Coming full circle

By Aina Abell, 2016 Fellow

We asked our Summer 2016 Fellows to write down their thoughts, questions, and ideas over the course of their stay in the Philippines. This is one of their reflections.

Through the years, I have had to get used to living in between—in between countries, in between cultures, in between identities. I am half Filipina, half Egyptian. I have lived half of my life in the Philippines with my maternal Filipino family, half in the United States with my Filipina mother and American (step)father.* My whole life I have always been just half.

For a long time, I’ve struggled to reconcile and find some sort of balance between my halves tugging in opposite directions. There was a part of me that held on so tightly to my Filipino-ness—the language, the food, the culture. I was afraid that if I let go of it, then the warm memories of my Filipino childhood, of my Filipino family, would fade and I would be left with no memory, no proof of my life before America.

I wanted to reject the idea of being American, to be doggedly Filipino. But there was that part of me that wanted so badly to assimilate to white American culture—to be lighter-skinned, to speak perfect English. I felt ashamed of my un-American childhood, of not having played traditional American games, of not having watched traditional American television shows. I was caught in this endless game of tug-of-war, wanting to only be Filipino but also wanting to be American.

However, many people, both in the Philippines and in the United States, didn’t really see me as either. In the Philippines, I was “mestiza” or “tisay.” To them, I was American because I had internalized so much of the American culture and values I grew up with. In the U.S., I was “Mexican” or “Puerto Rican” or simply “ethnically ambiguous.” I felt even more uncomfortable saying I was half Egyptian because I felt like I was claiming an identity I knew nothing about.

I never felt Filipino enough, Egyptian enough, American enough. I found myself constantly wanting to justify my identity, to prove that I was Filipino, I was Egyptian, I was American, even if I wasn’t convinced of it myself.

Looking back on it, it’s amazing how I reduced my language, my childhood, my entire culture into something so quantifiable: proof. It’s as if I was standing before a jury, making a case for my identity. But in many ways, that’s how I felt.

Our second week into the fellowship, we went to Bataan for an immersion with the Aeta community. On the way back to Manila, some of us fellows who immigrated to North America as children began sharing our experiences as 1.5 generation immigrants. I heard my peers verbalize the very internal conflicts that I had been struggling with since I was nine years old—the feeling of being a perpetual foreigner, of not feeling like we truly belonged anywhere. I heard my mixed race friends voice their struggles with ethnic ambiguity. As the conversation went on, I felt as if I was crossing off a mental checklist of the life-long insecurities I’ve had with my identity.

Growing up, I always felt a sense of isolation that I think must come naturally with “identity purgatory.” I never felt comfortable talking about these conflicts. They were too personal, too intimate. But in that Manila-bound van, I felt a oneness with the other Kaya fellows. This was a group of people who understood and have felt the complexities of the 1.5 generation and mixed race experience. There was a sense of solidarity because, in one way or another, we have all felt what it’s like to be in between identities. Our conversation validated my feelings and experiences, and above all, it affirmed an idea that I’ve been working to accept for the past few years—that my identity isn’t something I need to prove. It isn’t something I need to justify. I am not just half. I am Filipino. I am Egyptian. I am American. I am whole.

I always was.

*I say stepfather only to specify that he is not my biological father. In every other sense of the word, he is my father and the only one I’ve ever known.