March is coming up and it’s like clockwork, like an annual alarm set for March 4th. It feels impossible to forget, not that I’d want to. But it’s so odd to think it was eight years ago when my family lost my grandpa.
I didn’t realize it until the end of last year when I started a Ph.D. program at UCSD, but the passing of my grandpa became one of the biggest turning points in my life. To speak about loss and turning points, I find it useful to turn to the words of Sara Ahmed. In her book Queer Phenomenology, Sara Ahmed uses the metaphor of lines to talk about the places we’ve been, the places we find ourselves in the present, and the places we’re headed. Out of the experience of a dramatic redirection, Ahmed uses this metaphor to illustrate the movement from leaving the “world” of heterosexuality” to embracing a new one—becoming a lesbian. She points to how this redirection meant leaving the well-trodden path—a deviation from the path one is supposed to follow—and argues that deviation leaves its marks on the ground, which can even help generative alternative lines by crossing the ground in unexpected ways. Then she goes on to say,
“We talk about losing our way as well as finding our way. And this is not simply a reference to moments when we can’t find our way to this or that destination: when we are lost in the streets, or in rooms that are unfamiliar; when we don’t know how we have got where it is that we are. We can also lose our direction in the sense that we lose our aim or purpose: disorientation is a way of describing the feelings that gather when we lose our sense of who it is that we are. Such losses can be converted into the joy of a future that has been opened up. ‘Life itself’ is often imagined in terms of ‘having a direction,’ which decides from the present what the future should be. After all, to acquire a direction takes time, even if it feels as if we have always followed one line or another, or as if we ‘began’ and ‘ended’ in the same place. Indeed, it is by following some lines more than others that we might acquire our sense of who it is that we are. The temporality of orientation reminds us that orientations are effects of what we tend toward, where the ‘toward’ marks a space and time that is almost, but not quite, available in the present” (Ahmed, 2006, p. 20).
Before 2014, I walked along a line that steered me away from my Filipino identity. Perhaps to best adjust to life in the US, my family didn’t teach me how to speak Tagalog. We adjusted what we ate to match the American palette. Filipino cuisine became a holiday occasion when we visited my grandparents. My parents also pushed me into sports because “that’s what boys do.” Meanwhile, I was never encouraged to join an AAPI or Filipino cultural club. But to be fair, neither did I seek it out. Now that I look back on the path I’ve taken through the past eight years, however, I realized my grandpa’s passing left me at an impasse at which I took a turn.
In that moment of loss, I somehow knew in my gut that I had lost more than my grandpa. I was also losing his life story, my family’s life stories, and the histories that carried me and my family across various lines from national borders to generational timelines. And so slowly, I started reorienting myself toward recovering those losses.
Reorienting and Recovery
A large part of this started with one of my grandpa’s favorite things to eat when he was sick: mango cake from Red Ribbon. This gave me the desire to re-explore Filipino cuisine. At the time, I was also dating a Filipino guy who was very passionate about being Filipino, especially about being Cebuano. Our relationship inspired me to want to learn more about Filipino culture and a large part of that was food. We cooked and ate Filipino food often. And around that time, I also began experimenting with Filipino recipes (well, a recipe for sinigang) with my family.
Almost in conjunction with these steps toward recovery, I also started by trying to reconnect with religion. When I was little, religion was at the heart of my family’s sense of community but I hazily remember feeling a sense of loss when my family stopped attending church on Sundays. So naturally, at one point, I thought returning would fill the void of loss. But I realize I deviated in many other ways that made the path of religion inhospitable for me.
By 2017, I started a master’s program at NYU and during my time there, many of my papers and projects focused on migration studies and identity. It became easy for me to connect with other second-generation students who seemed to have similar questions as me, giving me a space to explore this need for history and belonging. Within those two years in NYC, I then conducted research on US imperialism in the Philippines, did interviews to learn about my own family’s migration stories during the 1970s and 1980s, and even expanded beyond my personal experiences and studied in Berlin to learn about the experiences of being a migrant there and wrote a thesis on the politics of being undocumented in the U.S. In many ways, I admit, this exploration in identity and migration studies scared me. I was experiencing the classic trope of imposter syndrome: who am I to claim that I am a real Filipino?
I hated that feeling. So, I looked for ways to “fix” it.
After graduating from NYU, I have gradually studied, researched, and learned more and more about my ethnic ancestry and cultural heritage. I started reading books from Filipino writers including The Latinos of Asia, Empire of Care, Filipino Studies: Palimpsest of Nation & Diaspora, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, Monstress, The Son of Good Fortune, How to Do Nothing, and Patron Saints of Nothing. In fact, I’m still learning with many more books, articles, blogs, shows, and movies on my list!
But in retrospect, it feels both surprising and relieving that I’m on this path. I’m surprised because if you knew who I was—say in elementary school, a time when I was a kid glued to his GameBoy—you would probably never think I’d end up where I am now. Still, it also feels clear that this path became more reachable to me little by little through my little turns and pivots toward food, religion, books, and research. More importantly, I feel relieved because while the loss of my grandpa is not something that I can magically undo, I’d like to think that he would be proud of me for trying to recover and make sense of the people, things, ideas, and events that made my journey possible.
