Asian Cultural Awareness and Appreciating My Filipino Heritage.
Updated: Sep 23, 2020
(First in a 'series' on being Asian-American)
Growing up in Queens, NY, I spent most of my childhood and teenage years immersed in the Asian-American community and in Filipino culture; I've been surrounded by Filipino friends my whole life. I always had lumpiang shangai, pancit (noodles), adobo, siopao, lechon, etc., at church gatherings or family meals. I spoke fairly fluent Tagalog and understood most of my mom's Hiligaynon "Ilonggo" dialect as well. My world was family-oriented; I even called my parents' friends 'Uncle' and 'Aunty' even if they weren't Asian.
Most of my friends were Asian-Americans. They were Vietnamese, Koreans, Malaysians, Chinese, etc. I grew up and went to school with them, loved their food, and I was quite comfortable, even at-home being around them and their families. It felt familiar. I made trips to Chinatown and grew up around Flushing, Queens. It's full of Asian shops and restaurants. In fact, the atmosphere and bustling streets made it seem more like Hong Kong than New York City at times. Because of this, I loved being Filipino and I loved being a part of the greater Asian-American community. That familiarity we all felt made us closer in some ways, easier to get along with each other. There was this sort of unspoken understanding.
Media however, plays a tremendous role in the life of a kid. I absorbed a whole ton of it. My parents and I are movie junkies, we had lots of favorite TV shows, I read many books, listened all sorts of music, and played video games. With all of these noises coming at me, there was one thing that I and all the other teens cared about: fitting in and being cool in America.
I'm not going to make this a rant on Asian representation in US entertainment. But this is my experience growing up. In the American pop culture, being "cool" rarely ever involved Asians in... well... anything. Outside of martial arts films, Asians were nowhere to be found. When they did appear, they were often the subjects of jokes and ridicule. The sad part is that I didn't care because I didn't realize it for what it was until much later in life. We weren't considered cool enough? Everyone else seemed to have their icons and role models except us.
As comedian Eliot Chang said: "How often did you see an Asian face on television? And if you did, how was that person portrayed? And if you are Asian, how did that make you feel?"
"... if you doubt the power of the media, Full Metal Jacket was made over  years ago but how often do you still hear the line 'me so horny, me love you long time'?"
He goes on to say that it is true that other minority groups make jokes about themselves. But Eliot continues to say "The interesting thing about the Asian community is that we laugh when other races make fun of us. And it's because we're used to it. It has to stop."
Eliot Chang makes an interesting point in his talk. It's that in the West, Asians are only cool when they've assimilated into a foreign culture or emulate any other culture other than their own. Many Asian-American youth would read Shakespeare but have never even heard of Romance of the Three Kingdoms which is everywhere in Asia. Why play only cello or violin but not an erhu? Why cite only Plato and Aristotle but not Sun Tzu or Confucius?
How about being cool because we also have cultural awareness? Eliot Chang asks this question as well.
I love history. I always have. In school during the 90's and early-mid 2000's we learned so much about the Egyptians, the Greeks, Romans, the European nation-states and the British and Spanish Empires and how they all apparently contributed one way or another in creating the modern world. It was all Eurocentric and that is because it so happened that the industrial and scientific revolutions were sparked in the West. My classes had one chapter on Asian history. Two chapters at best. A few names and dates were mentioned and that was all. Literally.
My favorite media and subject matter all happened to be of Western/ European influence. My music was Western, my favorite movies were set in the Europe/ the West, even my favorite fantasy material was based off of European culture (i.e Lord of the Rings/ Chronicles of Narnia). Somehow, subconsciously, I felt out of place in all of it. I felt that who I was as an Asian-American, as a Filipino, was irrelevant and inconsequential in the Western world. I'm sure I wasn't alone in these sentiments.
I decided to pursue my study of history focused primarily on Asian civilizations because I rarely encountered it in school. The more I pursued, the harder in love I fell. I read all the material I could. I focused heavily on China, being the oldest and most influential civilization in the Far East. China along with India, has profound influences on Philippine history too. This piqued my interest further. This is where my pursuit of cultural awareness began. I began to realize the truly GLOBAL impact Asians made in world history. It was utterly impressive and even shocking (in a good way). It was far more than I was told in school, far more than what the media has tried to impress in my young mind.
However, there has been a slight shift in current events. In recent years, Asia is not simply making the news, it has been exporting so much of its culture to the West. From K-Pop music and K-Drama, to Japanese animation, and epic Chinese films, Asian culture is getting more and more foreign attention. There has been an increased interest in Muay Thai and Arnis/ Kali, and Asian cuisine is trendier than ever. Let's not even mention the giant tech companies emerging from the East. It seems that the East Asia is leading the way to innovation and advancement in the 21st century. Because of this, interest in Asian culture and history, and tourism has become increasingly popular.
As a Filipino, what did I know about the history of the Philippines? How were we relevant in Asia? That we were colonized by Spain, then by America, then occupied by the Japanese? My scholarly pursuits have brought me some amazing discoveries.
The kingdoms that make up present day Philippines was a melting pot of Asian peoples. It was a trading hub, a center for trade and settlement. A thousand years of (direct and indirect) interaction with China, India, Malaya, and Java made the Philippines a unique blend of Asian civilizations. Most of Asia took part in the development of the Philippine kingdoms. It was always the Pacific heart of Asia, truly the Pearl of the Orient.
Our written languages and shared vocabulary have derivations from ancient India. We share vocabulary with Malaysia and Indonesia. We even have a few from Japanese. We have numerous loanwords from Fukien/ Hokien Chinese. Much of our cuisine is also Chinese in origin. Our traditional dances and costumes have much in common with our neighbors in Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, etc. The costumes, the music, the languages, and the food in the archipelago vary from region to region but many pre-colonial similarities remained. We love fish sauce. We love soy sauce. We put them on everything.
The Philippines today is a tiger economy. Should it keep in its current direction, the forecast in the long-term is quite positive. There is a sort of "return" to the old world order where Asia is once again bustling with business, commerce, and trade. The Philippines is a big participant again, being in the middle of it both geographically and economically. It is my hope that many more from the Filipino diaspora would come to rediscover their roots and take pride in it, for it can be a great source of patriotic energy and can be part of the inspiration that allows all sorts of growth within the Philippines. It can start by adopting an indigenous name that best describes the spirit of the people. Maybe in time we will discover it.