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Filipina-American is in the heart: an end-of-term reflection by a very corny, early career scholar.

"I am my ancestor's wildest dreams." - Brianne James

Image below is by artist Natalie Bui (2018).

By Natalie Bui (2018)


In 1521, Ferdinand Magellan first docked onto the island of Guiuan, and so began the 400+ years of colonialism and imperialism that the Philippines endured prior to their independence in 1946. Of all the 7,100+ islands, it was my grandmother's that was the first subject to colonial oppression. My ancestral people, the Waray, now occupy approximately 3.4% of the Philippine population. Indeed, it can be incredibly difficult to connect with facets of my ancestry when their very history, language, and culture have been ostensibly quieted within the country's national narrative. There is beauty in the fact that every day, I nonetheless manage to uncover a bit more of these connections.

As many friends know, I grew up with a very complex relationship regarding my identity and avoided talking about my ethnicities, whenever possible. Growing up in predominantly white spaces in "the South," I always stuck out as too different -- too Asian, too hairy, too round, flat a nose. The stereotypes never quite made sense to me... I was born to a Philippine first-generation immigrant mother and multicultural third-generation sansei father (whose mother faced internment under E.O. 9066), both of whom were distanced from their cultural heritage and thus as "Americanized" as it got. They raised me far differently from the model minority stereotypes imposed upon me by my Caucasian classmates. Exacerbating this confusion, I did not know that Filipino-Americans occupy a uniquely marginalized space within America, even amongst Asian/Asian American communities and within academia. From an early age and for most of my life, race frustrated me almost as much as it embarrassed me.

I did not understand that such stigmatization affected me until it began to take an extreme toll on my health, both mentally and physically. After a year of attending New York University, I was wildly unprepared for life outside of the self-proclaimed cultural hub that was Manhattan. Transferring to the University of Virginia with no prior knowledge of its unique campus climate, the institution struck me as elitist and isolating during my first year of attendance.* Like my upbringing, I again felt alienated and overwhelmed in the predominantly white domain without realizing the source of my own anxieties. I had not yet located my further grief in the fact that even my peers who "looked like me" were typically much more affluent and at the very least, much more accustomed to the college culture. These experiences led to a series of health crises, but eventually pushed me into a healthier headspace that allowed me to reflect on my identity in ways I had never considered before. I am forever indebted to the Women's Asian American Leadership Initiative, the Organization of Young Filipino Americans, and UVa's Department of Anthropology... all three quite literally fell onto my lap, yet changed my entire way of thinking, envisioning, and living in this world. WAALI helped me understand and embrace myself, OYFA taught me to embrace my Filipino heritage, and Anthropology broadened my worldview and turned it completely inside out in the process. These experiences propelled me to interrogate what I always believed to be "common sense"- modernity, ethnocentrism, and neocolonial sentiment. Acknowledging my own engrained colonialist mentality and confronting what I was so ashamed of- myself, my ancestry, my family for not teaching me my "culture"... I am here today in a completely different position from 10 years ago and continue to grapple with my identity in new ways every day.


As I began to study Anthropology, I started to question my own cultural upbringing. It took two decades of living, but familiarizing myself with my ancestral roots led to an instantaneous wave of emotions, an amalgam of sudden warmth, the best (and worst parts of) anxious excitement, and a perplexing realization that I quite suddenly felt tethered to something much bigger than myself; yes, such an experience was certainly worth waiting for. I suddenly found myself experiencing feelings I had never known (and could not properly articulate until reading Benedict Anderson) - feelings of loss, be/longing, community, and all else that I would eventually understand as a product of diaspora. I realized that the most meaningful contribution I could make would be through questioning contemporary representations of the Philippines through advocating for new research in a country that is vastly underrepresented (if not significantly misrepresented) in global discourse, thus also in Western academia and popular culture, which then filters down to a general lack of representation for little Filipina-American girls like me who would have grown up much differently, had I known even a snippet of what I know now.

