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Are You a Nurse?: Filipino-American Identity

Updated: Mar 12

Dear Asian Youth,

The Philippines is a strange country.

It has been subject to years of colonization, international occupation, and suppression of culture. It has seen fascism thrive in the modern age with Duterte in a position much more akin to a dictator than a president. It is a place of fiercely passionate people, unshakeable in spirit.

My parents are immigrants. They both came here young, with their families. A question I recall immediately popping up at every first encounter they had was “are you a nurse?” It happened everywhere. From restaurants to salons, all small talk reverted to nursing. I remember it most vividly when we first moved to Texas. It was a question I got asked from all types of people, whether they be family or complete strangers.

My parents are both nurses. It is a noble career, and extremely common among Filipino-Americans due to American colonization efforts that have trickled down for generations. There are over 150,000 Filipino nurses who have immigrated to the U.S. since the 1960’s. It seems that the career is almost traditional.

I myself have received the question, unprompted, from friends and family on whether or not I would pursue working in the medical field. Subsequently, I would also feel a disproportionate amount of guilt when I would say, “No, I don’t have any plans to be a nurse.”

So early on, there was this feeling that I was worth less than someone actively working towards being in the medical field. It felt selfish and foolish whenever I’d say no to nursing. There was always a voice in the back of my head asking, “Are you really Filipino?”

I have struggled with understanding my cultural identity for as long as I can remember. What exactly does it mean to be Filipino-American? What do I consider my culture? Does it make me any less Filipino if I don’t adhere to the same traditions as my peers that are also Filipino-American? Does it make me a bad Filipino if Jollibee makes me kind of sick?

What is a Filipino, anyway?

Up until I was 5, I thought I was Latina.

It never crossed my mind that I was anything else. People who looked like me in the cartoons I watched weren’t ever Filipino (thank you, Dora the Explorer). I didn’t even know what the word Filipino was, and I didn’t exactly fit the bill for what I thought “Asian” was. I found out eventually, though I can’t quite pinpoint when. Perhaps it was a culmination of different interactions with my parents and with my family. Mostly concerning the food we ate or the language I so often heard them spoke. I think I first put a name to my culture when my parents mentioned it in passing to strangers who would ask about our ethnicity. I was never hyper-aware of my skin color or the ways in which my family was different from your average white family. But hearing that I was a Filipino brought those differences to a greater light.

Filipino. So, Asian, right? Well, yeah, but there exists an overlap in culture. Pre-Colonial Philippines consisted mostly of chiefdoms that competed against each other as exporters to countries like the Malay kingdoms and China. There was a focus on craft specialists, like textile workers and metalsmiths, and wealth was equated with foreign luxuries. It seems that the Philippines had a rather complex political structure that leaned into socioeconomic disparities, and many of these chiefdoms developed into kingdoms. There are small remnants here and there of early Filipinos that exist with indigenous tribes, with 10% of the total Filipino population belonging to over 40 of these distinct ethnolinguistic groups. Nowadays, indigenous peoples (called IPs) who are small remnants of a pre-colonial time are often discriminated against and marginalized. Historical oppression against IPs has resulted in displacement