The Day We Became Filipino

It was June 10th, 1990, a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon in Tumwater, Washington.

I’ve told this story a thousand times, and I’m a little shocked to learn that I haven’t blogged about it before. I did a search on this blog and turned up nothing, so I figured I better tell it now.

We were actually Filipino from the beginning. A more contemporary title to this story would be “The Day We Came Out as Filipino,” because it was a day that cultural assimilation officially stopped.

When I was a little kid, my parents gave me a button to wear on my lapel on St. Patrick’s Day. It said, “Kiss me, I’m Irish.” To be clear, it was a joke. I was a little brown Filipino American kid, and zero kinds of Irish. In addition, I hated kissing. Regardless, I thought the pin was funny, and I think my parents did too. I don’t think most white folks saw it as funny, they saw it as factually inaccurate and a dishonest way to engage in physical intimacy, which again, I cannot overstate the fact that I hated kissing.

Most people thought it was not that funny, but I remember one man at Capital Lake Park saw my pin and started laughing way too hard, saying “that’s a good one!” I thought it was worth a chuckle but not THAT funny; that guy laughed hard in a creepy way. Thank goodness he didn’t kiss me.

By the way, you all would have been lucky to kiss me, I was the cutest; cuter than all my cute cousins, who were then, and still are, cute AAF.

Anyway, “Kiss me, I’m Irish” was a public recognition of ethnicity in the 1970s. I cannot imagine a similar button saying “I’m Filipino.” When white classmates would demand, “WHAT ARE YOU?” I would answer that my family is Filipino in a very frank yet quiet tone. I did not yet know how to say it easily, they way I now know to smile and say, “I’m diabetic” or “I’m a fat man!” When would say “my family is Filipino,” it was really a way to baffle them. Most of them did not know what “Filipino” means, and since they were expecting to hear “Chinese” or “Japanese,” my answer was outside of their world view and stopped them cold.

Occasionally, some of them had an uncle who had served in the military, so they had to confront me on my dog eating. Back then, I honestly didn’t know if Filipinos ate dogs, but the question seemed to stress out my mom, who knew more about racism than I did. I’ve still never eaten a dog, but now that I’m grown I like to tell people that yes, I ate a thousand dogs, and I’m about to eat your dog. It’s better that way.

Anyway, the point of all this is that we were, in fact Filipino, but it wasn’t a thing to act Filipino in front of the Whites. Everyone was glad we had honky accents and that we didn’t speak Filipino. We didn’t criticize them for their strange food habits; we even made a concerted effort to experience things like meals without rice; cereal and milk, extra cheese pizza, etc. Peanut butter and jelly, that was a difficult thing to accept for my mama, she fed a neighbor kid lunch once because they said they were hungry. “Didn’t you eat lunch at home?” my mama asked, and the kid meekly said yes. “Well what did you eat?” she asked (it occurs to me now how Filipino that question is). The kid answered peanut butter and jelly, and my mom gasped and offered the kid a plate of ulam and rice. That’s a culture shock, folks, most of the world doesn’t consider “peanut butter and jelly” to be any kind of food, much less a meal. My mama still tells that story, imitating that kid’s pathetic, “peanut butter and jelly,” scandalized.

As Filipinos, we had public food and secret food. Public Filipino food was pansit, lumpia, leche flan; chicken adobo… white folks liked that. If they came over to our house, we might serve them a steak, a pork chop, or beef stew with a side of rice, and if they remarked about never eating rice with a steak before, we’d tell them that it was our Filipino culture, and they would shrug and say, “wull that’s differ’nt!”

The secret food was dinuguan, of course, but also sinigang was too strange for them. Longganisa, pork adobo, squid, any seafood. If there was a fiesta with a whole roast pig, I’d be surprised if there were any white folks invited. Anything with bagoong was secret food; pinakbet, kare kare. Also there might have been a gag order on veggie dishes like dinengdeng and laing, because Filipnos think vegetables are only for poor people, and we can’t represent ourselves as poor. If white people are coming over, better make them a pork chop and a salad… but steamed rice is a non-negotiable.

