that they are American-plus. So if it saddens you, you might be alone there.

      With Americans, I associate myself with them by values and ideals, not ethnicity or passport. However, I am first and foremost Johnny C. Who cares about my passport or ethnicity? I’m also a Third Culture Kid. I grew up in Manila, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and all over America. So I do not consider myself American or Filipino, I consider myself an individual. Not a citizen of the world–that’s annoyingly pretentious. If someone calls me just an American, I feel insulted because it dismisses and fails to acknowledge my ties to Thailand, China, and the Philippines, which are forever a part of me, just as every new country I live in feels like it’s “mine” so to speak.

      But I do tell people I am American if people ask what my passport or accent is, because I dislike division, and it annoys Asian-Americans or whatever hyphens since they have an awfully inflated view of themselves by the color of their skin instead of what they actually create. Such examples of what is uniquely Asian-American the North American ensemble style taiko drumming (very different from traditional Japanese), sushi rolls and other fusion dishes, sriracha hot sauce, and Jeet Kune Do and Kajukenbo martial arts styles. Who cares about how they look; I care about something that was created by these unique subcultural groups, and even then, it doesn’t matter who made it–it matters if it’s good and I like it.

      Otherwise, I am first and foremost–Johnny C. If this wasn’t clear from my writing in the original post (according to what you wrote in your comment), there is no ambiguity now.

      And I thoroughly enjoyed your arguments and reasoning, which I will incorporate into future debates with people who tell me that I’m a “Failed Filipino” and hopefully get them to shut up because in the spirit of Good Will Hunting, you have successfully disassembled their futile and fatuous superficial definition of “Filipino”.

  3. Please excuse the grammatical and/or spelling errors in the previous post. I just noticed some now and there is no way for me to edit them.

  4. I’m in a similar situation. I’m a 21 year old Filipino-Canadian, and I was born and raised in Canada. I’ve only been to the Philippines once when I was 2. I often get criticized by Filipinos who try to speak to me in tagalog.

    I’m a server at a restaurant, and every time I get a Filipino table, it’s the same thing. This is what happened to me last week:

    “Filipino ka ba?”
    “Yeah, but I don’t speak tagalog.” – N
    “Oh, but you understand?”
    “Not a lot, to be honest” – N
    “Oh, so you are ashamed of your country.”
    “What? No, I was just never taught it growing up here.” – N
    “You’re not true Filipino, you’re a disgrace.”
    “Seriously? Um, alright.”
    And she and her family became cold and rude to me then no-tipped on their $150 bill.

    It’s times like these I think to myself, why should I respect a culture that shuns me? No matter how familiar it is to me, no matter that I love all the food and I sometimes watch TFC with my mom (who translates for me), and no matter that I’m really polite to Filipinos who address me.

    Like you said. Can’t win.

    I was even told “I hate you” after my response to being spoken to in tagalog, by an elderly Filipina woman I had once served. She then proceeded to give me disgusted glares along with her daughter who was around 30 years old. Though there was a time where I was accepted by the Filipino community, when I was growing up. I would go to a McDonald’s or a Tim Hortons and the cashier would shower me with free stuff if he/she was Filipino.

    The thing is, my mom and dad never took it upon themselves to teach me any tagalog or ilocano growing up. They saw it as, if I grew up in Canada learning English, I could fit in easier and become more successful. But I seriously feel a huge tension at times when talking to a born-and-raised Filipino, and most times looked down upon. I’m just not attached to the culture in a way that can connect me to other Filipinos, so I try my best to fit into Canadian culture, which is very multicultural and accepting but stereotypes are becoming more prevalent.

    The truth of the matter is, these types of encounters make me feel like I don’t belong, and make me respect Filipino culture less and less. I am shunned by “true” Filipinos, but I’m also often stereo-typed by Canadian society, despite the high amount of multiculturalism in Canada. I’m associated with both but I am also neither. I’m not truly Canadian because I have a Filipino upbringing and practice traditional things but I’m not truly Filipino because I cannot connect with the culture in a way that accepts me.

    Sob story aside, I’m okay with it because I’m pretty guapo and I get white bitches. But I hear you brother.

    • Thank for your comment Mr. N, I lived in Toronto before, and I have noticed a kind of expectation from immigrant groups there that is not dissimilar to the way they do it in America.

      As Andy pointed out earlier, many of the superficial expectations about what they believe a Filipino should be like are just that: skin-deep. I do get insulted when in America, people say “You’re Filipino, you must be poor” or in the Philippines “You don’t really look Chinese, so you’re not Chinese” and all sorts of nonsense. Culture to me is learned behavior–how one looks does not dictate how one acts or thinks (unless we’re talking about fashion and such, but that’s another kind of culture altogether).

