In some ways, my husband (J) and I are very lucky. When I first introduced him to my extended family, most of my aunts and uncles had no idea where the Philippines even is. They had no preconceived notions, positive or negative, about what it is to be Filipino. This allows them to see J for who he is, without stereotypes clouding their view.
Filipinos are currently the second largest Asian group in the U.S. Yet, somehow they’re invisible in the Midwest. I can’t speak for LA or other coastal cities, but in places like Wisconsin, most people don’t know much about Filipinos. They may have met one or two at some point in their life. They may even know some trivia: that many Filipinos are Catholic, or that Manny Pacquiao is a pretty good boxer. But they don’t know much about Filipino culture or identity. Very few people create movies or stories about “growing up Filipino”.
Perhaps it’s because many Filipinos in the U.S. speak perfect English. Perhaps it’s because of U.S. occupation in the Philippines, creating immigrants with U.S. cultural fluency. Perhaps it’s because Filipino culture is unique among Asian countries, with pronounced similarities to Latin America in religion and language etymology. Whatever the reason, most people in the U.S. do not have a conception of what “Filipino” really means.
This means that J and I have very few role models. We don’t have couples who have gone before us to show us the way. We are marriage-culture orphans, much in the same way that we have become orphans from our own cultures. J, growing up among mostly white and black people in the city of Cleveland, sought to distance himself from his culture and does not speak Tagalog fluently. He has only visited the Philippines once since immigrating as a young child. Of course, my father lived essentially the same way. My father’s parents were from first-generation Belgian immigrant families. They spoke Flemish and grew up in the Minnesota countryside, yet my father speaks English alone and the only cultural scrap he has relayed to me is his experience growing up Catholic. So, how do J and I fuse together two mostly American, with hints of Filipino and a whisper of Belgian, people? All while trying to swim in a sea of American racism?
Those who say not to worry because we’re living in a post-racial society are entirely unhelpful. Because the shadows of a society obsessed with race are evident on both sides of our family:
Last winter, my mom and grandma were reminiscing about my mom’s childhood. My mom chided my grandma for being overtly racist. She spoke of how my grandma would always lock the car doors if she saw a black man walking by, to which my grandma replied,
“It had nothing to do with what color they were, it was only if we were in a bad part of town!”
My mom turned to me and said, “That’s nothing, you should have heard her when a Chinese person would pass by: ‘Ching chong ching!'”.
They both laughed, but I was already preparing my retort.
“I hope you don’t talk that way to my kids, grandma,” I told her rather pointedly. “They’ll be Asian too you know.”
Both women stopped mid-laughter and turned to look at me, horrified. “Well, I don’t think of J like that!” my grandma exclaimed, trying to make up for her faux pas.
I pressed her: “You don’t think of him as Asian?”
“No, no, it’s not that, I just think of him as family!” my grandma replied.
The message was clear. J was in the circle of trust. He wasn’t one of those people out there. To my grandma, he was essentially white.
We recently hosted J’s family for the first time at our new home in Wisconsin. As we dropped them off at their hotel for the night, J turned to me and said,
“Earlier tonight, I did a double take and wondered, ‘Who’s that blonde girl walking toward us’? Then I realized it was my sister!”
The next night at dinner, his sister spoke to us about her upcoming wedding.
“I’m thinking of keeping my hair dyed this color,” she told us. “And I’m getting colored contacts. I talked to the lady at the salon and she said that my eyes are too harsh and dark for my face. I think a light brown will really pop in the pictures!”
The next night at dinner, she talked to us about how she wanted a nose job.
“I know everyone always gets surgery to make their noses smaller, but I think I want to make my nose bigger. It’s too short and flat!” she told us.
At this point, her parents stepped in. “God gave you a beautiful nose!” they told her. “Don’t wish for a different one!” The conversation was clearly over
I wondered if it was a little late to draw the line there.
How do J and I build our own family culture when neither side of the family wants to talk about the obvious cultural and racial differences in a frank and open manner? How do we raise our future children so that they love their hair and eyes and nose, and adobo AND fries?
For instance, if we want our kids to learn Tagalog, how do we do that without explaining why their dad hardly speaks the language? How do we teach our kids about racism and racial stereotypes without giving them a negative sense of self-worth? How do we protect them from the inborn racism of their own grandparents and great grandparents? How do I deal with going to pick my children up from daycare and being asked if I’m the babysitter?
In a lot of ways, the Christian church is very unhelpful when it comes to these issues. “We don’t see color” is often the mantra of majority white, Evangelical churches. The church is very slowly developing a modern script for how to deal with families that are mixed black and white, due to racism against black Americans having an ever-present, bloody history in the U.S. The colonization of the Philippines, in contrast, took place far away, much too far away for modern Americans in the church to have a more nuanced stance towards it than ‘colorblindness’.
But my kids will be colorful. And I want them to be seen.
My husband is colorful. And I want our intercultural problems to be taken seriously.