My son and daughter are first-generation Asian American. Their father, my ex-husband, was a Fulbright scholar from the Philippines. My son inherited from his father his dark eyes, darker-hued skin, and the broad Pinoy nose. My daughter got her father’s eyes, the shape of the face, and the same kind of nose.
Beyond these attributes, my kids got little from their father. They didn’t pick up a particular diction, or word use, or a whole diet of interesting foods. I was their main parent, and I am the daughter of a South Side Chicago Irish girl and a Milwaukee Polack. I learned a few words in Tagalog (mostly profanity), a few dishes (word is, I make a very authentic chicken adobo), but by and large, their upbringing was pretty white. If any culture influenced the food they ate as children, it was southern food; beans, rice, fried chicken, biscuits, okra, pecan pie.
My son has been mistaken for having Hispanic or African American heritage. My daughter, our pale-skinned beauty, is doggedly mistaken for Italian. They have had to work hard to convince their peers they’re Asian. It doesn’t help that they don’t know much about their father’s culture. If I could go back and change one thing about their childhoods, I would have gotten them involved in some Filipino cultural activities early on, so they’d have something to carry forward into adulthood. Now, they’re left with these faces no one recognizes and no place where they see they belong. I’d love to take them to the Philippines, or send them on their own. Maybe someday.
I recently learned the phrase “white privilege,” and that I have been living in a white-privilege bubble my whole life. Because my daughter is so light skinned, she benefits from white privilege too. But my son never has. My son operates under the same troubled rules that guide all young people of color, rules I have never had to learn (that’s the essence of white privilege); he is more readily targeted by law enforcement than his white peers (he’s been pulled over for “driving while brown”, and the officer assigned a race to my son on the ticket. Black.) My son makes an effort to be extremely polite, especially to authorities, and knows that law enforcement is not his friend; he made a conscious decision to dress extremely sharp — no more t-shirts, jeans and sneakers — because he wants to control the perception people might have of this dark-skinned Hispanic/black-looking young man.
When this dark-skinned Asian American is mistaken for black and Hispanic, he’s faced with a problem that’s two-fold; first, he’s put into a position of “defending” against the “accusation” that he’s XYZ race, which has made him ponder the reality of being Hispanic or black or both in this culture (not a positive experience especially in white suburbia), and second, he’s deprived of his enjoyment and appreciation of his true heritage. He’s in racial no-man’s land. Race has factored into his life in ways I can see, but I can’t understand.
My daughter, on the other hand, has only been deprived of her Asian heritage, a fact that hit home today while we visited the Manila Supermarket. There, strolling up and down the aisles of unfamiliar foods, she became sadder and sadder, until tears welled up. “Mom,” she said, “I’m too white for this place.”
I was too white for it too, but I know what she meant. None of this made sense to her. This is the food of her people, of her father, and none of it resonated in her memory. Her childhood wasn’t littered with delicious Pinoy dishes, cooked for her by her Lolacita, in a kitchen redolent of peppercorn and sweet sausage.
As much as I’d like to, I can’t fill in the gaps in their cultural education. Not at this point. I tried to encourage them along the way, especially when they got to college, where they had the chance to seek out Filipino student groups who might help educate them. Neither one was interested. Now, all I can do is support them in their exploration, participate where I can, and love them as I always have, broad-nose, skin color, misunderstood racial heritage and all.
And tonight, we’re having adobo. It’s the one Filipino comfort food I know how to make really, really well. Maybe one day, they’ll go to the Philippines together and learn all those things I couldn’t teach them.