Note: I wrote this twelve years ago, but most of how I feel about what’s explained here hasn’t changed — especially these days, being a single mom of a biracial kid.
After living on Guam for three and a half years, after I had spent the first ten years of my life criss-crossing the Pacific Ocean and residing in military houses that didn’t belong to my family, my parents took out a mortgage and bought a house in a suburb of Dallas. It was a three bedroom, two bath, two car garage, red brick, front yard, back yard, one story affair – a house with room to grow into.
But, as if the peripatetic life of a military family sensed that something was ending, we couldn’t move into the house just yet; some renovations needed to be done first, and our furniture hadn’t arrived from the movers. So for the first three months of my life in Texas, I slept on a mattress on the floor in strangers’ homes.
They were not strangers to my parents, though, since they were all Filipino. They had found these isolated Filipino-Texan homes by word of mouth and extensive familiar networking. “Oh, you’re moving there? Hey, I have a cousin who lives there, you can stay with.”
I don’t remember their names or their faces, but I remember the too-hot outside of their yards and the too-cold inside of their homes. I remember that these Filipinos seemed too quick to scold other people’s children, too wary of other people who were not Filipino. I remember that I learnt race prejudice those three months.
“Never get into an accident with a white person, they’ll sue you. Never get into trouble with a black person, they’ll hit you. Mexicans are lazy. Don’t you be lazy like a Mexican!”
It was a far cry from Guam, where I’d never heard those categories before.
When we finally moved into our new house, I was happy to be away from those Filipinos, into the isolation of a stand-alone house in a quiet suburb. I liked the house before the furniture arrived – it was so spare and empty, and it looked bigger.
After eighteen years (and counting), it became smaller and smaller until somebody had to move in order to accommodate my parents’ accumulated things, especially when my father retired from the Navy and returned to the house as the house. First it was me, to college and then grad school.
Then it was my brother, to the Navy, who, once stationed at San Diego, visited our California relatives. Half of my aunts, uncles, and cousins live in California, and the other half live in the Philippines.
I had once asked my father long ago why we ended up settling down in Dallas, where we had no relatives, instead of settling down in California. He looked up from the adobo chicken that he was preparing at the time and replied, “There’re too many Filipinos in California.” He said it half-jokingly, but he meant it.
It didn’t make any sense to me; all of my cousins could speak Pilipino because they had occasion to use it, they knew more about Filipino culture than my siblings and I did, and they could always rely on each other as a support system.
But as I grew older and heard of some of the news of my California relatives, I began to understand.
In settling down among many Filipinos in large Filipino enclaves, my relatives recreated the small town atmosphere back in the Philippines, along with the small town gossip, lack of privacy, and rebellion of the younger generation against the older generation.
I heard too many news of my male cousins joining gangs, of my female cousins getting pregnant or dropping out of school, only to be cushioned with a large support network of Filipinos, so that the consequences would not be too hard.
In moving into a state in which the only family is immediate family, my father made sure that his children’s American upbringing would be American, such that we would not take being Filipino for granted.
There were no Filipino youth groups for me to join as I grew up in Texas. I never had any Filipino friends because there were very few Filipinos my age. I didn’t grow up speaking Ilocano or Tagalog, liking Filipino music, or knowing anything about Filipino history. I grew up an American kid with American tastes, except…
Well, except I was still Filipino.
I may like hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza, but I’d take my mother’s kare kare and my father’s dinuguan anytime. I may dress in blue jeans and T shirts, but I can’t change the color of my skin. I may speak English fluently, but I still wish that I could understand my parents when they spoke Ilocano to each other.
I may know a whole heck of a lot of US history, but I want to know about Filipino history, and just how my father was able to join the US Navy while he was still a citizen of the Philippines.
I think that’s how I ended up writing about the whole Filipino American experience while in grad school, as a way of knowing. When I finally moved out and got myself a computer, I started getting e-mails from the parents and my siblings, updates about what was going on in their lives, i.e., letters from home.
Ironically, as my parents got older, they started looking for other groups of Filipinos, and they officially joined a Filipino American Catholic prayer group. They started to have regular contact with my relatives in California.
As a teenager, my youngest sister joined the prayer group’s youth organization, and so she was exposed to the type of Filipino experience that I’m only now just discovering.
Even though I hadn’t lived with my parents for many years, and in some respects I am removed from my parents’ discovery that perhaps there’s no such thing as “too many Filipinos,” I find that by being the only Filipino in where I am, I feel that uniqueness acutely.
If I go into a store in which I see another Filipino surrounded by non-Filipinos, there is that instant recognition of “See, we are few, but we are here!”
Not too long ago, I went into the local mall to get a consolation gift for my roommate. I had accidentally ruined his thermal mug, and I was trying to find something just like it. After scouring through three stores, I decided to give up on the mug and try looking for something else.
I wasn’t sure what to get him until I came across one of those kiosk carts that malls have, and one of them was selling Asian knick-knacks, especially jade eggs. Knowing that he liked Asian motifs, I picked out an egg with an owl on it, looked up, and saw that the person manning the cart was Filipino.
“I know you, right?” he asked, nodding his head towards me.
“No, I don’t think, so,” I replied in my perfectly generic American accent. I had seen so many Filipinos in my life, and he looked like at least three or four of my parents’ friends.
“Are you sure?” He smiled. “That’s a good egg, hand-painted. It’s twenty-five percent off.”
There was no sign saying that it was twenty-five percent off. “Oh, okay,” I said, and I paid him, minus the “Filipino discount.”
After he put it in a box and the box in a bag, he handed it to me. “Good-bye.”
“Salamat,” I replied, turning away. It means “thank you.”
“Ha? You know salamat?” He looked pleased. “Salamat.”
I waved back. It brightened my day.