Are You a Nurse?: Filipino-American Identity
an article by Billy Agustin
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, socioeconomic disadvantages, and exclusion from political decisions/processes. A major concern is the loss of ancestral lands, and some programs have been put in place to combat the issue. The Certificates of Ancestral Domain Claims (CADC), for example, allow IPs to reclaim not just their ancestral land, but also completely hold domain over it. However, it is not enough, as many IPs are unable to provide sufficient evidence of their entitlement to their land. Furthermore, it does not erase the blatant disadvantages IPs have in nearly every facet of living. This issue, while serious, is a microcosm. Most of modern Filipino culture is undoubtedly influenced by colonization.
Perhaps the answer to my early ethnicity confusion is the heavy Spanish influence within the Filipino world. Catholicism, art, architecture, language, my own name- Agustin- are all directly lifted from Spanish culture. People assume my ethnicity all the time, the most common guess has always been some kind of Latino. Mexican, Cuban, Guatemalan- I’ve gotten it all. To be completely fair, there’s not much distinction in my face to indicate my race right away. Filipinos can have rather diverse features. I have even met people who didn’t even know what a Filipino was before they met me, usually vying to say I’m basically just Spanish after I explain what I am to them- but that’s not true. Some say Asian and leave it at that, but I find that many Asian experiences are things I don’t really relate to. I don’t have many of the same cultural commonalities or traditions. I bear the brunt of microaggressions, but they’re not the same kind that my East Asian counterparts do. I’ve been talked down to, especially by customers at my former workplace. While I usually brushed it off as someone having a bad day, it was pretty easy to notice how different treatment was between me and a white coworker. There was a stark contrast in tone and language that occurred consistently with the few POC at my job. I’ve been exoticized for the color of my skin, too. I remember: It was in a Staples. The woman likely meant well, and I even laugh now looking back at it. She had asked me the cliché”Where are you from?” and added that my skin “was such a lovely brown color”.
The part of me that’s Filipina wonders what that even means. Is it Asian? Pacific-Islander? Latina? In a way, I feel that I’m all three, since there isn’t really one umbrella I can fully identify with.
There’s a distinct fusion of culture within the Philippines. We have seen influence from China, Malay Kingdoms, Spain, America, and more. And we furthermore exist in pockets, with varied differences. There are over one hundred dialects within the country, likely due to us being fragmented in islands, as well as a notable Muslim population. Its uniqueness is charming, yet a little sad, mostly due to the vast impact of colonization. Colonization has undoubtedly suppressed much early Pinoy development, and the culture of the Philippines that we know today has somewhat stemmed from the oppression of IPs. Centuries of foreign occupation has resulted in a concern for the preservation of tribal culture.
Pinoys in America- Personal Experience and a Mini History
My parents aren’t very traditional Filipinos. They’re rather laid back: not super Catholic, don’t speak Tagalog too much, don’t own a karaoke machine (yet). So there’s a divide between me and the culture of my parents, seeing as our household isn’t a very traditional one. They never emphasized learning the language or knowing my roots to a greater degree than just eating Filipino food. My parents have experienced cultural immersion that’s completely foreign to me. I’m not just a Filipina after all, I am an American.
Finding Filipino friends has always been a struggle for me, as most of my life has been spent in the midst of white suburbia. It’s been difficult relating with other people, and there’s a limited amount of Filipino-American media, none I can name off the top of my head. I’ve never had something to find comfort in that helps me understand that I’m not alone. I mean, we’re by no means an insignificant minority, accounting for 4% of America’s 44 million immigrants. However, I’ve never felt fully at ease discussing my cultural identity and the struggles that come with it, usually kneecapping my beliefs and experiences with jokes or lighthearted anecdotes. I never realized how much that catered to white comfort until recently. But let’s discuss a more general scope.
In understanding the history of Filipinos in America, I would be remiss to not mention American colonization. The Philippines is heavily westernized. The government and structure was modeled after American democracy. Looking back over a century ago, in the 1890s when the Philippines was annexed to the states, the American goal was to reform “uncivilized” countries. Manifesting that destiny, if you will. Or perhaps the better term is “white man’s burden”. This helps us understand the density of Filipino nurses, as many educational institutions were prepared with such an intent. There was an advantage for Pinoys in America, as in 1948 they could come to the states as nurses under the Exchange Visitor Program. Being able to train in American nursing had worked to their advantage. But most came over to the states under the Immigration Nationality Act of 1965, ready to join the medical workforce. The act greatly benefited Asian communities, with the majority of visas going to Asians who migrated through the reunification clause. All in all, it drastically changed the social landscape of America through encouraging diversity. As you can see, that tie between nursing and the Philippines came about alongside American colonization and the curriculums put in place some time around the early 1900s. As a major advantage for many immigrants, it’s still a very common job today among Filipinos. My feelings on the topic are mixed. It is a path of exploitation, as COVID-19 takes a hard-hitting toll on the Filipino community; but I cannot deny the ingrained sense of pride that seems to sprout from it. Being positioned as a nursing exporter has indeed aided the Philippines in growth and helped people pursue a better life.
