My So-Called Asian Identity: Infinite Q&As

“Are you from Hawaii?” “Are you Chinese?” “Where are you from?” “Do you come from the islands?” These are among the questions I have been (and continue to be) frequently asked by new acquaintances and strangers. I don’t think I got such queries before college, because I grew up in Southern California, a place where the Filipino population has always been quite sizable. I remember feeling a little put-off by the curiosity in the beginning, only because I didn’t see why I had to explain my racial identity to strangers. However, I began to take it less personally as I realized that people would ask me these questions because they were genuinely interested in my background. Now, these encounters don’t faze me at all, and I find them amusing. I actually got asked once if I was Italian because of my last name!

It’s always fun to compare notes with my sister and brother, as we now live in three different, very distinct areas of the nation. Living in Boston, I am often asked if I am Hawaiian. My sister in Los Angeles is frequently mistaken for being Chinese. My brother, currently residing in Phoenix, repeatedly gets identified as being Mexican. Recently, I have wondered how often people in the United States face inquiries about their ancestral background. While my acquaintances and friends who are of other Asian and mixed ethnicities do get similar questions, they aren’t quite as diverse as the ones directed toward my siblings and me.

Having lived on both sides of the country, I can honestly say that I am more likely to get peppered with queries on the West Coast than I am on the East Coast. This may have a lot to do with the higher degree of diversity in California than in New England. In addition, New Englanders (and most East Coasters) tend to be more reserved. Yet, more and more, I see left and right coast stereotypes going out the window; I’ve met more and more Los Angeles transplants here in the Boston area, and encountered many East Coast transplants when I went back to LA for graduate school. The last time I was back in LA, I heard the actual usage of car horns, previously only noted in Boston or New York City!  And just the other day here in Boston, a car stopped to let me cross the street (and not at a crosswalk, either!) instead of trying to run me over. It gives me hope that many other stereotypes will soon become things of the past. This is part of my motivation for writing this column: to disprove the stereotypes out there and to answer the infinite questions about my so-called Asian identity. It is “so-called” because Filipinos defy typical Asian identifications, as evidenced in my own family, and because of the fact that my sister, brother, and I have often experienced ethnic misidentifications .

What are some Filipino stereotypes? Well, one that jumps to mind is “Filipino time.” Every Sunday that we went to Catholic mass, it was inevitable that the groups of families shuffling in late during the scripture readings were mostly Filipino. Many of our relatives show up to family events one to two hours after the time of invitation, which is why our mother tends to give these relatives an early time in order for them to actually arrive on time. However, I have observed that other cultures have this same habit, and I’ve heard references to everything from “African time” to “Hawaiian time,” so this particular stereotype is definitely not unique to Filipinos.

I don’t have many more generalizations about Filipinos to share with you because as a race, we haven’t had much of a presence in U.S. pop culture…at least until recently. A character on Desperate Housewives insulted a doctor by implying that he had attended a Filipino medical school.  I remember reading about how the Filipino community was up in arms, but all I could think was, “Hey, we got our own racial insult now!”  Making the Filipinos’ presence known over such a random reference in a TV show is kind of sad.

The history of Filipinos in the United States is deeper and more varied than are medical school references and media coverage of Imelda Marcos’ multitude of shoes. It is high time that more people were aware of who Filipinos are, so that fewer people have to pause or to jump to a stereotype when trying to determine the origin of my phenotype. After all the questions I’ve received about my ancestry, it’s time to go beyond answering, “I am Filipino.” Who and what is “Filipino”? My sister Lauren and I will take turns writing this column in order to answer that very question. As an appetizer, here are just a few facts about Filipinos that I’ve gleaned from online sources such as Wikipedia…pieces of the real history of Filipinos that have been forgotten or remained largely unknown:

• The Philippines is the 12th most populous country in the world–just behind Mexico–with over 90 million people.

• The Philippines is an archipelago of 7,107 islands.

• More than 180 dialects and languages (Tagalog being the dominant native language) are spoken in the Philippines.

• The Philippines has the largest diaspora in the world, with 11% of its population all over the globe in jobs far away from friends and family.  Some of our own relatives have been a part of this diaspora in the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia.

• Islam came to the Philippines via Malaysia and Indonesia before Catholicism came via Spain (thanks to its most famous near-circumnavigator, Ferdinand Magellan, who in turn was imported from Portugal).

This is just the tip of the iceberg–there is so much more to know about Filipinos. In future articles, Lauren and I are both impatient to share more information about the Philippines, supply our insights on what it is like to be a Filipino-American, and to reflect on Filipino identity in both U.S. history and popular culture. Stay tuned!

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