Growing Up Fil-Am: Embracing my Heritage

I am Fil-Am.

Filipino American that is. My parents were both born in the Philippines and moved to the US in the late 80s. Out of everyone in my dad's immediate family, I was the first child born in America and the second on my mom’s side. Growing up, my parents raised my brother and me as Americans because we are indeed born and bred American. For instance, we spoke English at home. Despite being raised "American," they didn't keep their Filipino culture from us like I've heard some families do. We ate Filipino food, went to Filipino parties, had Filipino friends, etc. I never really appreciated it until I was in college and realized how uniquely blessed I was to have grown up in a house of "two worlds." Maybe it's the history-ancestry-nerdy buff in me, but it's always kind of sad whenever I hear people say that they don't know their heritage or where their ancestors are from. I'm proud to say that I know where my family comes and if anything, I would love to know even more!

Here are a few fun facts about Filipinos. 

Boracay Beach, Philippines.

Boracay Beach, Philippines.

ONE || Filipinos have parties for everything.

I'm serious, they celebrate everything. Birthday parties, Christmas Eve parties, Christmas parties, Day after Christmas parties, Thanksgiving parties, Easter parties, Bon Voyage parties, Retirement parties, Welcome to our City parties, Welcome Home parties, Graduation parties, and parties for no reason at all.

"Oh, we're going to tita (auntie) so-and-so's... they're having a party... why?... because tita's brother's wife's cousin just arrived from the Philippines." <<< I'm so dead serious right now. Parties. For. Everything.

Of course, Filipino parties come with a few rules.

  • You must cook and serve real food. Not just pizza and chicken nuggets. Lumpia, rice, and adobo are staples. And if you're super lucky, you'll just break out the fire pit and roast the lechon right there. (Lechon is pig. THE WHOLE PIG.) Also, you must have enough food to feed an army. I remember the first time I brought Dan to my parents house for a party, his eyes grew so big at how much food there was. I mean, it was enough to probably feed fifty people... and they were only expecting, like, twenty.
  • Speaking of feeding an army, invite everyone. Including your mom's brother's best friend's cousin's wife. The motto of Filipinos is: "the bigger, the better." Seriously. I think in general, Filipinos are the most welcoming group of people I've ever encountered. Anytime I would bring random friends to gatherings, they were always greeted so excitedly, and then the host would often follow up with "Oh, you should have brought your parents/sibling/etc."
  • It's not an official party until someone breaks out that karaoke. And if you really want to pump up the jam, throw some dancing shoes on for some line dancing. You know... the Macarena, the Electric Slide, YMCA, the Cha-Cha. And I'm going to be honest my 60 something year old aunt dances better than I do. 
  • It’s better to come late than not at all. We understand how Filipino time works. And Filipinos don't even really consider it late. They just appreciate the fact that you would show up. Because if you don't show up, you better have a pretty darn good excuse.
  • It doesn't matter how full you are. You will take a plate of food home. Filipinos hate wasting food and they made the extra food for you to have for lunch or dinner the next day. Don't say no...just don't.

TWO || Everyone is family.

Dan and I had a discussion about this once... are your third cousins still family? In his family, they're just distant relatives who he doesn't know nor have his family really kept up with. Totally not the case with Filipinos. Everyone, your first cousins to your fourth cousins twice removed and beyond, is family. Dan was absolutely amazed at the close bond my family has with our cousins (who, if you want to be technical, are "distant cousins"). On my dad's side alone, I have about sixty first cousins and over one hundred (and counting) first cousins once removed. And that’s just “immediate family" as in my dad's siblings and their children. I have fewer cousins on my mom's side, but one of my very distant relatives created a family tree going back to my great-great-great-great-great grandfather and grandmother. My mom's clan (or extremely extended family) gathers together for reunions around the world as her family has dispersed to many parts of the world. I think that is SO cool! And I would just love to go to one of those reunions one day.

But why is family such a big deal to Filipinos? I mean, why don't we just stop at connecting with our "first" cousins?

