An Asian American’s Awakening

What follows is something I wrote months ago when America was reeling and grappling with questions about race. I’ve been unsure of whether or not I wanted to share these words. They’re not exactly “on brand” for my blog. And as time continued to pass, I thought maybe these words would feel like I was trying to talk about something people have moved on from. But then a friend experienced something. Something I’ve experienced and wrote about in these paragraphs.

I’m done hiding. 

During this season, I’ve been taking a hard look at ways I’ve chosen to “assimilate” into white culture (or rather, hide my Filipino-ness). 

Being a woman of color in predominantly white spaces is tricky. I rarely experience explicit hatred—that doesn’t mean it has never happened—but there are things that lie under the surface. The often asked “Where are you really from?” and “Did your husband meet you on the mission field?” remind me that for many, I’m forever a foreigner. I was born here. This is my home, but I don’t really belong. 

And then there’s the issue of what’s safe for me to talk about. I learned early that to talk about my heritage is taboo. Friends could talk freely about the culture of whatever European country their ancestors hailed from, but conversations about my Filipino heritage were unwelcome. This unwelcoming would manifest in a few ways: being made fun of, being told to “go back to my country,” or someone quickly changing the topic. (Note: As for someone quickly changing the topic, this was never something someone would do only once. They never allowed me to speak openly about my heritage even when they spoke openly of theirs).

And then there’s the perceived language barrier. The key word: “perceived.” I speak fluent English with good grammar and a Midwest accent. Yet people still ask me, “Do you understand English?” It’s difficult to prove my intellect to someone who struggles to believe I understand the language I’m speaking fluently. In a similar way, there’s also an assumption that I’m ignorant of American history and culture. As for culture, I get that things were different in my house as both my parents are immigrants. But outside of my house, everything in my life was as “American” as my white counterparts. In fact, because I had to go back and forth between the Filipino culture inside my home and the American culture outside my home, I grew up with a greater awareness of cultural elements many people take for granted and don’t notice.

I was talking about this to a friend recently. She’s Chinese—born and raised in China—and moved to the US as a grad student. When she heard my experiences, she said, “I’m glad I’m not an Asian American! That sounds really hard!” To have to hide an integral part of who I am…Yes, it’s hard.

Over the years, I’ve been extra careful to not assume someone was treating me a certain way just because of my race. It gets hard when I’m in a store and a worker follows me around. One store clerk yelled at me while I looked at skirts. Or the many times when I’m in a women’s boutique and none of the workers will give me service of any kind unless my white husband says to them, “Can one of you please help my wife?” I try to ignore this stuff, smile, and move on. 

I’ve found ways to adapt. I’ve assimilated. Or rather, I’ve hidden my Filipino-ness. I’ve dropped Filipino mannerisms. I eat with my hands far less than I used to. I’ve avoided the sun to ensure my skin stayed as light as possible (and I’ve used papaya soap to try to lighten it even more). I’ve done whatever I could to blend into predominantly white surroundings. And because of this, it has been easy for some people to forget that I’m not white. Someone actually told me, “When I see you, I don’t see an Asian; I just see a white girl.” Don’t get me started on all the ways that statement is so so SO wrong. And that’s the thing: I’m NOT white. I’m 100% Filipino. So if you can’t see my Filipino-ness, you can’t see me. (I’m also 100% American. So if you look at me and only see ways I’m other, you can’t see me either.)

So I’ve made a decision: I’m not hiding anymore. What does that mean? I’m not really sure. I’m just gonna let this journey take me where it will. 

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