What Does It Mean To Be Filipino Living In America?

by Emil Guillermo

If people want to see what it’s like to be Filipino American, there’s a new movie that will show you on the big screen.

Yes, Nico Santos was a player in that summer of 2018 hit, “Crazy Rich Asians.” But now four years later, Jo Koy is out with his Steven Spielberg-approved “Easter Sunday,” a film about Filipino American life in the enclave south of San Francisco known as Daly City. Catch it in theaters. But mask up and don’t catch anything else.

This week in Seattle, the Filipino American National Historical Society is holding its national convention celebrating 40 years of existence. Readers of my columns here know the group as a resource for tapping into the legacy of Filipino American life.

But what if people just wanted a quick reference to know how Filipinos felt about being Filipino in America?

The Pew Research Group has come up with a new tool based on 66 focus groups with 264 people, going over 18 Asian ethnic groups in 18 languages.

And they all asked this question: “What does it mean to be (you can pick an ethnicity from Bangladeshi to Vietnamese and everything in between) living in America?”

I’m no expert, but I am a Filipino over 50, so I wanted to see what “Filipinos over 50” thought about living in America, and this was the answer:

“I am just experiencing a current identity crisis with myself as a Fil-Am because of what has happened in the past year with COVID… There’s this struggle in me that I’m, well, I’ve been forced to assimilate (in the U.S.) and now what do I do? I still feel like I want to share my culture (and) I want to talk about it, hence my career as a teacher.”

Whoa! I read that and related instantly. “Current identity crisis” indicates we Filipinos as ethnic Americans are constantly evolving in our relationship with this country.

“Forced to assimilate.” Was it forced? Reluctant? It just happened. The America part just sunk in.

“Now what do I do?” Well, she could go see the Jo Koy movie with her non-Filipino friends and then see me talk at the FANHS Conference about my new solo stage show.

But you see how just reading a quote can help us understand another fellow Filipino traveler instantly. Just the one quote I picked at random manages to capture a feeling, in this case, one of alienation that we all recognize, whether we’re first generation, second generation, or even third.

The tool is called an “interactive quote sorter.”

It can be helpful to develop a basic understanding of one another that might lead to a deeper sense of empathy.

Pew might be able to tell you that the Census shows that Filipinos grew by 78% between 2000 and 2019 to 4.2 million.

But numbers can’t talk. The focus group tool adds a human context to the numbers.

Not only can you test it for Filipinos, but you can also learn about other communities.For example, the tragic news of four Muslims recently killed in Albuquerque has left the entire Muslim American community in a state of “managed panic,” according to a report in the New York Times.

No one is calling it a hate crime yet, not until a motive has been established. Still, there is that sense of fear. One man is quoted as saying he won’t go back to the Muslim center because he feels like “bait.”

As I read the story in California, I went to the Pew tool, and put in “Pakistani, Under 50.”

And here was a quote that came up from a US-born man of Pakistani origin, 30, answering the question, “What does it mean to be Pakistani living in America?”

“You’re Indian,” the man said. “You’re not Pakistani, and for the rest of the world, like we’re not even a blip on the map. Nobody cares unless there’s an attack. That’s the only time we’re relevant in the news—like that’s why we’re invisible. People don’t even know anything about us, nor do they care to so if you’re standing in a sea of brown, you’re just brown. That’s it.”

Eerily, the quote from interviews at least a year ago captures the feeling now.

The quote tool is my favorite among the set of research aids from Pew. I like less the 30-minute documentary that was released simultaneously, about which I have a slight complaint. In the doc, we hear from Chinese Americans, including a father and his son. There are Japanese Americans talking about the internment. And Pakistanis and Sikhs, who talk of 9/11 and the discrimination Muslims face.And then the doc is over. All important stuff, but how can there be no reference to Filipinos?

Filipinos are the third largest group among Asian Americans, but also the first colonized Americans, who came to the U.S, no papers needed. One Vietnamese woman talks about how refugees who fled war were different from those who came for opportunity, but what of the colonized Filipinos who sought democracy direct on the mainland? They weren’t fleeing war, but the Philippine-American War colonized them.

In the U.S., Filipinos went through all the pains other Asian immigrants did and more. Exclusion, lynching, anti-miscegenation. Add colonization, and Filipino Americans are a people with deep psychological scars, that for some, have yet to heal.

It just shows how complex we Asian Americans are.So, I’m not keen on Pew’s mini-documentary, but give me the quote sorter to provide a quick sense of what Asian Americans are feeling about living in this country.

Read the headlines, then check back with the tool to see how it matches or adds to your perceptions.Filipinos in Hawaii, anywhere, might just assume we’re full of aloha toward others, maybe other Filipinos especially. But after playing around with the Pew tool, you may find how little we know about all the other folk standing with us under our big “Asian American” umbrella.

EMIL GUILLERMO is a journalist and commentator. He was an editorial board member for the Advertiser and a columnist for the Star-Bulletin. The former host of “All Things Considered” in Washington, DC, writes from California.

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