Olivia Rodrigo, Saweetie, HER, Bruno Mars: Filipino Americans
During a watch party for “The OC” in his early twenties, a friend’s roommate leaned in conspiratorially.
“You know she’s half-Filipina,” he whispered, pointing to Summer Roberts, the pretty brunette played by actress Rachel Bilson. “Like you.”
“Eh.” I squinted and bit my cheek. I looked closer, analyzing the bronze of her skin, the width of her nose, the deep brown of her eyes. Could she be? Really?
When I got back to the computer desk in my apartment, I did what any curious Filipino would have done in 2003: I called Al Gore’s internet, typed www.askjeeves.com in my Firefox browser and waited (and waited) for some sort of confirmation.
“Is Summer Roberts Filipino?”
“Filipino OC actress?”
“Filipino actress The OC TV show?”
Jeeves had no answers.
Filipino? We are not easily categorized
My quest for representation was a decade too early. The technology that would eventually connect me to Filipino Americans all over the United States was still being perfected. In my small town in Robert E. Lee County, Florida, I always felt alone.
What I had was a list of “Filipino Hopefuls,” a file hidden among my Word documents listing rumored Filipino celebrities: that guy from the Black Eyed Peas; this girl from the Pussycat Dolls; Rob Schneider; Enrique Iglesias. And now Rachel Bilson. Perhaps.
The problem with being Filipino is that we are not easily categorized.
Filipino Americans are the third largest subset of the Asian American population, which, according to recent census data, is now the fastest growing ethnic group in the USA. In this broad and growing category, Filipino Americans trail only Chinese Americans and American Indians, with 2.9 million of us spread far and wide across those 50 states. We’ve infiltrated Alaska, Maine and the two Dakotas.
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And yet, who are we?
“Who are the Filipinos?”
Ask Jeeves today and you’ll get 62 million results, starting with a dating site that promises, “Sincere man meets women from the Philippines (sic)”.
A better answer would be that we are the product of centuries of colonization. We are a Southeast Asian archipelago so disputed, so invaded, so “saved” by our invaders – 377 years under Spanish colonization; 48 years under American colonization; a brief but violent Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945 – that our sense of identity has become as fractured as our 7,100 islands.
To survive our colonizers, Filipinos had to adapt. Filipino American writer and sociologist Anthony Ocampo called Filipinos “racial chameleons.” We tend to conform to our surroundings. And when we are pushed out of an environment, like my mother was when she left Metro Manila in 1978 to support her parents and six younger siblings as a nurse allowed in a Florida town she had never heard of, we adapt to where we end up.
Quickly and efficiently. Perhaps too quickly and efficiently.
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My mother perfected the already solid English she had learned in her scheduled schools in the United States. She fell in love with My White Dad and Stevie Wonder and “Facts of Life” and Meatloaf (like Spam but beefy!). She bled into her surroundings. All in the two years before my birth in 1980.
This has long been the Filipino American way. We came to the United States as nurses, doctors, workers. We arrived quietly, happy to have an opportunity, something that centuries of colonization eradicated from our homeland. We tried to blend in.
And yet, like so many minority groups, we have always longed for representation.
When I was younger, I used to get upset when a dark-haired stranger approached me in a store. I saw them watching me, moving closer until I was within earshot.
“Pilipina ka ba? they would say.
I nodded, then answered in English because my mother considered Tagalog useless in America.
“Only half,” I told them.
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And women would clap their hands or run their fingers through my black hair or puff on my wide, flat nose like a puppy.
“I knew it! Ayé nako! I say to my husband: It’s Pilipina that one! I knew it!”
I realize now that these women were www.askjeeves.com-me. They needed connection so badly that they let their curiosity get the better of their ways.
Fortunately, so much has changed.
We need to know we’re not alone
At this month Grammys, when Olivia Rodrigo, Saweetie, HER, Bruno Mars and Rob Schneider’s daughter, Elle King, won awards, Filipinos shouted it from the rooftops, “These are our people! Watch them shine!
Later that week, when the University of Kansas basketball guard Remy Martin draped the Filipino flag on his shoulders while cradling the NCAA National Championship trophy, we shouted again. Right after that, when Kasama in Chicago became the first Filipino restaurant in the United States to earn a coveted Michelin star, we cleared our throats, sipped calamansi help and screamed some more.
These victories felt like a balm, a plate of cut fruit delivered from the universe after months and years of Asian hatred, of our lolas and titas beaten, beaten and worse. These wins don’t solve that. They are not magically remaking our mental health care system. They do not create a broader safety net or a more diverse and inclusive curriculum.
But they matter.
Like Kevin Nadal, a Filipino American professor and researcher in psychology, written in December in Psychology Todayrepresentation can help reduce negative stereotypes: “The more people are exposed to or have contact with groups different from themselves, the less likely they are to harbor prejudices. »
These victories should give hope to Filipino Americans and Asian Americans. We need to see ourselves doing, winning, triumphing. We need to see our dreams lived out by people who share our heritage. We need to know that we are not alone.
Rachel Bilson, it turns out, doesn’t share that legacy. She is half jewish and half italian, by Google. And that’s okay. I needed her 20 years ago, but look at all the Filipinos I have now.
Annabelle Tometitch is a food writer and food critic for the Fort Myers News-Press and the Naples Daily News, part of the USA TODAY Network. She spent 15 years writing reviews under the French-sounding pseudonym “Jean Le Boeuf“, before revealing herself as a half-Filipino woman in 2021. This column originally published in the News-Press. Follow her on Instagram (@abellewrites) and Twitter (@atometich).