I had a relatively happy childhood. I had a roof over my head, food on the table, went to public school, was liked by my peers, but most importantly I had a family that loved me. As cliche as this may seem, my big, loud, crazy family made sure that I was cared for. My parents instilled the importance of familial interactions at a very young age. Whether it was visiting cousins nearby or attending a family friend’s party, just the simple act of being with family was always important. One of my first memories of my childhood was when I was two years old and I was horseback riding on the white sandy beaches of Boracay with my mom. This homecoming trip for my mom also marked my first international trip and first plane ride. The close relationships I have with my immediate family, aunts, uncles, and cousins and the happiness that come along clouded my knowledge of my Filipino identity.
Asking yourself when you realized that you are the ethnicity that you are may seem like a strange question at first, but if you really let it ponder your mind, it is deeply profound. This question has been in my mind lately and I asked my parents separately about it. My dad was a little surprised by my question, a look of slight absurdity etched on his face. “You’ve never asked me that when you were little Sam, I’m pretty sure you already knew that you are Filipino,” my dad replied.
Not satisfied with his answer, I asked my mom the same question later that day and she wasn’t as taken aback as my dad was when posed with the question. Although she said I never explicitly asked her that question when I was little, she said my knowledge of my racial identity came from the fact that I understood and spoke Tagalog.
“But I thought that was normal! I thought everyone could speak Tagalog..” I exclaimed. Being bilingual is a little strange because whenever I heard my family speaking Tagalog, the fact that they were speaking a language other than English didn’t come together in my mind because I understood what they were saying and in my mind they were speaking English. I wasn’t until a friend came over my house asked me what my lola said when she was asking me if I had eaten, that I realized I was bilingual.
“Kumain ka ba?” my lola asked in her native language.
“Opo, lola,” I answered.
“Woah, what did your grandma say just now?” my friend intriguingly asked.
“Oh she asked me if I ate and I said yes,” I explained to my friend.
My first memory of actually realizing that I was Filipino happened during kindergarten. Being raised in the Central Valley of California, I had classmates of diverse backgrounds and was friends with many of them. I think because we all got along so well, I wasn’t paying attention to racial identity at the time. Or at least I wasn’t conscious about being Filipino. At the young age of 5, children are thinking more about what the school cafeteria has for lunch rather than what race they are (or at least I was). The moment I realized I was different than some of my classmates came when a girl asked me who my favorite Disney Princess was.
“Belle!” I quickly replied, as if the question were so easy to answer.
“But why? You don’t look like her: she’s white and you’re brown!” the girl sneered.
“We both love to read..” I responded softly, the effect of her description of me sinking in.
Before she could say anything else, our teacher called us to go back to the classroom. I never said anything to my parents, but ever since that moment I began to realize the lack of people I related to in the media and entertainment. Of all the Disney Princesses, besides Belle I could only slightly relate to Mulan and it wasn’t because she was the first Disney Princess to be of Chinese descent, I just admired her gumption and independent spirit.
Throughout my childhood, I’ve witnessed the slow progression of Asian American representation in the media. When my mom told me that Lea Salonga, the singing voice of Mulan and Jasmine and acclaimed actress of Miss Saigon and Les Misérables, was Filipina, my mind was blown! After this revelation, a sense of pride and joy would rush through my mind whenever I listened to the Mulan, Aladdin, and Les Mis soundtracks. We Filipinos are un-apologetically prideful and it shows when we see the successes of people like Manny Pacquiao, Bruno Mars, Cheryl Burke, and Enrique Iglesias break through mainstream media.
Although our representation in media still has a long way to go, our stories do have a place in society. Naysayers will proclaim that there is a lack of demand for Filipino American and Asian American stories but I completely disagree. With Filipinos being the largest Asian American group in the United States, the demand is certainly there but the opportunity to tell those stories is limited. Don’t get me wrong, I am proud that a show like Fresh Off The Boat exists, but that is only one aspect of the Asian American experience. When there is a character on a show, his or her development is usually stereotypical. We don’t all speak in an accent, have slanted eyes, know karate, and are good at math. We’re not all aspiring to be doctors or engineers, some of our passions and talents lie in music and arts. One thing we do have in common is that our families came to America for a better life for themselves and for their children. In most cases, our parents took a huge risk in giving up everything they know to go to a country that grants its citizens the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There are an infinite amount of images that portray success and happiness, so don’t put our stories in an ideological box of how you think we live.
To the girl in kindergarten that sneered at my brown skin, thank you. Because of you, I developed my wokeness at an early age. Sure, I would have come to this conclusion myself, but your abrupt behavior motivated me even more to share my story. Being brown is nothing to be ashamed of, it is something to embrace. Brown is beautiful.