THE QUEZON City apartment, like many others on the same street, has a thick grill gate meant to deter break-ins. Just as I ring the doorbell, about six children, perhaps around the ages of three to seven, surround me, saying, “Sira ang doorbell! Kakatukin na lang namin siIa (The doorbell’s broken. We’ll just knock on the door)!. Before I can muster a response, all the kids squeeze their little heads into tight openings in the grill gate; in less than 3O seconds, they have made it to the front door. “Ate Jo! Kuya Tristan! May bisita kayo (You have visitors)! they yell.
“You have a unique doorbell system here,” I tell Tristan and Jo when they let me in. The children disappear instantly. But later, they just as quickly scale the walls surrounding theapartment, repeatedly waving their arms and calling the names of the apartment’s residents: Filipino-Americans Olivia Kardos (23), Joy quiambao (21), Tristan Ignacio Hurlburt (22), Ivy Dulay (20), and Mikhail Gaetos (20), plus tier Japanese-American friend Miwako Ohara. All are college students enrolled at UP Diliman for a year.
Media hype has painted most “‘Fil-Ams” as celebrities — as MTV VJs, movie starlets, basketball players, and pretty faces on Edsa billboards. But many more are here in the Philippines, not to break into the movies or television but to nurture a longing for “home.”
As Miwako prepares and serves a Sunday brunch of tocino, eggs, rice and bibingka, Tristan, Olivia and I sit on the living room floor discussing identity, language, racism, and reasons for wanting to visit their parents’ homeland. Ivy and Mikhail join us later.
Tell me about yourself. Where did you grow up? What is your family like/ Did you gtow up in a predominantly Filipino community?
Jo: I grew up in Woolridge, Virginia. Most of the Filipinos I encountered were from the church. In my high school graduating class, there were only four Filipinos, myself included. Both my parents are from Tarlac City. My Dad works for the post, office, my Moms a teacher in a Catholic school. Growing up, my parents J would speak to us (children) in English, while they’d speak to each other in Kapampangan. My Mom was afraid we would fall back in school so she spoke to us in English. They never really taught us anything about the Philippines. If we asked them, my mother wouldn’t say much, other than (describe) the house she grew up in, and the school she went to. My dad would say even less.
Tristan: I grew up in Palo Alto, California. There was a Filipino community center close to where I lived. I was a “weekend Filipino.” During weekends I’d be with Filipinos, mostly my relatives. There were 10 Filipinos in my high school graduating class.
My father is white, he can trace his roots to the Mayflower — he’s that white! (Laughs). My (maternal) grandfather is Ilokano. He went to Hawaii in the 1930s at age 17, as a contractualfarm laborer. He was supposed to stay 18 months but left to move to California. There, he was a migrant agricultural worker, he followed the crop. By chance, he met this white family that took him in, sent him through high school, in exchange for being their houseboy. The day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, he enlisted in the US army and joined the Filipino American infantry that was sent to Cotabato. At the end of World War II, he visited his family in Ilocos, where he met and married my grandmother. He returned to the States, to re-enlist in the army after his first term. He did that so he could bring his family to the States. (Prior to WWII, Filipinos, then called “nationals,” were barred from acquiring US citizenship and were unable to bring their families.) So my grandma had a daughter (from a previous marriage) born iin the Philippines, a son born in the US army base in Okinawa, a daughter born in the US army base in Germany, and my Mom was born on the army base in Colorado.
My Mom is second generation (Filipino-American). Growing up, they had the “English Only” rule because grandpa wanted everyone as American as can be. When I was a kid, I never really asked my grandparents questions (about the Philippines) because I was afraid I’d disappoint them. They would be so happy when their grandchildren would speak accent-less English and eat whatever they cooked with American table manners. They really liked that. But no matter how American they tried to act — they are still Filipino. Like, we ate only Filipino food at home. I never had a babysitter, or was ever sent to daycare. When my parents were at work, I’d be with my grandparents, or cousins while all my friends would go to a babysitter or daycare.
Olivia: I grew up in New Jersey. When I was 12, we moved to Pennsylvania; then I attended college at UC Santa Cruz, then UCLA. My Dad is Hungarian Jewish. My Mom is Chinese-Filipino from Echague, Manila.
