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My high school had a hallway colloquially known as the FOB hallway. FOB stands for “fresh off the boat,” a slur used to describe immigrants. It was where most of the students new to Canada congregated to commiserate about life. I had Filipino friends who regularly stayed there during breaks or spares, laughing up a storm.
Across from that hallway, past the library and a small, enclosed courtyard was a different hallway. This one didn’t have a name, but this was typically where the Filipinos who grew up in Canada could be found.
I often wondered, where did I — as someone who immigrated to Winnipeg from the Philippines as a middle school kid — belong?
What does it mean to be Filipino?
As an 11-year-old who’d lived his entire life in the Philippines, the answer was simple: they were people like me.
They were the same kayumanggi-skinned people crammed in the jeepney with me. They were the people who valued family and God above all else. They were the people who worked hard, and partied much, much, much harder — seriously, have you ever been to a Filipino party?
I never questioned my Filipino-ness, it was simply a matter of fact.
I grew up in a middle-to-upper-middle-class family in Manila — because of the vast socioeconomic gap in the Philippines, I really couldn’t tell. All I know is that we had enough to live comfortably and afford a yaya (household help).
My brother and I studied in a private school called La Salle Green Hills, a prestigious, all-boys, Catholic school. Aside from Filipino class, my teachers primarily taught in English.
In the Philippines, being able to speak English — especially speaking it well — meant that you were well educated. For many families, mine included, English proficiency was seen as something of a golden ticket to a better life.
Like a lot of immigrant stories, my parents’ decision to immigrate was for my brother and me to have better choices in life. Not that we had a terrible life in the Philippines, we lived comfortably enough, but parents want the best for their kids.
So in 2003, we sold most of our things and, with all our remaining possessions packed in balikbayan boxes, set off to the distant land of Canada to chase that immigrant dream of a better life.
Looking back now, as a first-generation immigrant, I can’t help but wonder what my life would have been like if we had stayed in the Philippines. Would it have been easier? Would I have felt less lost than I did navigating an entirely new culture? Would I have been happier?
I remember reading somewhere that Canada, in contrast to its neighbour to the south, is a “cultural mosaic,” a tapestry of cultures interwoven to form the Canadian identity. My mom assured me on the plane ride over, that we’d still be Filipino after this move, that I could freely go back and forth between Canada and the Philippines.
I ignored her. With a pocket full of AA batteries and my kiwi-green Game Boy Color, I could tune anything out, even the loud droning of the plane’s engines.
The waltz is the most basic movement and is the basis of many folk dances from the Philippines. Collectively dances with this movement are found in what is called the Rural Suite. The movement is a steady sway back and forth, from left to right on the balls of your feet.
Being the new kid in school is never fun — even less so if you moved from a different country altogether. When I came in on the first day and saw everybody else catching up with their classmates, I couldn’t help but think about my friends back home.
As I scanned the room, all I saw was a sea of white kids with the odd Filipino kids dotted here and there. They were all speaking English. And, as I stood there, I wondered: Are these guys even Filipino if they can’t speak Tagalog?
And then came the stares, the muffled whispers of “who the hell is this guy?” — okay, they probably didn’t say it like that, but there was a metaphorical spotlight over me, and I just wanted to melt into the ground.
Introductions came, and I told the class I just moved here from the Philippines over the summer. The room exploded.
“Your English is really good,” someone chimed.
Another shouted a Filipino profanity in an anglophone accent. He, like many of my classmates, was white.
I thought I had run through all the possible scenarios in my head, but for some reason I hadn’t anticipated this. I knew all eyes were going to be on me, but I never considered how othering the first day was going to be.
To a sixth grader just wanting to make friends and fit in, I begrudgingly shrugged it off. But thinking about it now, I regret not speaking up. It turned out that microaggressions like these would happen frequently.
I think any first-generation Filipino immigrant kid will relate to these scenarios: someone makes you feel bad for bringing your chicken adobo for lunch, and because of that, you ask your mom to pack you a sandwich from now on instead; your classmates only go to you to ask you how to say profanities in Tagalog; a TA takes you out of class for an impromptu “remedial” English class even though you’ve spoken to them in plain English before.
I felt as if I was on display at a museum, and my Filipino-ness was diluted down to the most surface level traits. These moments in the classroom made me acutely aware of my brown skin. I was a brown, Filipino parrot, talking only when people wanted to know how to say “fuck” in Tagalog. They tried to force me to fit a mould made from their expectations of what a Filipino should be.
Was this what being Filipino meant to the western world? Is this what we left everything behind for?
Kevin Nadal, a Filipino-American psychologist, wrote a paper in which he talks about the Fil-Am Identity and how the Filipino diaspora living in the Americas go through stages in carving out their own Filipino identity.
I didn’t know at the time, but my early experiences in school were the beginning of the stage he called “Assimilation to the Dominant Culture.” In his paper, he noted how some Filipinos can stay in this stage their entire adult life. I can see why.
