As I posed for a photo outside the Shibuya 109 store during my trip to Japan, a group of Japanese men participating in the local Shinto festival, complete with ceremonial garb, approached me and my friend and asked me a question in Japanese. I shook my head, saying, “Iie, iie,” in reponse – the most direct translation of no.
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Japanese,” I tried to explain.
“You are Chinese, then?” said one of the men.
“Yes and no. I suppose, but I’m American.”
“But you’re Chinese, yes?”
“Yes, but my parents are from the Philippines.” After a pause, they went back to preparing to carry the elaborate decorated floats, most likely confused by my response.
They wouldn’t be the first in that regard, but they were the first in Asia. As with so many other times in my life, people attempting to assign me an ethnicity – and by extension, a cultural identity – failed to grasp the reality of what it means to be an ethnically Chinese, American citizen by way of Southeast Asia, born and raised in the Los Angeles area. Say that five times fast.
For most conversational purposes, the easy answer to the somewhat pointed question of “What are you?” or more directly, “What is your ethnicity?” is that I am Chinese. However, I know little about Chinese culture beyond what textbooks and the internet have taught me. I also barely speak Chinese, aside from a few words courtesy of my parents’ ill-fated attempt to have me learn from a Mandarin tutor over two consecutive middle school summers.
Usually the interrogation ends there, a question mark left dangling for many, but not compelling enough to delve in further.
One might call me a stereotypical case of whitewashing – I am, after all, a person of color whose primary language is English and whose grasp of my family’s culture is tenuous at best. It’s a derogatory term, yes, but in many ways, it’s true – I was raised during a historical moment of supposed post-racial colorblindness without a firm grasp on a particular culture beyond the vast American one. In my definition, whitewashing is when a person of color is stripped of all background and culture, left empty and ready to be filled with the greater, white-centric U.S. culture, cast into the long-hailed American melting pot, to emerge an American through and through.
However, the reality is much more complicated than the typical case of American assimilation. The truth is that I am Chinese Filipino, a little-known minority in the Philippines. Yes, there are Chinese people in the Philippines – as there have been since the 16th century, when Manila became home to the world’s first Chinatown. My mother is part-Filipino: Her great-grandmother was a Filipino woman, a maid in China who carried on an illicit affair with her employer.
In the Philippines at least, Chinese people are a distinctive minority with a particular subculture, although a large portion of them marry other Filipinos. Both sets of my grandparents came to settle in the Philippines before World War II, and although family lore doesn’t delve into economic push-pull factors, the Communist Party’s tightening grip on the rural Fujian province likely had something to do with it.
If the asker of the question has a few minutes or seems somewhat interested, I might launch into a convoluted historical explanation of the Southeast Asian Chinese diaspora and how populations of ethnically Chinese people have blended into various Southeast Asian countries including the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. Members of this diaspora tend to come from the coastal Chinese province of Fujian and speak a dialect of Chinese similar to Taiwanese Hokkien.
My cultural identity is something of an enigma, neither here nor there in terms of Chinese and Filipino. My parents, despite both having been born and brought up in the Philippines before moving to the United States, retain a strong sense of Chinese identity even though they have never visited the country, and we don’t have any relatives we know of residing there. On the other hand, I frankly don’t feel Chinese, from not understanding Fujian, my parents’ common language, to not celebrating Lunar New Year. What one might recognize as Chinese food wasn’t something you could find in my family’s kitchen, and I only became acquainted with it, like most Angelenos, through the various notable restaurants of the San Gabriel Valley.
As a toddler, I’d mix up my B’s and V’s, and later landed in English as a second language classes after an administrative mix-up coupled with a slight but clearly discernible Filipino accent in kindergarten. I’d use words in English syntax like basura and calavera, loanwords from Spanish in my mother’s Filipino dialect of Visaya. Every summer as a child, I’d fly to visit my mother’s family in Cebu City, where we’d feast on lechon and balut. My distant Filipino relative, who acted as my nanny and grandmother figure, raised me as a God-fearing Catholic. My parents have Spanish names and in naming my sister and me, followed the Spanish-derived convention of keeping my mother’s maiden name as our middle names. But I could hardly call myself Filipino – and still can’t – either from an experiential perspective or a phenotypic one.
Nevertheless, I hoped halfheartedly that I’d find my cultural roots at UCLA, where my physical appearance lets me blend into the crowd. After all, Asian and Pacific Islander domestic students make up approximately a third of the undergraduate student population. But in my time here, I’ve little been able to relate to Samahang Pilipino or the Association of Chinese Americans – speaking neither Tagalog nor Mandarin, my experience is squarely somewhere else. I could count on one hand the number of other students I’ve met who are mixed Filipino and Chinese.
Among ethnically Chinese and Taiwanese friends and acquaintances I met during my first year, I found myself repeating over and over that my family didn’t celebrate Lunar New Year. My ethnicity, at introductory conversations at club meetings and parties, always came with an explanation. Over the past four years I’ve realized more than ever that I do not fit neatly carved out identities exemplified by cultural organizations such as Samahang Pilipino and the Association of Chinese Americans.
I’ve come to learn that my ethnic identity defies traditional confines, as much as it travels within them. My academic knowledge of Chinese culture substitutes nicely in conversations with Chinese- and Taiwanese-American friends. Among Southeast Asians, both domestic and international, I recognize my father’s “lah” when he speaks on the phone to his family members. I talk to Singaporean and Malaysian students and surprise them with my love of SkyFlakes and Milo. Visiting the Philippines again the summer after my first year at UCLA, I stuck out like a sore thumb, even among my mother’s family. That being said, I definitely am reminded, at times painfully, I still play the role of perpetual foreigner, like many Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, from the way people ask twice over, “Where are you from?” to the times I was called racial slurs in high school. More than anything, I’ve realized I will always somewhat play the role of chameleon and that perhaps, for someone like me, there is no real niche to fit into. I am a product of the Southeast Asian Chinese diaspora, further displaced onto American soil. The pieces of my culture have been lost, transformed or merely molded into something entirely new. This is the quilt flag I stitch together, to wave in the air at people, whether abroad or here, to declare yes, this is my identity, a patchwork of information and experiences answering those usual questions: Where are you from? What are you? What do you identify as?
Sometimes I feel angry, frustrated at the lack of firm culture I can proudly call my own, wondering if in a few generations’ time my family’s culture, either Filipino or Chinese, will be long forgotten. If I have children, I hope to remind them that this complex origin story can be empowering, even if it’s rather convoluted. I relish my mouthful of words and explanations that do not fit neatly like other hyphenated Americans. I know as long as I hold on to the cultures I fall in between and remember these stories and moments, both historical and personal, I will not be dissolved into the greater homogeneity of the American melting pot and that I will not be, simply put, whitewashed.