Feeling the diaspora blues

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As a child, I grew up in a part of town that was more than a bit white. My childhood parish was majority white, my elementary school was majority white, my neighborhood was majority white — all around, it was a white part of town. Up until I was in first grade, I didn’t even know I wasn’t white. 

The day I learned I was Asian, I remember being excited to tell my classmates during lunch. The response? One of the other kids, a boy who went fishing with his dad every weekend and so was very tan, looked at me with a signature look of superiority and said, “You can’t be Asian. Look at you — you’re paler than me!” That moment resonated to my core, and I went home that day and sadly informed my parents that I was, in fact, white.

I’ve always had a tenuous relationship with my identity. Despite some early success in having those around me decide I was white, the fact of the matter is that I’m biracial — half-white, half-Filipino — and for most of my life past first grade, people sorted me into the second half more than the first. 

The trouble with that is, like a lot of children of an immigrant parent, my knowledge of that second half is weak. I don’t speak Tagolog — my mother explained to me that she felt stupid speaking to a baby — and we never celebrated Filipino traditions — the closest I’ve ever gotten was my mother explaining the various superstitions about Good Friday — and as far as food goes, the only dishes I know are adobo, pancit and tapsilog, and my father is the one who cooks the last one. For me, the majority of being Filipino consists of calling my aunt my “tita,” going to Simbang Gabi before Christmas, eating my mother’s cooking and being unsure what relatives say when they speak — not a lot to go off of.

And yet, it’s everything to me. That half of me is my mother’s home country. It’s the place my grandparents lived and died, where my mother flew every time she wanted to visit where she grew up. It’s the far-away place that relatives I’d never heard of, who gave me gifts when she came back, were, and the place that gave me a connection to the small Pinoy market where, as a child, my mother would drag me to get these little straw brooms you’d find nowhere else and a box of Pocky to keep me quiet. It is my heritage, whether I understand it or not. It’s what people look at me and call me, whether I feel part of it or not.

Sometimes, I think of what the word ‘identity’ will mean for my children. I’m only half Filipino, and I only know so much about what that means, and yet it means so much to me. In a way, I treat being Filipino like a child’s security blanket, something I hold tight and refuse to let go of. But so much of it is not defined by what I know or do now, but what I did and what my mother did around me. 

My children may only be a quarter Filipino — what does that mean for them? Will I be able to pass anything of substance down to them, knowing as little as I do? Will they hold the identity that I hold dear nearly as closely? Even if they know nothing about it and even if they feel no affinity for it, will others treat them as though they should know something about it because of how they look and look down on them when they don’t? Will they be judged if they do claim it and know nothing, like Americans who proudly claim to be Irish and then are shamed for not knowing anything? What about their grandchildren?

Identity is a nebulous thing, full of smoke and uncertainty. I wish I could easily address my doubts about what it means to have a culture that I have an unerasable but ephemeral link to. If it were easy, though, I might not hold that culture so dear and so personally, and that link is a part of me that I’d trade for nothing. That confusion is part of the experience that makes me, me.

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