What (Missing) National Identity?

In celebration of this special time of the year,* we delve into a meditation on basketball and the Filipino national identity.

I’ve previously posted about Rafe Bartholomew’s excellent book on Philippine hoops, “Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball.” Sometimes, we need to see ourselves through a foreigner’s fresh eyes** to recognize what is uniquely ours.

People have always struggled to define their essence, their soul, or whatever one wishes to call it. For Filipinos, basketball is part of that evanescent core.

(Emphasis mine.) I am tired of hearing that we do not have a national identity— of course, we do! Would the same people claim that there is no such thing as Filipino food, either? Bartholomew aptly quotes Filipino novelist and cultural critic Nick Joaquin:

If you tell the Pinoy-on-the-street that adobo and pan de sal are but a thin veneer of Westernization, the removal of which will reveal the “true” Filipino… the Pinoy may retort that, as far as he is concerned, adobo and pan de sal are as Filipino as his very own guts; and indeed one could travel the world and nowhere find… anything quite like Philippine adobo and pan de sal.

(Emphasis mine.) As Bartholomew perceptively points out, “Basketball, another colonial import, has also become as Filipino as the Pinoy’s guts.”

Our history is a colonial one, so it only follows that our identity will be too. Perhaps it is time to stop rejecting that (admittedly) hard truth; time to stop looking for a non-existent purely Filipino core. Heck, even “Filipino” itself is a colonial name.

Capturing our identity is extremely difficult and frustrating— I sometimes even lose sleep over it. But instead of denouncing the lack of it— or worse— disowning it (“No, I don’t have a Filipino accent— I’m educated!” or “That’s so masa!”), I humbly invoke— this Holy Week— the Serenity Prayer:

May we be granted
the serenity to accept who we are,
the wisdom to know who we can be,
and the courage to change who we will be.


(*the NBA playoffs, of course!)

(**Not of a parachutist-journalist, but a “connected critic”— one intimately involved in the lives of his subjects, but also able to observe from somewhat detached vantage point. [from Mary Pipher’s “Writing to Change the World”])


A Song For Friday: “Pinoy This Way”, by Mikey Bustos

Sung to the tune of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”, and true to the original’s spirit: “Today we’re celebrating/Being a Pinoy this way!”

“Pinoy This Way”, by Mikey Bustos

It doesn’t matter if you’re Pinay or if you’re P-I-N-O-Y.
Just point with your lips, pare
’cause we’re Pinoy this way, baby.
Use your eyes… If it was snake it bit you already!

My Mama scolded me when I was young, when I said I hated school.
She said “You know the land where we come from,
every class is always full.”
Because in Philippines education is never taken for granted,
no it’s not, along with food, work, and medication,
we know they all come from God.

Back home, a land far away,
Where we work hard every day,
It makes us grateful, baby
We’re Pinoy this way
Where you will need pamaypay
As temperature rises high
You have not lived ’til you live like a Pinoy this way.

Nothing ever goes to waste,
Appreciate, don’t throw away
Baby, we’re Pinoy this way!

Say my prayers everyday,
Bless to all the elderly,
We always say “po” cuz
We’re Pinoy this way.


(Emphasis mine. Lyrics lifted from the full version here.)

Meet Mikey Bustos, a 30-year old Fil-Canadian with an angelic voice, which took him to the Top 10 of 2003’s Canadian Idol. He turns out to be quite a comedian too, and an amazing YouTube video-cranking machine. His Pinoy tutorials are a must-see!

I, for one, can’t get enough. Thank you, Mikey, for sharing the Filipino experience with the world, with humor, intelligence, honesty, and pride. Keep ’em coming!

(Update: Found Lady Gaga’s “country-style” version of the song, arguably more beautiful and powerful than the (electro-synthetic) original: “Born This Way” (The Country Road Version). “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen”— and sing along!).


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The “Invisible Minority”: Good For One, Bad For All?

It is telling that the most (and perhaps, only) recognizable Filipino names in the U.S. are those of “homegrown” talents— (champion boxer) Manny Pacquiao and (singer) Charice. There are approximately 3 million Filipino-Americans, making up 1% of the national population. This is more than enough to drive a microtrend. Yet, judging from the national news coverage and popular media (TV, books, radio), Fil-Ams might as well not exist, or more aptly, not matter.

Filipino-American Navy doctor Commander Connie Mariano, who served as White House doctor for nine years, and as the personal physician of former president Bill Clinton, speaks honestly about invisibility in her 2010 memoir, “White House Doctor: My Patients were Presidents”:

Stay out of the picture is what we are told on day one of our arrival at the White House. The commandment handed down from the White House Military Office is: Thou shalt be invisible. It was an easy edict for me to follow. Growing up as the Filipino daughter of a Navy steward, invisibility was embedded in my DNA.

(Emphasis mine.) Elsewhere, she elaborates:

As the child of a Navy steward, I knew my place— we were the military servant class. Whenever we would visit my father at the admiral’s headquarters, we would always enter through the kitchen.

She later recalls her first visit to the White House as a young girl. Her family entered, not through the front doors like the other tourists, but through the back doors to the kitchen (where her Uncle works). In her words, Navy stewards were “glorified houseboys.”

Navy steward? You know, those nice, smiling Filipino men who quietly serve you your meals, iron your laundry, and keep your house clean.

This leads us to the “obvious” facet of Filipino invisibility, the one that is tied to his or her sense of place in the social hierarchy. I will be the last person to underestimate the insidiousness of “colonial mentality.” But I also recognize that its effects are dramatically diminished with each generation, born and raised in America.