      I call that all “cultural blackmail” and it encompasses a lot. You can see some examples of it here: http://www.8asians.com/2013/07/17/cultural-blackmail-the-hipsterization-of-asian-america/

      To expand on that, when Asian-Asians expect westernized Asians to think and act a certain way due to heritage, that’s cultural blackmail. By the same token, nonsense from America has Asian-Americans saying that they speak for all Asians (see the ridiculous Fung brothers videos, or better yet, don’t) and have some sort of authority for culture just because of their heritage and skin is quite silly to me.

      There are bits and pieces of heritage left over, yes, like you in Canada and me in America and everywhere else I’ve lived, but I’m not obligated (and neither are you) to hold onto it due to nationalism. Nationalism is one of the 10 plagues of the 20th century that we still live with.

      Short version: we are Filipino, you, me, and Andy. I am American, you are Canadian, but we are no less Filipino because of our passports or upbringing or lack of language skills. Speaking no Tagalog or Filipino doesn’t make you a traitor, it just denotes your upbringing, and nobody should give you bullshit for lack of it (otherwise, the rest of the non-Tagalog country should cut itself off from the Philippines if Tagalog was the only language that makes someone Filipino). To hell with all of them, I’m Filipino and nobody can tell me I am or am not, and nobody can use broad stereotypes or criteria to define what being Filipino is.

  5. I think you are still lucky. I’m not in any way Filipino, but I can feel you. Both of my parents were South Koreans.We migrated to america when I was 4 yrs old. Back in 2011, I visited my grandmother and relatives in Busan. All was fine until me,my cousins and my younger brother went to Hongdae to shop and eat, but me and my brother cannot speak fluent korean so we were trying to speak konglish(mixture of korean and english) everytime we order and/or talk to people. Most of the time we get an angry glare from the people whom we talk to or hear us. One instance, while my brother was alone in the street he was punched by one of a guy from a group of 8 local guys just because they have heard my brother speaking in konglish and cannot articulate well in korean. Later on, my cousin told us local koreans doesn’t like korean american or korean who have been brought up to other countries for that matter,who keeps on speaking Konglish, English, or do not know the language.They said that you look Korean but you don’t know how to speak it?or don’t show off your English! Because of that I always bring with me my cousin to do the talking because I’m afraid I might get myself in trouble if I speak English or Konglish again. Its really hard and frustrating!I can also feel that I don’t belong, the culture is hard to penetrate especially when people treat you as an outsider, they seems to close their doors and mingle in their own world.

    Ironically, my cousins told us that locals like foreigners who tries to speak konglish, otherwise, you are ought to know the language.:(

  6. Man, I grew up in US and I feel exactly the same way. Don’t think every fililipino fits in with the filipino community here in US, they are a clique and world of their own. they do not understand the filipinos who grow up alone as minorities in non-asian neighborhoods having to fend for themselves. They cannot be tolerant of differences because they grow up in tough neighborhoods where solidarity and conformity is the only way to survive. I guess I could get along with them, but I do not at all want to be like them because that would mean having to throw away my own identity and individualism for the good of the “filipino identity”. Also, I haven’t lived in poor neighborhoods, but I have been subject to hate crimes.

  7. Anyways, filipinos aren’t really accepting people. They discriminate against a lot of people. Imagine people who don’t look filipino and what they go through. That’s what I am, I don’t look filipino, but the majority of my family does. We also have other family members who are too dark (negrite) and others who are too light to be accepted. The philippines has turned into a country that isn’t really too accepting of differences. It’s a messed up culture caused by spanish, but something we had to sacrifice to become christian. I guess what’s important isn’t filipino identity, what’s important is that you have a personality that makes sense to you and that in the end you do the right things according to your own values. because after all, courage is about do the right things, it’s not about the uncertainty you feel inside or how others don’t accept you. in fact, a lot of times, courage is the ability to go against others to do what you think is right or what you believe in. And courage is always right, no matter what race or planet you are from.

  8. Don’t mind these stupid intolerant arrogant bullies. They are most probably uneducated and insecure, putting others down and making them feel bad. They are everywhere. It is not just Pinoys to other Pinoys. Other nationalities do that as well. But we also should not generalize. Those are just immature individuals. They do not represent the nation, which is just an abstract concept created by man. After the 2nd world war, being a nationalist (where the german word “nazi” is derived from), has lost its charm. In a globalised society where people from every race mix with each other, the concept of nationalism loses significance. And these immature fools, who think they are more superior than you are simply because they believe they are pure-blood or because they could speak a language better than you could, are nothing but fascist bullies.

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