No, I am not an Asian-American

Photo by Casey Gomez

When people ask me where I’m from, I tell them, “Houston” if I’m pressed for time. If I can sense that they’re willing to know more about me, then I tell them, “a lot of places.” But when they ask me where I’m really from, I tell them, “I’m from the Philippines.”

I come from a Filipino family on both sides, with Chinese ancestry on my mom’s side and Spanish ancestry on my dad’s side. My mom, born and raised in Metro Manila, is responsible for passing on the many little sayings that her grandmother would always tell her, like “You can’t cut noodles when you eat them, because long noodles signify a long life.” My dad also talks about many old wives’ tales from his hometown in the provinces and both of my parents are strong advocates of the art and practice of Feng Shui.

I am Filipino by ethnicity and by nationality: I speak Tagalog and I eat Filipino food, but I have never lived in the Philippines. I was born in Singapore. From there, we moved to Jakarta, Indonesia. We ended up in Paris, France, for a while and then found ourselves in Moscow, Russia, before moving to Houston, Texas, where I lived for eight years before moving to Atlanta to attend Georgia Tech.

I was raised in a hybrid “typical Asian” family and a Westernized family dynamic. I grew up with both parents and my older brother, and my parents followed typical collectivistic parenting until we moved to the United States. Upon reaching adolescence, I became independent and thought that I could do what I wanted as long as I felt that it was right, even if it wasn’t right. This got me into a lot of trouble with my parents, but they were much less strict in parenting me than my brother.

I am a “third-culture” individual and a first-generation immigrant to America. I am not an Asian-American.

There’s a difference. Sure, I speak like an American and have the stubborn independence of an American, but those attributes don’t even begin to erase the years of learning from other cultures. I remember feeling the constant disconnect between what I was learning from my peers, my environment, culturally and socially, and what my parents were teaching me. I remember struggling to make new friends and having to move to a different country just as I was getting settled.

I grew up going to international schools where I was surrounded by students of diplomats and expatriates and other third-culture kids. I remember feeling envious of my new American friends who grew up surrounded by extended family. I didn’t grow up with aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents at birthdays, graduations or holidays, except when I spent summers in the Philippines, which happened every year or two. And even then, I felt like an outsider coming “home” to the Philippines. My cousins would always switch to English when speaking with my brother and me, and I sometimes felt like a tourist in my own country.

My sense of unbelonging was heightened when we moved to America. In other countries, we had the security blanket of calling ourselves expats, through which we could declare our residence as only temporary. Once we found out that we would be living in the States for longer than four years, I immediately felt pressure to act like the others, to pretend like I knew how to be an American, and to mask my cultural differences, but these differences have shaped who I am.

Looking back on all of this, I realize now that the feeling of being an outsider is somewhat comforting to those of us who grew up as third-culture kids. I take comfort in the fact that I don’t know what to call home. I’m admittedly wishy-washy, but I adapt and assimilate very well, and that’s something I learned in my childhood. I only sound and act American because that’s how I learned to survive and thrive in other countries — to immerse myself truly and fully in the native culture, while still maintaining my Filipino heritage.