Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Bi-Racial, Bi-Cultural Pinay Sings Maybe

In the musical, Annie, there is a song called, "Maybe." This song frames the small corner in which orphan Annie wonders about the whereabouts and hobbies of her biological parents. Growing up, my sister, an intrinsically talented piano player used to glide her hands over the ivories and order me to sing along in my loud and often off key voice.

Maybe far away
Or maybe real nearby
He may be pouring her coffee
She may be straighting his tie
Maybe in a house
All hidden by a hill
She's sitting playing piano,
He's sitting paying a bill
Betcha they're young
Betcha they're smart
Bet they collect things
Like ashtrays, and art
Betcha they're good
(Why shouldn't they be?)
Their one mistake was giving up me!
So maybe now it's time,
And maybe when I wake
They'll be there calling me "Baby"
... Maybe.
Betcha he reads
Betcha she sews
Maybe she's made me
A closet of clothes
Maybe they're strict
As straight as a line...
Don't really care
As long as they're mine
So maybe now this prayer's
the last one of it's kind...
Won't you please come get your "Baby"

While I am most certainly not an orphan, I sang this song frequently enough and loud enough to memorize its words and contemplate its tugging profundity. Singing, I would often try and project how I would feel growing up without knowing my roots, who I belong to, and yearn for a sense of history. Belting the lyrics out time and time again brought me to a deep connection with Maybe. For me and my family, love was never in question, but belonging and history was always in doubt. With two immigrant parents, I struggled for every inch of self-understanding. In my younger years, life was much smoother feigning disinterest and apathy toward my ethnic roots.

In Nadia's deep pool of reflection she asks children of immigrants: Do you think your parents thought that being born in the u.s. means you are outside the influence of their home country/culture? Do your parents think of you as americans? The old truism says that immigrants are in search of a better life for their children; what were your parents seeking for you?

My parents are legal American citizens, but they will tell you that I am all-American. Two worlds, equal in force, combat for my brainpower and loyalty. In one corner is my Filipino-Spanish blood; a living paradox of the colonizer and the colonized beating in the same heart. In my Filipino existence, there is family-centered prayer and religion, loud gatherings, food, rice, music, raucous dancing, and an almost ridiculous disregard for time and deadlines. No home is complete without an altar in the living room, no dinner is worth having unless it's eaten three times over. In my Pinay eyes, mistaken identity is my identity. If not Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Hawaiian, Vietnamese, Indian, Mexican, Loatian, Malaysian, Samoan, or Native American - then I was rendered invisible. The only place where I ever felt racially understood was with my own family. Not only did my siblings understand what it meant to be Filipino, they understood what it meant to be Filipino-American; to be raised Filipino while living in the United States. That bond, sealed with the most intimate clarity, can never be broken.

In the other corner is my American world. This is the east coast born, Midwest raised existence. This is where I made a salad for the first time in college and began questioning Catholicism. My American identity is the fast driving, fast talking, eye rolling independent
daughter who couldn't stand Filipino summer picnics and hated making eye contact with any other Asian Americans because it was a lightning-quick reminder of the awkward reality that I was more comfortable navigating an all White crowd of folks than connecting with another grrl of color. Back then, even if it's hell, familiarity always triumphed. This side of me that effortlessly understood White society through private schools, privileged friends, also took in the cool absence of any other grrls of color in my White mainstream Midwest manners. She lived in the forefront, elbowing and trying to beat the Pinay out of me. She almost won.

The Pinay, thankfully, overcame. And in the epitome of Filipino spirit did not expel the American out, but, rather, invited her in as a passenger. They both existed in equal position, but only one had the steering wheel.

Endlessly explained in simplistic and binary terms, bi-culturalism is the fusion of two cultures,
yielding a rare lived experience that specializes in multi-understanding, multi-reasoning, and multi-facets. Children of immigrants have a wider periphery than most. It's both a characteristic and reward of our dueling/dualing lives.

When I think about the years I spent in utter anguish and rage, I wonder why. I wonder what would have helped ease my acidic bitterness. It was not so much that I was different, it was more the fact that everyone assumed that I was just like them. The visual difference was evident, my brown skin spoke more across a hallway than anything. In the face of difference, most people just try to comfort themselves by drawing commonalities. Normally, forging connections in hopes of establishing a relationship is acceptable and expected. Over time, however, relentless emphasis on sameness and commonality qualifies the differences as insignificant and dispensable.