Nadal categorizes this stage when “lifestyles, value systems, and cultural/physical characteristics most like white society are highly valued.” At this time, the Filipino starts to resent their culture, sometimes even outright rejecting it.
This is when the Filipino would go to their parents to ask them why they packed adobo and rice for lunch instead of a “normal” lunch like a plain peanut butter and jam sandwich. I’ve had plenty of these sandwiches throughout the years, and now I can’t stand the smell of PB&J.
Another Fil-Am psychologist, E. J. R. David, authored Brown Skin, White Minds, which explores how colonialism has played a part in how modern-day Filipinos see themselves and their place in the world.
Colonialism gripped the island nation for about 400 years before the Philippines gained its independence from Spain in 1898. It left the Philippines and the people who reside in it with a skewed view of their own identity. We lost much of our culture and started to take on the mentality of our colonizers.
An inferiority complex, David writes, was created as a result of colonization. For example, the degrees in which Filipinos were discriminated against was based on their skin colour. Spaniards gave the lighter-skinned Filipinos more opportunities to rise up the social ladder the Spaniards themselves introduced. Classism formed, and Filipinos strove for a white, colonial mentality ever since.
Growing up, I remember a sense of prestige that came with western culture. Family members like my titos and titas would say I was smart for speaking in English. And it was always an event to receive a balikbayan box from overseas filled with treats — not the “cheap shit” from the sari-sari store (think local bodegas, but compact), no, no, no, but rather the imported stuff: candy bars like Twix, Mars Bars, or 3 Musketeers, even the large bags of generic cereal from Walmart looked more enticing than local cereal brands.
This colonial mentality makes it very easy for Filipinos to question themselves and look elsewhere to fill in the gaps in our identities. Fereshteh Ahmadi-Lewin, a social science researcher, says the younger the immigrant, the higher the chance of taking on the new community’s norms and rules. And as an 11-year-old boy with 400+ years of colonialism behind me, I found myself assimilating with western culture — stale peanut butter sandwiches and all.
Tinikling is probably the most well-known Filipino folk dance. The dancer performs between two long bamboo poles, which are clapped together rhythmically. Using finesse and some fancy footwork, the goal is to have your feet up and away before the bamboo poles close. The dance is meant to imitate the tikling bird as it gracefully evades a farmer’s bamboo traps.
By the time I attended high school, I’d already been in Canada for three years. The circumstances I found myself in when I started middle school here were vastly different from the circumstances of my friends in the FOB hallway when they started high school. Some were forced to repeat a grade they’d already completed in the Philippines, as the Winnipeg School Division didn’t recognize their prior education. Even though some of them were already attending post-secondary schools back in the Philippines, classmates and teachers would often not take them seriously because of their stereotypical accent.
I have an accent, but not the accent.
“La Salliano ka kasi (it’s because you attended La Salle),” my friends from the FOB hallway would chide, followed by “nosebleed” comments. Colloquially, nosebleeds “occur” when Filipinos hear English that’s too fancy for them.
From the way I talked and acted, I shared more mannerisms with the Filipino-Canadians. We’d shoot the shit pretty easily. We talked about life, the homework we had to do, or the latest video game to come out.
Sometimes our talks would veer toward family. They’d accompany their stories with stereotypical accents you’d find in the FOB hallway. I’d laugh along, but I knew when they talked about their immigrant parents, they were talking about me and my family as well, even if they didn’t realize it. As second-generation immigrants, they grew up naïve of what life was like for their parents back in the Philippines.
Professor M.L. Hansen, a scholar who studied multicultural identities in immigrants, said it succinctly: “While the first-generation immigrant struggles to adjust, the second generation fights to forget.”
There’s always going to be a societal gap of understanding between generations — our parents made the decisions they did based on their experience with the decisions their parents made, and so on. This compounds when we talk about an intercontinental move and a shift in culture.
I acted as an intermediary and helped bridge that gap between the Fil-Cans and their parents by telling them my story. In turn, it helped me empathize with the Filipino immigrant story.
Immigrating wasn’t a fun willy-nilly decision my parents made. It was a calculated risk and a sacrifice for the sake of a better life. My dad didn’t quit his architecture job with Petron, a big oil company in the Philippines, because it’s much better to work a factory job at Josten’s in Manitoba — no, he, like many others, decided the sacrifice would be worth it because of the doors it would open for my brother and me.
The two Filipino groups in my high school formed a community around each other, and though I was welcome to join either of them, I felt more like a guest in both; I was too westernized for one group, but I was too much of an immigrant for the other.
I associated more with the generic Asian label than Filipino. According to Nadal, this is the “Panethnic Asian American Consciousness,” a stage where it’s much easier for a Filipino to associate with a broader identity to feel a sense of belonging.
When the pandemic forced everyone to stay indoors, it also forced me to take an introspective look at myself. Ten years have passed since I graduated high school. A lot could happen in a decade, but as I reflected on my life, I realized nothing significant really happened for me. I was still the same person working a dead-end job, taking university courses working towards this vague, abstract idea of graduating one day. It was like time stood still, and it bothered me a lot.
