I’m Ashamed Because I’m Filipino-American and Don’t Feel Accepted by Filipinos
I just read a really good article by Russell Sabio titled “I’m Ashamed Because I Don’t Know What It Means To Be Filipino” (https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2017/06/22/filipino-shame_a_22583312/) and I really connected with his thoughts and observations. I’m a 2nd generation Filipino-American, born in the Philippines and raised in the United States. However, I feel my experiences being a pure Filipino growing up in the Midwest of the USA is somewhat of an inversion of Russell’s experience. Let me explain where my own feelings of shame originate.
I came to live in the United States when I was around 2 years old. Being that young, I was still learning language from my parents, which I’m sure was a mix of Tagalog (the national language of the Philippines), Ilocano (the dialect both my parents spoke since they were from the Ilocos Norte region), and English. When I started pre-school, my English was not very understandable to my teachers, so they recommended my parents only speak to me in English. My parents, wanting to do what they thought was best for me, followed my teacher’s advice and thus I ended up losing my ability to speak Tagalog and Ilocano. I can understand bits and pieces of both Tagalog and Ilocano, but not nearly enough to understand conversations. Attending the local Filipino association’s events and Filipino friend’s parties, I could not speak or understand when Filipinos were talking Tagalog. This wasn’t a problem with my friends, who were bilingual and had good English. They would switch to English when we were talking. This was mostly a problem with the older generations who weren’t as fluent in English.
Anyone who has grown up in a Filipino family or group knows the culture has a lot of behaviors aimed at shaming. I attribute this partly to a misunderstanding of the Catholic religion and how it should be practiced. For example, Russell describes the idea of “hiya” in his article, which his article equates to “saving face.” To me, this is a misunderstanding of the Catholic/Christian teaching to be a servant to other people. People should want to put other people’s needs before their own out of love of their fellow human being. In the Filipino culture, putting other’s needs first is done because if you don’t, you will be shamed. So shame is the motivation, not love.
I know I’m generalizing and not every Filipino’s experiences are based on shame. But based on the experiences of my Filipino friends and from other Filipino’s online articles, comments, and creative works (for example, the film “The Debut” addresses shame to a certain extent), shame in the culture seems to be a common experience. Fr. Leo Patalinghug, a Filipino priest with an apostolate based on food (see his website https://platinggrace.com), and who once defeated celebrity chef Bobby Flay on his “Throwdown! With Bobby Flay” cooking show, once commented that Filipino mothers are the “masters of guilt.” That says a lot about how much shame is used in the culture.
Unlike Russell, I feel I very much understand what it means to be Filipino. In the city I grew up (Fort Wayne, Indiana), there was a fairly large population of Filipinos. The population was large enough that an association was started in the 80’s and through this association’s events, I received the full Filipino cultural experience. I grew up experiencing the food, the music, the folk dancing, the Filipino camaraderie, and of course, karaoke. And my parents were 1st generation Filipinos, so I grew up in a truly Filipino household. My dad had a pretty sweet karaoke setup in the basement. But along with the positives, I also experienced the negatives of the Filipino culture.
And it is these negatives which I feel is at the root of my shame for being a Filipino who isn’t accepted 100%, especially by 1st generation Filipinos. As I explored earlier, I feel I have a pretty good grasp of the meaning of being a Filipino. All cultures have unique food, music, folk dancing, and other things that make them what they are. And one of the most important things of any culture is language. In fact, language might be the most important expression of a culture, because it is through language that communication happens. Yes, a culture is expressed in many other ways, but I feel that language is second only after genetics in defining a culture.
Even with all my experiences and knowledge of the Filipino culture, I am missing one of the most important pieces, which is the language. My bilingual friends didn’t have any issues with my not being able to speak or understand Filipino, but they still spoke Filipino occasionally to each other and spoke it exclusively to their parents. I would also be told occasionally by older generations of Filipinos that I should learn the language. And I did put effort into learning it when I was around elementary school age, but I didn’t stick with it because I think my friend’s grandmother (who tried to teach me and my friends) didn’t think I took it seriously, or maybe I couldn’t pick it up quickly enough. As I grew up, I felt my window of learning the language kept getting narrower and narrower.
While the shame of not knowing the language colored my perceptions of how much I was accepted by the Filipino community, I felt almost no shame among non-Filipino people growing up. Yes, I was made fun of as a kid with the usual Asian jokes (flat nose, dark skin, etc.), but I always had friends who accepted me for who I was. I attribute this partly the fact that my English was free of any accent. They would even be interested in learning a little about the Filipino culture and especially partaking in some delicious Filipino food. As I grew up from adolescents into adulthood, I tended to identify more as an American, or as a Catholic, and I just happen to be Filipino.
I’m 42 now, married to a lovely American woman who has German and Irish ancestory. I have 3 kids who only know English. I feel more accepted by non-Filipinos than by Filipinos. Most of the time this really doesn’t bother me, but I had an experience recently that brought up these old feelings of shame. A former co-worker of my wife’s and her friends, who were all Filipino, came out to dinner with us and at dinner, I sat next to them. As they normally do, they spoke Filipino to each other. When I started talking to them and said I didn’t know Filipino, the usual questions came up. “Why didn’t your parents teach you Filipino? Couldn’t you still learn? What about your kids learning?” They probably didn’t ask all those questions, but my old feelings of shame for not knowing the language brought these and other questions back up in my mind. So yes, the shame and feelings are still there, just not at the surface like they used to be. I feel they will always be there, but that’s okay. Shame is part of being a Filipino, after all. That’s one part of the Filipino culture I hope to not pass on to my kids.