In New Jersey, my older brother and I went to a traditional Jewish school because the public school system was really bad. My Mom was very much against sending us to Catholic school. So we went to this Jewish school that was supposedly a good school. But by the time I left that school in the 7th grade, I hated it.
In my house, we really did not practice Judaism. Like, to this day, I probably know more about Judaism and Hebrew than my Dad. Because the school was very religious, we had to lie a lot. Like, you’re not supposed to be driving around during the Sabbath, but we did — so we had to lie about what we did on weekends.
My Mom would drive us to school, and she’d give us bacon and sausage sandwiches in the car for breakfast. And when we got to school, my brother and I would try to pick the bacon from our teeth before morning prayer. Then I just thought it was part of life, but when I got older, I really resented the school. That’s why to this day, I’m still not into organized religion.
When did you first realize you were Filipino?
Jo: When I was in the 2nd grade, I had a white teacher who had been in the Philippines for about five years because her husband was stationed in the military. For International Week, she had us do the tinikling (bamboo dance). I didn’t even know how to dance the tinikling, and how I learned was through this white teacher who asked help from the school’s PE teacher, who was also white! I was surprised, because you know how your parents are supposed to be your teachers for life? And yet they didn’t teach me anything about the Philippines. I always asked, but they never really explained. And then this white teacher was teaching stuff about the Philippines — it was coming from a totally unexpected source. That was odd.
When I got to college, I worked in the Office of International Student Affairs. We were holding a workshop for cultural ambassadors, and I was helping with the workshop. The office director put me in a spot by having me explain the Death March. I thought, “Oh great! Oh my gosh!” I only knew so much about it. Something’s wrong. All I knew was that it was tied in with the Japanese, World War II, and I didn’t know where it started and how it began.
Tristan: For me, I always, always thought I was Filipino, since forever, before anything else. In my immediate family, we were always told, “You’re Filipino, don’t be white.” My white family (relatives), they are aIl divorced, they are all messed up and addicted to drugs. So growing up, the device for not becoming that would be “be Filipino.” So when I realized that I was different, it wasn’t realizing that I was Filipino, but realizing that I was half-white!
When I was in elementary school, I would go over to my Filipino friend’s house and their parents would call me “mestizo” to my face. It came to a point when I really hated that word for a long time, They’d say, “This mestizo boy is eating pan de sal and adobo,” But eating that was the most normal thing for me because that’s what we ate at my house! My friends’ parents who were (more recent Filipino) immigrants were mean to my mom because she was Fil-Am, and she can’t speak Tagalog. Of course my mom can’t speak Tagalog or Ilokano, she was born in Colorado! But the parents of my friends, who came after 1965, didn’t understand that. So for me, I had to learn that I was part white and I wasn’t part of the post -1965 gang, who could speak Tagalog. Suddenly, I had this realization that there were “other” kinds of Filipinos. (In 1965, immigration policies allowed professionals trained abrad to legally enter, work, and secure citizenship in the United States. A record number of Filipno professionals migrated to the United States during this period.)
Then, when I went to Hawaii for college, it was totally different again. In Hawaii, they didn’t care if I was Filipino, they just saw that I was brown, and that I looked like I was from Hawaii. So I wasn’t Asian, or Filipino, or mestizo or anything like that, I was just “local.” So I had to adapt to all that stuff, after having realized that there were other Filipinos besides (my grandpa’s) manong generation.
Olivia: I guess it was the first day of kindergarten at the Jewish school in New Jersey. And it wasn’t just skin color either. I remember my Mom dropped me off: She got me really excited; she built it (school) up trying to get me ready for it. I didn’t go to a preschool before that so it was my first formal school. I was expecting school to be fun. But when I got there, I was the only one who looked Asian, very Asian — bucked teeth, black hair with bangs. My brother was in the same school but he was older and I think was a little embarrassed by me.
Did you experience overt manifestations of racism or discrimination?
Ivy: Yeah, I experienced discrimination, discrimination from other Filipinos. I grew up in a neighborhood that had very few Filipinos so I was used to hanging out with mostly whites. Then, when I moved to California, the Filipinos there were critical — why was I with white friends? But when I tried to hang out with Filipinos, they said I wasn’t Filipino enough. I couldn’t speak Tagalog. (Ivy” parents are both Filipino.)
