"The worst thing you could do is stick to your own kind and not meet and be friends with all kinds of people. Don't try to live here like you live there."
I still remember Gabe telling me this one lazy afternoon as we sat on the floor of his sister's Beverly Hills apartment. I had arrived in the US just weeks ago, and he wanted to make sure I started out my life here with my head on straight. This was the same guy who had just taught me how to pump my own gas, so I paid careful attention to anything else he wanted to teach me.
I didn't know what he meant; I thought I was a pretty sociable, gregarious, and open-minded person. I'd never been accused of being a snob my whole life, so why start now? I wasn't thinking that for 18 years I'd lived a relatively sheltered existence -- my home all these years was inside a private, guarded Makati-city enclave, I had attended private Catholic schools, and I'd never earned a single cent by working. For crissakes my brother-in-law had to teach me how to clean the toilet only a few nights ago, and I was still learning how to iron my own clothes and use a vacuum cleaner. None of this entered my head as I looked at Gabe with a quizzical stare.
"Look," he continued, "all you Filipino foreign students come here and hang out only with one another and look down on Filipino-Americans because you think we're different and have no class. Then you go home and you're still the same as when you got here. What a waste."
So when Noemi, my student peer counselor at Loyola Marymount University suggested I attend a party for incoming students hosted by the Asian Pacific Student Union on campus, I went. Noemi had introduced me to a few other Asian-American students, and they were nice enough to make sure I didn't feel too awkward, even if in reality I felt lost and alone in the middle of the crowd.
"Do you know how to cha cha?" Bernardo appeared in front of me with his hand out, and motioned towards the dance floor. Cha cha? What the hell was he talking about? Wasn't the cha cha something my mom used to dance when she was my age? I looked at the rows of dark-haired students moving back and forth in unison on the floor, some even making fancy turns before moving forward towards their partners again. It looked like the cha cha all right, but with a slower tempo and not as Latin-inflected. Plus they were dancing to Madonna. Very strange indeed. "No, I don't," I replied. That's OK, he said, so I followed him and disappeared among the waves.
He moved really well; he was very smooth and moved in time to the beat. But something was wrong: he was too -- enthusiastic -- for a man. Back home, guys just did the basic two-step -- unless they were gay or were dancing on "Penthouse Live". And here was this perfectly normal guy (OK, his pants seemed to be too baggy; I was used to seeing Filipino guys back home dressed either in slim-cut jeans and tees, or in preppy attire) dancing like he was center-stage on Soul Train. I remembered Gabe's words so I went with the flow, tentatively two-stepping my way back and forth with the cha-cha-ing masses.
I never thought these little things would throw me for a loop. But it was the little, everyday sort of things that got me most confused during my first few years in the US.
For instance, I didn't know how to respond to "How are you?" or "How ya doin'?" Does the greeter really want to know how I'm doing or how my day is going? And why would they want to know when I barely know them (and sometimes not at all)? I knew there was some way to respond to them without feeling awkward, so I visited my Intercultural Communication professor in her office to find out. "Just say 'great! how are you?' then smile and go your own merry way," she said. "They don't really want to know how I'm doing?" I pressed her for more clarification.
"No," she answered. It was easier than I thought. Later I found myself surprised when someone actually replied to me with a description of their physical, emotional, or mental state when I asked the same question. So usually I now just say hello, unless I really want to know.
Another problem I had was everyone looked the same to me. Everyone -- including Caucasians (many of whom think all Asians and African-Americans look the same). I wasn't used to paying attention to coloring, because back home almost everyone had black or brown hair and eyes. Of course there were expatriates and foreigners in Manila -- but they were relatively few, so it was easy to recognize and differentiate among them without having to pay close attention to their eye or hair color. I absolutely dreaded it when classmates asked if I had seen someone in particular; I never knew whom they were talking about, even if the person sat right in front of me in class.
But -- as Gabe had warned me -- the issue that gave me most grief was being Filipino among Filipinos. My fellow foreign students were perplexed why I would hang out with the Filipino-Americans since they were strange and different. The latter thought the same of the former. I felt like I was in the middle -- stranger and even more different, perhaps, because I tried to fit in with both.
Yet there was something Gabe forgot to warn me about: there were many times I was teased by my new Filipino-American friends about being a FOB (Fresh Off the Boat), and that I needed to change if I were going to be considered cool. For instance, my "Manila collegiala" accent had to go. "My name is not 'Pah-tee," said Patty, who proceeded to make me practice the correct way of pronouncing her name ("stretch out your vowels and don't enunciate the 't' so much!"). And my loose clothing -- a result of both my love for Comme de Garcons and other Japanese fashion designers, as well as my attempt to disguise how fat I was (all size 2/3 of me) -- was often criticized. I worked on the accent, but refused to budge on my fashion choices since I didn't like the alternatives presented to me.
There were many times I wanted to say "f**k this" and tell myself I didn't have to do anything different because I'd be back home in a few years. I was beginning to feel like an outsider in either group; how did it happen that I felt different when I was surrounded by own kind? I felt like my identity was being defined by others instead of myself.
I'm glad I stuck to my resolve. My fellow foreign students provided me with a constant sense of comfort and familiarity, and kept me grounded with a strong awareness and reminder of who I was. However, my Filipino-American friends helped me adjust and evolve until I gained a foothold on living here without feeling like a stranger. In a way they helped me navigate the trickiest journey of all: how to cope with gaining a Filipino identity for the first time in my life (since I had defined myself in non-racial terms while growing up in the Philippines) and learning to live in my adopted country without being restrained or confined by it. I'm always proud to say I'm Filipino -- yet although my personal and professional achievements are not because or in spite of it, I am more enriched and fortified by my identity.
I eventually learned how to cha cha, I can do housework like any fabulous domestic goddess, and can switch between accents with ease. I have wonderful friends of all backgrounds, and am superbly self-sufficient (though I still dread having to pump my own gas). Gabe wanted me to make the most of my sojourn here in the US and return home much better for it. He didn't realize that by opening my mind, he had helped me achieve so much more. I forged a new and powerful sense of identity and -- empowered by an open mind for all things new, strange, and different, and enabled by a can-do attitude -- I was able to build a solid and fulfilled life here. I still miss Manila often -- but at least now there are two places I can call home. They may be far apart on a map, but together inside my heart.
I came to America and found me.