I am a first-generation Filipino-Canadian.
My grandparents on both sides immigrated here in 1973 to escape the Marcos regime. My mom was 13 and my dad was 17 when they arrived in Canada.
I found these among my grandmother’s things after she passed in 2006. I’ve only taken out to look at them now…Below is her passport, her passport photo, and the boarding passes for 7 people (she and my grandfather only had 7 kids and 2 had already come to Canada):
I have never been to the Philippines. I can understand most of Tagalog, the official language of the Philippines, and some of my mom’s provincial dialect but can’t speak it.
I have always embraced my Canadian-ness more than my Filipino-ness. Maybe because my mother always spoke to me in English so I wouldn’t have an accent. Maybe because I was raised in a family that only carried the religious and food traditions of the Filipino culture. Maybe because my parents have never returned to the Philippines and have never wanted to due to personal reasons. Some immigrant parents want so much for their children to assimilate to the new country they are now calling home.
I have been largely detached from my culture being born and raised in Canada by parents who embraced their Canadian-ness while subduing their Filipino-ness. My children ask me all the time about the Philippines and its culture and even participated in a Filipino heritage weekend class but I always send them to my in-laws. In fact, #1 will be doing missionary work with my-inlaws and a volunteer organization in February. She will visit the place of my ancestors, our ancestors, even before I do.
Why have I not been more active in the Filipino community? My cousin has done wonderful things at theKapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts and Culture. My first-year university roommate, Nina Aquino, is doing amazing things in the theatre including writing this play about an historical political and cultural Filipino leader that just happened to be her uncle. Why haven’t I felt drawn or compelled to
re-acquaint myself with my roots? I took a high school course on the Philippines for the easy credit but mostly remember not taking it seriously and have fond memories of hanging out with my cousin and her friends during class.
On November 8, a typhoon ravaged through the central portion of the Philippines. Both Ever-Patient and I have relatives in the Philippines but don’t live close to the affected islands and thankfully, they are all ok.
There have been destructive natural disasters over the course of the last few years that have moved me to action as a human being. But with the news of Typhoon Haiyan, there is nothing that has pulled at my heart more than what has happened to the Philippines, a country that has been foreign to me as any country in the world. What surprised me most was that I was actually surprised at how it affected me. Of course, I felt compassion for all victims of unfortunate circumstances but then the images starting to come through the newswire.
All these faces in anguish and pain and death. They looked like my children. They looked like my husband. They looked like my parents. They looked like my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins.
They looked like me.
Growing up in this city full of different races and acceptance of those races, I sometimes forget about the colour of my skin. It can be a good thing. It can also be a bad thing.
These images made me remember the hard way of who I am and where I come from.
I heard the news sound bytes. Before dubbing over with an English interpreter, I would hear snippets of the Tagalog – a language I learned to understand through spending a lot of time with my grandparents. I would hear words that I recognized: sakit and bakit.
Why? Why not me? Why am I here and not there? How did I get here? I am the product of sacrifice and a dream. I am here because my grandparents made tough decisions. I am here because of their blood, sweat, and tears. The blood of that people on the other side of the world – that blood courses through my veins, that blood of all those who have come before me.
I am Filipino.
As I have contemplated my Filipino-ness, I have watched my children make rice first thing in the morning to be eaten all day with every meal. I have watched them finish a 30L pot of sinigang – a Filipino soup that they crave as it gets cold. I have heard them say,
“Ugh, my pajamas smell like laway.” (English translation = saliva.)
“Can you wipe my sipon please?” (English translation = runny nose.)
“Are we going pasyal with Wowo?” (English translation = going for an outing.)
“Can we have merienda?” (Merienda is actually a Spanish word that means ‘light meal/snack.’)
“Waaahhh! My finger got sipit!” (This word isn’t even a tagalog word. This is from my mom’s provincial dialect, Kapampangan, and it literally means to get your finger caught in something like a door, drawer, etc.)
I sprinkle our days with words unintentionally from this far-off land that now I realize is not that far off. Their excitement of Filipino dishes for dinner, their love of getting together with extended family at the Catholic holidays, and celebrating the brown colour that their skin turns after a single day out in the sun in May remind me that I’ve passed down pieces of our culture unconsciously.
I admit that there are aspects of the Philippines and its culture that I am embarrassed and sometimes ashamed of. The corrupt politics; the gap between rich and poor; the inflexible obedience to Catholic doctrine; the obsession with variety shows and being light-skinned; and the unofficial national past time – karaoke. A popular description of the Philippines, coined by Stanley Karnow in his book In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines: 300 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood. A culture of extremes.
But as the stories come over the news, in the wake of the typhoon, I feel differently. Every country has flaws and things that can be improved or a history that is full of shameful acts. But I look at my own upbringing and what I am passing to my children that have strong connections to our Filipino culture: the importance of family and the strength of that bond; the respect for elders in our community and our family – we always kiss the oldest in the room first and then the next generation, and then the next; the commitment to giving the younger generation time with the oldest generation to hear stories, to learn, and to just be with; the devotion and faith in something bigger than us and that connects all things; how food brings family together – sitting down for meals, family gatherings centred around food; a hard work ethic with a compassionate heart; coming together to help when in need.
This last point is what I see happening more than I see the looting, the panic, and the criticism of the Philippine government. Filipinos, including my family, are coming together to help and to support our mothers, our fathers, our children. Because they are our people.
As I get older, the theme of going backwards keeps cropping up. I need to fill in the blanks. As I become more aware of who I am and start to confront 35 years of the ugly and the concealed, I keep returning to my roots and the need to dig past my parents and my grandparents, the need to dig into this country and its own collective past and evolving consciousness. This is my personal quest now that has unfortunately been aroused by these destructive events in the Philippines – to find a way to connect with my Filipino-ness and pass that on to my children so that they will never forget where they come from.
There is a popular saying in Tagalog – “Bahala na.” This means “leave it up to God.” Wikipedia writes: “Filipinos engage in a bahala na attitude as a culture-influced adaptive coping strategy when faced with challenging situations.” I remember my mother and my aunts singing “Que sera sera..” instead of Bahala na, always injecting their sense of humour into all things. They still do. That is the essence of what I will do: say a prayer that I was taught as a child to the God I was raised with for the people of my ancestors – a tribute to the “Bahala na” attitude; and to do my best to contribute to the relief efforts and believe that there is a reason for all this.
I will also remember that my examination into my culture should also include the family identity that my extended family has created as Filipino-Canadians because everyone needs a little Doris Day in their life…
(My Lola and I.)