What my grandfather’s death taught me about being proudly Filipino

The author with his Pangasinan-born mother. Her ‘lumpia’ is better than mine.

By Sean Harris

“What ethnicity are you?” That’s an easy enough question for most people to answer.

But for me, I’ve never really known how to answer that question. You see, I’m the definition of a mutt. I’m a mix of anything and everything. My mom is Filipino with some hints of Spanish in her. My dad is mostly Italian, but his family has roots back to Ireland, Germany, and even Ethiopia. Being honest, my dad doesn’t even know his complete family history, so who knows what kind of blood I truly have running within me.

Sure, I’m mostly Filipino, but am I really allowed to call myself Filipino just because of my mom’s heritage? I’ve never really felt or learned what it means to be Filipino once in my life, so can I really take pride in being Filipino?

Looking back at my past, it’s easy to see how I missed out on learning about Filipino culture. My grandfather came to this country in the 1960s. He eventually worked hard enough to be able to afford to bring my grandmother and my own mother over to America when she was only 6 years old. My mom grew up as an American, and she never looked back. The only things she’d admit are Filipino about her these days are her skin and her cooking.

My dad is as white as could be, and his knowledge of Filipino culture doesn’t extend past “lumpia = delicious.” I’m an only child, so I had no brothers or sisters to teach me. The rest of my family lived too far away for me to grow close to. The neighborhood kids I grew up with were a mash-up of various Latino ethnicities, and back then, we cared more about what Pokemon cards we wanted to trade than the countries that our families had come from.

I didn’t do much better in high school and college. I made lots of friends who were Filipino, but even then, I didn’t really learn much from them. They showed me that family stood above all else, but I’m an only child and I was never close to the rest of my family, so why did I have to place them above my friends that I cared more about?

I would see some of them wear clothing emblazoned with the colors of the Philippines flag on it, and always thought it looked like a silly sort of pride. I didn’t know how to cook, and Filipino food wasn’t really a favorite of mine anyways, so why should I learn how to cook Filipino food? At that point in my life, it didn’t really matter to me that I was Filipino.

I don’t even think I even cared to learn about my Filipino side. I even started filling in the “Caucasian” option on all those demographics surveys. I didn’t feel like I was allowed to mark the “Filipino/Pacific Islander” box. All this has changed quite recently though, with the recent passing of my grandfather.

My grandfather had been the one who brought my family to America. He worked as a deckhand onboard the ships of the Red & White fleet in San Francisco for many years, with every cent he earned going towards his family. He would never allow us to leave his house with an empty stomach. After he passed, I realized that I probably wouldn’t be here today without the sacrifices he made for his family.

The happiness of his family was always his main goal, and after his death, his family came together stronger than before. I was able to meet family members that I had never met before in person. My grandfather’s brothers and sisters flew in directly from the Philippines. My aunts, uncles, cousins and nephews also visited. I was shocked at how big my family actually was in the weeks after my grandfather’s passing.

They were all eager to meet me and learn as much about me as possible as well. In between dodging questions from my aunties like “Are you married yet?” and uncles trying to steal me away to the Philippines to make me into a movie star, I was able to learn so much more about my grandfather, and I learned to appreciate the family that I never knew I had.

His sisters told of all the times he beat up all the neighborhood boys who wanted them as girlfriends. His daughters told us of the time he crashed one of their high school parties and dragged them all out because they had missed their curfew. I realized that I knew nothing about my family’s history, and I felt empty inside. For the first time in my life, I had motivation to know about my Filipino side.

But I’ve started small.

I’ve learned that my family comes from Santa Barbara, Pangasinan in the Philippines. I’ve gotten my mom to teach me how to cook adobo and lumpia, though hers still tastes better than mine. I’ve even tried teaching myself Tagalog, with an emphasis on tried. I can’t seem to remember anything past “Magandang,” and hearing me try to pronounce “nga” sounds like I’m trying to bite into a coconut, but the effort has to mean something.

Surprisingly, the place where I feel like I’ve learned the most has been at work. My job gives me the opportunity to talk with people from every corner of the world and from every walk of life. Every so often, I find myself with someone straight from the Philippines sitting before me, and they would always be more than willing to chat with me, especially when they find out I’m Filipino as well.
Their eyes always light up when I ask them about their homeland and so far I’ve earned myself a list of places I must go visit, a bunch of sighs when they hear me try and speak Tagalog, and many thank-yous from all.

It’s amazing seeing these people coming to America and trying to achieve the same thing my own grandfather did 50 years ago. Little by little, I’m getting a sense of what it’s like to be Filipino. Family, history, and pride. It’s baby steps for me now, but the Filipino within me is finally starting to awaken.— Rappler.com

Sean Harris was born and raised in the Bay Area. He graduated from CSU East Bay with a degree in Criminal Justice, and works at the Port of Oakland. He loves writing about good food, is obsessed with cute kittens, and can’t get enough of summer baseball.

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