Mikhail: I was born in the Philippines and migrated when I was five. I grew up speaking Tagalog at home. But I had difficulty relating to other Fil-Ams because they’d look at me, and just because I spoke Tagalog, they expected me to know more about the Philippines. But then I didn’t.
Olivia: There was certainly racism in the Jewish school I went to. In Judaism, if you married a non-Jew, traditionally, he or she would have to convert to Judaism because it was taboo to marry outside the religion. My mom never did that and my Dad never expected her to. So every year the school principal would call our house to ask my Dad, “So did your wife convert yet?” And my Dad would say, “No and I’m not planning on it either.” And the principal would say, in a really nasty way, “So how much are you donating to the (school) fund this year?” I didn’t get financial aid even if I was qualified for it.
I remember that my brother Josef was barred from leading the morning prayers in school. You see, all the boys were looking forward to their bar mitzvah (a ceremony for admitting a Jewish boy as a member of the adult community, usually at the age of 13). After your bar mitzvah, you were given the honor to lead the morning prayers. It was a special chant, and Josef was really good at it; everyone thought he had a nice voice. One day, one of the teachers from the school, a Middle Eastern Jew, came to our house to talk to my parents. He said that all the teachers and students threatened to walk out of the morning prayers the following day if Josef were to lead it. He said it was because Josef and I were just “converted” Jews. We were the only converted Jews in the entire school. (Jewish lineage is passed through one’s mother, therefore Olivia and Josef had to be “converted” because their mother never became Jewish.) The teacher was sincerely apologetic and told my father he would support him if he decided to fight the school. My Dad was very angry and wanted to file a complaint. But my brother Josef didn’t want to attract more attention, so he told my father to let it go. But we all knew it was a big deal.
The kids at the school were mostly cool, it was just the parents and teachers. I remember one time, we were having a birthday party at home and this kid came over. In my house we did not eat kosher food. So my mom prepared paper plates because if you’re Jewish, you’re not supposed to eat off plates that had been served non-kosher food on. One mom sent her kid to our house with her own snacks, lunch and her own utensils. And the mom said, “So we won’t trouble you.” She had attitude about it. Who was she kidding? We’re not stupid!
What made you decide to come to the Philippines and stay here for year of study at UP?
Jo: I just thought it was time. It was my curiosity, a long period of curiosity. (You ask) why are your relatives not going back, your own Mom and Dad are not going back to the Philippines? What’s going on? Why isn’t anyone returning? I don’t think my relatives are comfortable when they get here. And when they do, they’d rather stay in Manila, not in Tarlac. If they come, they come to shop. They don’t stay for a long time; they only come for Christmas. People would tell me, “Why are you going to the Philippines? It’s so dirty there, you have to use the tabo to bathe!” What’s that all about?
Tristan: I’ve always wanted to come (to the Philippines). And when I said I was going, everybody said, I couldn’t. That made me more curious. It made me want to go even more. I’m the shit-starter in my family. So if anyone says, “don’t go,” chances are, I’d be there. All these stories — they’d cut off my hand to steal my watch. You’ll have diarrhea all day, you’ll lose weight! Look, I’m fatter now! (Everyone laughs and says, “We all are! We gained weight here!”) It was such a big deal so I told my family I was going to Japan. It became my big secret. I had this entire drawer with this packet full of papers that said I was going to the Philippines. I had my plane ticket, my acceptance letter (to UP). I just told them I was going to the Philippines a day before I left the US. It was just time.
Why was it time?
Tristan: Because all my (Filipino) cousins, they’re so “whitewashed,” so materialistic. What they had to do sucks! Going to college, picking a course that their parents wanted, graduating, they work, they buy a house, they have to buy this and that. Sometimes I want to shake them and say: It’s not that important! My cousins, they all marry white women, they have kids. And my Mom and grandma would jokingly tell them, “Oh you better teach (your wives) to be Filipino.” My Mom tries to teach them stretching exercises for their kids, Ilokano stuff. (Massaging babies and toddlers so their bones align properly.) And my cousins are like, “Oh don’t bother, they go to Gymboree.” That’s like a plastic playground that you pay for your kids to play in. That’s so stupid! Why don’t they just let the kids hang out with their cousins, play with other kids? I’m so tired of them. I see all their stupid shit. And they’re the ones who say I couldn’t come to the Philippines.
