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Filipinos, It's Okay To Be 'Amerikano'

Heidi Carreon |
October 6, 2014 | 11:10 a.m. PDT


Filipino American History Month is not a time to judge Fil-Ams for their disinterest. (Alfred Jon Dicioco/Troy Philippines)
Filipino American History Month is not a time to judge Fil-Ams for their disinterest. (Alfred Jon Dicioco/Troy Philippines)
I was laughing with my friends in my living room, reminiscing about high school marching band and eating Filipino egg rolls that my mother made for us. I turned to my friend Timothy, the only other Filipino in the group, and I told him that I was craving palabok, which is a noodle dish.

He shook his head, "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Such a bad Filipino," my best friend teased him, "You don't even know the name of your own food."

Timothy laughed it off - we've all joked about it before - but I paused. As one of the two cultural chairs of Troy Philippines, which is USC's Filipino club, I'm supposed to help other people, especially Filipinos, appreciate the culture. But I didn't say anything, because I also know what it's like to be judged as a "bad Filipino." 

Unlike many Filipinos, I dislike fish. I don't eat rice all the time. I can't speak Tagalog, the national language, or Bisaya, the regional dialect of my family. When I last visited the Philippines, my relatives affectionately called me the "Amerikana," the American woman who looks Filipino. But I grew up knowing I am both Filipino and American, and I will always identify as Filipino-American. 

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Even though Filipino-Americans (Fil-Ams) are the second-largest Asian population in the United States today, their 425 year presence in the coninental United States is often unacknowledged. To rectify this, October is federally recognized as "Filipino American History Month." Over the next few weeks, Fil-Ams across the country will celebrate Fil-Am history and Filipino culture.

But as student orgs like Troy Philippines gear up to explore Filipino culture with their general members, I worry that negative attitudes towards Fil-Ams who are ignorant of Filpino culture will prevent them from gaining interest.

I always encounter two types of Fil-Ams. There are those, like me, who strongly identify as Filipino and are invested in the community in some way. Then there are those, like my friend Timothy, who don't identify as strongly with Filipino culture and aren't as invested in the community. In my experience, Fil-Ams who don't know a lot about Filipino history and culture, regardless of how strongly they identify, feel like they are judged for it.

At a recent Troy Philippines meeting, for instance, I brought up Jose Rizal in a conversation with a new member. Rizal was a national hero in the Philippines who fought for independence from Spain. He's still admired by many Fil-Ams; a Filipino grocery market in my home area even has a small monument to him.

"I don't know him, I'm sorry," the girl apologized, "There aren't a lot of Filipinos where I'm from."

What was sad about this wasn't her lack of Rizal knowledge; it was the way she spoke as if she had done something wrong.

"Don't even worry about it," I told her, "He's just a national hero in the Philippines."

Filipino orgs are, for the most part, welcoming towards everyone who has some interest. And yet, if I was a nationalistic Fil-Am, I could have taken this in a completely different way by criticizing her for not researching Filipino culture on her own. But criticizing, bullying and nagging will never get through to people. No one wants to be that person on the street corner yelling repent-or-be-damned speeches. 

If Filipino orgs want to increase interest, they must first have understanding. (Jesse B, Raymundo/Troy Philippines)
If Filipino orgs want to increase interest, they must first have understanding. (Jesse B, Raymundo/Troy Philippines)
But a big reason why so many Fil-Ams have pride is because they grew up with it. Family connection is extremely important to Filipino culture, and part of that, for most Filipinos, is ensuring that every one in the family understands his or her heritage. But there are some Fil-Ams like Timothy who didn't grow up knowing Filipino culture. Sometimes, it's because of the way their parents grew up. Older Filipino immigrants, for instance, were raised in the Philippines with the notion that everything in America, from quality of life to opportunity access, is superior. Many immigrants choose to raise their children as American.

"[My parents] told me that they moved here so they could raise their future children to be 100% American," Timothy told me. "I do not think that I will try to take the time to learn unless it will benefit me in some way."

As a result of assimilation, Fil-Ams become ignorant of many aspects of Filipino culture and some, like Timothy, see little point in learning. It also doesn't help that nationalistic Fil-Ams and Filipino immigrants can intimidate or even turn off other Fil-Ams ("How do you not know what mammon is?"). In this way, getting Fil-Ams who have traditionally been isolated from Filipino culture to care about their heritage can be extremely difficult.

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But it's not the end of the world if a Fil-Am is disinterested. Just like knowing career paths to take or understanding political issues, caring about Filipino identity is something that people can grow into. Some Fil-Ams gain an interest while in college when resources are available for them to explore their heritage, but not all of them end up joining a Filipino club. 

And that's okay. 

Thanks to Filipino organizations and Fil-Am pride, the history and culture of the Philippines will neve die out in America. If Fil-Ams as a whole want to increase interest, however, they must accept that not everyone wants to learn about Fil-Am culture. They must focus on strengthening connections within Filipino communities in America and do so in such a way that makes Filipino culture interesting and relevant to others.

As a Fil-Am, I believe that it's important to know the culture of my heritage because it puts my life in America in context. But I also believe that as a Fil-Am, I shouldn't judge people like my friend Timothy for being ignorant or even disinterested. Being Filipino is more than just a box you check off at the DMV or the Doctor's office; it's a culture and a history you choose to identify with. In this way, Fil-Ams who are connected to their heritage are responsible for providing open and welcoming spaces, so that interested Fil-Ams will never feel criticized for being "Amerikano."

Reach Contributor Heidi Carreon hereand follow her on Twitter here



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