I was lucky enough to grow up in the suburbs of Kansas City in a very nice area. Being the daughter of an American and a Filipino, I’ve grown up living in the American culture while celebrating the Filipino every chance I get. If anyone knew how important it was to understand, respect, and appreciate other cultures, it would be me. I’ve had opportunities to travel to the Caribbean area multiple times for vacation, but I’ll admit that my experience with the different cultures never passed a superficial level. I may have seen all of the beautiful sights a country has to offer, but all I was seeing was just another beach. I was so excited to get the opportunity to redeem myself and be completely immersed in the Italian culture, one I’ve had little to no experience with.
As I flew over the Atlantic, watching the little airplane icon move from Chicago to Venice, I was left with thoughts of Italian stereotypes flipping through my head. When I touched down, would I be greeted with boisterous Italian families like in the movies? Would there be Vespa scooters everywhere, and a handsome man was going to sweep me off my feet and take me for a spin? Or would they look at me with displeasure? With my tan skin, would they even know I was an American?
It wasn’t until the next day that I realized how wrong I was. The high school I graduated from had more students than my host town had residents. In my free time, I walked around the town with nothing but the occasional insect chirp, a car zipping by, and my feet hitting the pavement. I walked into the local café greeted by the two women whispering quietly in conversation giving me disapproving looks, either due to the sight of my knees or the stench of foreign I was giving off. Strike one. I only made matters worse by attempting to order a coffee, only to realize that I hadn’t even bothered to learn any basic words in my host country’s language, not to mention the fact that my voice was 100 decibels louder than anyone else’s in the shop. Strike two, strike three, and I was out of there.
After that harrowing experience, I knew I really needed to make some adjustments if I wanted to get along in Italy. Luckily, I was taking an Italian class, otherwise my first experience in a large Italian city would have been a complete nightmare. And it was definitely on its way, if not for the help of a complete stranger. My friends and I were at a bus station in Rome, completely confused as to how to get to our destination, the Vatican, and looked very obviously disheveled. I noticed a lady standing quietly, minding her own business. Something about her comforted me. She helped us step-by-step get safely to the Vatican. En route, we struck up conversation, and I found out she was also Filipino. She had moved to Italy 10 or so years earlier to find a better life, which is not so different from my father’s story. She was a comforting presence for me in a stressful moment, and I realized that, although she lived thousands of miles away from my family, she had a life very similar to my father.
Once reaching the Vatican, I finally understood all the things I was observing in local Italians: the modest clothes, the quietness in public, the crosses everywhere. I realized that the entire country of Italy has been heavily influenced by the Catholic Church. As a practicing Catholic, I could feel the power and honor of being in the epicenter of the Church. From Italy to America to the Philippines, each Catholic culture was different, although we share the same religion. This thought can be expanded to really any grouping of humans—all of these people are (insert group here), yet they all come from different places in life. No matter how similar we may seem, we’re all different human beings, and it was really paradigm-shifting to come to that realization.
I not only came to terms with my faith, but my heritage as well. My friends and I were hiking in the Cinque Terre. Foot traffic was going in both directions, so we got to see a large assortment of people, we even ran into fellow Hawkeyes we’d never seen before. But what really surprised me was when someone stopped me mid-hike and asked me what I was, as in race. I was really caught off guard, so my first response was to say American. She looked kind of disappointed and said, “Oh, you looked Pacific Islander, sorry.” I explained to her that my dad was from the Philippines, and she responded that she was from Indonesia, but was living in Australia. She thought I was from that region because we had the same nose shape. I had never been correctly profiled before, and it was kind of exciting for me.
I was and have been juggling with that idea ever since that encounter. It was something so small, yet it really made me think. What am I? I was born and raised in the same two-mile radius in America, and yet being Filipino was so important to who I was, how I behave, and how I see the world. If someone asked again, what would I say, my nationality, one half of my ethnicity, or the other? Which side do I pick? And then I realized—I shouldn’t have to pick. Sure, the part of me that’s Filipino affects my appearance the most, but only when I’m being compared to the average American citizen. I celebrate my Filipino just as much as my German or my Bulgarian. It’s all important to me and to who I am and how I define myself. And I know that there are millions of people out there who feel the same way I do. At the heart of it all, we are what we choose to define us.
Kennedy, Filipino-American, World Citizen