Yes I Am Bi…cultural

I am a child of immigrants. Everybody is in some sense, but my genealogy is particularly unique. During the late seventies and early eighties, my father and mother respectively, escaped their native countries with little on hand. My mother, at the age of 26, was the first of her seven brothers and sisters to leave her island Cebu, Philippines to come to America. She had, literally, a twenty dollar bill and the phone number of some friends of some friends of the family who lived in Los Angeles, California. My father left his farm village in England for the British Merchant Navy and at the age of 19, similarly found himself in Los Angeles, his closest kin being his brother-in-law’s aunt who lived an hour outside the city.

My mother raised me with an ambivalent attitude toward her Filipino roots. Neither of us could deny that I looked different from the rest of the kids at my Catholic elementary school, but my mother could deny my ties to her home country. The only thing remotely Filipino about my upbringing were the Vienna sausages and fried leftover rice for breakfast, and three Tagalog commands: tulog nà (sleep now), kain nà (eat), and ligo nà (take a bath). I couldn’t speak or understand a word of my mother’s two dialects (Sebuano and Basiat) beyond those three phrases.

As you can imagine, family gatherings on my mom’s side were overwhelming, to say the least. I’ve never been to the Philippines, but I’ve been to a house in Nutley, New Jersey where English is not proper form. Tagalog is a raucous language; it’s spoken fast and sounds like a cross between Spanish and Chinese. With two separate dialects of Tagalog being spoken at any one time at our family parties, things tend to get loud. Being the sole person in my family whose first and only language is English, I tended to shrink away from the conversations.

Not only did I sound different from my mother’s side of the family, I also looked different. Even my body represents a cultural paradox: I have the height, skin, and eyes of a Filipino, but I have the limbs and facial features of a Brit. Filipino’s are short and a little thick, with small hands and feet. Their noses are flat, their faces wide, and their lips plump, but my face bears none of these traits. My face is thin, my lips small, and my nose long and sharp. In fact, I inherited my paternal grandmother’s body, but in miniature form (she’s a lanky woman of about 5’8”). At 5’3”, she and I wear the same size shoe, and my hands are about as big as my boyfriends.

And then there’s the food. Adobo this, lumpia that, pansit there, ube here, and rice. Lots of rice. The Philippines has one of the many cultures that eats things deemed weird and gross by the conservative American gastronomic standard: blood, entrails, head, tongue, chicks, decaying fish, and even dog. (Actually almost every culture, America being the exception, has eaten dog at one time or another.) The hard-to-pronounce dishes, mostly stews and soups, always confound me. The colors of the broths and sauces are rich, and the texture varied with square chunks of some kind of meat poking through the surface.

Even if I did know the names and ingredients of the many Filipino stews, I would certainly not be able to eat any of it: there is no word for “vegetarian” in any Tagalog dialect. In fact, the national dish is lechon, a whole pig roasted rotisserie style over an open fire pit. Because of this gustatory problem, my mom always made me a separate meal for family gatherings. This was nice and all, except that she made lentils with spinach, every time. The puddle of brown, taupe and green on my plate always looked dull compared to the fanciful colors on the plates surrounding mine. This blatant difference has become more and more problematic as I’m realizing the significance of my mother’s culture, something I’ve come to claim as my culture.

On the other hand, my dad is very in touch with his English side. My bi-yearly trips to Los Angeles were guaranteed to include a visit to the Tudor House in Santa Monica for afternoon tea, and meat pies for dinner at the King’s Head Pub across the street. Meat pies are an English classic, and by far my favorite English meal. Meat pies look like rectangular empanadas, the steaming hot, stew-like inside is surrounded by a buttery, flakey dough. My preferred pie? Steak and kidney. Yes, kidney, and yes I’m a vegetarian, but I wasn’t always this way.

From the time I was eight until I was 15, my dad and I would fly to England every other year to visit his family. Again, the theme of physical difference emerges. Compared to my very light British cousins, I look wildly exotic with my slanty, almond eyes, pronounced cheekbones, and cashew colored skin. At least we could speak the same language, right? Actually, no. Yes, we were all speaking English, but they were speaking the local form of English. That is, through their thick, posh-sounding accents they described food as “nice,” and used a-lu-MI-nium to wrap their food.

On my most recent trip to England (five years ago, how sad), I came out as a vegetarian. A 15-old-vegetarian was big news back in the early 2000s, especially to family, especially to British family that thrives off of meat and shepherd’s pies. Of course, the typical questioning would ensue, “Since when? Why? What do you eat?” None of this really bothered me, but something else did. I now had to refuse my once favorite steak and kidney pie, as well as the novelty fish and chips truck that would drive by the country house twice a week. In refusing the food, I once again felt as if I was refusing the culture, my own heritage.

At 20, I find myself at a crossroads of cultures: I’m constantly oscillating between my mother’s Filipino roots, my father’s British heritage, and my own constructed vegetarian lifestyle. So what? Well, so what is a great question. What does this muddling of cultures mean for me? How do I navigate these confusing and sometimes conflicting pathways to find a succinct definition of who I am? This is the plight of many immigrant children, where the discrepancy between private and public life can have significant consequences on their identity. These consequences can be confusing (as in my case) and even negative (also in my case), but they have the potential to be simultaneously positive (yes, also in my case). Identity is fluid. As Anthony Bourdain said so eloquently on an episode of No Reservations: the Philippines, identity is where your heart lies: “Who are we really? Increasingly, wherever our hearts are.”


3 Comments on “Yes I Am Bi…cultural”

  1. Thaddeus says:

    Great read, Stephanie!

    I find myself also identifying with a lot of your experience. Here, in the states, I’m cast as half-Asian, and when in the Philippines (I really hope you get to visit some day!) I’m half-American; seemingly never home in a sense. I sometimes feel like a riff on that old Simpsons joke: that my true home lies in Rand McNally, usually found on your globe in the Indian Ocean.

    I also fully agree with you – identity is fluid, and often shifts moment-to-moment. Still, I think it’s valuable to continually ask, “who am I?,” even if answers are nebulous. We can potentially slough off a lot of ego baggage in the process.

    Vice TV did a poignant little short on Filipino cuisine. If you’re interested, it’s here

    Probably not to easy on vegetarian eyes though!

    Keep writing!! Thanks!

  2. Stephanie says:

    Thanks so much Thaddeus!!
    That video was great. I don’t have a strong tolerance for animal violence, but when I know it’s a traditional part of culture I can close my eyes and cover my ears for the duration.

    There was recently an article in the LA Times about Filipino cuisine that was pretty interesting:,0,6202861.story

    and here is a link to a fun blog about cooking Filipino-American:

    I decided to pick up a Filipino cookbook (It’s funny that I even have to do that. Shouldn’t my mom be passing down this knowledge?) and interpret the flavors into a vegetarian context. We’ll see how that goes…

  3. […] vegetarian food is more than just hummus and raw carrots, which is especially difficult considering Filipinos don’t even have a word vegetarian. I haven’t finalized my menu yet, but I’m definitely going to make roasted brussel […]

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