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.