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.)

What Silence About Racism Sounds Like (and Words BIPOC Need to Hear)

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

~Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986

As a woman of color navigating all the ways this past year has brought my racial pain and trauma to the surface, there are words I need to hear from the people in my life:

“I see you.”

“I’m here for you.”

“I’ve got your back.”

For those of you who are leaders, I need to hear the same from the leadership of the organizations and institutions I’m part of:

“We see you.”

“We’re here for you.”

“We’ve got your back.”

Why is this so important? Because, as Elie Wiesel states, “Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented.” For me personally, when the people in my life or the organizations I’m part of offer silence in response to racial pain, what I hear is NOT compassion or empathy. What I hear is:

They do not see me.

They are not here for me.

They do not have my back.

My journal is a place where I feel freedom to express all the things I’m too timid or scared to say out loud. Over the past year, I’ve written in my journal, “I wish they would try. But in order to try, they’d first have to care. And I don’t know anymore if I believe they care.”

So if you care, please don’t believe the lie that silence is the best option. At the least, it can be hurtful (or even feel like betrayal) to those who are hurting. At most, it can embolden those who have deep racism in their hearts and desire to harm racial minorities. Say something!

I know that some of you are reading this and thinking, “I’ve wanted to say something to my friends (or the people I lead) who’ve been hurting during this season, but I haven’t been able to find the words.” I get that. It can be scary to want to say something but to also be afraid of saying the wrong thing. If coming up with the “right” words has felt like an overwhelming and impossible task for you, or if you read the three sentences I shared earlier and thought, “That’s what I’ve been trying to say but I didn’t know how!”—you’re welcome to use them! It doesn’t have to be word-for-word exactly what I wrote. There are so many ways you can express these messages! The important thing is to express them and mean them!

Let’s take a closer look at these three sentences:

“I see you.”

This is the bare minimum. This shouldn’t be controversial. Yet, unfortunately, I know that for some, it is. If you love someone, these words should be easy. The other two sentences are dependent on this one. “I see you” can sound like:

  • “I’m listening.”
  • “I see your pain. I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”
  • “I see the image of God in you.”
  • “I see your uniqueness. I see your beautiful personality, your giftings, what you bring into a room, the ways you make me better.”

Note: In addition to silence, there are many ways to convey, “I don’t see you.” Some of those ways include arguing instead of listening, gaslighting, defensiveness or making it about yourself when people are sharing their stories of pain with you.

“I’m here for you.”

This one takes a little bit of time, effort, and compassion. This looks like sitting with someone’s pain—even if it’s uncomfortable. “I’m here for you” can sound like:

  • “If you need to cry or vent, I’m here.
  • “Can I give you a hug?”…when it’s safe to do so.
  • “Can I bring you coffee or a meal?”

“I’ve got your back.”

This one takes some courage. You might get some pushback from those who haven’t taken the time to examine their negative racial biases. But know this: The dignity and worth of BIPOC are worth it! In addition to using your voice to speak up, “I’ve got your back” can sound like:

  • “I want to be your ally.”
  • “I want to grow in this area so I can do better.”
  • “I want to protect you. I will come to your defense if someone tries to harm you.” (These words need to be backed up by action if the opportunity arises!)
  • “Can I sit with you at church?” Or, “Can I come with you when you go to [insert place where they may need an ally to help them feel safe]?”
  • “I want to give action to my words. I don’t just want to say things need to be better; I want to do concrete things to help bring change.”
  • “We need your voice! I’m going to amplify your voice any way I can!”
  • If you’re in a position of leadership: “How can we do better?” and “How can we come alongside you?”

One more thing: If you can’t mean these words, please don’t say them. I don’t mean that as a slam. It takes repentance and work over time to be able to say each of these things. It’s also a progression: You can’t have someone’s back when you’ve never been (or aren’t at least willing to be) there for them. And you can’t be there for them if you don’t see them (which includes seeing their pain). So if these are words you’ve never said to someone experiencing racial pain or trauma, start by prayerfully examining yourself and asking God, “Since words are the overflow of the heart, what in my heart (and mind) needs to change so I can say these words?” If you can say, “I see you,” but you don’t think you can honestly say, “I’m here for you,” or “I’ve got your back,” bring that to God and be honest about why you feel that way. And then let God shine a light on everything in your heart that wants to hide. Will it be easy? No. But will it be worth it? Yes!

This is where healing begins.

An Asian American’s Awakening

What follows is something I wrote many 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 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 allowed more time to pass. And in that time, the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community has suffered: the continuation of Anti-Asian rhetoric, AAPI being attacked (even killed) in the street, the Atlanta massacre

Many people are tired of talking about race, but the conversation isn’t over. It can’t be. There are still questions to ask, issues to discuss, and stories to share.

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 Asian American 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 come home crying after walking in our neighborhood multiple times because White people often slow down or stop their vehicles beside me to stare at me. It’s usually White men in big trucks—I know this is something some White women in my city have experienced. But I’ve also experienced this from White women in nice cars. Maybe this is happening for a reason other than my Asianness, but it’s happening during a time when Anti-Asian hate crimes are heightened and I don’t feel safe outside of my home. I now bring pepper spray with me on neighborhood walks.

