Defining identity in the US: A young friend’s life

Patricio N. Abinales

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Defining identity in the US: A young friend’s life
Beneath the instabilities is a quiet attempt to put together a cultural identity poster that enables her to label herself 'American-Filipino'

How are the tensions between immigrant Filipino parents and their children who were either born in the United States or moved at an early age to this nation?

There is no single view on this; some of these kids do become American effortlessly, adjusting well to a multi-ethnic, migrant society, and comfortable in the belief that as a member of a minority they would – like the minorities that preceded them – do well in the land of their birth (or growth).

Others also developed this political psychosis: recognizing their American-ness, but deciding that Filipinos in America have suffered the same fate as African-Americans and Chinese-Americans.

The difference from the others is that Fil-Ams argue that their discrimination is, in part, the result of the 40 years of American colonial-imperial rule over their elders’ homeland. “Empire” is a strongly operative term when Filipinos in America talk about their relative rejection by the Anglo-Saxon world.

An interesting sub-stream coming out of this second perspective however pits children and elders in much clearer terms. It fuses both the inter-generational tensions over the interpretation of home, and the desire of the younger ones to become more Filipino by understanding the fraught history of the home country vis-à-vis their own.

Young Fil-Ams have become more open of late in exploring this second point. And among the sites that I think best approximates their difficulties of satisfying their curiosity and navigating the resulting tensions between their elders is a Jeannice Aguilar’s blog which she impishly but profoundly tagged: Anakbegood: A Journey of Self-Reflection

Jeannice Aguilar grew up in LA but now and lives in Hawaii, having completed an MA in Social Work and now employed by the city. Anakbegood is a pun and a nice acknowledgment of her parents’ incessant reminder that she behave once she leaves the house.

In a couple of entries Jeannice writes about what it is like for a Fil-Am kid when she navigates the contradictory path as a Filipina-American, growing up in a “melting pot” like Los Angeles and having migrant parents who tried to, and continues to, shape the way she grows up.

In her October 9 blog, she writes:  “My parents immigrated to the United States (separately) in the early to mid 1970’s…I grew up ‘Filipino’ in all sense of the word. I was aware of customs and behavioral expectations but my parents never made it a point to teach me how to speak Tagalog or Ilocano for that matter although I can understand both dialects.”

Here we are privy to many contradictions that an earlier essay had observed but never confirmed until Jeannice’s candid recollections (READ: Parents and Fil-Am kids: Contending balikbayans)

What happens next? Jeannice continues: “It wasn’t until high school when I became aware of the “Filipino AND American” struggle that is specific to 2nd generationers (sic). I was too American or too Filipino. I often times heard ‘you know, back home…’ or ‘in the Philippines…’ as the intro to explanations as to why I should or shouldn’t be doing things the way I was doing them. Naturally I’d come back with “but we’re in America mommy…” which always fell on deaf ears.”

The second contradiction and its accompanying confusion quickly follow: Fil-Am kids must behave like the way their parents behaved “back home,” but Jeannice and many others of her age had no idea of what this “home” was and “how one should act back home” because her parents never told them about “home”!

She inquires, and the response? “Ah basta! In other cases, and this I learned from other Fil-Ams, parents who got tired of their children’s complaints about being forced to behave as Filipinos respond by bringing out the belt and whacking the child. In certain cases, children’s counter-riposte is to become “self-destructive.”

Jeannice describes her youth as “tumultuous.” Beneath the instabilities however was also the quiet attempt to “put together a cultural identity poster” that enabled her to label herself “American-Filipino.”

Note the radical break here: others call themselves “Filipino-Americans,” as if to suggest that they are Filipino first before becoming American. Jeannice does not fall for this fallacy: she recognizes that she is first American (in all its multi-ethnic complexities) before discovering that she too is “Filipino.”

Her home is clearly the United States, but she also has come to understand that, like many children of immigrants, she has these connections with her parents’ home. The next step then is to figure out what that home is about which, she hopes, would better understand her American condition.

She spells this out quite explicitly: “What I have learned thus far is that my Filipino identity is specific to me and my experiences and only I can place value on it. It is a component of what makes me who I am today and it will shape who I will become in the future.” –

(To be continued) 

Patricio N. Abinales is an overseas Filipino worker


Philippine and American flag images from Shutterstock

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