Grasping Tightly to My Fading Roots

Tagalog is not a commonly heard language on the street, even in a diverse city such as New York. Every now and then though, I’ll hear it being spoken – either on the subway, or in the supermarket – and I’ll instantly try to eavesdrop. Over time, I realized that I couldn’t quite understand everything that I was trying to overhear, but it wasn’t due to any noise or the hushed volume of the voices themselves. The same type of confusion happened again recently when I was listening to one of Ruby Ibarra’s new songs and couldn’t understand a majority of the verse she was rapping in Tagalog. My proficiency in Tagalog was escaping me.

I am the first in my family to be born in the United States. I was raised in Chicago, Illinois – away from any Filipino community or neighborhood, if there even was one at all. I didn’t grow up amongst a large family with a lot of cousins, and I didn’t know any other Filipinos my age. Nevertheless, I was authentically Filipino at home, especially around the dinner table while enjoying a traditional meal of rice and kare kare. I was Filipino when my grandma spoke to me in Tagalog, telling me to practice piano before my next lesson. I was Filipino when I sat alone in the living room, singing Filipino songs at the top of my lungs on our home karaoke machine. But I was not Filipino outside the four walls of my home.

Throughout elementary school and high school, I never thought twice about what it meant to be Filipino. My mom made me standard peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch (which helped me avoid those shameful lunchbox moments), and my participation in my high school’s Asian students association was through organizing events around Chinese, Japanese, and Indian cultures. I had no particular desire to explore or expand the Filipino side of me because I was content with how I was already expressing being Asian (in the most general sense) while also being American.

In college, I was given the opportunity to directly embrace my Filipino roots. My university offered Tagalog as a foreign language and had a rather robust Filipino student association. However, as I engaged with other Filipino students and enrolled in Tagalog courses, I gradually felt the semblance that I was not Filipino enough. I couldn’t dance tinikling for the university’s annual Filipino culture showcase, and my Tagalog homework wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be – or should be. As a person of color, I often felt like I didn’t fit into White America, but I also didn’t feel like I was a true Filipino, being born in the US and having never even traveled to the Philippines. I felt like a fraud, with a cultural façade that was quickly crumbling. I was neither American enough nor Filipino enough to feel like I could clutch onto a strong sense of identity to keep myself afloat amidst my sea of complex thoughts, doubting who I was. This was how I started to question my identity; who I really was versus who I was supposed to be.

It’s been more than 4 years since I graduated from college, and 8 years since I moved away from home – a significant amount of time being far away from an environment that allowed me to embrace my ethnicity through language, food, and other cultural components. I don’t speak Tagalog regularly with other people, and I no longer come home to authentic, lovingly made Filipino food on a regular basis. Truly, one of my biggest regrets is not learning how to cook from my grandma, and it saddens me that I will never come even close to replicating her amazing dishes. Whenever I’m craving Filipino food, I oftentimes end up eating at a trendy Filipino or Asian-fusion establishment with my non-Filipino friends, paying prices that my grandma would probably scold me for if she knew I had chosen to eat there. Alongside my friends, I could be mistaken for someone eating Filipino food for the first time, intrigued by the flavors and dishes presented in front of me. If spoken to in Tagalog by a waiter, I’d likely reply in English, embarrassed by my shrinking vocabulary and Americanized accent. Attempts to cure my homesickness – by enjoying a Filipino meal – turn into a quietly arduous reminder that part of who I am is fading away.

What probably bothers me the most is that when I eventually become a parent, my children won’t be able to speak Tagalog. My children will never have the same kind of meals that I was so fortunate to enjoy when I was growing up, and as much as I can try to teach myself how to cook now, it won’t compare. My family doesn’t seem to think much of this – in fact, I don’t think they care at all – but it feels like a sin weighing heavily on my consciousness. Like most immigrants, my family came to America to seek a better life for the subsequent generations of our family, and I feel like I’ve let them down by not perpetuating the culture and traditions that made them who they are. Through this lack of preservation, I feel like I’ve unintentionally washed myself of my family’s history, and as more of it fades, the guiltier I become.

I often feel like I’m desperately grabbing at smoke when I sense myself gradually becoming less and less Filipino. As a solution, I’ve started to engage more in Filipino communities and initiatives around New York City. I do my best to try and cook my favorite Filipino dishes, and when presented with the opportunity to converse with another Filipino, I make an effort to push past my insecurities and speak in Tagalog rather than English.

My identity is still a work in progress. I’m still in the process of trying to accept that I am indeed American enough and Filipino enough to be considered both, as these definitions are up to personal interpretation – they’re no one else’s decisions but our own. I’ve realized that I have my whole life to keep learning about my roots, and that I am in control of how I embrace and express my Filipino identity. These efforts have given me a greater appreciation for my immigrant family’s sacrifices and have brought me closer to other Filipino communities. Although this path of personal discovery and questioning of identity has been complicated and at times emotional, it’s led me to rediscover a piece of myself that I will never let go of – no matter how American I may be.

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

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