The Easy Parts

by Tashiana Seebeck

Here's a problematic confession: It is easy for me to forget that I'm not Filipino.

I’m white. I can remember when I noticed it for the first time. My friend's cousin's friend's 21st birthday party, two streets down from mine, flattened the front yard with a taco truck that provided coverage for sneaking beers from the garage. We split a plate of pancit bihon and watched a family’s conga line pass by. The party left a strange aftertaste, unfamiliarity from seeing a friend's intimate parts, and in retrospect I realized I was the only non-Filipino in attendance.

Most of high school passed the same way. It was sunny Orange County, California—one of the largest Filipino-American communities in the country—and I didn't think much of identity. So why did I rush to the Filipino club my first week at New York University, hoping for a sense of home? What does it mean to identify with a culture that doesn't belong to you?

At that time, it meant education. I decided to take Tagalog classes because I knew how to say mahal kita and putangina mo . I thought it’d be fun. Easy. I had so many Filipino friends to talk with. Incompleted aspect markers and object focus verbs? No sweat.

On the first day of class we were given a piece of colored construction paper. Mine was orange. We were tasked with folding, crumpling, ripping, or otherwise changing the paper into a representation of Filipino culture. My classmates built houses and stars and plates of food.

I made a basketball.

It felt wrong. Obviously, I had a lot to learn and even more to unlearn. Briefly, I considered dropping the class. Should I bother interfacing with my friends’ culture when I would inevitably hurt them with microaggressions and overt misunderstanding? Was it really my place to sit in that class and pretend secondhand experience was relevant?

I stayed anyway.I stayed because I fell in love with Tagalog.I stayed because the people I met in NYU’s International Filipino Association are amazing; generous, funny, inspirational people, who step out of their way to embrace others with wide-open hearts. Some are Filipino. Some are kinda' Filipino. Some, like me, are anything but. At the end of the day, it didn’t really matter. There's something rare and precious about an organization willing to throw open its doors to everyone, and that’s a reflection of the culture’s hospitality. It made learning easier.

Soon my best friend’s lola started talking to me in rapidfire Tagalog. Although she sometimes used Pampampangin words or I lost track of the conversation, we still sat on the couch together, a variety show forgotten on the TV, as she gestured with her lips to her grandson. “ Matalino siya ,” she said, “ pero hindi niya naiintindihan ang wika .”

She said, If only my grandson learned Tagalog like you did. He’s so smart and handsome. But he doesn’t know everything. Teach him, teach him!

Later at the table my friend whispered, “What did you and Grandma talk about? Me?” “Yes.”

“What did she say?”

I didn’t know how to tell him that she seemed happy, proud, and very sad, all at once. “All good things,” I said.

“Wow,” he said, “You’re more Filipino than I am.” It wasn’t the first or last time I heard that.

It can be uncomfortable. Sometimes I’ll witness a parent tease and ridicule their child to their face, then turn and immediately sing their praises to a stranger. Why does that happen? Why are the criticisms directed inward and the compliments directed outward, so that your child thinks of themselves as mataba instead of malakas ?

On more than once occasion I’ve been asked to teach somebody’s niece, sibling, cousin, to speak Tagalog. Why do they feel more comfortable asking me, an American, to teach their language? Rather than passing it on themselves? It was an aspect of the culture I couldn’t wrap my head around.

Last summer, one of my best friends and I met for coffee and tried to catch up on each other’s gossip in Tagalog. I regressed into Taglish, she encouraged me, we argued over the best silog dishes.

Then she went quiet and asked, “Tasha, what do you do with your white privilege?”

I was shocked. I didn’t have an immediate answer, and I knew just by looking at my friend—my beautiful, strong, immigrant friend who learned English through High School Musical at twelve years old—that she deserved more than an immediate answer.

And I guess I’m still trying to answer that question.

What I’ve learned is this: Filipinos are the type to send you home with thirty pounds of leftovers. They will compliment you to the moon and back, they are generous to a fault, they sing and dance and love without shame or reservation. They’re non-confrontational, cheerful, proud. Filipinos will see an acquaintance down the hall, change directions to give them a bear hug, and spend an unscheduled thirty minutes chismising . They have always welcomed me to take ownership over whatever aspects of Filipino culture I identified with as a kid. For some people, that's a home-cooked meal, and for others, that's waiting for 11:11 and wishing to look like the kids next door.

I’ve had a bird’s eye view into the Fil-Am community my entire life. That doesn’t make me an expert. Wrestling with personal identity in a diasporics pace is nuanced and lovely and painful. I won't ever understand that, not really. I’m not reclaiming anything.

But I’m so grateful and humbled that I get to watch.

To my friends, thank you for inviting me into your homes in so many ways. I can easily see that America may be in the heart, but the Philippines is in the soul.