Listen to the Story:
Whenever I got into trouble as a kid, my parents would send me to a corner and leave me standing there awaiting my punishment.
They’d begin scolding me in Tagalog, the standardized national language of the Philippines. Even though Tagalog was the language my parents switched to when their emotions ran high, I didn’t speak or fully understand it. I could pick up a random word here or there and would try to piece the meaning together based on context clues.
Most of the time, these lectures left me silently staring at my parents or the ground, clueless about what they were saying.
“Naiintindihan mo ba ako? Do you understand me?” my mom asked after one rant. I slowly lifted my head to meet her eyes and shrugged. Her furrowed brow softened when she realized I didn’t understand. I could see her disappointment and frustration then. I felt a deeper wave of guilt flow through me.
My Filipino parents, Jose and Cherryl Buebos, moved from the Philippines to Singapore in 1995 in search of job opportunities in the construction sector. I was born in Singapore in June 2000 and lived the first 16 years of my life there. I felt like I was living in two worlds. I had to live up to the expectations of the perfect Filipino girl at home, and try to fit in with my Singaporean peers everywhere else. I had one foot in each world.
After my family and I immigrated to Canada, I somehow grew another foot and now lived between three worlds.
I was a foreigner in my “home” country, the Philippines. A foreigner in my “host” country, Singapore. I continue to be a foreigner in Canada, where I immigrated in 2017.
For as long as I can remember, I have been torn between who I am and who I want to be.
Turns out I am not the only person who feels like this. Heather Robertson, Director of Mental Health Services at Aurora Family Therapy Centre, talked about seeing this in her work.
“Cultural identity confusion is common among people who have immigrated to Canada from other countries and what we refer to as ‘having a foot in both worlds’, and we see it all across the lifespan,” she said.
Robertson has years of experience providing programs and services that support children, youth, and families from refugee and immigrant backgrounds.
Robertson says there are many challenges for people who are finding the balance between the values, beliefs, and expectations of immigrant parents rooted in one culture. It’s an additional challenge when trying to navigate being a youth and navigating life in another culture.
Yoosun Choi, a professor at the University of Chicago, also studies how immigration affect family dynamics. Choi published a study that defines intergenerational cultural dissonance as “a clash between parents and children over cultural values” and found it is so common “among immigrant families that it’s regarded as a normative experience.”
Robertson says internal challenges are inherent results of moving to a new country and starting over.
“It’s important to acknowledge that immigrant families come here with a lot of resilience and strength. Moving is a huge family event. Newcomer families come over here with many strengths, skills, values, and beliefs, and it’s a benefit to everybody as we learn from each other,” said Robertson.
For 16 years, I was often surrounded by Chinese, Malay, and Indian classmates — Singapore’s three main ethnicities. There were less than a handful of kids from other places in my class. Their parents were in search of better career opportunities in Singapore too.
Casual racism was the norm when I lived in Singapore. It was shown in Singaporean films as comedic relief and my peers would use stereotypes to mock someone’s ethnicity.
An estimated 56 per cent of Singapore’s domestic workers come from the Philippines. This led to stereotypical taunts from peers calling Filipino classmates “Maria,” a common name of Filipino domestic workers.
“Go back to your country, Maria!” my classmates joked.
The taunt would repeat constantly in my head. I knew it was a joke for the most part, but comments like that had a lasting effect.
My classmates saw me as Filipino, but I was born in Singapore and was disconnected from my Filipino heritage. So where did I belong? I could barely understand Tagalog, let alone speak or write it.
But when I spoke Singlish, an informal colloquial form of English that combines the diverse ethnicities and languages of Singapore, I blended right in.
I attended an all-girls Catholic primary school in Singapore. Once a month, I’d walk into a hall filled with my schoolmates and join them for Mass, sitting on the floor, the scent of burning palo santo filling the air.
I was also surrounded by Roman Catholic imagery at home. A painting of Jesus breaking bread with his disciples hung on the wall and we had an altar filled with religious statues. My parents tried to have us pray once a week if their schedules allowed and signed me up for religious classes that took place every Saturday. I didn’t care much for them. It felt too similar to studying for an exam.
When I graduated from primary school, I was exposed to other religions at the co-ed secular secondary school I attended. I slowly started to pull away from Catholicism, since I no longer attended Mass in school, and my parents got busier at work. I learned more about Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
Learning about religions other than Catholicism opened a whole new world. I would witness other religious practices, like how Buddhists and Taoists would burn incense sticks and joss paper during Hungry Ghost Festival, or how my Muslim classmates would avoid the canteen during Ramadan when they were fasting.
Again I was between worlds. Once I stepped foot into my home or primary school, Catholic imagery would greet me. When I stepped out, I was exposed to other religions that were equally as beautiful.
Multi-language literacy in Singapore for two or more languages was 74.3 per cent in 2020. English was already compulsory, so my parents had to either excuse me from taking up a second language or choose from one of the three languages.
