Some say life begins at birth, others at conception.
Mine began when my parents separately made their way to the United States.
Scratch that. Let’s go further back. My father’s part of my life started in a barrio north of Manila. My mother’s share began on a farm in the central islands of the Visayas. By any reckoning, my life began–at the least–some time in the Philippines.
That’s where my parents made their way through school and graduated to respectable professions. My mother came to the U.S. as a nurse on an immigrant visa. My father arrived on a bit more hustle; he arrived a few years later via Bangkok and Taiwan on a student visa. My father met my mother practically when he stepped off the plane. They were in their late twenties.
I am, therefore, made of Filipino parts assembled in the U.S.A. My cultural programming is just as mixed. It comes from my parents (Filipinos adapting to America), my country (America), and a whole host of other competing forces (the West Coast, religion, high school band, books I found at the public library, a group of over-developed teenagers who played varsity football and baseball, and so forth).
My most powerful influences were my parents and my country. My parents were made and programmed in the Philippines. When they arrived in the U.S. they chose to reprogram a portion of themselves as Americans. They were determined make me fully American and, as a sign of their commitment, only ever spoke to me in English. For nearly my whole life, I have only ever thought of myself as red, white, and blue through-and-through.
The truth is a bit more complex. When Asian Americans talk to each other about their heritage, they’ll often ask “When was the last time you were back?” For most second generations, a part of us is tied to the “homeland” even if we don’t speak the language and no longer have many relatives there.
It’s not just second gens, either. Whether we know it or not, there’s a part of all of us stuck back in the “home country.” Even a total rejection of that past is more denial of it than escape. Whether we’re Chinese, Irish, French, Mexican, or Nigerian, to understand ourselves fully in this land of immigrants we must look back from where we came. The values and choices of our great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents set the trajectory of our lives a lot more than our Western values like to admit.
Second gens in the U.S. have a hard time dodging our history because of our parents. They are a living link; a reminder of the Old World. Their choice to come to the U.S. set all their kids up to become Americans. It was their choice, not ours. For second gens, our parents remix us that we did not earn our Americanhood, we inherited it. Their un-Americanness also reminds us that we aren’t fully American either; part of us is still programmed with our parents’ Old World, un-American values. The conflict is subtle, complex, and difficult to understand.
That’s why I go back to the Philippines. It’s not just a vacation spot to jet in and out of to see the sights and sit on a beach. Like any journey “home” it’s about more. My visits to the the Philippines reconnect me with a part of me that rises out of the lives of my grandparents, great-grandparents, and beyond—the part of me that ran through the streets of the barrio and climbed trees on the farm.
Visiting the Old World is also about feeling my Americanness. The part of me that underestimates how much of an effect living under a stable democracy, consuming network television, and bathing in drinking water affects who I am. I see my Americanness most clearly when I experience the Philippines, a place that is both familiar and foreign. It’s the blessing and curse of being a second gen. Fit in everywhere, but nowhere at all.
In other words, I come to the Philippines to be humbled; to help me feel the whole of my life, especially the life that began before I was born.
1 I could include religion here, but the denomination my parents raised me in is a uniquely American branch of Christianity, so for now I’ll count that as America, too ↑