TRISHA FEY ELIZARDE-MILLER
I am Pinay
by Trisha Fey Lazo Elizarde-Miller
Since my summer 2012 trip to the Philippines, I have been on a journey of understanding myself as a Filipina American. My confusion of my identity did not mix well with my desire to belong with the people I came across with in Manila, Davao, and Naguilian. My Pinay self felt different from the Pinays and Pinoys I met. My understanding of the Tagalog and Ilocano languages were insufficient as I had ultimately assimilated to American culture.
Numerous family members came to Alaska with hope for a better life--the American dream. “Life is better in America!” my family heard, but my father along with the other men in my family, only found seemingly fruitless jobs that required a lot of sacrifice and physical labor. These jobs gave less than what was expected from an immigrant’s view, as my family members were not only working for themselves, but for the family they had left behind in the Philippines.
With the idea that life would be better in America, my parents and extended family placed a large emphasis on learning how to embrace American values and traditions. They insisted that I should not date because I needed to finish school with straight A’s, go to college, and become a nurse or some other high-paying successful professional. However, if I should so choose to date, I should not date a Filipino man, but a White man. Meanwhile, Tagalog words were shared among family members and The Filipino Channel blared with soap operas, dancing White mestisas, and commercials of skin whiteners. I sat as a young child only observing and hearing, never learning or listening. .As a young child I learned that light-skinned mestisas were better. My young mind learned to be White, so I continued to hear more of my culture, without truly listening to or absorbing its values.
My cousin and I were the only kids in our family for about seven years. We did not want to be called FOBs. We did not want to be associated with the culture our family brought into Juneau. We played Pokémon and rode our bikes in the neighborhood with other Filipino children, but once middle school came, so did the pressure of conforming to a group. I started seeing less and less of my cousin as he found a group that he identified with: a group of White, musically talented kids. I took a different route–my best friends were the Filipinas at church, but in school I refused to associate myself with the large Filipino crowd who hung out by the stairs every morning. I slowly detached myself and found friends who were White and thought I was the model Asian.
High school was when I began to reject my culture even more. Even though the popular White kids admired Filipinas, I wanted to be a White American. I pursued this by identifying myself with the dance team and asserting myself as someone important and well liked. I remember when one of my Filipino acquaintances saw me in downtown Juneau, hanging out with a group of White people. He passed by and remarked, “Wow, I see how it is.” My response was full of pride: I am a part of this group and am better than you, Filipino.
My first few years of high school were an endless pursuit of finding acceptance in the majority group who would never understand me, even if they tried. I found closeness with my Filipino best friends again, but still felt like I did not quite belong. My skin was brown, but my mind and heart were not.
After high school, George Fox University became my new home. “Where are you from?” new faces beamed. I said, “Alaska,” so they asked about Alaska. They asked meaningless questions about the weather, the daylight, and igloos, but never about the 50th state’s large Filipino community that helped Alaska be what it is today. I came with the unconscious goal to leave my Filipino identity behind because I was starting a new life in a predominantly White school. Yet, I was constantly reminded of the color of my skin by people’s jokes about the food I loved and their exclamations that I was a “model, smart Asian.”
The summer after my first year at George Fox, a White friend decided to stay and work in Juneau. He lived at my grandmother’s place and encountered a large amount of conflicts with her and my dad. While these conflicts were cultural misunderstandings and miscommunication, I defended my White friend. I believed my grandma and dad were the ones who were at fault and that they needed to understand the White man. “You are in America now, you need to understand!” I cried to my family members.
These conflicts over the summer shook me, and when I returned for school the following year, I was in for a rude awakening: Where were the Filipinos? Where was my community? Where were the shameless hugs and kisses, the celebration of karaoke that I hated, cha-cha, Gary Valenciano, rice and adobo, pancit, loud laughs that filled the air, Tagalog, and Ilocano…? Filipinos are the second largest immigrant group and the second largest Asian group in the United States, yet we are hidden and uncelebrated amongst both the majority and minority cultures.
My feelings of isolation overwhelmed me, but they also propelled me to acknowledge my Filipino heritage. I started to go to various panels, talks, and gatherings centered on race and White privilege. My friends started to notice more of whom I was as I began to be more open about my culture. These friends asked questions out of curiosity and love. They asked what food I ate and what my family liked to do. They celebrated my culture by asking and being curious, so I started asking and being curious as well. This curiosity led to my trip to the Philippines for two months. I said I wanted to meet and see my family, but I also wanted to understand my roots.
What are my roots? The confusion that I encountered on my trip two summers ago has not subsided. However, I have gained a new sense of pride in my identity as a Filipina American. My recognition of how my family has acculturated and assimilated to America has led me further on my journey to reclaim my family’s Filipino roots, and to forever remain Pinay.