Americanized: Lost in Translation

Our latest piece in the "Americanized" series, exploring important issues regarding the identities of high school students.


submitted photo

My grandmother leaving the Philippines with her daughter (my mother).

Do I deserve to call myself half Filipino?

I certainly am half Filipino, as numerous legal documents and standardized tests with both white and Asian marked for race can confirm. But the issue is not as simple as what is in my blood or on a piece of paper. This question over the claim to and proclamation of my identity has surfaced in my mind with increasing frequency over the past few years. I don’t speak Tagalog, a language spoken by 20 million Filipinos, I have practically no knowledge of any Filipino holidays or traditions, and I don’t look Filipino, a factor that I cannot control yet still gives me insecurity. My Filipino side comes from my mother, a first generation immigrant, yet it is hard to see myself reflected in her.

The need to fit in with American culture often takes precedence over concerns to preserve heritage, especially for younger generations. But are immigrants and their descendants really to blame for this? Immigrants entering this country are expected to be fluent in American, understanding the cultural ideas of freedom and hard work on top of speaking English. The Land of the Free can be a demanding place, knocking on doors promising a better life and in return requesting loyalty and constant proclamation of that loyalty. Go back to where you came from, in America we speak English. My mother had to teach herself English through American television and attempted conversation with other kids at school, only able to use her native language Tagalog at home. My grandparents moved their family 8,000 miles across the ocean to escape poverty. Success, even just survival, was the priority. When the dust settled, what was left behind?

When the dust settled, what was left behind?”

I was never taught about my culture growing up. Annual visits to my grandparents’ house in West Virginia meant traditional Filipino food, but also trips to Walmart and watching football. I have always used the Tagalog words Lolo and Lola to refer to my grandparents, but no one ever explained to me what language I was using. I had a children’s book that taught basic Tagalog words. All I remember now is that the word asul, meaning blue, sounded exactly like the Spanish word for blue.

Because of this disconnect from Filipino culture, I am hesitant to tell other people about my heritage. It feels like I’m asking for attention, and what could I say? The Tagalog word for blue sounds the same as it does in Spanish. Lolo and Lola mean grandfather and grandmother. The food is probably just as good as any other culture’s food. Assimilated isn’t the right word; I feel like I never had my identity to begin with.

I feel like I never had my identity to begin with.”

I have lived like this for most of my life. Not ashamed exactly, but bordering on apathetic. But do I not owe it to myself, to my mother and grandparents, to my family members across the ocean whom I have never met, to preserve my culture? Our heritage needs to be celebrated, and often that means more effort has to be put in by younger generations, especially those already far removed from their own identities.

I am proud to say that I have recently embarked on my journey of rediscovery, starting with learning Tagalog. A language can reveal so much about a culture’s history. Though based in local tribal languages, Tagalog bears the scars of a centuries long Spanish occupation in the Philippines, reflected in some of the vocabulary and use of the Latin alphabet. This western influence remains in the Philippines, as English and Filipino share status as the national language. Understanding a language also allows for a deeper understanding of cultural values. Dozens of terms of endearment reveal Filipinos to be loving; adding “po” to a sentence to address elders demonstrates a culture of respect. So much is lost in translation.

While I began writing this article frustrated by the forcing of a uniform American identity on immigrants, I have come to realize that patriotism and celebration of personal cultural values can peacefully coexist, both within individuals and society. As the metaphor for America has evolved from a melting pot to a salad bowl, people have recognized that this nation of immigrants will never have a single homogenous identity, which is a good thing. Diffusion of cultures to new places will always happen; why not embrace it?

I hope to use my own story to relate to others in this young generation, children or grandchildren of immigrants who are starting to find their way home. I know that knowledge of my heritage will not in itself change my DNA. But I believe that once I become more educated about and comfortable with my culture, I will carry myself with more pride. Yes, learning so much that is unfamiliar will be tough, but perseverance is something my family has no shortage of. And in the end, it will feel like a homecoming. Heritage can often feel like something far removed, just some names on a family tree from the distant past. But by choosing to celebrate my culture, I change from passive observer to active participant. And already, I can say that playing the game is much more fulfilling than sitting on the sidelines.