Modern Day Phoenixes

Where are you from?

When I am asked this question, I immediately think of my parents. My mother was born on the island of Coron, a mere freckle nestled within the larger island province of Palawan off the west coast of the Philippines. Dirt roads, pungent fruit trees, and the Chinese sea. This was the life she and her siblings lived. At the age of twenty, she left home to pursue nursing and moved to the capital, Manila. She found a small but cozy apartment complex, the same one my father lived in (in fact, the landlord was my grandmother!) Before my mother finished school, my father decided to move to the United States in my grandmother's footsteps to start a new life. He waited for my mother to follow shortly after.

Back then, I was simply a thought between two lovers who lived 8,527 miles (and 13724 kilometers) apart.

I've always wondered why my grandmother chose to move to the east coast. Why not California, where I live now? Where the avocados are always sweet, snow is non-existent, where the land and the mountains and the sea seem to stretch on and on?

Why New Jersey? My mother landed on American soil on the 4th of July, 1990. I was born 11 months later on a stifling afternoon in the heart of New Jersey's summer. It was August. Humidity soaks everything that time of year, while the heat effectively makes the world much slower. In New Jersey, the dark greens of the vast deciduous forests cover up most of the sky, and the dense population of the greater New York Area weighs upon the horizon, casting shadows of industrialization, struggle, and ceaseless concrete.

New Jersey became my home for twenty-three years.

In America, kids like me were dubbed "first-generation Americans," as opposed to "Third Culture Kids." I think they can be looked at very similarly. But I think there is a much larger story seen in the differences between them. 

In the book, Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing up Among Worlds authors David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken note that a “...TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK's life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”

One could argue that a main difference between a TCK and a first-generation American is that when you are born on American soil, you essentially become "property" of the United States. This is primarily seen in the altered language when describing one's identity. For example, when I was asked what my ethnicity was, I would answer: Filipino-American, or Asian-American. 

Tacking the descriptor "-American" to one's heritage appears to be harmless, but more and more I see it as a way to instill a sense of nationalism, or group mentality amongst those who were born on American soil. Ideally, this should be a good thing, as camaraderie can inspire strength and community. Unfortunately in today's America, there is a lot of confusion and mixed perspectives when the terms "race," "heritage," "origin," and "ethnicity" are thrown into conversation.

The issue with using the word “race” is that many Americans are unsure of what the term really means, and how/why it is different from one's “origin.” The Census Bureau’s focus group research found that some Americans think the words mean the same thing, while others see race as meaning skin color, ancestry or culture, while origin is the nation or place where they or their parents were born.

My experience growing up as a first-generation American in Northern New Jersey was actually quite pleasant. I did not feel like an outsider at school-- many of my classmates were also first-generation Americans. It was very apparent, if you paid attention. You could hear multitudes of different languages being spoken throughout the hallways, and see the various types of clothing some students would wear to represent their cultural heritage. Best of all, going to a friend's house for dinner meant that you were going to eat *ethnic (see note below) cuisine.

I like to think that the person I am today is like a collaborative mural painted by all of the people, cultures, and multitude of influences imprinted onto me from living in a Filipino household in a racially-diverse town in New Jersey. How I cook is influenced by my mother; savory, sweet, salty dishes inspired by Spanish and Asian cuisine. But the extent of what I can cook comes from my love of many cuisines. (I've got spice mixtures and sauces from India, Korea, North Africa, Brazil, Michigan, and Thailand etc!) My accent is not even the stereotypical "Jersey" accent, in fact, none of my friends from New Jersey sounded like that at all. 

Growing up, I felt like it was a privilege to have so many friends who come from families from other countries. I still do. I felt the strongest bond between the friends who were also TCKs because I knew that each one of us was experiencing what it was like to navigate through an entirely different culture than what our parents' knew.

It was challenging and wondrous every step of the way. Our parents feared this change of environment within an entirely new culture they could not wrap their heads around. But we reveled in it. Each of us was navigating a whole new frontier, full of influences from a wild variety of people from all over the globe. We were falling in love with people of different races, going to concerts and admiring musicians from different backgrounds, all the while learning just how easy it was to get along with every sort of person imaginable. 

Where we were from didn’t really matter. I still don’t think it does.


(* The use of the word ethnic in describing food has also become a trend in American society, I think as a way to socially separate the types of cuisine that originate from other countries, such as Vietnamese or Indian food, as opposed to your standard American cheeseburger, pizza, meatloaf or chicken pot pie. 

John Birdsall, writer on Chowhound says it perfectly: "I hate you, ethnic, when you show up to describe a certain class of restaurants, or worse: when you take the form of a noun to indicate some vast, amorphous category of food that isn’t cheeseburgers, 
chili mac, or potato salad, as in: “Let’s do ethnic tonight.")

First published in June 2016