This year, I spent Thanksgiving with my family in California. I decided to stay for a week in order to spend time with my family and friends, and especially to catch up with my uncle, who would be spending his first Thanksgiving here in the U.S. after officially gaining his permanent residency. My mom had petitioned him to move to the U.S. from the Philippines when he was 14 years old. Now he is 36 years old, has a girlfriend, two children, and is entering into this unusual transition in his life twenty-two years later.
I was able to talk to him about the move on my last night in California. He made the trip to the U.S. first in order to deal with some paperwork for my cousins, but he’ll be heading back to the Philippines in a few weeks so that he can spend Christmas and New Year’s with the rest of my family for the last time. The next trip will include my cousins and my aunt-to-be.
I asked him about his thoughts about the move and he, surprisingly, responded with hesitance.
Uncle: I’ve been waiting for a long time to move. But now it’s not for me anymore. It’s for my family and for Shannice and Xean’s (pronounced SEE-an) futures.
My cousin, Shannice, will be graduating in the spring from her culinary program in the Philippines. She has aspirations of opening her own restaurant. My other cousin, Xean, is only 2-years-old, and therefore, after he has settled here in the U.S., he will most likely see the Philippines as a far away land where he spent the first few years of his early childhood. His connection to the homeland will be only a slight blur, a dream.
Throughout the week spent with my family, we had several subtle debates (which sounded more like heated disagreements) about how assimilated to American culture Xean should become. My mom boasted about how American my cousin will turn out, that his English will be even better than my uncle’s. I interjected and reminded my mom of how my sister and I turned out once we realized the loss of identity due to our lack of the Tagalog language. I told my uncle during those conversations, “Xean will know how to speak English well, because he’ll be here in the U.S. — he has to know English to function here. But at home, I strongly encourage you to speak Tagalog to him. I can’t tell you how often I long for the ability to speak in our native language.” I think my uncle seemed a little overwhelmed at the conversation because he only nodded in agreement and then remained quiet the rest of the time, as my parents and I went back and forth about the discussion of language.
While these discussions were taking place in California, I was still connected with my responsibilities in Portland. Recently, a Filipino-based activist organization that I work with left Portland to head to the Philippines for a research, exposure, and relief mission. Their intentions were to immediately assist with the relief efforts for the regions affected by Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda). It’s an admirable and noble endeavor that these Filipino Americans decided to take on in order to help their “home” country. With the exception of two people, I believe the rest of the small group that went on this mission were born and raised here in the U.S.
It’s interesting to me to observe the experiences of these two groups simultaneously. My uncle has desired to immigrate to the U.S. since he was an adolescent, recognizing the opportunity to be more successful than what he could potentially achieve in the Philippines. Although my uncle is now more complacent about the opportunity to live in the U.S., he still sees the opportunities that can happen here as ones that would most likely never happen in the Philippines. He told me about how his girlfriend is an electrical engineer and that being an engineer here in the U.S. can make more money. Then, of course, my cousins are both in periods of their lives where they can gain the most out of the American experience.
In contrast, I was observing a group of activists that see the Philippines as a home to which they wish to return. They are a group that studies, researches, and actively mobilizes Filipinos in the U.S. to recognize the oppression occurring among Filipinos in the Philippines. Oppression in the Philippines is a multitude of things, from a corrupt political system to the suppression of journalism and thought, just to name a few.
I admire what both groups are aspiring to do, and I also hold space for deconstructing these choices. The yearning of a country or a home, for whatever reason you may have, is a connection that can be associated with identity. For these groups, there is an element of identity loss. For example, what does it mean to be Filipino American versus being Filipino? Once my uncle and his family settle in the U.S., does that mean they’ll have to start living the American way, absorbing and digesting new ideologies? Does the erasure of a native language make you more American? And does it make you more Filipino to long for a land that you never lived in?
As an American-born Filipina, I grapple with issues of being perceived as a perpetual foreigner in a land I was born in, being hypersexualized in the mainstream media, and dealing with two cultures with conflicting ideologies — the American, independent, consumerist, imperialist spirit versus the traditional, Catholic, domesticated Filipina. These are the issues that I am motivated to understand in working towards a social justice framework. What does that look like, you ask? Honestly, I’m not sure yet. But what I do know is that I’m here, writing to you in English, in the comfort of an apartment, writing about these issues from a college-educated lens.
I have much to consider.