Descending into the Manila airport, stifling laughter with a crazy grin so as not to appear too insane to surrounding passengers, I had to ask myself:
“Daniel, what the hell did you just get yourself into?!”
That question ended up adequately summarizing my four months living in the Philippines. After two years immersed in Seattle’s Filipino American community, I judged myself ready, knowledgeable about enough things Filipino to justify a first visit. As it turned out, there's a lot more to the country than meets the eye.
There is no substitute for the Philippines.
Filipinos Americans often try to draw parallels between the Philippines and the life they know: they talk about the country's “American-introduced business mindset,” Tagalog’s “similarity with the Spanish language,” or how “you’ll be fine, as long as you don’t visit the South.”
These are abbreviated truths, whose elongated forms reveal themselves in a country where familiarity is only one step removed — just far enough that you can’t quite put a finger on it.
Some details we can’t quite know until we’ve lived them: that a uniquely Filipino mindset prevails; that you may be understood but likely ostracized if you show an accent; that Mindanao has been mired by politics and stigma, but remains a hub for commerce and tourism (one of our Kaya Co. fellows was based there for three weeks!).
Pretending will not get us anywhere. Playing around with “close enough” and “konti lang” (just a little) only accentuates the fact that the Filipino American and the Filipino — for all that we share — are also worlds apart.
In the pursuit of a secure and affluent life for their families, Filipino immigrants who remained overseas created a dynamic wherein their children's experiences are distinct from their own. Instead of facing the same immigrant struggles as our parents, we find ourselves face-to-face with pressure to succeed in life and the classroom as a "model minority," to stand up against stereotypes, to find our individual and collective voice.
Dorothy and Fred Cordova, two among the most respected rights advocates in the United States, are no strangers to this polarization. The Cordovas’ first and only time to the Philippines was on invitation by the Philippine president, to be honored with the Pamana ng Pilipino award.
Of the late Dr. Fred Cordova’s favorite sayings, one I heard most often was: “Those damn Filipinos…” referring to the older community’s tendency to emphasize the centrality of the Philippine people and nation, sidelining issues of Filipino American representation and education. Dorothy and Fred’s advocacy placed them on the front lines of US civil rights during a time when the idea of equality was still a dream.
Filipino American communities in the States have, over time, drifted away from issues in the Philippines and towards issues that face Filipino America specifically. What does this mean for the scores of 1st-, 2nd-, 3rd-generation “Filipino-X,” the daughters and sons of immigrants who left their nation in search of opportunity?
This is far from a cautionary tale.
This is a call to action: In your struggle to understand the world, take a step back and challenge yourself to think about where your role lies.
My first experience in the chaos of Manila taught me there is room in Filipino hearts for their kapatid raised abroad. I later returned with the Kaya Collaborative team to prove there is space in ours for rejuvenation. By inspiring and educating young Filipinos in the global diaspora, Kaya Co. mobilizes partners for locally led social efforts in the Philippines.
Kaya ko – I can – In my limited seven months on the archipelago, I can see that I, as a Filipino American, exist in a profoundly different reality than my Filipino counterparts.
However, I’ve also learned ways to build bridges back – by working with, not necessarily for; by exchanging, not always teaching; by accompanying, not necessarily helping.
Last summer, our first group of 14 Kaya Collaborative fellows from colleges across the US and cities across the world came together for three months in Manila. They entered into conversation about community, dialogue and empowerment; about justice, impact and development; about enterprise, innovation and design.
Aside from experiencing Manila as a whole, our fellows saw the Philippines through a number of juxtaposed lenses: starting with their experiences working with social ventures and continuing with the relationships they formed along the way. They absorbed these partnerships, allowing each story a place in their hearts, as I once held Manila anxiously in mine.
These are only the beginnings of a transnational network, formed and propelled by leaders who are prepared to think empathetically and holistically about these experiences. Our Filipino identities may distinguish us as a community in the US, but in the context of the Philippines, we instead look toward our human similarities to determine what connects us all.
Our role is far from apparent. We pressure ourselves to dig the answers out, without realizing that they often appear in the most unexpected of ways. My challenge to you is this: Take a step back, then a leap toward self-discovery. Place yourself in the trajectory of happy accidents, hard questions and deep relationships. And all along the way, ask yourself as life moves forward:
Where does your role lie?
The Kaya Collaborative fellowship connects young Filipinos in the diaspora to opportunities for impact, innovation, and design, while spending eight weeks in Manila during the summer months. Applications are now open, only through November!
Daniel Griffith wants to travel with a purpose, currently pursuing a long-term career in international public service. Pacific Northwest-born and raised, he now directs the Kaya Collaborative fellowship - bridging Filipinos in the global diaspora with homeland development.