There never was or ever will be an entire reconciliation between cultures, tongues, creeds, and lifestyles. After realizing that separateness was no longer necessary, there were no longer two individuals in the car. There is no longer one passenger and a driver, there is only one driver: Me, a conglomeration of two worlds that is not accepted into either world as a whole. Without fluent Tagalog, or trips to Manila, I am a not a "real" Filipino. Without peanut butter and jelly and baseball, I am "foreign" or "exotic."

This country, my country of origin, is obsessed with Black and White as the only two races, as the only racial conflict, as the only communities of conflict. In every experience of academia, media, and social conversation about race, Black and White are polarized to model the dynamics and yawn-boring patterns of racial tension in the US. Shameless in its ignorance, the United States frequently groups Asians in one category, one hand glossing over our black hair and smudging our skin until its all yellow. I am Brown.

The Latino community continuously gains signficant ground, but Asians are the wallflowers of the race conversation. Deemed pleasantly invisible and poetic in distinct features, Asians are Asians and nothing more, nothing less. If we continue to operate in the same outdated model of an umbrella-ed Asian category, I shudder to think of how many lifetimes it will take until bi-racial and bi-cultured issues will come to surface.

I grew up to be my own self translator. To this day, I still walk into every room and automatically survey its occupants, my mind quickly calculating likelihoods, conversations, percentages, and potential detonating bombs. After almost three decades, my intuition is dead on accurate. It is a learned survival skill to know when to relax or guard yourself. Navigating the Midwest as a grrl of color was like a stepping through a mine field. Careful, careful.

My parents did not come to this country to give their unborn children a better life. They came to this country to help their families who were alive and poor, sick and marginalized, stuck and helpless. My parents came to work to send their earnings home, to do better not for themselves but for their immediate families. Selfless, sacrificing, and urgent, my parents reaped the benefits of this country for others, never themselves.

I was sixteen when I attended my parent's naturalization process. Uncertain as to why I was resistant to their American citizenship, I watched with sadness as they proclaimed their allegiance, but could never articulate exactly why. Their legal ties to the Philippines, on paper, were gone. A land I had never seen except through stories of poverty and heat, the Philippines cradled my parents' hearts and loyalties. Today, I see the reasoning as to why becoming a citizen was necessary for them, but the ceremony rang false to me. I kept questioning the logic, "Why not let patriotism be reflected through human service, merit, decency, and dedication, rather than history tests and ceremonies? Why ask my parents to essentially choose between birthplace and home?" It did and continues to seem like such an unjust choice.

My parents were in constant flux in how to let their children be Filipino-American. Only now I can appreciate how difficult it must be to pass traditions along to your children in a completely unfamiliar environment and then watch it simply be considered and sometimes disregarded. The sound of cultures clashing arrives in the form of unasnwerable questions. Is dating in the US better because we have freer sex with less guilt and more condoms? Is American Catholicism better than Filpino spirituality that celebrates family prayer, tradition, and rosaries? Is it better that college students in the US typically blow off their undergraduate experience in favor of beer, experimentation, and spring break roadtrips? Do I lead a "better" life than my parents?

It depends on who you ask. If you ask any US born citizen, they would say that I have a more comfortable, stable, and privileged life. Is that "better?" I don't think so. Is it better to leave home and be considered an American adult at 18 or live with your parents until you are more certain of what you want from life and have latent independance? Is it a better life to live with your elders and learn how to take care of them or send them off to nursing homes and/or hire personal nurses? Is it better to have have endless choices with indecision or fewer choices with less freedom?

I am 28 years old an have been married two and a half years. I am childless and live in city where I do as I please and answer my cell phone in restaurant booths. My mother, by the time she was my age, had flown halfway across the globe to work at the United Nations and attend Columbia for two years while she supported her family and sent her siblings through school. She quit Columbia after realizing her benign-tumored ovaries weren't going to give her the timeframe most woman would have. At 28, she was married with one child and another on the way.

Do I live a "better" life than my mother? Easier, perhaps. Better? I don't know. I've often questioned as to whether I am as strong as my mother. That, also, I don't know. Our lives, cluttered with various obstacles and failings, cannot be compared. I will never know the pain of leaving my country of origin to rebuild my entire life in support of others. And she will never know the unrelenting pain of isolation and misapprehension.

The question of authenticity used to haunt me. The stiff armor built due to racist, belittling degradation and the humiliation of admitting I cannot speak Tagalog once paralyzed me. I now keep a healthy perspective of authenticity, grounded in the Pinay pride I carry; the knowledge that I am a product of two worlds; two mothers who nursed with radically different idelogies and I am not 50/50. I am 100% original, unprecedented, authentic, and rare.