I signed up for Red River College Polytechnic’s Creative Communications program in late 2020, hoping to pivot out of the rut I found myself in.
When I started the program, I was apathetic. Of course, my classmates were primarily white. I am, after all, in Canada. Obviously, most of the instructors were going to be white too.
During the second semester of my first year, I wrote a screenplay set in the Philippines as part of an assignment. It was a love letter of sorts to the country filled with a lot of “what-ifs” in my life. I didn’t think much as I wrote it, I just felt tired of the predominantly white, western culture I’ve experienced since my family immigrated. If I can’t find a story I can relate to, I’ll just make it myself, I thought. It felt great, amazing even, to write a Filipino story.
And something clicked.
Nadal calls this moment the “Ethnocentric Realization.” It’s a turning point for the individual to shout that they don’t want to be neglected or marginalized any longer, they want to be recognized as a Filipino.
I’m sure it got a bit annoying to my peers. Like, oh boy, here comes Paolo again talking about being Filipino, but I didn’t care. The parrot from all the way back in sixth grade is going to squawk however he wants to squawk.
For the first time in years, I acknowledged that yes, I am Filipino.
Lumagen is a thanksgiving dance to celebrate the birth of a child, weddings, or people who are able to make peace with each other. The dance hails from the Cordillera Region of the Philippines, and traditionally, the men wear only a bahag (loincloth).
I rode the high of my Filipino screenplay all the way until summer break. But being alone with my thoughts in the summer made me realize there was still a pang of regret. I’d buried my identity for so long. I owed it to myself to reconcile with my culture.
On a hot summer day in August, I was browsing Instagram and saw that some of my friends had gone to Folklorama, a big cultural event here in Winnipeg. Their posts led me down a rabbit hole; one picture led to this profile, which led me to that post, and so on, until I found something I didn’t know I was looking for.
I had seen Magdaragat, a Filipino performing arts group, perform in Folklorama with my partner during my “Panethnic Asian American Consciousness” phase, and I remember I left thinking, yeah, that was pretty cool, but thought nothing much about them after.
Magdaragat means “voyager of the seas” and the name was chosen to reflect “the geographic character of the Philippines as a country of more than 7000 islands, its rich and varied cultural fabric, and the nature of the Filipinos who immigrated to Canada.”
I stared at their Instagram page for a while.
As with everything else during the pandemic, Magdaragat, took a three-year break from performing. But they had just announced that they were opening for new members. Call it an act of God, or serendipity, call it whatever, but I took it as a sign.
Eh, why the hell not, I thought and sent them a message. A week later, I found myself standing in front of the Filipino Senior Citizens Hall, Magdaragat’s practice venue.
“Bahala na,” my chest was pounding as I pulled open the door. Whatever happens, happens, I repeated to myself. Despite there being a sense of excitement in the air, as soon as I stepped further into the hall, I turned into a deer in front of headlights.
“You look a bit lost,” Ate Goldie, as I came to know her, said. She saw my confused look and went to get me oriented. Soon after, my first practice with Magdaragat started.
For the first few months, practices usually started with some sort of icebreaker, typically learning a basic Tagalog phrase or word.
“Ako si Paolo (I’m Paolo),” I repeated the phrase as we sat huddled in a circle, “at eto si Juan, kaibigan ko (and this is Juan, my friend).”
A lot of Magdaragat’s members are second or third generation immigrants, and many of them have lost the ability to speak Tagalog. Despite this, out of all the Filipinos I’ve ever met in my life, they might have the biggest claim to say, “I am a proud Filipino.”
The Journal of Creativity in Mental Health published a report stating that learning your culture’s traditional dances lead to benefits such as self-acceptance, an appreciation of one’s culture, and a development of a social support system, among other things.
I can confidently say I’ve experienced those, and more since joining Magdaragat.
“Incorporation” is the final stage in redefining my Filipino identity. Nadal says this stage is “the development of a positive and comfortable identity.” And I think I’m on my way to reaching this point.
So what does it mean to be Filipino?
The answer, as I’m finding out, isn’t so simple. There is no be-all end-all checklist to be Filipino; the colour of your skin doesn’t matter, you can be mestiza or kayumanggi, and it doesn’t really matter if you can’t speak Tagalog.
The thing about defining your cultural identity, is that you yourself get to decide. Other people may judge you for your Filipino-ness, but at the end of the day, there’s no one gatekeeping you from your identity but yourself.
Our identity as Filipinos is borne from our cultural history, and most importantly, our personal experiences, which makes our cultural identities uniquely our own. So what right do I have to say you’re not “Filipino enough”?
As I trip over bamboo poles learning Tinikling, I’m slowly reclaiming a piece of my cultural identity. Being Filipino isn’t a contest, but a state of being. Even though I’ve lived in Canada for 20 years, the dances help keep the Philippines in my heart.