I often tell the story that I didn’t realize that I was a minority until I won an award for it in high school. My father was a white American and my mother is a Filipina. I was born and raised in a small city in Indiana where my local family, friends, neighbors, schoolmates, and fellow churchgoers were predominantly white midwesterners.
I knew that our household was a little bit different. We ate rice with every meal instead of bread or potatoes. We took off our shoes and wore slippers when we entered the house. We knelt down and prayed the rosary every day. As a child, I had visited the Philippines with my mother every five years or so, but I was not born in Asia and never lived there for an extended period.
When it came to school or being with my friends, I didn’t feel any different than them, and thankfully, when I was young, I didn’t notice anyone treating me differently because of my race or ethnicity. Occasionally kids would call me “Chinese eyes” but they also teased my friends for having freckles or curly hair, so I didn’t think anything of it.
No one ever sat me down and said, you are not white. So when it came to filling out forms for standardized tests where you could only choose one bubble to fill in – White, Black, Asian, or Hispanic, I chose White.
Unbeknownst to me, when filling out an academic achievement award application, my guidance counselor chose Asian to describe me, and I won the minority award. I remember thinking, I’m not a minority, there must be some mistake. But my parents drove me to a university in a neighboring city to accept the award, and I found myself in the middle of a ballroom, surrounded by my peers, the other minority students from around the state.
This experience marked a turning point. I didn’t start automatically identifying myself as Asian everywhere, but I did start to notice and consider the implications of my culture.
You might assume that by now, with years of maturity and experience, I would have figured out my cultural identity. The truth is that it is complex and evolving.
When I describe my culture or my background, most automatically think, Asian-American or maybe Filipina. As much as that is my culture, so is being from Indiana, or as we call it, being a Hoosier. I also have a culture of faith. I am a cradle Catholic, but I have been involved with other faith traditions. What I have learned (so far) is that though the answer may not be clear-cut, it is important to take time to consider the influences that make me who I am.
We relate better with each other when we have an understanding of ourselves.
This exploration has been helpful as I am out there navigating my own relationships, and it’s especially important in my role as a mother teaching my children about the world. So I’ve started to consider some of the simplest of ways to share about my culture…
Food is an integral part of Filipino culture, so I want to make sure that my sons know how to make rice and wrap lumpia, and that I capture significant recipes from my mother.
Sports are a fundamental part of Hoosier culture, so I want to make sure that we all know the basics of basketball, football, and the Indy 500 (along with soccer, the world’s game).
Hospitality is a part of both cultures, so I want to make sure that we know how to welcome and care for people wherever we are.
What are some ways that you would describe your cultural identity? How could you share important parts of your culture with others?
I found this list of cultural elements from Educen to be helpful in reflecting on culture:
- Manifestations, such as art, ideas, communication, artifacts, tools, rules, and laws;
- Beliefs, values, and worldviews, such as ideologies, assumptions, and attitudes;
- Knowledge, such as scientific knowledge, local knowledge, and indigenous knowledge;
- Social structure, such as agency, relationships, social networks, social control, and power;
- Behavior and practice, such as customs and norms, rituals, and traditions.