"What are you?"
"Where are you from?"
"What kind of Asian are you?"
These are questions I've grown very familiar with, as have probably most Asian Americans (or, probably, anyone of color). The infamous "What are you?" and all its various forms, offspring, and iterations have become embedded in my standard protocol when meeting someone new. After the customary "Hello's" and "Nice to meet you's" come the "Where do you live?'s," followed by other bits of small talk that usually relate to the circumstances you're in (the weather, food, sports, what have you). And then, sometimes rather haphazardly, it comes:
"Hey Karl, I hope this doesn't offend you, but what are you?"
And thus, the inner Karl rages: "The nerve! How dare you, over-curious stranger, relegate my ethnic background to a cheap conversation starter!"
Now before you close this window and dismiss this post as another white-bashing article by another angry Asian man, I don't hardly ever think that. It was a joke. You know... those things you laugh at. Rarely would I rage, let alone at a stranger who's interested in my background, and furthermore, my general feelings toward these kinds of questions are amusement and understanding.
I find that, more often than not, the people that ask me this question are other Asian Americans. Many inquirers who enjoy guessing become contestants in a game I suitably call "What Are You?". Coming soon to the Game Show Network!
On a related note, what the heck happened to the Game Show Network? Maybe I haven't been looking hard enough (or probably because I don't really watch television that much anymore), but it seems to have dropped off the face of the channel guide planet. Come back, Game Show Network! And let me relive my sick days of middle school where I would watch old episodes of Press Your Luck and The Weakest Link and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? for hours on end.
Ahem. Back on topic: I'll be the first to admit that my physical features can send someone trying to peg me into one of their Asian stereotypes through a loop. My hair's not pin straight and my eyes are on the larger end of the spectrum. Most people tend to guess either Chinese or Japanese first, simply because they reckon it's their best shot (or don't know any other countries in Asia). Living in Bergen County, NJ, where the Korean American population is high has also caused a considerable amount of people guessing Korean. One contestant was both so curious and so insistent (and perhaps a little misguided) on that he guessed just about every Asian country out there. "Mongolian? Cambodian? Burmese?"
"Filipino! That's it!"
Right you are, contestant #47! Now, let's please move onto a different topic.
Yes, in case you blog-readers were curious as well, it's true. I, Karl Henri Orozco, am a Filipino-American. And how does this relate to anything? Well, I, Karl Henri Orozco, am also the chair of Oberlin's Filipino American Student Association (FASA) next year!
The Filipino population at Oberlin is... well... small to say the least. This fact shows why I am rarely ever able to use "FASA" as an acronym without having to tell what FASA stands for. The group probably has somewhere around 5-10 students involved, and that's probably the best we can do. What FASA lacks in size and voice, it makes up for in our tight group of members all with varying levels of Filipino-ness.
Had someone told me that I would be the head of some Filipino student association 10 years ago, I don't know if I'd believe that person. I can't speak a lick of Tagalog (the national language of the Philippines, though there are several dozens of other dialects), let alone understand more than a few simple phrases. My little sister, on the other hand, has easily surpassed me in that department, so I can no longer blame parenting. I've never actually been to the Philippines, and if I ever did, I would be a lost puppy. I sure as hell wouldn't know where to go, and I surer as hell wouldn't be able to ask for directions. And I always wished that my nose would be a little less rounded and a little sharper.
For me, the relationship with my Filipino heritage is as foggy and unclear as the identity of Filipinos as a whole.
When the college application process rolled around, I was faced with the ethical dilemma that most college-bound Filipino Americans face: checking either "Asian/Pacific Islander" or "Hispanic" under the ethnicity section. At first glance, this point shouldn't even be a problem, because one would assume Filipino to fall under the former category. However, considering most Filipinos have darker skins and misleading last names such as "Gomez" or "Garcia" or even "Orozco," pledging your allegiance to that box labeled "Hispanic" becomes a little easier. And with affirmative action in mind, getting into college gets a little easier as well. It's a dirty practice that only fuels the flame for the slang term, Chinese Wetback. Isn't this procedure only helping the Philippines become the "Mexico" to China's "America"?
When my Korean American friends in high school would wear their "Be the Reds!" soccer t-shirts when the Olympics and World Cup came around, I would always feel a tinge of jealousy running through my veins. Those Koreans... having their fun and rubbing it in the face of this Filipino boy who has no country to cheer for (except the United States, but should we really get into this argument?). What's the point of ethnic pride when I have nothing to cheer on? Good logic, younger self.
And in a universe where Chinese take-out is as much of a town necessity as a grocery store is and Japanese food is placed on the highest pedestal, I was always bummed to see how little Filipino cuisine has made its way onto the U.S. food scene. Even other cuisines like Thai and Vietnamese seemed to be much more noticeable, and Filipino Americans make up a much larger percentage of the population than either minority group.
This yearning I had is not unlike the horrible practice of skin bleaching performed heavily in the Philippines. In the Philippines, thousands of people buy skin-whitening kits to make themselves more "beautiful." Whatever that means. Apply on face, wait for results, and watch as your brown skin becomes the pretty white that you've always wanted! The awful mercury deposits come later. I, like many Filipinos, seemed to have wished for a face, a body, and a life of someone different.
I guess what my lack of affinity for my Filipino ancestry boils down to is me wanting this: distinction. The Philippines always seemed to be a convergence of cultures, namely American, Spanish, Chinese, Malay, Polynesian, you get the picture. You see it (or should I say "taste it") in the food, where many dishes seem to be Spanish dishes with some added combination of soy sauce, coconut milk, or calamansi. An exaggeration, yes, but still. Aside from the yo-yo and barongs, I generally have a hard time picking out things that are decidedly Filipino and nothing else. I had a hard time understanding where my family came from. I had a hard time easily relating to my culture and relaying it to those who are unfamiliar with it.
I want to work on that last bit. Relaying. Showing who Filipinos are and what Filipinos are about. Of course, that requires me doing a good amount of homework. Before I can give out answers to these questions, I have to answer them myself.
So, back to that question: "What are you?"
I guess the answer to that isn't exactly clear. My parents are from the Philippines and I'm proud of that part of me. I'm proud of the 7,107 islands I've never been to and the halo-halo desserts I consume in the summer heat. But culturally? I think I have a lot more in common with your average American than your typical citizen in Manila. However, I think that's probably true with most Asian Americans. I've come to learn that race and ethnicity are never as clear as check boxes and surveys make them out to be. So while I describe Filipino customs as merely borrowed traditions of other cultures, that unique blend is exactly what makes us distinct. The identity is there. It just needs to be shared.
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November 9, 2023