Once upon a time on Instagram, there was an Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Disney Princess challenge lead by one of my favorite influencers. The influencer encouraged AAPI Disneybounder to create an outfit of the day inspired by a Disney Princess using your culture’s traditional clothing. I was happy to see that the influencer was sharing AAPI Disneybounders in kimono’s, qi pao’s, ao dai’s, and hanbok’s. Yet, I grew up not owning a terno. A terno is traditional Filipino dress worn by women that is defined by it’s butterfly sleeves. I would have made something, but the prompt was given in such short notice…and when I bound, by heavens, do I go all out. I toyed the idea of being a Disney Princess dressed in a terno for another day. I did feel bummed that I couldn’t participate because I didn’t have access to cultural clothing, but I also realized, because of my involvement in the anime community, I have several qi pao’s and kimono’s in my closet. Why was it easier to have Asian clothing not of my own culture than having a terno?
Like most second generation Filipino Americans, to a degree, we’re cut off from our culture. For some reason, I didn’t feel cut off because my family was always instilling strict behavior and gender roles inspired by Old World beliefs. I was curious about my culture, but felt I had no access to it. While my family did rent movies from the video store, it was always the same OMG! Kris Aquino Gets Raped and Murdered movie series (I wish this was a joke). What I got out of Filipino culture was that going back to Manila would mean the death of me. I refused to go. I refused to be murdered.
My family was also into video karaoke which did give us a glimpse of the Philippines and would focus on some hella light skinned pinay walking around landmarks and churches. It was even weird when I had a non-Filipino history teacher share these videos to show us landmarks of the Philippines. I tried too hard to contain my laughter. I’ve gone to the Philippines a total of 3 times. I can say I didn’t have a positive experience. My cousins would call me a “witch” like it’s a bad thing. While I did have memories of watching She-Man: Mistress of the Universe and trick or treating in the Philippines, my family didn’t like the sheer fact I was American. I then realized that this was a culture that doesn’t welcome those that were born in America.
And I’m not even 10 yet.
I also went to a Catholic grade school that was very traumatizing. I remember in 4th grade I asked our (Native American) teacher if we can learn about Philippine traditions during the holidays. It was refused. I mean, we did sing “Jingle Bells” in Tagalog in third grade, I guess, but I didn’t know the significance of “parole” or why the hell we start celebrating the holidays in September. I did attempt taking some Filipino cultural classes over the summer, but I then realized I had a hard time taking Tagalog seriously. I associated Tagalog as that language whenever I’m punished by my family, the screams and cries of Kris Aquino doing her best Victim #1 to get that FAMAS recognition, or Batman and Robin breaking out into song during the Justice League Pool Party. I dropped out because I couldn’t get myself to speak Tagalog.
I vibed more with the Miss Universe 1994 pageant in the Philippines. Through this American curated coverage hosted by Entertainment Tonight’s Bob Goen, There was a tour of the Philippines where the beauty queens would talk about the local culture. I felt I got a lot more out of this when I wanted to learn about my heritage’s country. I ditched the cultural lessons taught by Filipino’s at our local church, but instead went for a slick presentation on lovely, scenic destinations in the Philippines. Everyone who entered looked amazing and I just wanted to see more of that glamour associated with the Philippines. I taped the show and would always watch it because I felt it was the one safe thing thing attached to my culture. I mean, PBS did have a Filipino American character in Barney, but we do not talk about the time Barney sang “Happy Birthday” in Tagalog…
And I’m not even 10 yet.
I do credit my aunt for teaching me traditional Filipino dances of Ilocos Norte. Every December, Ilocos Norte does a December pageant of sorts of all of the first generation Ilocano’s in the United States. My aunt graciously taught me the dances associated with the rice planters, the dance of the plebs. Of course, the richer children wore the fancier terno’s. Traditionally, if people liked your dance, they would literally throw money at you. The richer kids got dollar bills thrown at the them. So, anytime I was a part of this pageantry, my brother (4 years old at the time) and myself in costume, would go around tables and sing “Mo Money Groove.” (This would later change to “The Money Song” as covered by Moe from The Simpsons to get the richer folks to give me their wallets)
And at 10 my mom requested I sing stuff from Miss Saigon instead of dancing. She wanted “Sun and Moon,” I delivered “The American Dream.”
The point is, I tried to get into my culture. At least I made some effort. I wanted to really get to know what it was all about, but middle school introduced me to AZN’s.
I was seen as a “FOB” because I liked anime. By 6th grade, I was already forming my identity. I wasn’t vibing with Power 106 of 92.3 The Beat. I discovered J-pop and I was hooked. I downloaded all the Namie Amuro and Vivian Chow mp3’s I can find on the internet. I was really into Chinese and Japanese pop stars. I liked they looked like me and had a beat that I could groove to. Sure, I liked Brandy and Soul For Real, but this was a sound I could really jam to. I was into Sailor Moon because it fulfilled my need for an all female super hero team that didn’t feel male gazey. I then followed suite and got into more anime. By 8th grade, I was into Macross and thought Macross Plus was the GOAT. (but seriously, Macross got me through a really tough time too; middle school drama sucks).
I was bullied by the AZNs at my school for liking things that are inherently Asian. Yet, the AZN’s would front that they were all urban and would talk in Ebonics. “But that may be that they are a product of their environment!” In the upper middle class suburbs of Torrance? Nah! They loved Power 106 and 92.3 The Beat and it was their personality. I get that they were probably also figuring themselves out, but it didn’t make sense that they would slap “AZN Pride” or have “AZN” on an AIM username or email, and fake they’re from The Streets. It didn’t make sense to me that I would be bullied because I wasn’t vibing to LL Cool J, Tupac Shakur, etc when I was really into J-pop. I left them alone for their taste in hip hop culture, but they wouldn’t leave me alone because I was into Japanese and Chinese pop culture and history.
In short, I was comfortable identifying as Asian, but not Filipino.
I still remember the one Irish girl in my class telling me, “You better not be into that anime shit in high school. They hate that stuff!”
In high school, I felt even more disconnected with my culture. If the local AZN’s weren’t going to include me because I wasn’t “urban” or “street” enough, I was gonna hang out with the (non-Asian) otaku nerds whom at least had an appreciation for actual Asian culture. We would go out for sushi, ramen, etc; Torrance is still an amazing place for Japanese food and culture. Yet, I still didn’t feel comfortable exploring my culture. I was excluded from recognition for Asian Americans in our drama club, despite the fact I had produced several radio plays and taken on director / writer credits for projects. Because I went to an affluent suburban school, scholarships for Asians weren’t advertised because we are “the model minority” and we’ll be fine financially. Our high school wasn’t allowed to have cultural clubs. Being Filipino in high school meant you drove a rice rocket (financed by mommy and daddy), dated only within your culture, had friends among your culture, and fronted that you were in some street gang though you went home and lived comfortably. I went through the “I’m Human” phase after having a cringe John Lennon / beatnik / peacenik phase. I thought it was okay to simply identify as “Human” because we are the world, right? Maybe if we got rid of identity politics and realized that we are human beings, that would be the final step in our evolution, right?
In my next part of this editorial, I will talk about the struggle of accepting my Filipino American identity in university. How did I go from identifying as “Human” to “Filipino American?”
And maybe, perhaps I’ll work on an Evil Queen terno…