Dear Asian Youth,
For as long as I can remember, I have been accumulating a tremendous list of the things separating me from my own culture. With each subtle accent change, another lightyear is wedged between me and the Philippines. The distance between Wellington and Manila is 8,304km. Somehow, that amount has stretched into what feels like an infinity.
New Zealand is arguably one of the most multiculturally diverse countries in the world. I had plenty of opportunities to grow closer with my homeland—to learn more about why I didn’t turn red under the sun like the rest of my friends, why my nose was the flattest in my class, and why I said my R’s so harshly when everyone else spoke with ah’s. As time went by, the population of Filipinos in my suburb increased by tenfold. And although these new people looked like me, I still felt like the odd one out. With other Filipinos, I was shameful and inferior—I couldn’t speak a lick of Tagalog, I preferred fish and chips over adobo, and in my entire 17 years of life I had spent only two weeks of it in the Philippines. Two weeks that I couldn’t even remember—I was a one year old.
Sometime in high school, I found a passion for languages. I took French all throughout and am still continuing to study it in university. I taught myself Dutch and learned the essentials of Italian and Spanish. And yet, when it comes to Tagalog, I freeze. My tongue locks, eyes burn. I know what the words are supposed to sound like in my head, but I can’t help myself from butchering the ‘ay’s to ‘aye’s and unnecessarily elongating every syllable. My parents have been speaking the language to each other throughout my whole life, and yet neither my brother nor I can conjure up a sentence or fully understand what they are saying. I don’t blame them for never teaching us—they figured we would never need it, living in New Zealand. I don’t blame them, but I can still mourn the fact that I have found a home in France and all over Europe—and found myself a stranger to the place my roots were planted.
One would think that with my tongue’s ineptitude at Tagalog, it would be somewhat better with Filipino food. Not at all. I’m the very definition of a picky eater. This is a curse when your culture is full of wonderful and exciting dishes, that are so far from traditional Kiwi pies and roasts. Theoretically, I know that Filipino food is a lot better. But for some reason, I just can’t get behind most of it. Saying that I don’t really like adobo is definitely removing what little amount of gold stars I had on my How Filipino Are You card. I’m sorry. And while I could go on about which dishes I just cannot eat, this is less of a problem with my awful taste buds and more of a problem with my brain coming up with excuses to isolate myself from my culture.
It’s an automatic reaction for me to cringe every time I’m pushed into something celebrating the Philippines. Not because of the culture, but because I never fail to stick out like a sore thumb. When I was younger, my family friends made all of the children in our group perform Filipino Christmas carols. Star Ng Pasko, the works. It was the first time I had ever dressed up in traditional Filipino clothing. I hated it. I didn’t understand any of the lyrics we were singing, I sang so quietly that no one would notice I was saying half of the words wrong. Other children would have asked for help, but I was 1) shy and 2) incredibly ashamed that I was the only one who didn’t have a clue what was going on.
You get the picture. And it seemed that my other Asian friends did, too. At 14, I was first introduced to the term ‘whitewashed’. No harm was meant by it; it was a fair observation. I never introduced myself as a Filipino to other people, and I had built up all this distance between me and my culture. My friends could slip between languages like it was nothing, there was always one or two of them that would go back to the Philippines during the summer holidays. Somehow I had become friends with them, because we had the same interests and when you’re in your early-teens it’s a lot less scary to make new friends if they look more like you. But next to them, I embodied the “Twinkie” narrative; yellow on the outside, white on the inside.
At first, I didn’t mind the distinction too much. It made explaining why I had no idea what JolliBee tasted like a whole lot easier. It started to go wrong once I began to mold myself to being whitewashed. I excelled in any subject other than “The Asian Five”, I refused to listen to K-pop (after a brief stint of feigning interest), I joined extracurriculars that other Asians in my area didn’t typically do. I was lucky that I ended up liking everything that I branched out towards, but I never really got rid of what was burdening me. To my non-Asian friends, I wasn’t like them. To my Asian friends, I wasn’t like them. I still hadn’t found a place to belong.
This problem still follows me to this day. I still notice the slight falter in every Tita’s face once I introduce myself and have to explain that I didn’t understand a word of what they just said. I’m still asked, “No, where are you really from?” when I introduce myself as a Kiwi. But over time, I’ve learned how to make it hurt less. Pre-Covid, I was able to go on a school exchange to a small, old-fashioned town in France. At our school of over 1,000 people, I only ever saw less than five other Asians. And yet, in a random thrift shop, I overheard the rough, familiar sounds of someone speaking Tagalog. It was a woman speaking to her child. I was overwhelmed; here I was, on the other side of the planet, and somehow that’s what it took for me to actually miss, to actually appreciate, my parents’ language. I had severely underestimated the comfort that comes with finding people that come from the same place you do—no matter how far away you isolate yourself from it.
Now at university, I finally took a leap and joined my first ever Asian-related club. And it was so worth it. I found people that I could talk to about our interests and what we were studying. Not once did I feel left out for not being Asian enough. I was the happiest I had ever been—it had taken so long for me to finally find a place that accepted me no matter how Asian I was, or wasn’t.
I spent so much of my life running away from my own culture, then blaming it when I felt out of place. I’m changing that fear and resentment to gratitude and pride. And I hope that whoever reads this finds the courage to do the same.
- Laurelei Bautista
This is written for those that have felt torn between two cultures. Although I'm from New Zealand, the term "whitewashed" and its damage has been translated all over the world for other Asians. I hope this piece can serve as comfort and encouragement.
Biography: Laurelei is a 17-year-old Law and Arts student, studying in her hometown of Wellington, New Zealand. She aims to become a foreign correspondent, and give Asians more representation in NZ's mainstream media.