In Anna Lisa Raya’s essay, “It’s Hard Enough Being Me,” she wrote about her experience moving across the country to begin a college life, where she quickly “discovered” that she was Latina. Her parents were two different ethnicities, Mexican-American and Puerto Rican, but she always classified herself as simply Mexican. However, once she moved to New York she realized that she was identified by others as Latina, which served as a culture shock for Raya who never used the broad term to describe herself. Raya’s essay reminds me of my experience growing up surrounded by questions of who I was or where my family came from. I never thought I needed to label myself ethnically, but as I grew older, more people were curious and questioned me to identify myself.

 

Similar to Raya, my parents are of two different ethnicities. My father’s family is primarily German, but he was born and raised in America, while my mother was born in the Philippines, where she lived until she was six before immigrating to America. Growing up I was well aware of the two different cultures my family came from, but I always referred to myself as American. I understood that I was multiracial, but I never thought it was so important to classify myself by that factor. Another reason I never paid too much attention to whether I was “this or that” race was the fact that I grew up in such a diverse place such as the Bay Area of California. There are a lot of different cultures to be found in the various cities making up the Bay Area so throughout my school years I befriended and got to know people not only of all races, but of many mixtures as well. Therefore I grew up recognizing that there is a vast amount of mixtures of ethnicities, but I believed that it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary; I didn’t realize that many people in the real world will form judgements off of it. As I grew older I became more aware of this fact as an increasing number of people would ask me, “What are you?”

While Raya “discovered” she was Latina when she went off to college, I began to identify myself when I started working in fast food and retail. Many customers will question me about what my ethnicity is and most seem surprised that I tell them I am Filipino and Caucasian.  I never learned to speak Tagalog and despite taking a class on it for two years in high school, I can’t understand it either. Sometimes Filipinos who come to my register think I speak Tagalog, while others will have conversations in their native language hoping I don’t. Another thing that often comes up after declaring what ethnicities I am is the question of whether or not I eat Filipino food. I grew up to be a very picky eater, so I never became accustom to eating any ethnic foods at all and though there are a few Filipino dishes I like, there are far more that I will never even try. Whenever I speak with my Filipino co-workers about how I do not eat a lot of Filipino dishes, they tend to assume that I live with my Caucasian side of the family, not the Filipino side, which is false. Whenever I started being able to see the judgement coming from Filipino people I would talk to, I started to feel more defensive about my background, family, and identity.

Although I was well aware of my own identity and ethnic background, it didn’t seem to be enough to myself or anyone else and although I was once content with calling myself an American I began to feel I had to prove that I came from a Filipino and Caucasian background. A time where I felt ostracized for being an Americanized Filipino was during my Filipino classes in high school. A lot of other students in the class were much like myself, whether they were only part Filipino or born and raised in America, but I felt like I was one of the few who didn’t understand the language at all. My teacher was an older Filipino woman who seemed to believe that everyone in class already knew the language; she moved fast in lessons and didn’t make sure we all understood what was going on. I somehow felt embarrassed to ask her for help when I needed it and for many homework assignments I would have my grandfather translate my work for me. I was able to pass my Filipino classes both years, but I ended up feeling less confident in my ethnic background than when I started.

Even though I wasn’t able to understand the Filipino language, my grandfather always told me stories about when he lived in the Philippines. Hearing stories about my family’s life back home in the Philippines helps me to feel more a part of the family, even if I was never there and still haven’t visited. It is hard for me to imagine living in another country surrounded by a completely different culture and I begin to wonder if that is why some Filipinos look at me differently; because I am spoiled with my American life. Though I never feel above anyone else in my culture, I never feel I am included with them either.

I have been going through this tug-of-war trying to figure out my identity these past years and there are moments when I feel I haven’t budged an inch at all. The trick is not trying to define yourself by other peoples’ expectations, but identifying yourself by what you truly feel is right. I am not Filipino, Caucasian, nor Filipino-American, but a mixture of all three. Though I don’t understand Tagalog or eat any of the delicacies, I am surrounded by the Filipino culture and am able to appreciate all the wisdom that has been passed down through generations and across the world. While I can’t expect everyone to accept my cultural differences, I am able to understand what makes me who I am and that doesn’t need to be defined by any label anyone wants to stick on me.

 

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