by Nelia Dingcong Bernabe
November 1, 2012
I remember like it was just yesterday. It was the first day of grad school and walking into a classroom at this Big Ten University in Evanston, Illinois many moons ago made me think, “If aliens landed on earth, this must be how they felt!” Panic-stricken, I briskly walked over to an empty seat at the back of the room hoping that nobody saw me. Wishful thinking!
Compounded by the jarring first-day-of-school jitters, I remember the stark visuals hitting me like a ton of bricks. In a roomful of people – except for one girl who was an American-born Korean – I realized I was pretty much the self-appointed token minority (I say that with utmost respect).
My jet-black hair and ethnic skin color stood out like the ubiquitous balikbayan box at the check-in counter of an international airport in a sea of blonds, redheads, fair skin, and blue eyes. Worse, my “vestal” feet just touched the hallowed grounds of this great country a mere four days prior to classes starting, throwing my plan to seamlessly settle in off-kilter.
But true to form, the Pinoy in me took over. I was not about to let anybody know that I felt like a fish out of water. So I masked the big knot in the pit of my stomach, threw my shoulders back, held my head high, and hit the launch button of my adventure pad and never looked back. Well, except when I had to make a pit stop at White Hen Pantry (7-Eleven’s predecessor) to pick up my power breakfast: brownie and orange juice. Oh, the looks and comments I got from my classmates! “You eat that (pointing to the brownie) for breakfast?” one of them asked. What’s wrong with my brownie in the morning? I thought. You guys guzzle down cans of Coke for breakfast, what’s the difference?
And my whirlwind indoctrination to the American life commenced. Through the kindness of my American classmates, I was introduced to the nuances of my new life in a new land. Scary, yes, but by readjusting my focal lens, I was able to glean that it was up to me to rewrite the underlying theme of my new life; I could either make it fun or hide in the shadows.
It was a crisp late spring evening when I arrived in America. Getting out of O’Hare, I remember my heart pounding and feeling overwhelmed. Although it’s been over twenty years, I remember every vivid detail. I remember the cool breeze touching my face, the yellow lights flickering from the street lamps, and the twists and turns of the expansive highways all around me. I remember saying to myself, “I’m really here!”
As expected, a series of anecdotal mishaps allowed me to run with the ups and downs that life in a new land presented. Without family and friends, I learned to look left and right when I crossed the street lest I’ll be tagged as Jane Doe at the morgue in case a bus hits me. The thought that no one was going to claim me terrified me to say the least.
Or that time when I paid my first visit to the grocery store after being in this country only a few hours. Not knowing that the glass doors were automatic, I had the biggest fright when all of a sudden they opened. You think Kermit (the frog) can leap that high? You should have seen how high I jumped back when it happened! To my defense, it was 1989 people, and I just got here!
Chicago is a beautiful city but our winters here are quite brutal. I knew that except the part when everything turns icy after a snowfall. Needless to say, I wasn’t laughing when I landed on my behind right in front of my dorm on Lake Shore Drive for everyone to see. Over twenty years later, it’s still not funny. I lied. It’s hilarious!
Then there was my good friend who yelled at me for not wearing socks in the middle of winter. I’m an island girl, for crying out loud, we don’t wear socks (if we can help it) in the islands I told her.
There were plenty of awkward moments through the years but if there’s one thing that sustained me, I’d say it is humor, hands down. Humor got me through grad school, after grad school, and it has carried me through for over twenty years now. Learning to laugh at myself was and is key.
From time to time, I find myself at the receiving end of an ethnic ribbing. But I’ve learned that if you take it in stride, it becomes a window of opportunity to learn and educate people. There are no two ways about it. Subtle racism still exists like flies on a hot summer day. But unless the subtlety turns ugly, I say let it roll off your back.
I’ve learned to jockey my being bicultural anytime I get a chance. It is a gift to experience the fusion of two worlds – totally different but embodies the same values and beliefs – and to put forth a perspective from someone who is truly proud of where she came from and where she is now. It’s like being that creamy filling of an Oreo cookie—it’s what makes the experience complete and worthwhile. It allows one to be in the front seat and at the center of progressive thinking and open-mindedness on issues pertaining to life in general and what matters the most.
Bottom line is it’s okay to be different and accept that you are different. I can never change who I am but I know I can show people what it means to juggle two cultures on a daily basis. Instead of getting defensive, I’ve learned that sharing my perspective in a kind and respectful way always gets the attention and the retention. One does not need to conform to be part of the mainstream and feeling like an oddball or perceived as one is really not that bad.
Melding two cultures together is no cakewalk. It takes time to find that happy medium, to be comfortable in your own skin. But once you’re there, playing a game of Tumba Patis (an Ilonggo street game) and Baggo shouldn’t be a problem. It’ll be as easy as speaking Ilonggo or Tagalog one moment and switching back to English in a second, or vice versa.
At work recently we decided to order from a popular barbecue place in town courtesy of our boss who bought us lunch for a job well done. Everyone ordered sandwiches with something “pulled.” You know, pulled pork, pulled chicken, brisket, that sort of thing. Well, except me. As we sat down to eat, a friend asked, “You ordered chicken salad from a barbecue place?” To which I replied, “Yes, and what’s wrong with that?” I won’t buy shoes from a hardware store but who’s to say I can’t have salad at a barbecue place?
Here’s the deal. If that barbecue place had chicken adobo on their menu, you’re darn right I would’ve ordered it!