My parents chose Mandarin Chinese for me when I was applying for kindergarten. Our neighbours were Chinese and my parents thought it would be an excellent idea for my older brother, Miguel, and I to connect with them.
My parents thought Mandarin would also give us an edge in the workforce. Most of my mother’s coworkers were of Chinese descent which, to her, emphasized the importance of learning Mandarin.
I’d sit in Mandarin class, confused by the tonalities, the strokes in writing, and especially the grammar. I was often caught daydreaming since I understood virtually nothing I heard. I had to use context clues again, as I always did with my parents, to guess what teachers wanted me to say.
Every year I studied Mandarin, I became more frustrated and jealous of my peers who could speak their mother tongue fluently and learn it in a school setting. Meanwhile, I could barely speak or comprehend my own language.
At 14, I was transferred into a ‘Chinese Learning Basic’ class in secondary school because I was terrible at Mandarin. Whatever my Mandarin teacher tried to instil in my head, I couldn’t grasp it.
It was embarrassing not knowing my own mother tongue and (at the time) being stuck learning Mandarin. I found out I had the option to learn Tagalog in a school setting at 15, but I was already seven years into attempting to learn Mandarin. My parents told me to continue with Mandarin until I graduated from secondary school.
After studying the language for all those years, the only thing that has stuck is, “老师,我开恩去厕所吗? (Teacher, may I use the toilet?).” A phrase I used to stay in the washroom for extended periods to skip classes — and as a cool party trick when I moved to Canada!
Once again, I was between worlds. I had to learn a foreign language at school and attempt to learn my native language at home. My failures in Mandarin and Tagalog only pushed me harder to excel at English.
In 2013 at 13 years old, my mom asked my brother and me if we wanted to become Singaporean citizens. Since my family became permanent residents in 2002 and had been living there for more than a decade, we would have an advantage in our application process if we applied to become Singaporean citizens. In Canada, children who were born in the country had the option to become Canadian citizens immediately, with an exception for children of foreign diplomats. However, in Singapore, for children to automatically become Singaporean citizens, at least one parent had to be Singaporean.
My brother, being his usual out-spoken self, immediately declined. He explained he didn’t want to stay in National Service, a two-year period of compulsory service in the armed forces, and that Singapore wasn’t a good option for culinary arts. I seconded my brother’s concerns, stating there were also limited opportunities in creative industries.
As a result, my parents decided to start the process of getting permanent residency for our family in Canada. I continued secondary school, slowly building a solid group of friends. I volunteered, led school presentations, and did leadership roles — moving to Canada was not on my mind.
In 2015, my family’s application got approved. It felt surreal — a chance at a new beginning. But the thought of leaving everything I’d ever known and restarting terrified me.
When I was 15 and still living in Singapore, some family friends invited me to join a Catholic group for youths aged 12 to 21. The group held annual weekend camps, where young adults led and guided others on their journey toward Christ. I saw it as an opportunity to try and regain my fading faith and make new friends.
After the camp, I became a part of the community. I would attend monthly meetings where we discussed Catholicism and shared updates on our lives. A huge Filipino community came along with it. In a way, it helped me feel closer to my culture. The connection between Catholicism and Filipinos is strong, with 81.4 per cent of the Filipino population identifying as Catholic in 2018.
Things were going well until I learned some people in the youth group and my church’s community began gossiping about me. I remember how hurt and disgusted I was by what was being spread, especially in a community that says gossiping is a sin.
My mother explained the importance of the relationship between God and myself. She said the community should be an afterthought. But I couldn’t separate the link between the two.
How was I supposed to pray amongst those who preached the word of God and chose to act like that?
Throughout my childhood in Singapore, we travelled back and forth to the Philippines every few months to visit extended family.
My cousin Renzo and I had a messy, complicated relationship growing up. He was a year older than me and thought I was a spoiled brat, while I thought he was the overly hyped-up golden child. We had a lot of fights that ended with me inducing crocodile tears to get my way.
In our teen years, we grew closer. We began sharing relationship problems and tried to help each other out. I attribute our closeness to his willingness to converse in English. English was the only language we could both understand. He sprinkled in some Tagalog whenever he couldn’t find the right word.
As usual, I either brushed past the word or had to use context clues to understand.
In one of our hangouts, Renzo said a complete Tagalog sentence that I vaguely understood, so I decided maybe this was when I should try my hand at Tagalog. I repeated the sentence to him, trying extra hard to sound as authentic as possible, even adding the tonations my mom used when she spoke Tagalog.
He took a moment to register what I said, and his face recoiled. It took about three seconds until he piped up, laughing while I felt the heat rise to my cheeks.
“Oh my god, you’re so conyo!” Renzo said.
I stared at him, searching for context clues for any translation of what conyo meant. It must’ve been obvious because he stopped laughing and asked if I knew what it meant.
I shook my head.
“It’s privileged Filipinos who want to fit in with common Filipinos. They mix English and Tagalog together and speak Tagalog the way a foreigner would. It’s really cringy.”
