Filipino culture

[OPINION] Where is my sweet Philippines?

Annika Santos
[OPINION] Where is my sweet Philippines?
'I want my neverland, however precious it was in secrecy, to be known. I no longer want it to be just mine.'

I’ve been there. To neverland. It’s a secret only my family knows. A place only I can go to. When I arrive, placing my two feet on its soil, I am no longer Annika. I become Bea: an ate, a niece, an apo, an inaanak, a cousin. The people here welcome me, not as a visitor, but as a native. And no matter how long I’ve been gone, or from where I’ve come, my seat is saved.

Here, the people are constantly smiling. They speak to each other excitedly, with bright eyes. Everyone talks to each other, everyone knows each other, and it’s standard to hug, to kiss, to touch a hand to a shoulder, and ask, “Kumusta ka?” (How are you?) The weather is as warm as the people, and the language is so special: expressive and loud, yet capable of softening up, and embracing its listeners.

For months, I live here, spending my days with my family. I eat with my grandparents every morning, run down the street to play cards with my Ate Ianna and Kuya Gabby, dance with my titas, joke with my titos, hold my baby cousins, and it’s as if I know nothing else.

Then, oh, my time is up. I am being pulled back to reality. It’s time to return to America. We take the plane, and as I close my eyes, I cry, wondering when I’ll be called back to neverland again.

FAREWELL. Time to say goodbye. Photo from Eric Santos

I grew up going back and forth between the US and the Philippines. I would go for Christmases, for long summers, and eventually, for fencing tournaments. And each visit was full of so much love, warmth, laughter. It truly was like magic to me.

As a child, I was so proud of my family and my culture. Many people I had met hadn’t even heard of the Philippines. But that just made it even more precious. Only Filipinos, I thought, had access to our beautiful country. Only we knew this feeling. And I found myself constantly speaking these words: “You don’t know about the Philippines? Let me tell you all about it. Let me tell you about my family.”

But over time, it got harder and harder to feel like the only representative in the US. It got difficult not having the Philippines’ warmth in the US, or at least having one person who shared my feelings. I’ve secretly hoped and believed that I would find someone who had been through my experiences. But to this day, I feel alone.

Where is my sweet Philippines? I don’t see it in the streets of New York’s diversity, not in any news headlines, and not enough in the hearts of Filipinos in the US.

FILIPINO CHRISTMAS. The young ones in line for ‘pagmamano’ and to get ‘aginaldo.’ Photo from Eric Santos

“Omg. You’re Filipino too? Same. But lol we’re like bananas, right? Yellow on the outside but white on the inside.”

“Ew. Tagalog is not a pretty language. You think this sounds good? Honestly, I’d rather speak Spanish.”

“No, I’ve never been to the Philippines…. I don’t really know my extended family. Haha, too many cousins, you know what I mean? But yes, #filipinopride. Don’t you love pancit?”

Many of the Filipino Americans I have met are so distant from Filipino culture. Some sought the white American version of “popularity,” embarrassed to call themselves Filipino. Some were attracted to the American ideals of individuality, of freedom, and left their close-knit families, which perhaps felt too restrictive. And some claimed their Filipino culture with pride. But their pride came from this general sense of being “Asian,” not particularly Filipino; they would represent the Filipino as someone who has strict parents, watches anime and K-drama, eats rice, and maybe eats a couple of popularized Filipino dishes.

Although disappointed, I cannot blame them for how they feel, or for their ignorance. How were they supposed to see it? What was there to show them how beautiful the Philippines is? Who was there to point out what was so distinct about our culture, about our language? Other than the Philippines’ good food, our culture has not made its way to the US – not in well-known entertainment, not in idols, and not in the quiet pride within our communities.

So let me share my secret. Before our culture continues to get lost. Before we miss out on the current boom of Asian culture in the US. I will try my best, on behalf of my family and my limited experiences, to tell you all what being Filipino means to me.

Filipinos are people rooted in the many ties of family. We do not identify solely as an individual. We are and will always be someone’s sister, daughter, granddaughter, aunt, apo, inaanak. I understand why that culture would feel so uncomfortable with the American culture’s stress on individuality and freedom. But those same family ties you consider chains can also be the warmest and tightest embrace in bad times. We are lucky to have it.

Filipinos, unlike the already popularized Asian cultures – Japanese, Korean, and Chinese – are not a reserved people. We are a warm and open people. The Filipinos I have met are so interested in each other’s lives. We are nosy, talkative, loud, and expressive. We are constantly sharing food, telling stories, and laughing. We neither hide our smiles nor shy away from hugs.

Filipinos are obsessed with everything romantic, and we feel our music, we don’t just listen. Filipinos can sing so sweetly, and many have this natural ability to dance. The way I see it, Filipinos are the culmination of every outward enjoyment of life.

And finally, Filipinos speak Tagalog. A language that has been forgotten, constantly changed through colonization and slang, but beautiful all the same. It is distinct, it is poetic, and it is pleasing in song. The voices of Ben&Ben, Apo Hiking Society, Eraserheads, Basil Valdez, Ric Segreto, Lea Salonga, and Zack Tabudlo have all been a link to the Philippines in my lonely nights in the US.

While there is beauty in the cultures that have already been popularized, we need to remember that our current unpopular culture is still a blessing. We have the choice, as Filipinos and Filipino Americans, to seek what is not obviously beautiful, and learn to love it. Learn to be proud of it, even when we feel no one else is. Let us ride the new Asian craze in the US together, and re-explore our culture, so that when the opportunity arises, we can better articulate why the Philippines is so special.

I want my neverland, however precious it was in secrecy, to be known. I no longer want it to be just mine. In giving up my secret, I hope to spark interest and love for the Philippines. So that the next time I talk about it, it won’t feel like such a far-fetched fantasy. I won’t feel so alone. –

Annika Santos was born and raised in the United States. She is presently a pre-law student and athlete at New York University, studying Economics and International Relations. She fences competitively both as a representative of the Philippines and for the NYU Division I fencing team.

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