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Neo-Filipino: Third Culture Kids and Advocating for Diversity

I wrote the following article for online zine New Slang, published on Sunday, 11 April 2010.

I can still remember that one night back in college, at my part-time job calling alumni for donations, when the woman on the phone asked me the question I dreaded the most: “So, Erin, where are you from?”

I drew my breath, “I’m from the Philippines,”

“Oh, really? Where in the Philippines?”

“My family lives in Quezon City. It’s a part of the Greater Manila area, which is the capital.”

” . . . I see. Hold on while I get my husband.”

Thinking she had the phone muffled, she called for her husband, whom I was supposed to talked to.

“She says she’s calling from Grinnell College. And she says she’s from the Philippines, but she doesn’t have an accent. I don’t think she’s really from the Philippines.”

Answering a simple question like, “Where are you from?” means unloading all the baggage that comes with it. Many people may believe that there is a logical connection between where one is “from” and what he/she is supposed to sound like, but it is much more complicated than that. With the woman on the phone, I could almost see images of nurses, lumpia, and Imelda Marcos’s shoes flashing before her eyes as I carefully evaluated my choice of words, knowing that my answer would immediately shape her impression of me – what I looked like, what I liked to eat, what I believed in, and ultimately whether I could be trusted with her family’s hard-earned money.

While the conversation above took place in the United States, many people all over the world fall prey to the assumption that “where you are from” determines who you are. In the Philippine experience, I find it frustrating that the our cultural landscape places so much emphasis on standardizing the expression of Filipino identity. With these expectations in place, it remains a fruitless exercise in monitoring one’s level of Filipino-ness and thus a challenge to advocate for diversity in Filipino cultural identities.

My story may represent a tiny fraction of our population; however, it is significant given the global nature of the Filipino community. As Filipinos continue to live and grow in different parts of the world, our cultural identity will evolve.

Read the rest here.

I am a Third Culture Kid and Advocate

I think I’ve always known I was a TCK.  I have always had some degree of awareness of how unique (not superior) my background is, and I have been lucky to be surrounded by supportive family and friends who accept me for who I am.  It is the best thing any person can ask for.

Unfortunately, not everyone is so lucky.  Many TCKs get by without understanding their own emotions and experiences and with very little or no support from family and peers.  Unfortunately, many Adult TCKs (ATCKs) have told stories about discovering a name for their identity much later in life, after years of experiencing depression and isolation.   Many younger TCKs do not receive the support needed to weather the complex layers of change they encounter during their formative years.  Many TCKs feel lost and feel they do not belong anywhere.  More than anything, they need people who understand them and a support system that can address their needs and can help them find acceptance.

Since the use online social networks became more ubiquitous, more avenues for connecting people of similar interests and backgrounds have cropped up.  Among these were groups dedicated to third culture kids, connecting global nomads to one another regardless of physical distance.  As conversations unfolded, so did the rumblings of something larger: a shared dedication to realizing a world where there is an acceptance of a diversity that runs deeper than race, nationality, ethnicity, linguistic background, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation, and encompasses an infinite spectrum of experiences and identities.

TCKID Pledge Page blog size

From here, individuals in the TCK community began a more organized approach to fulfill this vision.  One of the organizations at the forefront of this movement is TCKID, a non-profit community organization founded by Brice Royer and dedicated to connecting TCKs to each other and to resources that address TCKs’ unique needs. Some of the projects that have been implemented include weekly chats with TCK volunteers, organizing local TCKID groups in numerous cities across North America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, and a TCK research arm. Future projects are in the works.

As these plans are underway, TCKID faces many of the same challenges growing organizations face. Fundamentally, TCKID needs the support of its community members and allies to continue building on its vision and providing the support system that is so important to TCKs.

We are asking anyone who identifies as a TCK, who grew up feeling torn between cultures, who had to say goodbye too many times to loved ones who kept coming and going, who has friends no matter where they go, or anyone with a loved one who identifies this way, to pledge their support.  In doing so, TCKs everywhere will always have a resource to turn to and can be a step closer to building a diverse and understanding community.

I signed the pledge, because I believe that supporting third culture kids is a form of social justice and is tantamount to supporting all individuals with postmodern identities, beyond traditional definitions of identity. I want to work to build a community where all cultural identities and expressions are accepted. I also want to continue supporting others like myself. After living extensively in four countries through my formative and adult years, I understand how it feels to feel connected to different cultural contexts and still feel isolated. I want to provide an open mind and a listening ear and provide a sense of understanding. I am also very excited to see what the TCK community can accomplish together.