Through these experiences (along with the exposure to activism in SF and NYC), I found myself joining a Filipino activist organization in 2020. And I’ve learned so much from this wonderful community about Filipino culture, history, and politics, but also about love and care. I’ve had the chance to meet so many Filipinos from all walks of life—pastors, graphic designers, poets, undergraduate students, veterans, People Power Revolution activists, professors, educators, filmmakers, rappers, photographers, artists, and everyday people just like me. While I’m still relatively new to this world, I feel so grateful to be a part of this community, which has helped change the way I understand care, community, support, and freedom. To explain some of what I mean, I want to turn to the most recent endeavor on this journey of mine.
So just last week, I started taking a Filipino language course and so far, there were three things that stood out to me so much that I felt an urge to share:
Siya/Sila they (singular)/they (plural)
In our second session, we discussed pronouns for people, which feels timely given our current political climate. In Tagalog, siya refers to 3rd person singular and sila refers to 3rd person plural. Right now, you might be thinking, what the heck does that mean? Well frankly, it means he and she doesn’t exist. Or rather, siya encompasses what English divides as he, she, and they. Now, while I am not sure what this signifies in terms of queer identities in Filipino culture, I find it liberating as it allows me to feel like there is space to be queer without a name as if the discursive path of Tagalog was made to be wide enough for both straight and queer peoples to coexist.
During my class, I learned about a concept called pangungsap, which can be roughly translated as “sentence.” However, my instructor suggested that there was more to it. That is, the word refers more accurately to clusters of thoughts strung together, like a discursive path or conceptual map of meanings. I was amazed by this because it made me think about the relationship between subjects and objects. Now many of us learn about subjects and objects in grammar school, but the first time I encountered powerful critiques about objects was at SFSU in a class about sexuality and gender that critiqued the male gaze and the way society “objectifies” women. This class opened my eyes to the violence that emerged from treating women as objects to be possessed and handled and in a similar way, I began wondering, how does the English language treat subjects and objects? Well, if you think through your use of English, we are often taught to prioritize the subject in the way we construct sentences. We assume a subject-verb-object formation. Immediately, we subordinate the object to the end of the sentence. However, unlike English’s typical sentence structure (subject-verb-object), Tagalog has a looser structure because language is less about order and more about mapping out ideas. For example, Tagalog uses a marker system, in which there is syntactic flexibility. By this I mean, Tagalog sentences often start with a verb (the action or practice, if you will), then after you mark the subject with ang and the object with ng (to situate that practice in a context, perhaps?). While in Tagalog, the most common sentence order is verb-subject-object, speakers can shuffle the order to verb-object-subject. To make matters more complicated, a speaker can switch the subject/object markers, which creates the possibility of articulating the same sentence in four different ways. In comparison to English, Tagalog then shows that sentence ordering does not matter as much as practice, context, and emphasis based on inflection. Moreover, it offers what feels like a compelling way of thinking about the way our language structures and constrains our ways of knowing and an avenue for remembering that our repertoires not only contain different tools but also that tools that we have in common (like the English language) work differently for different people.
I learned another word that stood out to me: hanapbuhay, which is translated to livelihood. But if you break it down, hanap means to find or to search and buhay means life. Now as someone who studies communication, words and the rich constellation of meanings that form around them amaze me. In short, I’m nerdy for words. But in this case, I am drawn to this concept of hanapbuhay because it alludes to the idea of finding and searching for life. If framed this way, it’s a word that speaks to the migrant experience of looking for a better life. But it can also speak to the idea of finding one’s purpose or searching for the things that might enrich our lives.
With this in mind, I want to return to where I started, my grandpa. From the memories I can still recall, my grandpa had a very warm and humorous personality. He was comforting to be around because, from all my interactions with him, he would lighten the space with his many jokes, singing, and music, but on the flip side, he was more than an entertainer, he was patient and attentive. He was a caretaker. His caretaking is so ingrained in me that it brings me joy to recall childhood memories: especially the ritual of Sunday breakfast with the family, a breakfast of spam, Filipino meats, eggs, and rice that he cooked, a call to me and my sister to help set the table, a reminder from my aunt to brush my teeth before we head out to church, the fancy outfits, the wetting and patting down of my bed hair…
He’s the reason why silogs feel like home to me. But also, he (of course, along with many others that are still here today, like my mom, my sisters, my aunt, my friends) made it possible for me to walk down the lines I’ve chosen to walk, and to this day, he continues to be a source of inspiration for molding my sense of purpose to make sense of the people and things that enrich our lives—from health and family to friends and love to care and safety to culture and community. The best part? I can capture much of this journey I’m on in a single word: hanapbuhay.
I want to conclude by answering a question readers might ask: well do you feel more Filipino now? Haha, and honestly, I don’t know. I guess I’ve learned from my experiences that identity is not just a box that you adopt or inherit. Certain identities are indeed imposed upon us. But I have learned that identity is something made up of practices. It’s something you do, something you create. And if someone imposes an identity on you, that also means you can un-impose it and remake it. So, I guess in that sense, I’m always in the process of becoming, doing, and creating a “Filipino” identity, at least in terms of what it means for me. And perhaps, others who experience similar experiences as me might read my stories and say, “you know what, that resonates with me!” From what I’ve learned, I believe that this collective process of recognition in expressions and representations over time comes together and coheres into what we understand as “Filipino.” Do I know what that future looks like? No. I might have some idea based on where I’ve been, but I suppose, the only way for us to really know is by marching forth and seeing what comes of it.