But now, because I started it (coming to the Philippines), my Mom is coming for the very first time in her life. My 86-year-old grandma is coming; she hasn’t been back since she left in the 1940s! They’re coming here next week! My brothers are coming…
Ivy: I’m curious to know why they (my parents) left the Philippines. And why my Mom isn’t so eager to come back. I know the plane ticket is expensive, but there are more reasons than that. I think it’s because she’d be so sad to see her family in the provinces are the way they are. She’ll say, ‘1 can’t go because you know, they’ll ask for all this money. They think we are so rich here, when (in reality) we have all these loans. They don’t understand.” Now that I’m here, I’ve asked her to visit me. And she says, “Oh, not now. I have work.” When I know she has so many (vacation and sick) leaves (she can avail of).
Here, we’re very comfortable, we can afford to “gimmick.” But what is that amount spent compared to the minimum wage pay (of local residents). I remember in sociology class (at UP), we studied that the (children) of OFWs say, “We don’t want materialistic things. We just want the love and attention of our parents.” The reason they are able to give that answer is because they are able to get the material things. And that’s what I’m thinking about. When I go out here, I usually go out shopping. And when my family comes back, that’s what they do, they shop. But what if we didn’t have that luxury. It’s hard to explain, but I feel fortunate but in other ways guilty. To think of an average Filipino family living off the minimum wage — we learn about that, but (it’s different) to really feel and understand that.
Olivia: I think of the value of context. I remember coming here for my Lolo’s funeral with my Mom and her siblings. And she was “Ate.” Her siblings just handed her their passports and plane tickets so she’d deal with all that at the airport. Some of her siblings are grandparents already — all very responsible adults in their 50s. Mom’s 64, and she’s not even a grandparent. And here they were, relying on her to be “Ate,” asking her to buy things for them in Quiapo. I remember they were picking a stone (lapida) for the grave, and after all the discussion and excitement, she just picked one and said, “Tapos na ang kuwento (End of the story)!” And everyone just gave in, and bowed their heads. And I said, “Yeah Mom!” It was so empowering to see her that way! I think, just living among white people, I saw her as more timid, more submissive. Everyone would say, oh your Mom is so cute. That’s nice, but it also has so many implications — that she’s Asian, submissive, docile. And here, she was so bold!
And everyday things — like walking on the street, I see this (street) kid who is seven years old and is a genius compared to me, simply because he knows how to survive. Maybe he can’t recite theories on race and class, but he could outsmart me in a second. So context, putting it all in context.
Tristan: Yes, context! You know the huge migration from out of the Philippines? I’m what happens to those people’s kids. In the States, the immigrant parents did so well in making me and my mom feel so bad. But we’re all part of the same story…
Now, how do I take what I’ve learned and experienced here? How do I take that back to people I’m close to? As corny as it sounds, I’m really different now. And people that I’m really close to aren’t going to like the difference. I went home for (Christmas) break and I got a taste of that already. I came to the Philippines, I learned Tagalog. But no matter how hard I tried, my family — those who grew up in the Philippines and studied at UP — would not speak Tagalog to me. And yet I know they can speak Tagalog well! Even if I wanted to go home and tell them about the Philippines, they don’t want to hear (about) it. I don’t what to be that jerk who would say (lowers his voice): “Well, when I was in the Philippines…” But at the same time I want to share my experiences. I have perspective, and I know it, and I can share it — but, the question is, do they really want it?
AS WE EXCHANGE our goodbyes at their grilled gate, I eyed the children now noisily running the little stretch of road. “Have you lost anything here?” I ask Olivia, who had mentioned that a narrow alley leading to a slum community — home to the children — was just meters away from their gate. “Oh yeah,” she say. “On our first week here, we stupidly left our shoes outside our front door. Tristan lost his shoes one night. The following morning, this woman was at our gate. She was the mom of one of the kids. She apologized for the missing shoes. We said not to bother, it was just one of those things you have to live with. We never lost anything after that, and the kids are now our friends.”
Susan F. Quimpo is the founder and program director of Tagalog On Site (TOS), a heritage program for second- and third-generation Filipino Americans. For more information on Tagalog/Filipino language, history and culture programs, check the TOS website at www.tagalogonsite.org.