When I was growing up, we’d have simple meals like a fried fish and rice with inabraw, and when the meal was served, my mama would close the curtains. We would eat our meals in the middle of the day with curtains closed, so that on the off chance that any once came to our window, they wouldn’t see us eating with our hands. We were taught to be ashamed of that, to not allow white folks to see us do it. Never mind that Americans eat hamburgers, pizza, chicken parts, hot dogs, French fries, and a million other things their hands; we couldn’t be seen eating rice with our hands. To be honest, it’s often embarrassing to watch Americans and Europeans try to eat food with their hands on travel shows; they don’t know the technique, or they don’t know that there is a technique, and they eat like messy toddlers. Frankly, it’s appalling.

Anyway the day we became Filipino was my high school graduation party. It was the same year that my dad finished his college degree, so we had a joint party, with family and a few of my friends, who were not Filipino at the time. It was a big party and my mama covered the dining room table with all kinds of public Filipino food, it was spectacular. As a meat eater back then, my favorite were the pork or beef skewers known as “barbecue,” which white people loved and refused to call “barbecue.” They’d say I LOVE THE KABABS, and my cousin would turn to me and clench her teeth and mutter, “it’s called barbecue.”

My mama had grilled whole fish, they were long, thin meaty fish, the shape of pike mackerel but chubbier, one or two per guest. They looked spectacular. I was concerned, though, because the heads were on, which made them secret food. It’s long been known that white folks do not tolerate food with heads. Their hamburgers, their hot dogs, their Thanksgiving turkeys, and their fish sticks are always headless, it’s a rule.

I went into the kitchen where my mama was still cranking out banquet food. Mama, I said, you left the heads on the fish! There are Americans coming! In fact, the Americans were already there, in the living room, drinking cans of pop and munching on lumpia. It was probably the wrong time to ask my mama about the fish heads; she was elbow deep in party food and trying to keep the magic happening. “We are Filipino!” she said.

And that was it. I got the message loud and clear, at that moment. June 10th, 1990, it was a sunny Sunday in Tumwater, Washington.

“We are Filipino.” It’s no longer a secret. I had graduated, my dad had graduated; and now my mama had graduated, graduated from cultural assimilation. We are serving head-on fish to the Americans and the entire explanation is “We are Filipino.” Your squeamishness will no longer be accommodated.

As predicted one of my white friends remarked that the fish were on the banquet table, grilled to perfection, with the heads still on. “We are Filipino.” I answered.

“It’s looking at me!” said my friend. Bless her heart. For once, some one else was experiencing culture shock. The fish was not looking at her, it was cleaned, seasoned, and grilled to perfection. If I remember correctly, she did eat that fish and enjoy it, but the head was a huge challenge for her to conquer.

And that’s the Day We Became Filipino, publicly. Now, if someone asks WHAT ARE YOU? I smile saying, “my ethnicity? I’m Filipino American, how about you?” I make them say “ethnicity” because that’s the right word, and “WHAT ARE YOU?” is embarrassing. When people guess, and say, “are you Filipino,” my answer is “of course!” Because it’s not a secret; it’s important to my identity, there’s nothing else I can be, nothing else I would want or know how to be. Mabuhay!

3 thoughts on “The Day We Became Filipino

  1. You are a wonderful writer but I have to say that this is one of the best essays you have written. Perhaps in the back of your mind you are also reminiscing about those days of family gatherings. In the Coronavirus Crisis we wonder, how much longer must we self-isolate? When will we get back to the dinners? There will be a day coming…someday. Meanwhile, He is Risen, He is Risen indeed and He has not forgotten us.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. On a walk with my son a couple of days ago when we were talking about the subject of food and also the myths and mistruths about cultural assimilation and accommodation, I shared with my son parts of your very personal version of this story which is painfully familiar (but not directly for me) for so many people. Thanks for sharing this. It’s a nicely told revealing and sobering account.


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