What troubles me more is the other, less-obvious, facet of Filipino invisibility— one that benefits the individual, just as it hurts the group. I would argue that, like the LGBT community*, Filipinos in America have succeeded in many fields, in no small part, because of the invisibility of their Filipino-ness (that is to say, their Other-ness).

Due to historical reasons, there is no overt signifier of Filipino-ness— not our names, sometimes, not even our faces. Who is to suspect that these recognizable names are Filipino-Americans? In sports, (Miami Heat head coach) Erik Spoelstra and (San Francisco Giants pitcher) Tim Lincecum; in the arts, (Grammy-award winning singer and composer) Bruno Mars and (McArthur award-winning playwright) Han Ong, just to name a few. I would venture to say that the only people who know that they are Filipinos are Filipinos too.

And then there is this that troubles me most: the deliberate denial of Filipino-ness, as in the case of Yale law professor and notorious “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua. I have more to say about this, which I will defer to a future post. (So stay tuned.)

In a truly post-racial, post-national world, every race will be invisible. But we are not yet there (far from it). In the world we live in today, for Filipino-Americans to be truly American, they must first be heard. And to be heard, they must first be seen.

Unfortunately, as long as invisibility helps more than it hurts, the cloaks will stay on. In other words, as long as the Philippines languishes as a nation, and the imbalance of (economic and political) power is not tipped (even ever so slightly), Filipino-Americans— as a group— will languish as well. The fates of Filipino-Americans and Filipinos “back home” are more intertwined than either of them realize. The sooner we embrace this truth, the better our chances are at creating a world in which invisibility cloaks hurt more than they help— a world in which one can truly be proud to be Filipino.


(*LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people.)


I am eager to hear what you think— this page is open for your replies…

A Poem for Friday: “Where are you from?”

“Where are you from?” by Alex Cena, Gowri Koneswaran, and Jenny C. Lares (collectively, Sulu DC)

Where are you from?

Where are you really from?

Where am I from?
Your question makes me flinch
Makes me narrow my eyes
At your narrow ways of defining me
Suspecting me of being foreign
‘Cause this phenotype doesn’t match yours
And my answer’s not what you were expecting

I live down the block, across the state, past the river
Inhaled American air in my first breath
I speak English in my dreams, out loud
Lies in the depth of my parents’ arms
Outstretched to their history
And the one we share in this country

So tell me where are YOU from?
Where are you REALLY from?

Asked by strangers, I used to say “the Philippines”, now I simply say “Jersey.” I was unaware such a simple question (when asked one too many times) can cause offense.

Now I know, thanks to an eye-opening talk by Fil-Am psychology professor Kevin Nadal.* And now I have a word for it: racial microaggression, covert or subtle racist behavior that causes psychological confusion (“Did that really just happen?”). I realized instantly that I have been on both ends of the deal. The question lingers, what do I do about it? What would you?

(Full poem here via Lantern Review: A Journal of Asian American Poetry.)

(*Prof. Kevin Nadal teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at CUNY, and is the author of the research handbook “Filipino American Psychology“– the first of its kind.)


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Americanized? Look again.

I am wildly enjoying Pacific Rims, Rafe Bartholomew‘s account of his immersion into Philippine basketball, and inevitably, Philippine society and culture. Early in the book, he lays down a spot-on observation of the difference between what the Philippines appears to be (in foreign eyes) and what lies beneath:

On my way home I looked out the window at the steady procession of McDonald’s franchises, KFCs, and 7-Elevens. Many foreign visitors to the Philippines saw Manila’s ubiquitous chain restaurants as a sign of the country’s extreme Americanization, but there was another side to the city. For every American restaurant, there were a dozen roadside barbecue stalls selling grilled skewers of isaw (pork intestines), helmet (chicken heads), and betamax (cubes of coagulated pork blood that resemble the ancient video format’s tapes). The hard wooden benches of buses were crammed with breast-feding mothers and construction workers who had washcloths tucked into the backs of their shirts to soak up sweat. This wasn’t a country where one foreign culture simply dominated its native counterpart, but a place where Spanish and American colonial influences mixed with the imprints of Chinese and Malay merchants who had been trading in the Philippines since before the archipelago even existed in the eyes of the West. A dizzying array of ingredients made up the Philippines’ cultural brew, and they blended over time to form something uniquely Filipino.

On the flip side, when I first moved to “America” (five years ago), what struck me most was how familiar everything seemed to be, yet how different everything was. The dissonance remains.


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A Poem for Friday: “The Nobodies”

“The Nobodies” by Eduardo Galeano

Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream
of escaping poverty: that one magical day good luck will
suddenly rain down on them- will rain down in buckets. But
good luck doesn’t even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter
how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand is
tickling, or if they begin the new day with their right foot, or
start the new year with a change of brooms.
The nobodies: nobody’s children, owners of nothing. The
nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits,
dying through life, screwed every which way.
Who don’t speak languages, but dialects.
Who don’t have religions, but superstitions.
Who don’t create art, but handicrafts.
Who don’t have culture, but folklore.
Who are not human beings, but human resources.
Who do not have names, but numbers.
Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the
police blotter of the local paper.
The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them

(Emphasis mine.)

Eduardo Hughes Galeano (born September 3, 1940) is a Uruguayan journalist, writer and novelist. This poem hits home. I am reminded that our collective experience is unique, and universal, at the same time.

(Hat tip: Herbert Docena)