In 2003, I took up seasonal employment with a Best Buy around the corner from where I was living in Virginia Beach. This was my first retail job, and also my first holiday season in such a setting. Picture with me, if you will, Best Buy the week before Christmas. Excellently packed with stressed out last-minute shoppers. One particular day I was ringing along, zipping through transactions as expediently as I could, stamping them with high fives and calling the next customer up. Among the hustle and bustle and chatter about the sales floor and front lines, a very specific speech pattern shot through the air and into my cochlea. I turn around and my friend Natalie, a sweet, young, blonde, white girl was on the receiving end of a customer’s attack. I calmly step across the lane to her register and notice that she is wide-eyed and frozen behind her counter, confused by the verbal pelting that she is receiving but not understanding. I politely ask the angered customer to leave, mentioning that cursing at someone is rude enough, but when you do it in a language she can’t understand, well that’s ridiculous. She immediately switches to English, asking me why I’m “defending this white bitch” and displaying her solid grasp of conversational English.
The ray-of-sunshine customer from the above story was yelling in Tagalog, a language used primarily by Filipinos (not “Philipino”, as it is commonly mistaken). My parents are Filipino, and I am a first-generation American. When asked what I am, I respond, “American,” and that’s usually followed up with, “Well, where are you from?” to which I respond, “California.” Many are frustrated by my answers. Sometimes I feel that questions regarding your ethnic background can be translated as, “What set of preconceived notions should I use on you?” or “I need to categorize/compartmentalize/marginalize you for my own safety.”
I don’t identify myself as Filipino/Asian/Pacific Islander very often. I was not taught to speak, read, nor write Tagalog as a child, but my parents spoke it to each other, so being around it enough, I could understand what’s for dinner and when I’m in trouble (hence, understanding the vulgarity my friend Natalie was being subject to). I might have been raised in the SF/Oakland Bay Area, but I call Virginia Beach home. Tony Stewart is my favorite NASCAR driver. Sugarland is my favorite band. “Boomer Sooner!” is my favorite song come college football season. I used to have a truck, and I want another one (but owning/maintaining a truck in California right now is unnecessary, way too expensive, and takes up way more room than I need). Yes, I was in the Navy, but not as a nurse. I have not worked, nor do I intend to work, for the postal service.
There have been several occasions when I have been approached, seemingly reluctantly, by someone (who is usually Filipino) who asks in a wanna-buy-a-watch tone of voice, “You Filipino?” or “Filipino?” When answering yes, their demeanor is suddenly relaxed, welcoming, and jovial, as if being Filipino was the secret password to a life of overwhelming joy and success. Most times, the individual would ask me for a cigarette, the time, or something else negligible. Why was it so important that I be Filipino then?
More occasions than not, those that ask me if I’m Filipino are Filipino themselves. This says a couple things to me: 1) “Takes one to know one” doesn’t apply to “my people.” 2) People that don’t ask don’t care. Maybe that’s why I don’t identify myself as such, because I don’t care, or rather, it isn’t that important to me. Some may say that it’s important to know where I came from so I can know where to go. However, I don’t have a “hole in my soul” from not filling it with Filipinoisms—I feel like I’ve embraced the opportunity of a first-generation American and filled it with many Americanisms I’ve encountered around the country, and I like it.