TCKs are a diverse and vibrant community, and I am proud to identify as one. I will continue advocating for TCKs and the vision they represent.

Read I am a Third Culture Kid: Being “The Foreigner”
Read am a Third Culture Kid: Introduction

I am a Third Culture Kid: My Top 10 Pet Peeves (Part 1)

Argh!Let’s not lie. Everybody has a secret list of things that annoy the hell out of them, many of which are related to the things they are passionate about. Some of my book-worm friends hate it when people fold the corners of the pages. Other friends hate it when fellow movie-goers feel the need to give running commentary while the film is playing. I personally do not enjoy getting CDs that don’t have the clear strip on the side. They’re petty and illogical, but they’re there. They don’t necessarily make us bad people, but they make up the character and idiosyncrasies of every individual.

Naturally, I have pet peeves that are related to my experiences as a TCK. Because all of them are deeply connected to the experience of travel and living in multiple places, I realize that they come in danger of sounding snobby and elitist, especially to those who have not had as much experience with traveling. However, I’m not here to make some ground-breaking insight or social analysis. I may even be guilty of committing some of these myself. I just write to talk about my perspective for others to learn about. If it makes you re-examine some of your previous beliefs and knowledge, then more power to you. If not, here’s hoping you get a good laugh out of it.

And without further ado, here are my Top 10 TCK-Related Pet Peeves.

  1. Mispronunciation. I find it absolutely jarring when I hear someone mispronounce a word that I know. This applies to both native-speakers and non-native speakers who try to inject foreign words in their vocabulary. I can’t emphasize enough the number of times I felt like driving a pencil through my eye every time I heard President George W. Bush or my high school Theory of Knowledge teacher say “nuke-you-ler” in public. Where did that extra syllable come from? Similarly, I get a sudden fit of rashes when I hear people here in the Philippines mispronounce commonly used English words like “category” (kah-TEH-go-REE) or when my principal in first grade tried to tell us that you can also say it “Wed-NES-day”. My inner Anthro major tries to remind me that pronunciation is culturally relative, just like how I used to say “CON-tribute” and “DIS-tribute” before I moved to the U.S. and changed it to “con-TRI-bute” and “dis-TRI-bute”. I will try to remember that the next time I feel like cutting a bitch when I hear someone say “EYE-raq”.
    • Does not apply to: People genuinely trying to learn another language.
  2. When entire continents are one big country. I have lost count of the number of people I met who would nonchalantly describe their overseas adventures “in Africa”, “in Central America”, or “in Europe”. As if that really tells me anything. In case no one got the memo, each of those places have many countries, with their diverse set of languages, traditions, and histories. Lumping them all together by referring to their continents or regions gives others the impression that all of its countries are exactly the same and indiscernible. Anyone who really made the most of their experience abroad and didn’t spend all of it with the expat community or getting drunk the entire time will probably have an easier time telling India and Thailand apart.
  3. Stupid stereotypes. I’m not just talking about racism, although that is a big one, too. I’m talking about the preconceived notions people project about a place based on inflated representations from the media — things like believing that everyone in the Caribbean is a pot-smoking, reggae-listening, Jah-worshipping, dreadlock-sporting rasta, or that everyone in the Middle East is an Islamic extremist who hates the U.S. The worst part is when people sincerely ask me how I could live in or have friends from such places. “Gosh, Erin,” they would say, “are your Black friends gangsters?” Or, “Wow, the Caribbean!” they would exclaim, “Did you leave by the beach? Were you friends with those rasta dudes? Yah, mon, I love Bob Marley!” And so on. I would say something about how people are just people and do not serve as caricatures of the cultures you think they represent. But that would be too much work.
  4. “Why do you speak English so well?” This is an idiotic question, usually asked by native English speakers in places where English is the national language. People who think about posing this question might as well ask, “Why do you use your brain?” Basically, you lay bare your assumption that anyone who appears to be a foreigner can’t be a native English speaker or appear competent when in foreign situations. Asking me this question is an insult to my intelligence and is an annoyance considering I’ve spoken English my entire life. Don’t ever think about asking this question to anyone, or I will hunt you down and hurt you.
    • Does not apply to: Admission officers who want to know why you want to waiver your TOEFL requirement. Because the TOEFL is an expensive waste of time.
  5. “Do you know my friend?” It’s amazing how, despite the rapidly rising global population, people still think that you know his or her friend Jack just because you come from or live in the same country. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big fan of the idea that everyone in the world is somehow connected and have found some ridiculous connections between all the people I have ever known growing up. But I encourage everyone to drop the idea that the rest of the world lives in these large, communal villages where everybody knows each other.
    • Does not apply to: Small towns. Or if you are really powerful and important and knows a lot of people.

