News & Events
U.S. Fulbright Student Michelle Zabat Writes About Re-discovering Her Filipino-American Identity in the Philippine Setting
Tuesday, 9 October 2018

[I drive everywhere at home but might (mostly metaphorically but also maybe literally) die before I willingly drive here–the motorcycles materialize from out of nowhere, the lane lines are merely a feeble suggestion, the Manila traffic is every bit as bad as they say it is… Lucban, Quezon.]

I seem to confuse a lot of people here in the Philippines, in a way that is sometimes amusing to me but is often entirely perplexing to others. Really, it’s understandable. I have the features of a Filipina, with dark hair to match. Despite a lifetime of Midwestern and East Coast winters, I’m not particularly light-skinned even among the people who have lived their entire lives in this sun-baked tropical archipelago. I’ve been doing my best to dress as those around me do, even though the thought of wearing jeans in this heat and humidity was (and still is, honestly) laughable to me only a month ago. But just as quickly as my appearance sets expectations, my manner and presence seem to defy them.

In many ways, I can understand it. Physically, I think I’m a little hard to digest. For one, I’m relatively tall here, which is a wholly unfamiliar experience that itself demands some level of attention. I’m also built quite differently from most of the other women around me. I don’t think I appear particularly athletic in the context of the U.S., but here I’m bulky enough that people–even strangers–tend to comment on it. It’s made going to the gym here (and trying to keep up with powerlifting programming) an interesting experience. It seems I call the most attention to myself when I’m working out, not only through the sheer strangeness of a woman lifting weights (at least by the standards out here in the province, where I’m based), but also with my broader stature and even my attire. Running shorts and t-shirts are already “conservative” for me by my beach volleyball standards–clearly this is an assessment that I need to readjust!

[The culture towards hiking and mountaineering here is so different than it is in the States–it’s all about the camaraderie among your companions rather than the sport of it. Different, certainly, but not unenjoyable! Less enjoyable is my inability to find any shirts that fit my shoulders. Mt. Pulag summit (peak 5).]

I also fully expect my American accent to always give me away, but oftentimes even before I open my mouth I think people can tell just by looking at me. But you look Filipino! is a common exclamation I’ve heard over the last few weeks. I do, and I am, and I have always been aware that there is a stark difference between the Filipino experience and the Filipino-American experience. But this is the first time that I have had to navigate walking the line between the two. In the States, it’s easy: I am Filipino, and nobody ever really has the context they would need to dig deeper into that statement. But here, my clarification that I am Filipino-American recontextualizes me in a way that seems to make me easier to comprehend. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that readjustment entails.<

It’s such a change for me, swapping out my usual I’m Filipino for Amerikano ako. These identities are ones that I have always intertwined at home; here, I’m constantly reminding myself to untangle them. For a country with so many ties to the U.S.–through national history, via cultural conduits, with the thousands of overseas Filipino workers that journey to the States –it’s surprising that my claim to both of these titles is perplexing to so many. People here always speak to me in Tagalog because they perceive me as Filipino. But when my limited Tagalog (which is improving, slowly!) forces me to defer to English, my ethnicity is immediately and curiously thrown into question. Japanese? Chinese? Korean? It’s interesting to me how unfathomable my Filipino-American upbringing seems to be to many people here.

[One small Fil-Am in a sea of elegant Filipina women at the most beautiful wedding! The Maria Clara dress/Baro’t Saya is the traditional wear for women. Alabang, Muntinlupa City, NCR]

But really, this shouldn’t surprise me. Again: the Filipino-American experience is vastly different than the Filipino experience. I think that this is especially true for first-generation Fil-Ams who are raised firmly planted in the States, and who grew up under the care of parents who–broadly generalizing a pattern also observed by many of my Fil-Am friends–were exceedingly reluctant to talk about the country that they came from. There is inherent privilege in simply possessing an American passport, and the consequences and implications that come along with that privilege leave indelible marks on even the most obscure facets of the Fil-Am persona.

I am no exception. Try as I might to blend in, I think there’s something about the way that I carry myself that singles me out. I haven’t figured out exactly what or why that is. This apparent peculiarity is strange to me, though, because simply being here already dampens my personality in a way that I haven’t experienced in years, and that I had hoped would help mitigate any other glaring Fil-Am peculiarities. I don’t mean this in a bad way; rather, it’s a phenomenon that I fully expected but nonetheless still find hard to explain.

