Growing Up Filipino in the U.S.
Before BAPAC, I can’t tell you the last time I was able to speak with someone who wasn’t my husband about the struggles I’ve had as a Filipino who grew up in the States.
I was raised by my German/Anglo descent mother, her family and with the expectations of privilege granted a white child. My Filipino dad was not in the picture till much later in my life. And though my Filipino family was always loving, they were never as omni-present like my white family was.
I grew up with all the casings of a white lower-middle class family in Glen Burnie eating over-fried pork chops, boiled cabbage and carrots, and Wonder bread with no-brand Cola - a diet that didn’t sit well with my digestive system. Rice was a much anticipated treat and I was always pressing to get Chinese carryout.
My family was, in general, ambivalent to racially or hate-motivated discrimination because in just about every example it didn’t affect them. Don’t get me wrong, violence was never okay. As a Methodist family, we always valued treating people with kindness. My family wasn’t actively discriminatory, but also they were not prone to arguing with those who were. Like all the other families in our neighborhood, my family worked hard for what they had. We lived in a suburb of mostly white families and I had limited contact with non-white kids; only a few brown and black kids in elementary school and two teachers of color. In 1980’s Glen Burnie when I was growing up, most everyone of consequence that we saw in movies, tv or read about in stories were white. None of them looked the slightest bit like me.
I assumed I lived a life that was just the same as everyone else around me. But sometimes Life threw me curve balls I couldn’t quite catch. Like when my friends would say things like, “I don’t even think of you as brown,” (a compliment?); or when I was called “exotic,” (like every day of my life). Or when people grabbed at my hair and asked why I didn’t look like anyone in my family. Life was definitely trying to tell me how I was different.
My loving mother and her family didn’t know that I needed additional mentorship and they themselves couldn’t give me any information about how to handle these ‘glitches’ in my nice, white life. They couldn’t teach me to be proud of being Filipino American. They couldn’t give me cultural connection, aside from a special-occasion Pancit dinner here and there. They simply didn’t know why being who I was was actually connected to something else, something wonderful, because it wasn’t theirs to give. My family loved me, no doubt, but there was no denying that my parts were clearly different than theirs.
It wasn’t just that I was brown skinned. I ate differently, danced differently, sang differently; my hair was totally different from theirs, my skin molted in the spring! I was angry differently, I was sad differently, I wanted differently.
I was a praying mantis living with a colony of honey bees. They were devoted to me, they loved me and cared for me regardless of difference. But they didn’t know how to guide me in my Mantis life, and that was abundantly clear. When I finally left the hive of my family in Glen Burnie and entered the world, I did what most people without guidance do: I screwed up a lot. I thought I was alone a lot. I battled with depression and really hurtful relationships.
I justified my circumstances the only way I could: By thinking that there must be something about me which just wasn’t right. I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t talented enough. I wasn’t clever enough.
I entered theatre-making with my whole heart because I knew I wanted to tell my story. But I didn’t know what my story was. Humans, need connection to other people experiencing similar things. All those years that I tried to know what my story was, I was missing that connection to my identity as a Filipino woman. I needed other people of color to understand what my story was. What I didn’t realize until that very painful time of my life was that no one can tell your story for you.
I know now that my story is my strength. And now, I am very proud of my story.
So why does BAPAC matter? It matters because connection to my origins informs who I am. It matters because this beautiful, devastatingly torn nation we live in tells us color and ethnic origin doesn’t matter, when in fact it affects one’s self perception and growth every day. It matters because being Filipina is more than my skin tone; it’s my otherness in a larger culture that hasn’t yet discovered how inclusion works, one that has trouble seeing its own structural racism. But most of all, it matters because little kids of every ethnic origin need to grow up seeing adults who are just like them living their best lives; they need representation in their community and they need mentors for their journey. The Baltimore community needs to hear AAPI stories to help others on their journeys.
This matters because their stories are their strength.
This piece was written by Tara Cariaso. Tara is a Baltimore theatre artist, educator and mask maker. She is also one of our original devisors for our upcoming production Tornkid.
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