“Oh,” was all I could muster.
I reflected on how I sounded and repeated the words I said to him. I heard it. The foreign twang my cousin was talking about. I knew he didn’t mean it rudely, but as the saying goes, “there’s a grain of truth in every joke.”
What I lacked in Tagalog, I tried to make up for in characteristics of a perfect Filipino girl: soft-spoken, mild-mannered, and demure. Of course, I failed at that too. It was hard finding the ideal mixture of Singaporean and Filipino that would fit in both worlds. I knew I was different from my family in the Philippines, but I guess I didn’t realize the extent of it.
In January 2017, I moved to Canada. I lost interest in religion since I was away from the Catholic community in Singapore and had no intentions of joining another in Canada.
That spring I got interested in spirituality — It all started with collecting pretty gemstones and learning about the meanings behind each stone. Then it progressed into learning about shadow work, tarot, and working with nature.
A year later, I began learning about the Philippines before the Spanish colonization in 1521. The pre-Hispanic belief system of Filipinos consisted of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Animism, taught in different parts of the Philippines.
When the Spanish colonizers arrived, they destroyed many Filipino Indigenous religious sites and were successful in converting Filipinos to Catholicism by adapting Filipino animistic practices.
John Millar, a Filipinx who practises Filipino witchcraft and spirituality, explained the difficulties of learning about pre-colonial Filipino religion. They said traditions were rarely written and instead passed down orally.
Millar learned about Filipino spirituality from two sources. One was through their family, who practised traditional Filipino witchcraft, and the other from Winnipeg and U.S.-based spiritual communities.
Millar practises a form of Folk Catholicism that blends the traditional teachings of Filipino witchcraft and Catholicism as a form of Indigenous reclamation.
“As more Filipinos are opening themselves up to exploring pre-colonial beliefs, they deconstruct what they previously believed. It’s that constant process of doubt and question, but also being able to build from that destruction,” said Millar.
After learning about the history of the Philippines when I was 18, it was even more challenging for me to return to Catholicism. How could I believe in a religion that was forced upon so many Filipinos?
In early 2022, my brother began his Canadian citizenship application. I hesitated when my parents asked if I wanted to start the process.
What does it mean to be Canadian? I met all the requirements, but was I mentally ready? Could I really let go of the Singaporean girl in me and rescind my Filipino nationality? After six years of living in Winnipeg and all the amazing creative opportunities I gained, could I really go back to Singapore?
Those questions plagued me even before my brother began his application process. I never had a straight answer for my parents when they brought up citizenship. It was hard to articulate my feelings. Their main concern was what we would do if we needed to travel abroad and I didn’t have a passport.
But I didn’t care about that. I wanted to be a citizen of a country where I saw a future and could finally feel like I belonged. Living in Singapore for 16 years didn’t exactly make that process easier.
I asked my brother if he had any doubts or concerns about becoming Canadian. He paused, looking lost in thought. We sat in silence for what felt like an eternity, until finally, he spoke.
“It feels like I’m betraying myself, my friends, and my family. How do I justify becoming Canadian when I’m always preaching about Singapore?” he said. “But I want to call Canada my home because I’m allowed to make opportunities for myself. Unlike Singapore,” he continued.
My parents have been away from their home country, the Philippines, for 31 years.
After eight months of avoiding citizenship paperwork, I grew bitter about my parents pushing me to complete the application. I wanted to do it on my own time.
“The reality is that the Philippines is a developing country. Poor economy; you have little to no voice when you live there. People who thrive in the Philippines are the rich… which we aren’t,” my mother explained.
“Why do you think me being Canadian is so important?” I asked.
“Nina, you don’t have an affiliation with the Philippines. It’s so much easier for you to travel back to Singapore as a Canadian rather than a Filipino — that’s how powerless the Filipino passport is,” she said.
Due to my stubbornness in starting the citizenship process, I ignored a crucial factor — my missing affiliation with the Philippines. I longed for a connection to the Philippines, but it could never compete with the experiences, relationships, and memories I created in Singapore.
It was time.
Last month, I applied to become a Canadian citizen.
As someone who grew up with a multitude of cultures and languages that have nurtured me and expanded my mindset, I couldn’t be more grateful to my parents and Tita Wheng’s family.
Without Tita Wheng’s sponsorship and my parents’ initiative to move our family to Canada, I wouldn’t have as much life experience stepping outside my comfort zone.
Adapting to change and stepping outside one’s comfort zone has been a common experience for Filipinos, including myself.
Filipinos have been forced to adapt to colonization and immigration to secure a comfortable future. I’ll always have the Filipino culture in me, even though my attempts at reconnecting with the culture through religion and language may have failed.
To be Canadian is to be understanding, open, and loving toward your community — regardless of ethnicity, religion, or language.
I know I’ll always have a foot in multiple worlds, but I’m ready to plant both my feet in Canada, a settler wanting to learn and grow in my new environment, never forgetting my Filipino heritage and Singaporean culture.