Defining identity beyond a passport and ethnicity

A writer explores what it means to be part of a diaspora, and how living in three countries has influenced her identity in more ways than one.

Diaspora was one of those words that flitted around me, but never landed in my little bubble. It refers to a group of people who live outside their homeland; yet, saying I am part of a diaspora is such a foreign concept (pun intended) to me because I’ve never felt like I stopped being part of all the places that I belong to.

I’m Filipino, Canadian, and American. One identity I have through my parents, one through my passport, and one through where I was born. I’ve lived in all three countries during formative years of my life and still have strong ties to each through family and friends. Rather than trying to unpack how where I’ve been has defined me, I’ve always chosen to focus on who I was simply as a person, that my identity consisted only of my personality, values, and deeds.

But then, in 2018, I started working on a young adult novel based on Filipino folklore. The more I was drawn to writing this story, the more I realized that the person I’ve become – a writer – wouldn’t exist if I wasn’t the product of three countries, cultures, and identities.

See also: How moving to Paris helped me embrace my Asian Canadian identity

It started with a misspelling

I once read in a sociology textbook that the United States is a melting pot, where different cultures are boiled down until there’s only one homogenous flavor left. Living in California for the first few years of my life, it seemed inevitable that I’d learn English before Tagalog, despite my parents’ best efforts to speak it to me.

When I was five years old, my childhood best friend and I were in an early reader program together. One day, we received a booklet full of pictures and had to write the word each picture represented. I’ve always been competitive and, knowing my bestie was a few months older than me – and therefore, started reading before I did – I was determined to get all the words faster than her.

But in my haste, I spelled ladder with only one “d.” It was the only word I missed. My bestie, on the other hand, got all 26 words right. At the tender age of five, I discovered what my ego was and, even worse, how painful it was to have it bruised, especially by my own avoidable blunder. This incident ignited my lifelong determination to master not just the English language, but how to shape and change it into something absolutely delightful: stories.

Quieting one part of me so another could grow

No origin story is without its setbacks though. My obsession with my first language tempered a bit while I was living in the Philippines.

Speaking English earned me repeated shouts of “nosebleed!” from my middle grade peers. With one word, they could convey that trying to understand what I was saying caused them such mental torture it made their noses bleed (figuratively). Here’s the thing though: everyone at my school could speak, read, and write in English. So what was going on?

It turned out that “nosebleed” was as much about me as it was about them. The term originated from Filipinos who weren’t fluent in English and therefore, really did have a hard time understanding what foreigners were saying. It’s a word used to express their exasperation as much as their shame.

Filipino food spread
Photo submitted

Now I get that maybe these kids were trying to goad me into being a little more like them, but back then, I didn’t understand the cultural implication of the taunt. I only knew that it didn’t make me feel welcome. I quickly learned that the only way to stop the teasing was to speak in Tagalog as much as possible, which turned out to be the proverbial thing that made me stronger.

My Tagalog fluency sped up, offering a new way for me to experience Filipino culture (hello teleseryes!), deepen my relationships with family, and build friendships that showed me how multi-faceted being Filipino really was.

See also: Filipino is just the first level

Where am I really from?

Moving to Vancouver when I was fourteen was jarring. The differences between Canada and the States seemed so minimal that they were the same place in my teenage mind. I expected to feel like I was pulling on an old coat when I arrived, but something was off; while the coat still fit, it was in a style that didn’t entirely suit me anymore.

This was partly because I was in a country where I had zero friends, but also partly because I was living in a place that wasn’t like the one I’d just left. Adjusting to all of this at once was difficult, and it wasn’t made easier when I started to get asked: “But where are you really from?”

I wasn’t aware that this was a microaggression for most of my young adult life. I only knew that I, as a budding writer, wanted to entertain whoever asked with an impressive tale of how I came to be Filipino, Canadian, and American all at once. But most people – of all races and ages, I should add – rarely wanted my life story. The question was usually asked as either polite filler between other conversation starters or a lascivious come on. Either way, trying to give a quick and concise response made my heart jittery.

Even though I loved every place I’ve ever lived and every culture I’m part of, I didn’t know how to convey all of that in a simple straightforward answer. The writer in me was adamant that if I couldn’t tell it well, I didn’t want to tell it at all. And at this point, establishing my identity as a writer was more important to me than explaining my ethnicity or nationality. So I learned to laugh off the question or when pressed, named one of my countries like it was my overarching favorite.

In an effort to get off a topic I wasn’t ready to explore, I tried to make myself a multiple choice question with a single answer, when the reality was that I was a “check all that apply” kind of girl.

Back again

For the first time since I was six, I’m living in the States again. I moved back in 2019 and experienced the 2020 pandemic and social justice movement entirely from this side of the border. As part of my way of dealing with everything, I plugged away at my idea for a fantasy adventure story featuring mythical Filipino creatures.

The combination of working on this novel and upping my anti-racism education has forced me to finally reflect more deeply on how my ethnic, cultural, and national identities are integral to who I am now. I’m not a single, concise answer and I never will be. Even just saying “I’m Filipino, Canadian, and American” doesn’t feel quite right. But it’s a start, and I’m committed to finding better ways – and better words – to tell the story of me in everything I write.

Featured image submitted. 

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