BY MARGARITA YSABEL DE LEON
“What kind of Asian are you?”
One of my classmates asked me this when I came into middle school halfway through the school year, having just moved from halfway across the world to a place where everyone didn’t have my skin color, speak the language I grew up with, or eat adobo on a weekly basis.
I looked at her. It was a weirdly phrased question, but I wanted to make friends and I didn’t want to ruin that chance at making one. So I smiled and told her, half-wondering whether this was the response she was looking for, “I’m Filipino.”
To which she wrinkled her nose and said, “What’s that?”
I told her it meant I was from the Philippines, only to evoke the same response, to which I replied—”It’s a country in Southeast Asia”—and then, upon seeing the same blank look on her face, “It’s somewhere near China.”
I grew up in a place where I didn’t have to answer questions like this, where everyone was Filipino and that was that. I quickly realized that this was something I had to get used to: labelling myself.
So when other people asked me the same question, I told them that I was from the Philippines, and didn’t wait for that familiar lack of recognition to set in on their faces before I added my now classic “it’s somewhere near China.”
I’d say it with a smile. Always. And when someone asked me where my chopsticks were, or when they’d say it smelled like fish whenever I walked into a classroom, I’d smile, too. Sometimes I’d laugh, even though I knew that they weren’t laughing with me; they were laughing at me.
But who cared, right? I was making friends, even though they were a little hurtful sometimes.
Though I’d love to say that one day I woke up and realized that I had enough, unfortunately, that wasn’t what happened. I kept my head down and took it like a champ, told myself it wasn’t a big deal.
Looking back on it now, I admit that I’d been knowingly succumbing to whatever stereotypes they had, all because—well—I wanted friends. And by doing that, I was reinforcing their baseless ideas. I could have stood up to them, told them things they didn’t bother to look up on their own, but instead I kept my head down and took it like a champ. Or so I told myself.
I could have said, no, Cindy, Filipinos aren’t Chinese. No, Gladys, Filipinos don’t randomly bow to people. No, Daniel, I don’t have chopsticks in my backpack.
There are many things I could have said, many times I could have done things differently that didn’t involve me diminishing my Filipino identity. But it’s been a year and all I have left to show for most of my middle school years is regrets.
Now I’m in high school, in an environment where more people like me and I don’t have to constantly keep telling people where the Philippines is. It was pleasantly surprising how so many kids of different cultures weren’t scared to converse in their own languages, or to bring homemade food to school even though there were a select few that sneered down on it.
When I asked those kids what they thought about those select few who thought their food smelled bad, they said this—”Who cares? It tastes good.” Which means: who cares? It’s my culture.
And I think about what I thought in middle school, when people poked fun at me for the shape of my eyes and I let them: who cares? I want friends.
Maybe those kids at my middle school weren’t the biggest part of the problem. Maybe it was me, letting them believe in things when I was at perfect liberty to tell them otherwise.
I think about growing up in the Philippines for thirteen years. Of saying po and opo to every elder I met, of bringing adobo to school everyday and sharing it with my friends, of dancing tinikling during Buwan ng Wika with my friends while we were dressed up in our own Filipiniana dresses. And then I think of how I devalued all of that and let people assume whatever they wanted to assume about my culture, just because I wanted them to like me.
Now that you’ve read the short, woeful story of a thirteen-year-old Filipino girl who wanted to make American friends and was willing to do so at the cost of her own culture, I want you, dear reader, to remember it. To tuck it away into whatever vacant nook in your mind you can find, and come back to it later the next time someone asks you about where you are from.
I want you to come back to it, and to remember this: there is a fine line between taking it like a champ and letting others walk all over you. But the next time someone asks me where I am from, I know which side of that line I’ll be standing on: neither. And I hope it’s the same for you, too.