I still wonder about my roots, my history, and whether I will ever truly find belonging. The difference now, when I sing Maybe, is that I am singing in reminicence of how I once was lost, orphaned by a Black/White only debate. I also resist the notion that bi-cultured, children of immigrants are wondering lost and then suddenly, one day, are self-found. We are in constant state of unfolding, each moment bringing more sense and experience to our natural state of bi-plexity. I have always been in this process. The difference now is that I am less afraid.


  1. omg. i feel this so much. so much of what you said here has been swirling around in my head too, i just didn't know how to say it. especially this:

    "It was so much that I was different, it was more the fact that everyone assumed that I was just like them. The visual difference was evident, my brown skin spoke more across a hallway than anything. In the face of difference, most people just try to comfort themselves by drawing commonalities. Normally, forging connections in hopes of establishing a relationship is acceptable and expected. Over time, however, relentless emphasis on sameness and commonality qualifies the differences as insignificant and dispensable."

    and it's so relevant to what we've been talking about with coalitions and homes. really, i am crying. thank you so much for this sis.

  2. Thank you so much for this post. That same quote is the start of a little post I just did.

    I linked to it here

    I don't know what to say that won't sound trite. But it really hit the spot. Thank you.

  3. I'm glad I found your blog via Bamboo Girl. As a Filipina Canadian, I can relate to the lost feeling of living in limbo with seemingly conflicting identities--Filipina Canadian vs. "just" Canadian, Candian-born Filipina vs. Philippine-born Filipina...I've also started a blog to explore some of these issues.

  4. i heart this post so hard. except for a few details (my parents weren't immigrants, i'm not married) it's like you wrote it out of my own heart.

    "the difference now is that i am less afraid."

    amen, amen. and it's the voices of other womyn like you who've helped me get to that point. thank you -- thank you.

  5. Im so proud of you, Shou-Loo. Mahal Kita...

  6. I'm so glad that you guys have found a piece of yourselves in this post. It was very personal for me. I felt it turning in me for several weeks before I started writing it in the middle of the night and didn't stop until almost 4am! I was wide awake the whole time and felt so energized, so alive.

    I feel healing through your words.

    We're all in this together.


  7. "It was not so much that I was different, it was more the fact that everyone assumed that I was just like them."

    this pretty much sums up my whole life. glad to meet other bicultural folks like you and read their work, it reaffirms my existence.

  8. Please keep writing at 4 am when you are woken up with the urge! You have oceans of wisdom within you, vast canyons of insight that inspire awe. And yet it is all just simply you. This shedding, this edysis, is revealing something amazing underneath. It glimmers out like light from beneath a door, that I am dying to open.

  9. In Hinduism, there is something called PUJA, which I learned from reading VS Naipaul. These are constant offerings to deities, prayers throughout the day, thanks to the fire-god for the fire that cooks my food, for example. It makes me think of old world Catholicism, so much of which was lost when our ancestors came here (or mine did)... it was embarrassing to them (as well as considered outright paganism to the Protestants), so they assimilated. I have unearthed a lot of that, asking St Anthony where the lost stuff is (he always finds it, too), recognizing close-flying birds as a blessing from St Francis, praying to various saints in the same way Naipaul describes, which I realize comes from the same root and is very, very old. I resent that they tried to rinse that out of us when they turned us (Irish) into white people, and we got brought in to shore up the identities of other white people... but look at the high price of that. The dislocation in Irish identities is fierce. I realize Freud said we were "the only race immune to psychoanalysis" (and I'm damn proud of it, too), but I think he simply hadn't met the rest of the ruffians of the world, yet. ;)

    I'd love to hear more of your ideas about how America has turned Catholicism into McDonalds Protestantism; it was in first reading POC that I realized this, and then went back to study Catholicism pre-Vat II and how that systematically occurred.

    Beautiful post, I just love your observations about your mother. Feministe linked my own "mother-post" this week, and I was startled at how popular it was. So many women identify with these feelings. Gonna link yours in the next week or so, if that's okay. :)

  10. Hi Daisy,

    Thanks so much for your thoughts. They were beautiful to read.

    I am going to continue writing more about this and your comments inspired me to do so.

    Thanks again,

  11. Oh, Sudy, oh, oh.
    I need to read this so many times. I lost count of all the places it just hit me right in the heart and felt so familiar.
    Thank you so much for this. I'm reeling.


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