Guilt and Shame
So, I have a decently sized family. The vast majority of them are nurses. My parents are nurses! You know, nurses are pretty great. They put up with long and odd hours, are super motivated, and are working to help people who are in need. That’s great! It’s kickass and I’m thankful every day for healthcare workers.
But it’s not for me.
I’m a total fine arts/linguistics person. I don’t even think I’ve ever gotten a full 100 on a math test. The fact that I want to pursue something fine arts as a career is a subject I’m ashamed of and I sincerely dread discussing it with my family. For me, it feels as though I’m doing less than those around me.
It just seems like my parents came here for a better life for their children, and I’m not aspiring to do enough. The guilt stems from looking at the other Filipinos around me in a comparative light. Especially comparatively. Look at my cousins! Doing tennis, or hockey...why haven’t I picked up a sport? Oh! My friend’s ranking in class is way higher than mine...how shameful. I should study more.
In all honesty, I have felt the pressure to do as much as I can from them and my culture- all the extracurriculars, straight As, an instrument, competitions and tournaments, etc., etc.
I doubt that this pressure to be brilliant is exclusive to Filipinos- heck, it’s something all my Asian friends seem to deal with. It was a major stressor for me, even when my parents told me not to worry about achievements. I didn’t want them to have the one kid in the family who wasn’t a prodigy. There’s a bit of the Model Minority idea in there, though much more internalized and self-imposed. I couldn’t fulfill that perfect, multi-talented, Filipino child image I had in my head, so didn’t that mean I was a failure to my own people? Again, there’s that voice in my head doubting my own heritage. Tsk tsk, I’ve brought dishonor upon the family name. What a fake Pinoy!
Beyond that, the shame extended to my lack of education about my own culture. There has always been a rift for me, especially not knowing Tagalog or Bisaya. My family also never really had the luxury of being able to visit the Philippines, and I have yet to go there. It’s the concern that I’m a fake-asian, or a “twinkie.” I fear that I may never get to influence my children with Filipino tradition. I would be a barrier between my parents and them, a heavy responsibility. So now, I scramble to learn as much as I can about my parents, hoping to ensure that their culture does not end with me.
However, I’ve come to understand that in my own existence, there is no possible way for me to fully emulate what it means to be Filipino. Because my identity is not just Filipino. As a Fil-American, a first generation child of immigrants, I have to acknowledge that my life and my experience will be fully different from my parents.
And that is okay.
I don’t believe you have to sacrifice one culture for another. That’s the beauty of being a child of immigrants. To be honest, American culture is strange. Perhaps because I don’t exactly know what it is. There are so many different kinds of Americans with so many different cultural experiences. I live a different life from an African-American, for example. I love Filipino culture because it is a part of me, even if I may never be truly immersed in it. I’m not worth less as a Filipino or as an American just because I have both of these parts to me.
Overlap exists. And to be honest, it’s a wonderful thing.
I’m still trying to understand my cultural identity. Because I have no ambitions to be a nurse and pursue what my parents and grandparents have, I’m scared that it establishes another wall between me and my Filipino heritage. A long and winding century-old past. Does not pursuing medical work mean that I’m less Filipino?
But the part of me that is American acknowledges that being so comes with certain privileges, like being able to pursue what I want. My mother was forced into being a nurse, because it proved to be a failsafe area of study that almost every member of her family had fallen into. I haven’t received a pressure that extreme from my own parents, and more resources exist for me to look into alternative jobs.
I am learning to embrace both parts of myself. I am learning to relinquish shame and understand that I am not a lesser person if I’m not as in touch with the parts of me that are Filipino as I think I should be. All I can do is educate myself- but know that since I was never fully immersed in the culture, I will never just be Filipino. My life differs from the Caucasian Americans I grew up with and differs from many other Asian communities. I want other Fil-Americans to celebrate this vivid culture of ours. I want them to appreciate it and understand that we forge our own path that mixes with tradition- an experience I believe many children of immigrants go through. Cultural identity is unique to every person, and I want to create things that remind people that they are not alone in trying to navigate their heritage. I may never be a nurse, but I strive to help others, in my own way.