So I got to work. I took a risk on graduate school applications by choosing not to propose research that built on my previous, rather promising fieldwork in Tres Islas, Peru and Pastaza, Ecuador. Instead, I proposed an entirely new ethnographic focus in the Philippines, a country that remains vastly under-examined by Ph.D. programs in the United States. I took further risk in proposing to study beauty pageantry of all things, a topic that must seem so obscure at face value to some academics that it has actually been called "cute" and "fun" (among other words...) in times that I was not been given opportunity to unpack its sociocultural and political significance. I adamantly reached out to scholars I wished to work with, many of whom who told me that Southeast Asia, specifically the Philippines, was simply not what the department was looking for at the moment. However, this did not stop me from actively pursuing independent studies on the Philippines. My unwavering hope to research what I was so passionate about was kept alive when I started Tagalog language lessons, the very language that my mother was robbed of when forced to stop speaking Tagalog due to American assimilationist policies in schools... the Philippine national language that is curiously a product of 400+ years of colonization, yet taught only second (if at all) in the Philippines after first learning English.


(Bonus if it's about your upbringing as a child of diaspora!)

My lola and I with pancit, adobo, and lumpia, in 2018.

During this time, I finally began to realize that diaspora is not cut-and-dry, that my identity is ever-changing, as is my connection to my cultural heritage. Moreover, my culture was always right in front of me. This perspective came about after speaking with Dr. Jason Younker. He, too, was once a young anthropologist who felt a responsibility to explore his own culture in order to produce a better life for his community, yet encountered frustration when he did not know all he felt he should have about his heritage. In time, he realized the issue was not a failure of being "taught" his culture, but a failure to realize that every story his father told him, the landscape around him... all were part of grander narratives, reminiscent of his Coquille upbringing. His culture was with him all along. This instantly conjured memories of tangy notes from Filipino dishes that waft into every room... the childlike excitement in my lola (grandma)'s eyes when she sees photos of her hometown of Baras, Guiuan... the symphony of guttural stops in the fast-paced chatter amongst aunties, clad in their Coach purses... the unspoken solidarity you feel when eating in public and seeing another Filipino eating only with their hands, just like you... these small, seemingly insignificant experiences that Roland Barthes reminds us are far more influential than one might assume. I now understand that the reason I was never "taught" my culture was because my culture cannot be taught, but learned... if you're paying attention.

It took some time to forgive myself for ever considering that my family had not adequately raised me into my culture. My family, in hopes of providing me a better life in America, did not "conceal" my culture from me. Any perceivable cultural distancing was likely unintentional, in attempts to protect me from the realities of being seen as a perpetual foreigner- a trope that I nonetheless face in my day-to-day life despite my family's protections.

My family, 2015.

When reflecting on the harassment and oppression that each previous generation has experienced, it only further sheds light on the darker manifestations of cultural difference... the stories I could never bring myself to ask, like my Japanese grandmother's childhood during E.O. 9066, the blatant prejudice still espoused against my grandma and other "brown Asians," the difficult conversations I have with my grandmother to help her make sense of it all, the fact my mother was initially placed in "remedial" classes because her school equated her intellect with her ability to socially assimilate as a young immigrant girl... Yes, perhaps the pains my family has endured in America engendered an intrinsic need to protect me, but I do not regret learning about their pain. Without knowing the painful parts of what my family has endured, I would never have a full portrait of my own heritage. I have come to feel that the pain that human difference can produce only further illuminates this very need for human difference at all- culture is unbounded, diverse, ever-changing, and has the capacity of disjuncture. Differing cultural frameworks can indeed cause pain upon impact, but perhaps the reason it took two decades for me to connect with my Asian identity was due to the fact that I had experienced plenty of the pain, without observing that pleasures of human difference existed, too.