Within church spaces—note the plural; this isn’t just something that has happened at one church or one kind of gathering—people often refuse to talk with me, give me dirty looks, or back away from me when I talk with them. But then they’ll completely change—they’ll perk up, smile, and suddenly become chatty—if my husband or another White person comes and stands beside me and speaks highly of me.

I’ve experienced more. And I’ve experienced worse.

Over the years, I found ways to adapt. I assimilated. Or rather, I hid my Filipino-ness. I dropped Filipino mannerisms. I ate with my hands far less than I used to. I avoided the sun to ensure my skin stayed as light as possible (and I used papaya soap to try to lighten it even more). I did whatever I could to blend into predominantly White surroundings. And because of this, there have been some people who have forgotten I’m not White. Someone actually told me once, “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% Filipina—this is my ethnicity. So if you can’t see my Filipina-ness, you don’t see me. At the same time, I’m also 100% American—this is my nationality. So if you look at me and only see ways I’m other, you don’t see me either.

Our ethnic heritages aren’t things that are discarded at the foot of the cross. Revelation 7:9 says,

“After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

~Revelation 7:9, CSB

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.

“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.”

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

Just a few notes for clarification…

What I’m NOT saying:

  • I’m not saying all White people are bad. (I don’t believe that. Not even a little.)
  • I’m not saying there aren’t negative racial biases in ethnic minority communities.

What I AM saying:

  • Racism exists. Most ethnic minorities have wounds from instances when we’ve been treated differently as our White counterparts. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. And because of that…
  • The stories of ethnic minorities need to be heard.
  • Every single person is a bearer of the image of God. And our uniqueness—including the uniqueness of our ethnic heritages—is a beautiful expression of the image of God. So our differences are to be celebrated, not hidden or erased.
  • There is hope AND there’s a lot of work to be done! So let’s get to work!
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I bought this pin after I decided to stop hiding. It’s the sun from the flag of the Philippines. It’s pinned to the purse I use most often to remind me of this important part of who I am.

Stories of Why Asian Representation Matters

I wrote these words and shared many of them on social media before the Atlanta massacre on March 16, 2021. I considered waiting until a later time to share them on my blog. But one thing the recent tragedy has brought to light is how the limited representation of Asian Americans combined with the weaponizing of terms such as “Kung Flu” and the fetishizing of Asian women has done tremendous harm and has even put lives in danger. I hope that by sharing stories like these, maybe we can start to cultivate change.

Story No. 1:

I went to an art supplies store to look for a certain set of markers that included nine skin tone colors. No luck. The closest thing I found was a six-piece set of skin tone colors—the darkest color a medium brown and none of them were even close to matching mine. I gave up and left the store with a single, green marker for coloring pictures of leaves.

When I got home, I did a search on the internet and found Crayola’s Colors of the World collection—24 beautiful shades ranging from porcelain to deep browns. As I added the marker and colored pencil sets to my Amazon cart, I found myself getting emotional. Memories of drawing self portraits in art class and awkwardly staring at the peach and brown crayons, decades of trying to lighten my skin and avoiding letting my skin tan, years of feeling ugly because “beautiful” photos didn’t include women who had any features that looked like mine. I confronted it all with my Amazon cart. (“Medium deep golden” is the color of me!)

Story No. 2:

When I heard about Raya and the Last Dragon for the first time—the movie with the first Southeast Asian Disney princess—I cried. Full-on, intense, happy tears. I turn 40 this year and I’ve waited my entire life for this! I wish I could tell little, seven-year-old me (or even 25-year old me) that one day my dream would come true. A strong Disney princess who has brown skin and a nose like mine, eats congee, and even has some Filipino martial arts moves—what a time to be alive!

I’m the daughter of Filipino immigrants and most of my closest friends growing up were also the children of Filipino immigrants. They were like cousins and their parents became surrogate titos and titas. I grew up feeling very connected to my Filipino heritage. Now I live hundreds of miles from home in one of the whitest cities in America where I have one Filipina friend. We got to watch Raya together while eating halo-halo.

Bonus: I think getting to watch her four-year-old daughter get into the movie moved me as much as the movie did! Watching this little girl gaze at Raya gave me hope. She’s growing up in a very different world than the one I grew up in, a world where “beautiful” includes her and she’s empowered to be strong.

(And in case you’re wondering, Raya and the Last Dragon was wonderful and lived up to the hype!)

I’ll leave you with a couple thoughts to consider:

  • Representation matters because people matter. Every single person is created in the image of God. Our ethnicities are a part of the way we reflect the Imago Dei. To diminish anyone’s ethnicity is to diminish the Imago Dei in them.
  • Representation for people of color doesn’t mean removing representation of White people. There is space for all of us! The attitude that White people lose if people of color get a seat/voice is scarcity mentality and is antithetical to the Gospel and the Kingdom.

The name of this marker is “medium deep golden” and it’s the color of me!