    (to be continued)

    Read I am a Third Culture Kid: Being “The Foreigner”

Back from Real Life

I apologize for the unintentional hiatus from my blog.  I have been doing field work outside of the city for work, and just returned on Sunday night.  I will try and be better about updating, even if only to tell you I will disappear again.

A Petition for Anthony Bourdain to Visit the Philippines

anthony-bourdain.jpgI’m not sure sometimes if I am in love with Anthony Bourdain or if I just want to be him. Aside from his dashing good looks, his acerbic wit, and even the way he makes eating look badass on his show, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, he is an example of someone who is “living the dream”. To me, he has found a way to combine all of the best parts of life — food, travel, and writing — and even make some cash out of it. The best part is that he does all of it with honesty and respect for the cultures of the many places that he visits. If that doesn’t make for good TV, then I don’t know what does.

To summarize, No Reservations is a travel show hosted by and featuring Anthony Bourdain, who travels all over the world to sample different cuisines, learn about local cultures, and provide a little bit of his insight and humor on his trips. In addition to eating, we also see Bourdain drink alcohol, visit a few happening nightspots, do a little karaoke, and go to religious functions, among others. To me, what makes Bourdain and No Reservations stand out from his peers, most notably Andrew Zimmern and his show, Bizarre Foods, is the way he really engages himself in the local setting and comes in with a very open mind. Perhaps this is what makes the title No Reservations so clever and so encompassing of the host’s attitudes towards new experiences and life in general.

After watching hours of No Reservations re-runs, I realized that, despite his travels throughout Asia, Anthony Bourdain has not yet featured the Philippines. I am of the mind that this must be rectified, post haste. Here are my top 5 reasons why Anthony Bourdain must feature the Philippines in his show, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.

  1. Filipino food is delish, obviously. So I’m biased. Still, this may come as a surprise to people who may not have ever heard of or tasted Philippine cuisine. Admittedly, Filipino food doesn’t exactly inspire the global imagination in the same way that Chinese, Japanese, Indian, or Thai cuisines do. Furthermore, there is still a hint of insecurity about a perceived lack of exoticness or authenticity in Philippine cuisine, seeing how it is deeply influenced by Malay, Chinese, Spanish, and U.S. cuisines. Nonetheless, I am curious to hear what Anthony Bourdain has to say about Filipino food and see what brilliant piece of insight he can give us after tasting his first sinigang.
  2. More importantly, Filipinos love to eat. I think there is something to be said about a prevailing social expectation to invite others to eat with you, even if you do not have enough, because it is considered rude to eat alone or in front of others without inviting them to join you. This is one thing that Filipinos have in common with Anthony Bourdain, and I am sure it is something he will appreciate.
  3. Anthony Bourdain keeps it real, but in a good way. That’s right, I’m talking to you, Andrew Zimmern. While generally enjoyable, one of my problems with the show Bizarre Foods is the way Andrew Zimmern comes in with the assumption that, just because something is prepared “differently”, that is must be considered “weird” or “bizarre”. Take his response to the ice cream sandwich, one of many common street foods (start at 5:03):

    I understand that it is new to him, but I don’t understand why he has to go up to someone who clearly appreciates it and tell him just how “unusual” and “different” it is. No, honey, you’re the one who is different here.

    On the other hand, check out this clip of Anthony Bourdain trying out what Filipinos call balut for the first time:

    While clearly not his cup of tea, he doesn’t go out of his way to offend people, especially locals, with his thoughts about how different he thinks it is. He briefly and graciously tells us his opinion, stopping short of enlightening the viewer with a value judgment, and moves on. I would prefer to see someone who can present his reactions in a chill and dignified manner, instead of exaggerating its difference. Anthony Bourdain is the man for the job.

