[Originally Published 05.29.2013]
I saw this video on FB this afternoon. My wife and I had a good laugh but it got me thinking…
Although it’s been a long time, I’ve been asked “Where are you from?” many times. This question sometimes came in the form of “What are you?” As a kid, the question didn’t really bother me. However, as I grew older, I started to understand the implications of those questions more.
I was born in the Philippines to Filipino parents. My dad enlisted in the United States Navy in the 1970s and he brought my mom and me to the US when I was still a baby. I became a naturalized citizen of the United States when I was kid. I grew up in and assimilated to American culture and society… or so I thought. Despite being a self-proclaimed coconut (brown on the outside, white on the inside), I didn’t look American to some so I was still an ‘other’ or outsider.
It was weird to be in my position as a kid. I’d visit my relatives in the Philippines and they saw me as American. I’d live my live in American society and be seen as a Filipino… or whatever ethnic group I was mistaken for. I’d sometimes question myself, “What was I, then?”
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t grow up a victim of a lot overt racism. In fact, I probably reaped the benefits of my model minority status as a kid and teenager. I spent my teenage years on naval bases in Alaska and Sicily where there was always a diverse group of kids that accepted each other. Race and ethnicity was never really an issue in my circles in high school.
Still, regardless of how American I thought I was, I was sometimes reminded that I wasn’t perceived as such. One time, during my senior year in high school (1993), I was part of a group of students traveling back to our base in Sicily from a science fair in Germany. At the the airport in Rome, a peer and I were held up in customs for several minutes while the agents were scrutinizing over our American passports while the rest of our classmates and teacher were waiting for us on the other side. They were easily waved through the gate while my classmate of Jewish descent and I were anxiously waiting for the customs agents to stop deliberating on whether or not we were actually American. I remember my teacher trying to advocate for us. Like I said, it was only several minutes, but under stress it felt like forever.
Now as an adult, I do get bothered by the assumption that I’m not an American. I may not react like the woman in the video but I do feel like people need to understand that America is not really a melting pot. Obviously, my affinity for being American didn’t melt me and make me look like everyone else. Thankfully so! Whether someone chooses to hyphenate their identity as an American or not, we are all American here, regardless of our ethnic heritage, or rather, because of our ethnic heritage. It’s America’s diversity that makes it so great!
So where am I from? Right now, I’m from Orange County, CA.
Where are you from? 😉