“Three centuries in convent and fifty years in Hollywood”—this is how historians facetiously describe the history of the Philippines. Having been under colonial rule for hundreds of years, we, Filipinos, don’t take the matter of identity lightly.
Growing up, I was always reminded by my parents and mentors to be proud of who I am, to be appreciative of my culture, and to never forget where I come from. I’d like to believe that these have always been ingrained in my consciousness, but I must admit that there had been times when I had some questions about the importance of identity. Nobody could have articulated my doubt as Chuck Palahniuk, an American writer, who asked, “If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?” It is this question that kept on nagging me, and it is one question whose answer I partly found in the United States as a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant in 2007.
Identity is a sensitive issue, and it can be defined using different lenses. For me, identity is something that distinguishes one from another. Most people want to be identified by how much money they have, or how many titles they can attach to their names, or how much clout they have, or how many people they know from whom they can expect favors. I’d rather be defined by my roots and by what I do best—teach. And the funny thing is, since I started teaching, I realized that my being a Filipino and my being a teacher are complementary. Both realities enrich and reinforce each other. The Filipino values I hold—amiability, hospitability, sense of community, etc.—come in handy in my teaching profession. And the values I learn as a teacher make me a better Filipino.
Seemingly, I never had any problem with my identity. However, when I got my Fulbright scholarship, I began having some doubts. I didn’t know how much of myself I can bring to my experience in the US. Sure, it was made clear to us, scholars, that we’re supposed to be native speakers and cultural informants, and I completely understood what roles we needed to assume in our respective institutions. But somehow, I had some reservations. I wasn’t so sure how receptive the students were of the language and culture I was supposed to share. Or to be more blunt, how much of my Filipino-ness would be welcomed in the US?
I was so relieved that my assignment was at Skyline Community College, and there, I was given a more than comfortable space to be who I am. First of all, I was assigned in a place densely populated by Filipinos. When I arrived at San Francisco International Airport, I was a bit disoriented because with all the brown faces I saw, it seemed like I was back in NAIA. When I went around the city, the bus drivers looked like my uncles in the Philippines, the cashiers like my aunts or cousins. Everywhere I turned, there’s someone who looked like me. And so the unthinkable happened: I felt like I had never left home.
When I started my teaching assistantship duties, I found out that I would be serving a community of predominantly Filipino-Americans enrolled under the Kababayan Program. I soon realized that although our experiences were different, our being Filipino will always be a tie that binds us. It was very refreshing to see so many young people who were passionate to learn about their heritage and who were so open to celebrating their Filipino-ness. I was supposed to be the “cultural informant,” but my role was expanded because I, too, learned a lot about the Filipino culture from the students. There were innumerable instances when I was amazed by an aspect of our culture. It was not that I didn’t know about it; it was just that I didn’t care too much about it until someone pointed how important it is. Clearly, sharing the Filipino culture and learning it from another perspective is a process that reinforces my pride as a Filipino.
And the thing about identity, it seems, is that no matter how personal it can be, it can be strengthened, nourished, and validated once it is celebrated. At least that’s how I felt. I went to the United States proud of my identity—being a Filipino and being a teacher. I came back prouder because my experiences there have made me more appreciative of what I have. I felt like the words of a famous character in history could not be more appropriate: “I came, I saw, I conquered!”