  4. Anthony Bourdain is cooler than Rachael Ray. Enough said. Don’t get me wrong; Rachael Ray does have her moments. I just don’t understand why she is as popular as she is and why I can’t flip past the Lifestyle Network without seeing her talk show. We need a little bit of cynicism to hit our shores. We need Anthony Bourdain!
  5. Anthony Bourdain would totally eat balut. See the second video in #3. This is the gold standard for foreigners upon visiting the Philippines. If you can eat balut, you become one of us. Anthony Bourdain has already joined the family, and he hasn’t even met the cousins yet. Anthony Bourdain needs to get his ass over here!

I encourage all foodie or travel fans to get this brilliant man to the Philippines, whether by writing him or by cooking up a storm so large the smell reaches New York. I think Anthony Bourdain would do an excellent job of presenting the Philippines, and we can expect nothing less than an honest, respectful, and humorous account of his visit.

What province are you from?

Map of the PhilippinesHere in the Philippines, All Saints Day and All Souls Day have been declared working holidays. Many Filipinos are taking the time to visit cemeteries all over the country, where they can reunite with loved ones, honor the dearly departed, and find another excuse to eat good food together. I am sure it can be fun, but I never grew up with it, mostly because we were abroad.

At work, many of my colleagues had been preparing for the holiday for weeks, anticipating the time when they get to go home and see their families again. Some had asked me where I was going for the holiday, and, among these conversations, the question “What province are you from?” popped up.

For readers who aren’t familiar with the question, colloquially, the “province” basically refers to any region in the Philippines that isn’t Metro Manila. Technically, Metro Manila, or the National Capital Region, is also its own province. However, I have found that many do not consider this when using the term “province”. According to Wikipedia, the same meaning is also applied to the term “province” in France, Peru, and Romania.

Much like the question “Where are you from?”, the question “What province are you from?” seeks to gauge who you are culturally, amidst the vast diversity that exists throughout the 7,107 islands. What province you are from apparently tells others what language you speak, what kind of food you like to eat, what religion you follow, and so on.

Like the question “Where are you from?”, I generally do not have any personal problem with other people asking, “What province are you from?” I know that, generally, there is a genuine social need to answer this question. However, my problem does lie in how to answer it.

First, even without the third culture kid aspect of my life, I have a problem answering the question, simply because I never lived anywhere in the country outside of Metro Manila. When I say this to people like my co-workers, many are genuinely surprised, as they themselves grew up outside of the city and only came here for school and work. The province is still considered “home”. To assuage their surprise and curiosity (and possibly any thoughts of my being a “city brat”), I just tell them I grew up abroad, and somehow that makes it more understandable.

Second, I often find myself answering the question by telling other people where my parents are from. However, I still don’t think this says anything about me. I have visited my dad’s hometown in Bicol and my mom’s family in Quezon many times. The most time I had ever spent outside of the metro and its connected suburbs (where my high school is located) was about three weeks or a month in Bicol. However, I don’t really feel like any of these places have influenced or define me. I don’t speak Bikolano, and even my mom’s Tagalog is different when she is with her family. I am also not knowledgeable about the way of life in both places. So, I feel like I’m just telling a half-truth when I answer the question “What province are you from?” in this manner.

Nonetheless, it still appears to be very useful when I tell other people what provinces my parents are from. Last week, I took a cab home with a particularly chatty driver. He told me he was from Bicol, and I ended up telling him that my dad was, too. Even though I told him that I didn’t speak any Bikolano, he was still very excited and proceeded to tell me about all the other Bikolano people he met here in the city. He told me that the cab he drove was operated by a fellow Bikolano, who basically gave him a lot of flexibility with the cab, even telling him that he could own a cab of his own one day. He told me about another passenger he once had, whose father was also from Bicol, and she said that, even though she also didn’t speak any Bikolano, she knew she was a true Bikolana because she really liked spicy food. We then had a good laugh and started a conversation about spicy food, including the famous Bicol Express. Provincial affinity is clearly still very important to many people here.

While I cannot relate to it, I have always wondered what it would have been like to grow up in the province. My mom likes to tell me outrageous stories from her hometown that somehow always involve faeries, duendes, or creepy neighbors standing outside of your window waiting for you to die. Many of the old folks from that area still believe in many of these stories, and will talk about them matter-of-factly at family gatherings. My dad’s side of the family also had a family reunion a few years ago, and I didn’t know most people and lost track of how I was related to everyone. Despite my own very culturally rich upbringing throughout the world, in a way, I feel like I have missed out on something just as valuable and, in a way, that is a part of who I am.

