Last week our gamelan ensemble from the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, D.C., performed a wayang kulit (shadow puppet play) with guest artists from Java. After our first rehearsal together, their director—realizing I couldn’t converse with him in Bahasa—asked me where I am from.
“Philippines,” my director answered for me.
“No!” I argued, surprising both of them and myself. “I’m from California!”
I’ve never really identified as Filipino, even though it’s half my blood. I’ve never identified with the quarter of English or the eighth of Irish. Maybe I accidentally embraced my eighth of mystery ethnicity.
I’ve never felt strongly like an American. I didn’t feel like a Sacramentan until I moved to Los Angeles, and I didn’t feel like a Californian until I moved to the East Coast. Davis was the only place where I truly felt like a member of a community, and even then I knew I couldn’t stay in such a small town.
My mom felt the same way. Full-blooded Filipino but a dual citizen, born in the Philippines on an American military base, raised back and forth between Okinawa and all over the United States, drawn alternately to the Bay Area and Tokyo, she told me once that she never felt like she belonged to any one place. As an army brat, it was very weird for her to live in Sacramento—in just one house, no less—continuously for 24 years.
As a result of my mom’s immigrant identity crisis, I know little of Filipino culture. Since her parents wanted to raise Americans, didn’t teach the kids Tagalog or their respective dialects, my generation is left with only a few traditional recipes, the word for fart (utot), and a giant fork and spoon in the kitchen.
Instead, my mom filled our house and her childhood anecdotes with pieces of Japanese and especially Okinawan culture. I’ve been far more interested in learning about and visiting Okinawa than I have ever been in the Philippines.
Working at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, where we celebrate the diversity of cultures in the world and help communities sustain their traditions and assert their cultural identities, I think about this issue a lot—how I don’t really do these things for myself.
But maybe through learning Okinawan music, adopting Indonesian culture through playing gamelan, and immersing myself in Peruvian or Kenyan or Chinese cultures at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, I at least carry on my mom’s identity as a cultural wanderer.
This post is a submission for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s #myhapastory project.