Culture is an integral part of our identity. It manifests itself in the everyday aspects of our lives, from our language, to our values and beliefs, and even down to our mannerisms. Moreover, culture makes us feel a sense of belonging, as we would often feel an instant connection with people who come from the same culture as us. This is the reason why OFWs would seek out their kababayan while working abroad or why Chinoys would form organizations and associations based on their culture.
Discussions on culture have become more prevalent since the rise of the #StopAsianHate and #BlackLivesMatter movements, as people seek to better understand and accept different cultures as well as spread awareness about the racial injustice happening around the world. This has also led some people to look inwards and get in touch with their own culture, which is probably something they haven’t done before especially if they are part of diaspora communities. When you grew up in a country that is different from your cultural background, it’s tempting to just assimilate and forget about where you came from, but that could easily lead you to an identity crisis.
This is something I’ve experienced myself. I might not be someone who migrated to a Western country, but I am a Chinoy who didn’t always appreciate my cultural identity. I can say I was more in touch with my Chinese roots as a child. I was always eager to learn more about Chinese culture, whether it’s through practicing how to hold chopsticks, attending Chinese art classes, or speaking Hokkien, but things changed as I grew older. I might have gone to a Chinese school, but most of my classmates either spoke English or Filipino, and I eventually preferred speaking those languages over Hokkien. It didn’t help that I grew up watching iCarly, Hannah Montana, High School Musical, and other Western shows and movies that made me crave the American lifestyle. Soon enough, I was imagining what it would be like to live in the U.S. I would constantly drag my parents to places like McDonald’s and TGI Friday’s whenever we decided to eat out, and I would always answer my parents in English even if they addressed me in Hokkien.
I got over my American phase when I was in high school because I realized I had no connections with America whatsoever. I didn’t have American blood, the idea of migrating there wasn’t so appealing to me, and everything I knew about it was just an idealized version that I saw on screen. But this realization didn’t help me reconnect with my Chinese roots because by this time, I was clinging to the idea I was a fourth generation Chinoy from the Philippines, so Chinese culture is no longer relevant to me. A small part of me also started associating Chinese culture with being traditional, so like every insecure teen who always wanted to follow the latest trends, I didn’t want anything to do with my own culture.
I barely paid attention in Mandarin class because one, my school focused more on passive memorization rather than active learning, and two, I didn’t think Mandarin was going to be important in the future since it wasn’t a universal language. I regret my decision, especially now that both spoken and written Mandarin have proven to be essential skills. Many of my non-Chinoy friends who are taking Mandarin classes in college see me as someone who is fluent already, but in reality, my skills are only slightly above average for someone who has been learning Mandarin for over ten years. I was also never interested in C-dramas, mostly because I assumed they weren’t as good as Hollywood movies. Besides, my friends and classmates at the time weren’t interested in them either, which was strange considering that we came from a Chinese school, but it could just be the case where too much exposure to a certain thing just makes you want to avoid it.
I didn’t start watching C-dramas until I was in college, and funnily enough, it was a non-Chinoy friend who recommended it to me. At this point, I just felt guilty because it seems like other people are more interested in learning about Chinese language and culture compared to me. True, I’m a Chinoy who grew up in the Philippines, but I’m not exactly Filipino, nor am I wholly Chinese. In my previous article, I talked about how Chinoys in general feel like outsiders in their own country because of their unique cultural identity, but for me personally, that out-of-place feeling was mostly a result of me trying to be more Filipino than Chinese even though I’m somewhere in between. I had neglected one part of my culture because I wanted to “blend in”, but I ended up sticking out like a sore thumb because I clearly didn’t know where I belonged.
You can always adapt to whatever hegemonic culture is represented in the media, but there is a fine line between appreciating other cultures and trying to claim a culture that you are not part of. The latter would only make you feel adrift because no matter how much American movies you watch or Korean products you consume for example, you will still feel like an outsider to that culture because you have no connections with it. However, being a product of two different cultures doesn’t make you any less of either. It just means that you have two sides to your identity, and you can’t simply shed one in favor of the other because they are both part of who you are.