I will never be comfortable with telling people about what province I am “from”. However, I may consider looking for some ghosts or stopping by the cemetery in my dad’s hometown someday to light a few candles and perhaps enjoy some barbecue.

From The Archives: Moving (Pt. 1)

This past weekend, I found my old personal diary from the 5th and 6th grade. 1994 was the year I moved back to the Philippines from Grenada, and I wrote my thoughts about it throughout the year. I will also write about other moves in future installments.

Check out the mid-90s pop culture references!

Balikbayan BoxMay 6, 1994

This morning my dad said we are going back to the Philippines . . . I don’t want to. Everything I love is in Grenada. I told [my friend] and she said maybe I could stay with her. I’m trying not to cry right now. I don’t want to leave . . . I hope my dad is telling a lie. Grenada is my country and no one can change that. Period.

September 29, 1994

. . . Well, [my friend] came again today. I told him we were going back to the Philippines for good. I don’t know how he feels, but I don’t LIKE WHAT IS GOING ON HERE. Oh well, my life is already ruined anyway.

October 5, 1994

My dad got reservations today. We’re leaving 7:30 A.M on BWIA next week. I think my life is ruined. I really try to look in the bright side. In the Philippines, I get to go to SM and go shopping. I’ll get new clothes. But they don’t sell cool stuff like what they wear here in Grenada. Oh well. Gotta tell everyone now.

October 8, 1994

I feel so sad about leaving soon. I love Grenada. We have to donate our children’s puppet show to the school. But my dad promised me we will get another one. I will get new clothes in the Philippines. I don’t want to wear a uniform [to school]. I look gross.

October 12, 1994

Well, I feel much better now about my trip. We went by [our family friends’] and they want me to go to Megamall and all sorts of places. I ♥ Megamall. Oh yeah, they also have German, French, Chinese, and Japanese schools.

October 13, 1994

Oh I’m going to cry! Today was definitely the best day of my life. [Our family friend] made my cake for class. It was beautiful and delicious. The secondary class ♥ it . . . My whole class gave me a card. It was so wonderful. I don’t wanna leave. I could just cry just now.

October 14, 1994

I’m in Miami now. In the Everglades Hotel. I miss Grenada already.

October 16, 1994

I’m in the Philippines and I’m crying. I wanna go back to Grenada . . . “Always” [by Erasure] is No. 1 in the Philippines, [my brother] said. The little Tagalog speaker.

October 17, 1994

Today I had my exam [at my new school]. It was pretty easy. I slept a lot during the afternoon. I finished Super Street Fighter 2 and Clay Fighter. It was pretty fun. I wanna go back to Grenada still. But I’m starting to get used to this place. I really like 94.7 radio station. It has a lot of the stuff I know. Well, nothing else to write.

October 20, 1994

Today was my first day at [my new school]. I made a lot of friends.

October 25, 1994

Today we had computer class again. I think typing is so hard. Anyway, nobody sat with me for lunch today. I think those girls hate me.

November 2, 1994

Today was OK. Dad and I went to Megamall and went around. I wanted to buy an Ace of Base video but they didn’t have it. Well, Goonies is on TV and I was sent to bed. I don’t want to. Well, I’m starting to think less about Grenada. (Oh my god.) Gotta go.

January 10, 1995

Today was another bad day too. I get a C+ for my health. I never felt so retarded in my life. If those people from Grenada heard that, they would call me retarded and all kinda thing. I learned some Chinese characters today and they make me see how unartistic I am. My life is breaking up again.

January 11, 1995

Today is the last day of school of the week. We are stuck with a whole bunch of homework for the weekend. I’m not really that excited about the science fair. I don’t feel like going to school anymore. It doesn’t seem worth it anymore. I don’t care if I end up retarded. What I really need is a break from myself and my life. I want to have a vacation. A long one. I don’t want to come back.

February 13, 1995

Today I got a letter from Grenada! It is from my class! They have not changed . . . [They say] nothing has been going on in Grenada. Oh I ♥ those letters so much.

February 22, 1995

Today was just like a normal school day. But they gave me a new name and call me Granada Bomb because I told them about Grenada. That is really silly.

March 1, 1995

. . . Today [these girls] were fighting about me. “Oh Erin, sit with me!” I sat with [my friend] instead. It’s good that I did. I’m in a new club called Friends 4 Ever . . . I ♥ this week.

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