you are valid, you are whole

*originally published in LAKAS Zine Issue 1

I recently had a discussion with a woman from the Philippines who said to me: "Just because you’re mixed doesn’t make your experience as a Filipina any less valid." Simple as it was, that comment hellllllla resonated with me - like damn, am I really wearing my insecurity on my sleeve like that?! I realized that, as in many other situations in my life, I was being apologetic about the lightness of my skin, how I haven’t had to go through the same kind of colorist discrimination as other Pinays – but on the flip side downplaying the incredibly alienating and lonely experience of being treated differently, like I don’t exactly belong. Maybe I was kinda doing the most trying to validate my Pinay-ness, most likely since I moved to NY, where I have to endure "What are you?" more than I ever imagined.

Growing up in the Bay Area, CA (San Joooooooooo whattttt) my ethnic identity wasn't something that I really questioned. I might have been half, and not spoken Tagalog well, but I always felt very secure in and proud of being Filipina-American. Raised by my single Filipina mother, always surrounded by tons of extended family, and growing up with mostly Filipino and Asian friends, my sense of belonging within my ethnic group was basically a non-issue. Plenty of my homies, although they might have "looked" more outwardly identifiable as "Filipino", also didn't speak much of their native dialects. We definitely shared a strong Filipino-American culture and that was it. Simple. I was accepted without question within and outside of my community as Filipina; as anyone knows who grew up in the Bay where there’s tons of mixed people, markers of belonging can have more to do with your culture and identity, and not necessarily with your outward appearance.

Only upon moving to New York, where the Filipino community is definitely alive and well in pockets (shouts to Woodside, without which I would have already moved back home) but not anywhere near the situation in Cali, was I really faced with the ~deep question~ of like.... "whoooo ammmm Iiiiiii"....Without being constantly surrounded by my people, I often find myself being the only Pinay in many situations – at the club, on the train, in the neighborhoods of Flatbush and Harlem where I lived for many years, and adored; more disturbing to me, I’m sometimes the first Pinay that some people have ever met! When faced with the almost daily question, "What are you?" I've had to explain over and over that I'm half Filipina (don't even get me started on people not knowing the word hapa out here....) and been met with a lot of ignorance - "but you don't LOOK Filipino", "oh wow, that's so exotic" etc. etc. - and in a new and overwhelming environment, these reactions started to make me question my own identity; what it means to be half-Pinay when outside of my community, when it needs to become something simple and straightforward for others' understanding. What I've come to find, of course, is that my identity as a mixed-race, 1st-generation Fil-Am woman is incredibly, unsurprisingly non-simple and non-straightforward. When people say, “You don’t look Filipino” I’m often tempted to snap, “Yes, I do.” As a people we’re a culmination of centuries of colonization and waves of migration, and like all colonized peoples, we come in many shades with many different types of features. We really need to stop other-ing and shaming each other about some shit that doesn’t mean anything, an idea that the colonizers put in our head to divide us and make us hate ourselves, another method of control, to make us forget our power. We need to challenge people’s statements about skin color and the wounds they inflict, even if (especially if) they come from members of our own families.

What I do know is, healing starts with self-love. I’m learning to deflect the pain I feel when someone tells me I don’t look like who I am with the reminder that I know who I am, and the rest doesn’t matter. Maybe it brings back the sting of my mother telling me “It’s because you’re American” when I did things that displeased her. Maybe it’s my anti-assimilation, militant, feminist political leanings and that I haven’t let go of my deep anger toward our colonial past (and present) and the havoc it’s wreaked on our minds and bodies, our culture and our environment, and wanting to see myself as very separate from these faceless Evil White People in my mind. Or maybe it’s just the sadness of having a line drawn between myself and the people and culture I identify with so deeply, the longing for beautiful dark brown skin; any identifier that I, too, belong.

Sadly, it comes up often among a lot of Fil-Ams, mixed or not, that we feel there's something missing that makes us feel like "full Filipinos" – whether it’s the inability to speak the languages that connect us to our roots and homeland, or being raised in a pro-America, pro-assimilation environment that discourages any yearning for our precolonial cultures. As someone who understands that sentiment deeply, I've been teaching myself to have confidence in the validity of my experience, and hope that my self-acceptance will help me spread this acceptance to others. Reminding myself that I am not less-than. Learning to embrace that I'm not just "half-Filipina" but a "whole other.”