Bowl of rice - Photo by kittenpuff via morgueFile

Beyond adobo and rice

This was the first feature I wrote that didn’t include anecdotes in the article. I initially sent Susan Quimpo a list of about 20 questions. She very tactfully suggested I send her a shorter list.

Bowl of rice - Photo by kittenpuff1 via morgueFile

Source: morgueFile

Being a second-generation citizen is characterised by a dichotomy that resonates differently from the experiences of one’s parents. For most naturalised (first-generation) citizens, this dichotomy is acquired by choice. We can balance the memories of home with the reality of our new country of residence. For our children, who are born overseas but live a different cultural experience than their peers, growing up a product of two or more cultures can be a struggle that their parents and grandparents may not easily understand.

The US Census Bureau estimates that there are over 1.3 million first-generation US citizens and residents from the Philippines. With over 85% at least 25 years old, and over 80% living in family households, it’s not surprising that the concerns of second- and third-generation Filipino Americans have gained traction.

There are many reasons why subsequent generations lose their cultural history. Susan Quimpo, co-founder of Tagalog On Site, believes that while Filipino Americans have retained some elements of their cultural heritage—‘I know quite a few Filipino Americans who can write using the Baybayin (ancient Filipino script),’ she marvels—they have lost some pieces vital to being able to put this knowledge into context.

Sometimes, it’s a deliberate choice by their parents for practical reasons, says Quimpo, citing language as an example and the fear parents have that a foreign accent will affect their children’s prospects in the American school system. The consequence, she says, is the ‘loss of a large chunk of one’s cultural identity because language holds the key to [one’s] culture.’

Sometimes, the reason is because there is no context in mainstream American society. Quimpo cites the example of ‘[the Filipino American] child learning about George Washington crossing the Potomac. It is difficult for the (ethnically) Filipino child to relate to stories of American heroes … the child’s ancestors did not come from the Mayflower or England.’

For the third and subsequent generations, the reason can simply be a dilution of information across the generations, often inherited from one or both parents who are themselves missing pieces of their Filipino identities.

When these children are old enough to ask questions about their history, well-meaning parents can often be dismissive—‘You are now American and that is what’s important.’—instead of providing the missing information, such as language and a sense of history, to help their children validate their identities. A previous student articulated this frustration to Quimpo, saying, ‘Growing up, my [immigrant Filipino] parents always told me, “Be proud to be Filipino”, but they never taught me any Philippine language, history or culture. So what was I supposed to be proud of? Just the fact that we ate adobo and rice?’

The reality for many of these children growing up is that there is no way to avoid, deny or forget their Filipino heritage. A former student, Maria, who grew up in an upper class community in West Virginia in which only one other Filipino family lived, told Quimpo, “When I was about six years old, I’d lock myself up in the bathroom for hours. I’d rub soap all over my face, my neck, my arms. I would let the soap dry, then I’d look at the mirror and pretend to have Caucasian skin. I even invented an alternative ‘white’ name for myself – Caroline Bates!”

Tagalog On Site (TOS) is designed to meet some of the needs of these subsequent generations of Filipino Americans. Quimpo came up with the idea of a study abroad, immersion program for young Filipino Americans after discovering a generation crying out for a way to discover their cultural history, and wondering, “How can this entire generation exist in these numbers, without my generation knowing anything about them?”

TOS programs are designed to be both academic and personal. Language lessons, classroom lectures and workshops are complemented and reinforced by interactions with local communities. This combination of learning and living, explains the TOS website, is designed to provide ‘a deeper understanding of how history and circumstances have shaped the lives of the average Filipino, and how these in turn have affected our participants’ personal histories as Filipinos of the diaspora.’ Quimpo points out that ‘TOS has no political ideology or agenda. We simply seek to present the consequences of history, and show our students how the most ordinary folk have creatively faced challenges – and that is what is unique, and truly Filipino.’

Quimpo’s passion for TOS is obvious and infectious. It is clear that in attempting to teach something of value to young Filipino Americans, she, too, has learned something valuable in the process. ‘On the first year of TOS,’ she recalls, ‘I was aware that like my Filipino American students, I too had to rediscover my roots, and again find pride in what was Filipino.  I had been … living in the US for nearly a decade, and on the first year back in the [Philippines], it was easy to complain—of the traffic, the pollution, the poverty and corruption.’

The program affects each student in different ways. Some results are immediately obvious, such as an increase in Filipino language skills. ‘A student first comes into the program barely able to say, “Kumusta ka?” At the end of six weeks, the same student is writing poetry and essays in Tagalog!’ Quimpo enthuses. ‘We have been able to fully integrate Tagalog language learning with history and culture—not just in an academic sense, but with a full appreciation of what is truly Filipino.’

Indeed the experiences of many of the students can rival their parents’, who may have never had the chance to confront some of the aspects of Filipino life to which TOS provides access. ‘A lecture on the legacy of American colonization of the islands is made concrete by meeting and interacting with child victims of toxic waste from the former US bases in Clark, Pampanga,’ explains Quimpo. ‘Our students get to meet the families of the toxic waste victims; they are able to hear the stories of mothers who gave birth to children with cerebral palsy and heart disease because of toxins in their sole source of drinking water.’ How many Filipinos have ever had to face, much less live, these conditions?

