Reclaiming My Ethnic Identity

A few months ago, in “An Asian American’s Awakening,” I wrote these words:

So I’ve made a decision: I’m not hiding anymore. What does that mean? Honestly, I’m not completely sure. I’m just going to let this journey take me where it will. Here’s what I do know: I bear the image of God and I’m not going to be a part of tearing down the imago Dei in me anymore.

What follows is a continuation of this journey of reclaiming my identity and an invitation for you to do the same.

When I was in high school, my history teacher talked about the Filipino “savages” that came at Magellan the explorer with their clubs shouting, “Ooga, Ooga!” I will never forget my humiliation as my classmates turned and looked at me. In that moment, I felt ashamed to be a Filipina, and even more shame for feeling ashamed. So when I stumbled on a collection of poems by Justine Ramos, a Filipina American author, with a piece called, “Ferdinand Magellan,” I knew I had found something special. In sharing her own Magellan story, I could feel the tension in her body and the wrestling with her identity as the other students in the class stared at her. And in reading her story, I was also reading mine.

Telling our stories is important. And something powerful happens when we see ourselves in the stories of others.

But what happens when we’ve mostly been erased from the stories that are told, when the only time we make it into the narrative, we’re villains and “savages”?

Both of my parents immigrated to the States from the Philippines, so I’m second generation American. I grew up in the Chicagoland where many of my closest friends were also second generation Fil-Ams (Filipino Americans). We weren’t related, but they were my sisters and brothers and their parents were my titas and titos. Our parents spoke to us in Tagalog; we answered in English (with some Taglish thrown in). We lived in America, but we were tethered to the Motherland. 

Now I live in Springfield, MO, one of the whitest cities in America. I’ve code switched—hidden my Filipinaness and acted more white in order to blend into white spaces—for so long that I feel disconnected from an important part of my identity. I miss Tagalog, sitting down at a table where patis (fish sauce) is one of the condiments, and being greeted with the words, “Kain na!”–”Let’s eat!” I miss eating with my kamay (hands). I miss fancy events where men wear barongs, women wear dresses with big sleeves, and people dance the Tinikling. But most of all, I miss feeling at home in my Filipinaness.

So now, months before I turn forty years old, I’m reclaiming my ethnic identity. It isn’t easy. (I have one Fil-Am friend where I live. One. Two if you count her four-year-old daughter.) I’ve been listening to podcasts to learn Tagalog grammar so I can finally be able to formulate my own sentences aside from the ones I know only because I heard them a million times growing up. I’m reading books that tell stories and details that have been left out of American textbooks. (How old were you when you learned about the Philippine-American War or that the Philippines was colonized by Spain and then the United States?) And I’m exploring art, movies, music, and poetry where I see reflections of my ancestors, culture, and myself.

It’s time to reclaim my story. It’s time for all of us to reclaim our stories.

A BOOK FOR ALL ETHNICITIES:

Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead to Lasting Connections Across Cultures, by Michelle Ami Reyes

If you want to understand the importance of all of our ethnic and cultural heritages in a theologically robust way, this book is a goldmine! Here are a couple of my favorite excerpts:

“No matter your ethnicity, skin color, or cultural values, you have been made as a bearer of God’s image with dignity and worth equal to every other person. If you don’t value your cultural identity, you are not valuing a vital aspect of the image of God within you. If you don’t value the cultural identity of another person, you are not valuing the image of God within him or her.”

“The words of Scripture challenge us to step into other people’s histories and stories, to see through their eyes, to mourn for their pain, and to build better futures for one another. Justice is not a distraction from the gospel. It is a core message of the gospel. The life of Jesus declares this to be true, and if you want to prioritize the gospel in your life, then the pursuit of justice on behalf of others must be an essential component of your faith. Like Paul, become the weak. See the world through their eyes. Only then will people truly begin to see Christ in you.”

A COUPLE BOOKS FOR THE FILIPINX DIASPORA:

Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of expletives and I typically don’t recommend books that contain language I wouldn’t use. However, there are some exceptions and these books are among them. The expletives and strong language in the following books are minimal. And they serve the purpose of historical accuracy (such as quotations from historical figures) or expressions of intense emotion. But if you have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to strong language, these books may not be for you.

A History of the Philippines: From Indio Bravos to Filipinos, by Luis H. Francia

This book dives into the history of the Philippines from pre-colonial days to the present. Though this is an amazing resource for a Filipinx wanting to learn about their ethnic heritage, this is a book for everyone. By including perspectives and parts of stories that were left out of our history textbooks in the US, it challenges the way we view European and American history and adds insight to discussions about racism, colonialism, militarism, and even missiology.

Halo-Halo: A poetic mix of culture, history, identity, revelation, and revolution, by Justine Ramos

This is the book I mentioned earlier with the poem called, “Ferdinand Magellan.” In a podcast, I heard Ramos talk about how publishers told her that her themes were for “too specific of an audience” and that she should try to write for a wider, more general audience. I’m so glad she didn’t diminish the power of her words by diluting her creativity! This book is a work of art. Through her slam-style poetry, Ramos gives insight into the experiences and psyche of the Filipinx diaspora. At times, her words feel like lament. Other times, like revolutionary anthems. This book was like a healing balm to my soul.

In the Author’s Note, she wrote:

“My poetry is dedicated to all the textbooks that left my country and culture out of the narrative. My poetry is devoted to anyone who has ever uttered “Hirap Buhay ‘Merica” [“Life’s Hard in America] under their breath…As you turn the page, you’ll read snippets of frustrations and reflections. You’ll read flashes of my childhood, a peek into the crevices of my heart and memory. You’ll hear outrage, hope, and a desperate call for advocacy and awareness. These pages contain the tears of those who have lost a sense of themselves, those who have let the world define who they are, and the strength of those who, like me, are on the journey of finding themselves again.”

WHAT ABOUT YOU?

Are you on a journey of reclaiming your identity? What are you doing to reclaim the pieces of your story and culture you have lost, forgotten, or never had? I’d love to hear from you! (You can share in the comments.)

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