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.