no history, no self. know history, know self.
as a second generation filipina american / a united states-born child of filipinx immigrants, i’ve reflected upon what it means to feel “connected” to my culture. i created a workshop, “finding identity and pride: what does it mean to be filipinx?”, geared toward peers who are also second generation or u.s.-born filipinx americans, to pose my questions:
what does it mean to connect to a place, the philippines, that you’ve never been to or struggle to remember? what does it mean to connect to a motherland when you don’t speak one of her languages? what does it mean to connect to a history that you’re still in the process of learning, that which you never had the privilege of being taught in a white-centric classroom? what does it mean to not connect, to find a gap between your filipinx identity and yourself? how do we make sense of this all?
i ask these questions to encourage people to process their thoughts and feelings, and to lay down context for my broader message: finding filipinx identity, let alone pride associated with that identity, can be messy. complicated. ongoing. non-linear. dynamic. difficult to discuss. i think we’re more willing to talk about the times we do feel in touch with our culture, the times we inch closer and closer to a strong sense of identity. but we all deserve space to talk about the times we feel--if we feel this way--distant, ashamed, embarrassed, frustrated, ambivalent, etc too. to sit in vulnerability. to admit that sometimes a celebration of pride can feel more like a hollow embrace, or a moving target.
i remember trying to not to cry after an icebreaker in which everyone in the group was prompted to share their family’s immigration story. a map of the philippines was on the whiteboard, so that we could mark any locations or paths between, as a visual. panic ensued for me. i knew vaguely of my parents’ story; i didn’t have an ounce of depth. i had short sentences, not a story. i wasn’t that familiar with philippine geography either. it would have been impossible for me to speak for more than thirty seconds, but others volunteered to go before me and talked for long, enthusiastically sharing rich stories of immigration. some stories spanned back to grandparents or great-grandparents’ immigration, and were accompanied by pointing and drawing lines to various provinces on the map, bringing a timeline to life, explaining family motivations for immigrating.
i felt like an outsider, in the midst of what was supposed to be a fun bonding activity among filipinx friends. i felt wronged, like the icebreaker was inherently flawed in assuming that everyone had a good enough relationship with their family to know their immigration story and was comfortable sharing it. there was no socially acceptable way to opt out. i might have experienced less shame, had i volunteered to take my turn early and let people go after me, diverting attention to others and giving me time to emotionally recover. but i let the pressure mount as i sat in silent turmoil.
i spoke last. i stood up to utter a few, hurried, nearly choked-up words about how i don’t really know my family’s immigration story, but my parents are from zambales, before sitting back down. a “you good?” text from someone else in the room popped up on my phone. no reply.
what does it mean to connect to a family-oriented culture, when talking about family is occasionally like pressing into a sore spot?
i never mention the above anecdote in my workshop. instead, i tell a less painful, more relatable story about not knowing tagalog. i provide a memory of asking my mother why she / my parents didn’t teach me tagalog growing up. she said, we didn’t want you to be confused. in other words, she wanted me to learn english without confusing it with tagalog. when i was younger, i think i took my mom’s response personally at first, as if my parents had little confidence in my ability to discern between the two languages. an early, intractable judgment call that led to my lack of knowledge of tagalog, extending into my lack of cultural identity.
it was only until later that i realized that my parents were trying to protect me from more than confusion. they were trying to protect me from the cost and burden of not assimilating into u.s. society, even if it came at the price of me not learning tagalog. and how could they not, when forms of assimilation are critical to conventional markers of success in the u.s. (a high-paying job, a college education, etc), and at a base level, survival for brown asians in a colonist, racist country? i don’t fault my parents at all. they made a decision that fits the information they were given, that had my interests at heart.
at the end of my workshop, i offer a brief list of ideas of how we can get more in touch with our culture, such as “take a fil-am studies class,” “learn family’s stories,” and “cook the food.” the range of activities is my way of expressing that history is one important aspect of our culture, and learning history is certainly a good practice. “no/know history, no/know self” holds truth, and there are additional forms of cultural knowledge and practices that may be just as, if not more, accessible and resonant. one person may not have the financial means, time, or resources to take a fil-am studies class or join a fil-am organization, but they may be able to listen to a fil-am podcast, talk to a family member about the philippines, or make a small purchase from a filipinx business, for example. i personally enjoy reading fil-am / filipinx books.
i myself have had to come to the conclusion that i could not intellectualize my way to a strong sense of cultural identity. as someone who likes to pursue learning and knowing, i am wary of the danger in depending on the possession of facts and figures for self-esteem, for cultural pride, etc. i do not wish to treat textbook knowledge as a self-inflicted gatekeeper between filipinx identity and me. i refuse to feel shame or guilt for not knowing information; i only see opportunities to learn, free from punishment of what is not learned. furthermore, there’s danger in thinking that something as complex, intangible, and personal as cultural identity is as clear-cut as knowing anything at all. it’s deeper than that. i have no doubt that you could know all of philippine history or all of your family’s immigration history, and still feel lost. that is, if you try to “fix” something emotional, only with something mental.
use history (whether that’s filipinx history or your own family history) as a starting point--or dive into it--if it speaks to you. but know that it’s okay, that you can still claim your filipinxness, even if you don’t know that history. we’re all learning. we’re all finding what works for us, what feels healing and validating. and only we have permission to decide.
Jenna Edra is a San Jose State University alumna (Class of 2019), an Organizer for L.E.A.D Filipino, an Intellectual Property Case Assistant at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP; and an aspiring attorney. In her spare time, she likes to read and post reviews on @jenna.books on Instagram, play Scrabble, and as of late, (re)watch Avatar: The Last Airbender.