I didn't learn this until much later, but the reason is that Filipinos believe family is forever and that blood is thicker than water. It's a well-known fact that the Philippines is a very poor country and poverty runs rampant there. All they really have is each other. When one hurts, everyone hurts. When one rejoices, everyone rejoices. And they help each other because that's the only way to survive. I'm not sure how the topic was brought up, but my mom told me that if it weren't for her sister, she would have never been able to afford to go to nursing school, which means she never would have made it to the USA. My dad was the same way, but for him, it was his father who was able to help him a bit. As gratitude, my parents have sponsored other family members' college education. Those cousins have gone on to help their siblings or cousins or next-family-member in line. It's an amazing concept that I never really knew existed because here in America, we tend to look out for number one-- ourselves.

When Typhoon Yolanda hit a few years ago, Filipinos all over the world seemed to just bond together. People were collecting money, clothes, non-perishable items, toiletries, you name it, to send over to the people in need over there. And it didn't even matter if it wasn't a relative. Some of our friends had missing relatives and the social media community just seemed to rally around it trying to help each other out. I had never witnessed such a bond among a group of people before. And again, it all comes back to this: everyone is family.

THREE || Respect is extremely important.

In the Filipino culture, anyone who is older is addressed with a title. This sometimes includes siblings. As the older sister, my brother had to address me as "ate" (ah-tee), which translates "sister." When we were younger, it was pretty embarrassing because no one understood why he couldn't just call me "Kaycee" and of course as immature children, it sounds weird, so kids tend to joke about it. Now, we don't really care and it's so weird for him to call me "Kaycee."

It's usually the same for any older cousins and older friends and they are addressed as "ate" or "kuya" (brother). There are several other variations of the title for brother and sister due to the different dialects of the Philippines. Other words for "older sister" are "manang" (mah-nahng) and "inday" (in-dye). Other words for "older brother" are "manong" (mah-nohng) and "toto" (toh-toh).

With siblings, older cousins, and older friends, some families, especially Filipinos living in America, don't use titles. It all just depends. Several of my younger cousins just call me Kaycee. Some of my cousins call their siblings all by their first names because the titles just never stuck. However, adults are always addressed by their title.

Anyone who is an older "of age" female is either auntie or "tita" and anyone who is an older "of age" male is either uncle or "tito." And it doesn't matter if that person is related to you or not. I could never just walk up to my mom's best friend and say, "Hi, Elsie!" My parents would most definitely reprimand me! She was always "Tita Elsie," even though she has no blood relation to me at all. 

In the Philippines, even your "rank" so to speak matters with titles. For example, when I was younger, probably about 14, we went to the Philippines, and I met my cousin's daughter, who in Filipino terms is my "niece" because she's the next generation below me. (Basically, what would be considered my first cousin once removed in America, is considered my niece/nephew in the Philippines. Confused yet??) My "niece" called me "tita." However, she's a year older than I am! I asked her about it and said, "Shouldn't I call you ate? She said no, tita trumps ate, so therefore she should call me tita.

Since I know that whole spiel over aunts/uncles/and cousins is pretty confusing, I created a quick visual of Filipino family trees versus the traditional family tree.

All righty, guys, I don't want to end this post on a really deep, perplexing note (let's be honest, the whole family tree is just a giant confusing topic to begin with, even if you're not Filipino!), here are a few Frequently Asked Questions people have asked me over the course of my life, based on the sheer fact that I'm Filipino. Enjoy!

"Where are you from?" (I've had this exact conversation multiple times.)


"No, I mean, what are you?"

I know a lot of people would get offended by this, but I'm honestly not because I know what the other people mean by it. Most of the time, the other person isn't asking to be offensive, it's just that sometimes the proper, politically correct terminology doesn't always make it from one's brain to one's mouth. (I've even gotten jumbled up asking a few times myself!) But, this question just makes me laugh because I feel like I have to explain my life story to them: from Florida and I'm 3/4th Filipino and 1/4th Chinese.

1/4th Chinese?