The disparity between the lifestyles of rural Filipinos and middle class Americans can be deeply disturbing and Quimpo admits to being surprised by some of the participants’ reactions to the TOS experience.

Some students become deeply emotional. Quimpo recalls one such student as they watched twilight descending onto the Banaue Rice Terraces. ‘When he turned to face me,’ she recalls, ‘I saw he was on the verge of tears. He said to me, “You mean to tell me that the people who built this had the same blood that runs through my veins?  How come no one told me about all this before?”‘

Some reactions are intellectual. ‘Discussions on history, identity and social problems lasted until the wee hours of the morning,’ says Quimpo. ‘[The students] were deeply affected by the stories of the average Filipino – how people coped with everyday struggles for food and the most basic needs.’

And understandably, many experiences are profoundly personal, as with a student who took part in the first TOS program, and who became tearful at the sight of a porter carrying their luggage. ‘I thought she had lost her luggage,’ Quimpo recalls. ‘Later, she explained that she had seen the stevedore wearing nothing on his feet but cardboard pieces and scraps of fabric glued together. She said, “My father grew up in a poor peasant village in Quezon province.  He told me that as a child, he could not go to school because he had no shoes. I always thought it was a tall tale. In the US, how could anyone not afford to buy shoes? And when I saw this porter, how eager he was for work, I realized how Dad’s story was true, how impoverished he must have been.”‘

In many ways, TOS students provide fresh eyes with which to view the Philippines. Unlike their parents, they are not inured to the problems faced by Filipinos, and can apply renewed vigour to tackling them. It seems Quimpo is conscious of the vital assistance that the next generation of Filipinos overseas can offer. ‘As a teacher, I taught my students to withhold judgement and instead, use the knowledge of history to explain why things are as they are. As such, we learn to stop blaming others or ourselves, and focus energies into understanding the problems and finding creative means to solve them.’

The results of the TOS programs speak for themselves. ‘TOS alumni continue to raise funds to provide physical therapy for the victims of toxic waste in Pampanga,’ says Quimpo. ‘Quite a few have returned to the Philippines to work with non-government service organizations all over the country. They have worked to promote indigenous people’s rights in Palawan, worked with children of OFW’s [overseas Filipino workers] in San Pablo, raised funds for the school tuition of Amerasian children in Olongapo. Others have become community organizers in the US, setting up centers that fight for immigrant rights.’

But there are also private, emotional and ultimately more powerful consequences for TOS participants and their families. “Initially, like regular tourists, my Filipino American students complain of the discomforts of living in a developing country like the Philippines,” Quimpo muses. “[Gradually,] they are able to put a human face on poverty, corruption, courage and resilience. I do not know the exact moment when they experience an epiphany of sorts – but they do, and it is wonderful to watch it happen.”

The experience continues when the students return to the US. Quimpo remembers a “very intense student [who] barely spoke to me throughout the entire program. I had no clue if she gained anything from the program”. Later, Quimpo receives an e-mail from the student’s mother which speaks volumes about the lasting effect that TOS can have. “The mother said: ‘I don’t know what you’ve done to my daughter…but before she left to join your program, we had not spoken for years. Immediately after she arrived from the Philippines, she asked to have dinner with me and we spoke until dawn. Thank you for giving me back my daughter.’”

Randy Lizardo, a TOS alumni, writes, ‘Do you think you know what it means to be a Filipino American youth? What happens when an entire generation is forced to straddle two entirely different cultures?’ It is clear, from Quimpo’s stories and the numerous experiences that other TOS alumni willingly share, that the answers to these questions are different for each person. But the message is the same. Instilling in our children a sense of pride in their cultural heritage can only be possible by empowering them with the tools necessary to embrace their Filipino identity.

Quimpo offers expats a couple of tips on how to help our children retain their cultural heritage.

Teach them a Filipino language. This includes the various languages spoken in the Filipino provinces. ‘Part of our identity is inscribed in the native tongue,’ Quimpo insists. ‘To lose one’s language is to lose a significant part of your identity.’

Tell them stories of the Philippines. These can include myths, legends, songs or nursery rhymes that you learned as a child. Or you can pass on your own oral history by describing where you once lived and stories about your life back home. ‘Stories like these connect them to the homeland, and give them grounding,’ says Quimpo.

‘Teaching [children] their ethnic heritage will give them a sense of pride and security,’ explains Quimpo. ‘When they cannot relate to the history of the Mayflower or to George Washington, they know that they too have a rich history that comes from a land their parents call the Philippines.’

This article was first published in the April/May 2006 issue of PINOYexpats, an e-zine for Filipino expatriates. Tagalog On Site is a non-profit organisation that seeks to provide a holistic introduction to Philippine history, culture and contemporary life through study-abroad programs for second- and third-generation overseas Filipinos.

The accompanying photo is by kittenpuff1 via morgueFile.

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2 thoughts on “Beyond adobo and rice

  1. Pingback: » IN THE MOTHERLAND: Some notes to folks who’ve encountered my attempts at Tagalog The FilAm

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