By CJ Calica
As a Filipino-American growing up in an area with few Filipinos, I became disconnected from my heritage. My parents were ridiculed because of their culture, accent, and appearance, so they made sure that my siblings and I would never have to face those experiences by making us as “American” as possible. We only speak English at home, with casual Taglish (Tagalog mixed with English) here and there. My parents don't talk much about being Filipino at home. They were the first in their family to leave, seeking better opportunities for their lives. They immigrated here not knowing one another yet but eventually meeting in the process. With the support of a few old relatives and each other, they made a new life in California. After tying the knot, they moved in together to Glendale with plans to raise my brother and, not long after, myself.
My brother and I grew up in a town with a 7.5 percent Filipino population. Fluctuating from generation to generation, my brother and I were set into the Class of ‘21 and ‘22 with little to no classmates who had the same background as us. It didn’t bother me much throughout primary and middle school, but I began to notice my differences from others around me once I entered high school.
In Glendale, there is a huge Armenian population, giving it the name “Little Armenia.” Every single student, teacher, and parent I would meet would always be proud of their culture. Rather than integrating the American lifestyle into their life like my family, they meshed their Armenian lifestyle into their American life. Many of my friends actually attend Armenian school every week, learning and speaking Armenian fluently, and always staying proud of who they are through places like social media. This closeness to their heritage was something I always envied growing up. With my broken Tagalog and little to no knowledge of my family's homeland. I’ve always felt distant from a part of my identity. Every Tito (uncle) gives me a look of disappointment when I don’t know how to speak back to them in Tagalog and every Tita (aunt) is saddened by the sound of my lack of knowledge of Filipino celebrities back home.
My brother, little sister, and I would classify ourselves as Filipinos with an American passports. We are familiar with some parts of Filipino culture, but our understanding is limited to basic social standards. Things like removing our shoes before entering the house, waiting until everyone has received their plate for the meal, and serving visitors even if they have already eaten beforehand are the extent of our understanding.
There's a weird line between "not being Filipino enough" and "not being American enough" that prevents us from fitting into either group. Many Americans do not share our cultural beliefs and don’t understand some of our practices at home. This leaves me in this gray area where I’m not sure who exactly I am. I also found that many other Filipino-Americans have had similar experiences.
In my personal experience, I’ve always felt split. Being Filipino-American, I never felt as if I was full of anything. I was too American for the Filipinos and too Filipino for the Americans. The lack of support I had from non-Filipino friends when I represented my culture has always made me feel alienated from others. It has often made me doubt my own identity and makes me uneasy about fully expressing myself to others.
I spent a lot of time at home during the pandemic. During the rush of my sophomore to junior year, I found myself with far too much time on my hands. As I lay on my couch, unsure how to deal with my boredom, I heard The Filipino Channel coming from the dining room television. I was fascinated by my parents' ranting and laughing. So every morning, I began watching it with them. I would sometimes discover something new, such as a new popular trend or custom. As a result of my desire to learn more, I began following Philippine news and even calling some of my relatives who had just migrated here and got to connect with them better.
My younger sister and I made an effort to practice as much as we could, always conversing back and forth with our limited vocabulary. Nonetheless, we have made significant progress. Even after the quarantine ended, we were able to merge many parts of our lives, such as attending fiestas (parties) near us, eating with bamboo leaves and our hands during holidays, and even wearing barongs (traditional clothing worn by Filipinos) to special events.
I'm gradually becoming more a part of my heritage, and I'm grateful for this component of my identity. I recognize that I am not simply an American or a Filipino, but a combination of both that I can mend together, which is something I absolutely treasure. I'm glad I can share my culture with my American friends without feeling ashamed and also belong to my Filipino community without feeling displaced. Being Filipino American to me is like being a "halo-halo" (a type of dessert mixed with fruit and beans) in the center of it all!
This painting was inspired by the realization I got about truly accepting who I am. The sun's silhouette may be seen in the background, which is taken from the flag of the Philippines. As seen at the bottom, I included Sampaguita, the Philippines' national flower. Even though the flower does not have yellow in the center, in reality, I included it to represent the light that shines within each of us. I used my younger sister as a source for the girl in the middle since I think her features are truly beautiful, regardless of what she thinks.
"My name is CJ Calica, I’m a Senior in High School and also a Neolth Student Ambassador. I was born and raised in California and I know Glendale like the back of my hand. My parents are both from Manilla, Philippines, and migrated here before I was born. I'm interested in increasing awareness about the Asian American experience and removing the stigma associated with mental health in my culture. I want to make sure that all Filipino and Asian youth have access and means to the resources they need."
CJ is a part of Neolth's Student Mental Health Ambassador Program, spanning across the globe with a network of over 300 students. Ambassadors participate in various forms of mental health advocacy, including sharing their stories, like CJ, to reduce stigma, educate others, and spread awareness about mental health. We are proud to display the incredible work they do!