Winter has been like a long procession. Classes have been suspended. Temperatures are at sub-zero. Roads are not a safe terrain. So on cold days like these, we tend to huddle in a closed place, possibly, around a fireplace. With a cup of freshly brewed coffee, a cozy couch, snacks and friends, we banter through the coldness and simmer with nostalgia. We are inclined to share long tales about how we ended up in America, the colors of our journey and all the reasons that go with it. And on the side, we recover anecdotes, misadventures and questions; contemplations of who we are as Filipinos. And here is mine.
In a picturesque town of Ocana, a little hamlet in Spain, the Castilian province of Toledo, there are kids whose impression of a Filipino was based on an old television Martial Arts character named “Kung Fu Kane”. They assume that all Orientals are Chinese and that all Asians know Kung Fu, or whatever they call that art. At the Taiwanese Customs of Taipei International Airport, sullen guards inspected everyone. When my turn came, one of them blurted, “Como esta usted?” Puzzled, I responded, “Muy bien, gracias!”. I handed my passport. With a thick Chinese accent, the officer said, “I used to work in Mexico”. I kept quiet. I was not even sure if he was talking to me. As he browsed at my passport, he looked startled. Finally, he stamped a page. “Sorry”, the officer said. “You look so much like a Mexican”.
The horde of people at the Los Angeles Airport is overwhelming. I found relief to see others with a skin as tan as mine. If I were lucky, I could probably converse with someone in my own tongue and twang. The luggage handler’s nose was not that high. He had ebony black hair and a dark tan. He helped pull heavy luggage out of the carousel. “Kumusta po kayo”, I asked. “Sorry man, I know what you mean. My parents are from the Philippines, but I grew up here. I don’t speak Tagalog. Speak English. You are now in America”.
I wandered. It will not be after an hour at least that my connecting flight to Chicago would depart. I looked around. I watched and eavesdropped. “Hoy”, said an older man to an arriving passenger. “Ay, naku”, responded the other. After nodding their heads up to greet each other, they hugged. “Where are your luggage”, asked the older man. The newcomer pointed with his lips. He was referring to the “Balikbayan” boxes on the carousel. I saw the box. “From Jhun Valdez, Sampaloc, Manila” were inscriptions written in bold ink. Auntie Baby is not a baby. She is 66 years old, a relative of a relative. We might not even be related. She is an aunt nonetheless, just like all the elderly neighbors of our baranggay are. Actually, she is a grandmother. Ting-Ting, her granddaughter is often smothered with smelling kisses. It was Ting-Ting’s thirteenth birthday. As always, Auntie Baby gave her a dozen underwears matched with pajamas and a cute pair of tsinelas. I can still smell the scent of her house. Parties there were always a culinary bacchanalia. Come hungry was the slogan of her “fiesta”.
I walked around the airport lobby. Might as well get something to eat. I asked for a “soft drink”. The waiter smirked. “We don’t sell hard drinks here anyway”, he remarked. “Do you want juice, pop or coffee?” I looked at him with disbelief. “Where did this man come from?”, I silently told myself. “He does not know what a soft drink is?” “A glass of Coke would do”, I answered. And off he went.
As I waited, I saw a cramped up old issue of “The Philippine Review” on the table. Without really knowing what to read, I just randomly opened the pages until I arrived on a one page article that looked more like a self-test than a write up. “Are you Really Filipino? 115 Ways to Find Out”. That was the title. I continued reading…
Confused about your ethnic identity. Want to know just how Filipino you are? Take this less-than-scientific quiz to rate your Filipino-ness. You might just be surprised at the results. Give yourself 3 points if you can relate to the following characteristics yourself… (The Philippine Review, August 1995 edition)
I looked at my watch. The overhead speaker announced, “Flight 612 destination Chicago at Gate 7 is now boarding”. As I walked towards my gate, I saw other Filipinos do the same. Wherever we go, no matter what biased perception other people might have of us, no matter how doubtful we could be of our own identity, I guess there will always be more than a hundred subtle traits only Filipinos can have. I boarded the plane. Like the journey of our nation, I am starting my own. But deep within, not in my carry on, not in my western attire, not in my mixed hybrid looks, is the heart and soul of a Filipino. We all are…
There is more to this story that I can write as there is more to talk about than what we can read. Our journey to this country did not end in America. It started back home. The starting point for humans is always more relevant than its end. Birth is more significant than death. Likewise, our birthplace bears a heavier historical relevance than where our lives conclude. We can be U.S. citizens or any other citizen of any other country we so choose, but the blood from which we came will be our only (genetic) identity.
In the midst of all the laughter, the jokes and the tales, the cold weather will soon pass, the warm air will be back, and then our yards will once again clamor for the grass to be cut. The space for thoughts and words are as limited as the time for youth. We digress. We go around. We pause. And then we move on.
And then my friend asks, “so what are the 115 ways to find out if you are a Filipino?”
“Oh that one”, I responded. “I kept the article somewhere”.
Unfortunately, I do not have enough space to write everything at this moment. I am already late as it is. Despite the strong seductions of a warm place and warm friend to talk to, we still have to go to work. I will have to let you know next time.