Yes-- My grandfather was full Chinese. Unfortunately, I don't know much about my Chinese roots, but I would love to investigate that one day. And if anyone has any tips on where I can start, please let me know!!! I have tried searching the internet, but Chinese genealogy is so difficult to track down! Plus, I don't read Chinese... :-( 

Are you planning to be a nurse? (or now that I've graduated college, "Oh, I thought you were a nurse.")

If I had a penny every time someone asked me about being a nurse, I would be a freaking millionaire. I don't know if people ask me about nursing because my parents are both nurses or because I'm Filipino and most Filipinos seem to be in the medical field. The answer is no. I have never considered nursing nor will I ever consider nursing. It's just not my calling. I have never liked science and although I realize it is not all book knowledge, I don't think I could handle it! I don't have that kind of patience. Side note: please hug and thank your nurse friends. They are some amazing people and that truly is a remarkable and rewarding career.

Don't you come from a family of nurses?

There are several relatives of mine who are nurses. I also have several Filipino friends who are nurses. However, there are several relatives of mine who are not. My grandma was an elementary school teacher and my grandpa was a miner. My other grandpa was in business. Other occupations in my family include medicine, engineering, art, handyman, mechanics, computer engineering/programing, child care, and more.

Have you eaten dog?

Oh my word. Big fat NO. I don't know anyone in my family who have eaten dog. I believe it is now illegal to kill and sell dog meat in the Philippines, although, I'm sure not everyone abides by that. And you know what, I don't really want to know about people's dog eating habits. :-( Plus, I have two puppies! Don't let them hear you ask this question! They'd be mortified!

What about balut?

(To those who are not familiar with balut, it's basically embryonic egg.)

Again, no, I have not tried, nor do I care to try balut. I don't even like regular cooked eggs all that often. My dad, who was born and raised in the Philippines, has never tried balut and he doesn't want to. I have several Fil-Am and American friends who have tried it and loved it. I think this was even a Fear Factor and Amazing Race challenge at one time! I'm just not very adventurous. Give me some longganisa (Filipino sausage), lumpia (egg roll), or sinagang (broth with veggies and a meat) any day though!

Do you speak Tagalog?

No, I alluded to this a little earlier, but we spoke English at home. I know a few phrases and words and I can understand a little bit when I can listen to a whole conversation. There's actually a good reason for this. When I was little, my grandma lived with us and she only knew her dialect (Igorot) and English. She wasn't very familiar with Tagalog. My dad spoke Ilonggo, Tagalog, and English. My mom spoke Igorot, Tagalog, and English. So, the common language at home was English. My brother and I not knowing Tagalog came in handy for my parents when they didn't want us understanding their conversation. For my parents, it was like a secret code until I got older when I started cracking the "code," although, there were several times I misinterpreted their conversation by a long shot.

How will you teach your children about your Filipino heritage?

I most definitely want my children to know where they came from and how their grandparents sacrificed to get to the US. And I know teaching my children will get tougher because my parents and grandparents generation are getting older, which means a lot of our culture may be lost once they have passed. I know that I probably wouldn't be the best person my children could learn from because I grew up here, so I would want my parents to really teach them the Filipino ways, like making traditional food, or teaching the traditional dances. I want them to know their cousins in the Philippines (thank goodness for social media & video chat, right?) and I think it would be great if everyone could just learn from each other. Also, crazy thought, but I would just love to write a book for them about their Filipino family so that they would have those stories from their grandparents.

Have you been to the Philippines?

Yes! Twice at ages five and fourteen. I'm due for another trip day, hopefully! The Philippines is such a beautiful country with a lot of different terrains. My mom's family is from the mountains and there you'll see a lot of the rice terraces. My dad's family is from the islands and there you'll see the beaches. Let me tell you, there is nothing in this world like the beaches in the Philippines. (And I'm a Floridian!) The sand is super white and squishy and the water is a beautiful blue-green. If you ever get the chance to go, do it!! It's a beautiful experience.

That's all I have for today! Do you have any questions? I love answering them! :-) Thanks for reading!