overseas Filipinos

[OPINION] 5 lessons I learned as a Filipino living in America

Dulce Marie Saret
[OPINION] 5 lessons I learned as a Filipino living in America
'Coming from a collectivist culture where decisions are guided by family, I now have to accept that I am alone'

In class, I was asked what American values I have had to adopt in order to assimilate into this country. 

The question inspired this listicle of realizations and adjustments I have had to make, whether consciously or unconsciously, in the last couple of months that I had been living in this country. 

1. It’s just me, myself, and I.

This is probably the toughest adjustment I have had to make. Coming from a collectivist culture where decisions are guided by family, I now have to accept that I am alone, that there is no family to accompany me anywhere, to back me up, or to go home to at the end of the day. I have to make my own decisions and be held accountable for them. There is no physical support system that will help me navigate my way around this new – and almost stark opposite – world that I decided to be a part of. 

I can choose to wallow in sadness and “eat bitterness,” which, in my culture, is considered a sign of strength – something I never understood – or I can choose to toughen up and look at this as an adventure that will take me to new places and gain for me experiences that will make me a more well-rounded and, ultimately, better person. 

I have chosen the latter.

2. I am no longer on Filipino time.

I am in a totally different time zone, literally and figuratively. I never liked “Filipino time,” because to me, punctuality is more than just a matter of efficiency. It is about respect. But because it is acceptable behavior in my country, I oftentimes found myself being on “Filipino time,” i.e. late, simply because I do not want to wait.

If there is one value that I like about this country, it is efficiency. When it comes to meetings and appointments, it means being punctual, sticking to the agenda, and making sure meetings are adjourned quickly. When they say the meeting is for an hour, I know that I can schedule another appointment after an hour.

3. Speaking up is not a sign of disrespect.

It gives a sense of freedom to be able to speak one’s mind and not be met with rolled eyes. In my culture, talking back is regarded as a sign of disrespect, and those who speak up are branded “too liberal” or “too Westernized.” As the youngest in my family, I was expected to show respect by not talking back or expressing an opinion. It was only later in my life when I found my voice, which my family has learned to respect and value. 

It is one of the few things I like about being here, i.e. that I, or anyone, can speak up and that people can engage in healthy debates regardless of age, class, or color (I must admit, though, that this may not necessarily be the case in other parts of this country. I am lucky I am in a class where speaking up is encouraged).

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4. Things can get lost in translation.

I pride myself for having aced the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), a requirement for international students, with a near-perfect score. But I realize that even with a good command of the English language, things can still get lost in translation. 

I think in my native language. Whenever I speak, I have to quickly translate my thoughts. This can lead to a literal translation, which can alter the message and meaning significantly. 

On the other hand, I sometimes find myself trying to decipher the meanings behind people’s words. For instance, when my White friend would say, “I am proud of you,” I would wonder why. I have not done anything remarkable. Why would he be proud of me?

I now realize that it is a natural retort even for simple accomplishments like making it through this emotionally-charged class. By the same token, I also realize that when people greet me with, “How are you?” they aren’t necessarily interested in my response. In the Philippines, we greet people with “Hey, where are you going?” which to some people would mean an invasion of privacy. The person asking the question is not really interested in the answer. It is simply a gesture of congeniality.

I am still navigating the nuances of this language. But while I don’t look at it as a big issue, I now realize that this is one issue that bilingual therapists – those whose first language is not English – should be sensitive about and mindful of. Breaking the language barrier is not just about understanding what bilingual clients actually mean. We also have to check ourselves and learn how to master the nuances of the English language against our own language to ensure that what we say is what is conveyed and understood by the client.

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5. It is okay.

I am finding that many things that I have not been used to doing, or that have been ingrained in me as unacceptable or “not normal,” are actually okay. For instance, it is okay to say yes to an offer of assistance from someone outside of my family or my race. It is also okay – not impolite – to say no when something is not according to my liking or belief or principle. 

My greatest takeaway, though, is this: it is okay to say, “I am not okay.”

Going into this class during the first couple of weeks was tough. I tried my best to stick to general ideas and to issues that veered away from my personal stories during class discussions and even in my journal writing. I now realize that it was driven by my cultural perspective on emotionality, which prevented me from opening up to people – airing dirty linen in public, my family would say – because it was considered a sign of weakness.

But as I got to learn more about myself and my classmates, I realized that each of us has our own struggles, wars that we are constantly waging within ourselves. Amidst all that, it is okay to admit that we are not OK. That is why we have friends. That is why we have counselors and therapists. 

It is all about being healthy, not just physically, but also emotionally and mentally. It is about finding that balance and stillness that will make us find worth and joy in living. – Rappler.com

Dulce Marie Saret is a former international civil servant who left her job as a marketing executive for a leading conglomerate in the Philippines in search of deeper meaning in life. She found herself making a career shift in her 40s to become a mental health counselor and family therapist, and is currently enrolled at the University of San Francisco in Sacramento, California, taking MA in Counseling Psychology with a concentration in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT).

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