And now, here we are! Last week, I passed language exams that qualify me to speak and conduct research abroad in Tagalog and Filipino. Today, I scheduled my appointment with the Philippine embassy to legally acknowledge my citizenship-by-blood. By the end of this year, I will officially be acknowledged as a dual citizen of the U.S. and the Philippines. After posting this, I will stop procrastinating and work on a project that examines Philippine state formation in context to the resurgence of indigenous narratives that retain a multitude of ethnic identities that represent the islands prior to colonialism's cultural erasure. In Spring, I will finish my Master's research and begin publishing under my Philippine name, Kiana Nadonza, for all that I wish to do (and WILL do!) is only possible, thanks to my mother, my grandmother, and our Waray ancestors that came before us. This summer, I plan to start working in the field (and could use all the help/guidance I can get from pamilya at kaibigan ko sa Pilipinas!!!). It is remarkable how much can change in such a short period of time, and doubly so that the largest of changes tend to unfold without us even really realizing it. Regardless of where life takes me, I will work hard to live up to the Nadonza name and represent my Pinoy community with integrity.

My grandma and I, both in our mid-20's.

Side-by-side photos of my grandmother and I in our mid-20's. Similarities, di ba?


(Or two... three... just run wild, at this point!)

This is all to say- I cannot believe Anthropology has opened up these opportunities for me. More than ten years ago, I was a low-income student who genuinely doubted that higher education would ever be a viable reality. So much has changed since I first entered academia, and while I still have so much to learn, it is now rather freeing to admit that I never once saw myself ending up here. Now, I surely cannot see myself anywhere else.

I will end by reflecting on how thankful I am for my mentors - Drs. Roy Wagner (Rest in Peace), Jeff Hantman, André Cavalcante, and Alberto McKelligan-Hernandez). Each had a hand at unknowingly shaping this clueless, apathetic first-generation student into the passionate, admittedly still-somewhat-clueless academic I am today. A very generous thank you to my adviser, Dr. Philip W. Scher, who has supported my academic, research and career goals since the very beginning of the graduate school process and has been instrumental in my success, ever since. To know that people are "in my corner" has made all the difference, and this marked difference is one I pledge to pay forward to my own students one day. Odd as it may be, I am perhaps most thankful for the pompous, white-centric spaces I encountered upon arriving in Charlottesville.* The unfathomable differences between the world I thought I knew and the world I entered upon first enrolling at the University of Virginia affected me so much that I was incidentally "forced" into taking my education seriously and to push myself outside of my comfort zone (for my comfort zone was indeed failing me), into communities I had never before considered as a spaces of belonging.

My mentor, Dr. Jeffrey L. Hantman, and I during Final Exercises, 2015.

Most serendipitous and impactful of all, my reactive culture shock to those students lured me into the field of Anthropology, the first academic space that I found myself "at home" in. After all these years, Anthropology courses at all levels continue to leave me with more questions than when I began. Even on days when the pesky imposter syndrome might pay a visit, I find solace in what I believe to be Anthropology's embodiment of intellectual inquiry. Even if I do not reach every accomplishment or goal set out for myself, Anthropology has gifted me in many powerful ways that will always feel rewarding; it has provided me a deeper understanding of myself, how I perceive others, and how the world might perceive me. This training has informed each decision I have made ever since, and these decisions have led me to realize that the facets of myself that once made me feel so very ashamed are the exact pieces of the self that now make me feel most "whole." Much like this interrogation of self and identity that I have experienced, anthropological discourse constantly leaves me asking, "Why?" in all of its most magnificent and unique capacities. Certainly, a field that encourages boundless curiosity and new ways of seeing the world will always feel like home.

If you took the time to read even a snippet of this! I am thankfully exiting a short burnout phase and entering back into academia this term with a renewed sense of sentimentality and hope. May 2019 bring you this same positivity and light! Mahal!


Author's note: Thoughts and opinions are my own. The links included in this post are for contextual purposes and to encourage independent reading on these topics. Reference to these sources do not equate to support and/or endorsement of any/all ideas presented and should be understood solely as material to further the conversations presented in this piece.

*These spaces are not representative of the institution as a whole, but surely occupy a wide breadth of the campus culture. As reflected in the aforementioned gratitude of various professors, educational opportunities, and CIOs at the University of Virginia, I am grateful for each and every one of its opportunities and challenges because each was paramount in informing the person I am today.

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