Filipino culture–especially family culture–leans heavily on reverence and deference. It means exhibiting only the utmost respect to elder family members and faithfully performing familial duties as a sign of obedience; these behaviors are especially expected of children, whose opinions are considered to be less valuable than those of their elders. This pervasive sense of filial piety serves to protect the family as a whole from experiencing hiya, or shame. Walang hiya–in English, “no shame”–is a common critical epithet lobbied at those who fail to adhere to accepted social expectations, whether within the family or even more broadly.

[Light play at dusk. National Museum of Natural History, Manila]

My parents raised my brother and me in a household that was relatively progressive on this front, even by American standards. Perhaps that’s why the contrast between the behavior commonplace for us at home and that expected of us around relatives or close Filipino family friends was so startling; I never realized how accustomed I’d gotten to unreservedly speaking my mind (or sometimes getting snippy with my parents–oops!) until I found myself in situations where I was expected not to. All throughout childhood, these moments when deference and timidity were most valued was when I was in explicitly Filipino contexts. Now, here in the Philippines, that same behavior arises almost automatically in me. It’s like having a tita–an aunt– call you by your childhood nickname and immediately, instinctively resuming the obedient posture you would have as a child.

And so I do. So easily, especially here. It feels only natural, and–strange as this might sound from an American viewpoint–I am far from believing that it’s a bad thing. I’m a relatively quiet person to begin with, and in many scenarios, I feel comfortable speaking less and listening more. But this demeanor shift, paired with the Filipino propensity to be a little less direct and far less confrontational, makes me a person that moves through the world far differently than I usually do. At first glance, this might seem like a hindrance, given the hyper-competitive, fast-paced society that we live in. So much of my life over the last few years, especially in the academic realm, has been centered on figuring out how to have my voice heard; we can talk about progress all we want, but in the classroom and in the workplace, it is still far harder than it should be to convince others to listen to you, to believe you, to value you–particularly as a woman, and especially as a woman of color. It’s been quite a curious transition for me, teaching myself to soften at the edges.

[I brought this dress with me from home but love it in the context of the Philippines–brightly colored, just like everything else here on these vibrant islands, and with sleeves that subtly nod to the butterfly sleeves of the baro’t saya. Also, it’s cooler than wearing pants in this heat! National Museum of Natural History, Manila]

In scenarios like this, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of cultural dichotomy–that one way of personhood is “better” than the other. A Western perspective might interpret the relearning of silence as a step backwards for women in the workplace and world as a whole. But on the flipside, this way of being makes me more observant, more thoughtful, and more considerate–all things that are arguably just as important as competitiveness. There are vast disparities in the ways that different places believe women–and people in general–should behave, and in many respects, the assertion that one way is morally better than the other is a failure of the individual to comprehend cultural relativism.

And that, precisely, is the point: the advantages or inadequacies of a culture are all relative. A culture is real in its experience, and it is real in its consequence, but the colorful variety of cultures that pepper this planet exist within a plane and not within a hierarchy. A natural reaction to culture shock is to believe that a foreign culture exists lower than one’s native culture on some imagined hierarchy; combating the effects of culture shock requires the conscious effort to dismantle that false understanding. I’ve been lucky to not have to deal with anything of the sort–my Fil-Am upbringing was similar enough to instill many of the values and practices that are commonplace in the Philippines–but I am constantly and consciously on guard against any biases that might skew my interpretation of my experiences here.

[Buko (young coconut) piled up on the side of the road at a vendor’s stall. National Highway in Laguna]

And so, even in moments of confusion about why my presence might be so hard to comprehend–when people eye my larger arms, when I can’t fit my shoulders into any of the clothes they sell here, when folks shake their head and say what a shame! upon realizing my subpar Tagalog language skills–I remind myself that, for all the overlap between the culture of Philippine nationals and Fil-Am children, there are hidden but significant gaps in the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us. Things that seem so normal to me are as bizarre to the people here as some of the peculiarities of the Philippines are to me. That isn’t a failing of mine, or a fault of either the place I come from or the place I now find myself. It’s simply a predictable part of navigating somewhere that feels just as foreign as it does familiar–inevitable but informative all the same. And really, the opportunity to explore that contradiction is precisely why I’m here, after all.


This article originally appeared on Michelle Zabat's online blog, titled "On Understanding the Addendum."

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