It's International Mother Language Day! I honestly had no idea this was an actual holiday, but when I was looking at the calendar for social media post ideas, this was actually there! And this holiday is what sparked the idea for this post.
Questions I get a lot as an artist, and as an Asian American are:
I get these kinds of questions a lot, and not just from non-Asians, because at first glance, most people assume that I am just Chinese based on my looks. For some, there is a hint of racism and malice, and for others, it's genuine curiosity.
Part of me wishes I didn't have to explain to people what or who I am--but since this is a question that a lot of people ask me (humans love to categorize things and figure out "what" things are after all), I figured I would try to answer it here. Although to be honest, whenever people question my identity, I tend to feel a sense "othering" because the very fact that the question is even asked means that they already feel I am different and do not fit into the category they think I should be in.
My "mother language" would be Cantonese (a Chinese dialect) and English because I was raised with my paternal family who are full on Cantonese/Toisan Chinese, although my Mom is Chinese Filipino and speaks Tagalog, Fujianese (dialect of Chinese), Mandarin, Cantonese and English! She is a multi-talented lady for sure! She can speak Tagalog because she was born and raised in the Philippines.
My mom's ancestors came from China and moved to the Philippines for business--they became naturalized Filipino citizens and members of the family also married Filipino people there. My sister and I didn't learn Tagalog growing up, but we were able to connect with that part of my mom's identity and Filipino culture through delicious Filipino food and the few words of Tagalog we heard from her whenever she spoke to her family on the phone.
Having grown up in the United States, I was never Chinese enough to people who are native to China, and never American enough to be American, because "American" meant "white", even much less so as Filipino because I didn't look Filipino either. Whenever we visited Hong Kong or China, or even spoke to native speakers, they always said things like
The gas lighting and the sense of never truly belonging to any group was always an ongoing pain in my heart and it is only now in adulthood that I am able to embrace all parts of my identity--Chinese, Filipino, and American. Also because I've finally reached a time in my life where I don't have any more sh*ts to give about what others think ;)
I am not just belonging to one group and culture, but to all three at the same time. Who is anyone to take that away from me? (And if they try, you have to question why they feel compelled to, what kind of person are they to actively fight another person about their identity? Why do they feel a need to categorize everyone into neat little boxes, when the human experience is so complicated and varied for every individual?)
When people ask me why my mother is considered Chinese Filipino when she looks mostly Chinese, I explain that it is similar to how I am a Chinese Filipina American, and not just Chinese because I look like one--I was born and raised in the United States which makes me an American, who happens to have Chinese and Filipino roots. Looking Chinese doesn't make me less American. She was born and raised in the Philippines, and happened to have Chinese roots. It is a part of her identity, and for me, it is my way of connecting with both of my parents and where they came from.
Since I've started connecting more with my Filipino heritage, I have been able to talk more to my mom and learn more about her childhood and experiences. It has been a learning and growth opportunity for myself, and I am able to enjoy more of my maternal family's culture. Learning more about the Filipino side of my family has also opened up conversations with other members of the Filipino community-- I've learned so much about the similarities in our backgrounds and experiences! I love these new connections, relationships and friendships that have opened up since I began exploring this part of my identity, and for the most part, I have been welcomed with open arms (and the best hugs!). I love being able to accept myself for who I am--I may be imperfect and still have plenty to learn, but I can finally be proud of what makes me uniquely me.
Andddd this is why my shop features both Chinese and Filipino inspired art. Much of my art is focused on food, but also a way for me to show off my appreciation for not only my own culture and background, but Asian culture in general. Much of my life was spent trying to assimilate into white culture in order to be "happy" or "successful", to try to hide away the things about me, my family, and customs that made us different--but now? I am actively focused on doing things that make me happy, to share my passion and pride in being Asian American, and to celebrate all the wonderful things our cultures have to offer.
I hope this post helps others to learn to accept and embrace themselves for who they are too!