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Narrative: Navigating & Learning To Be A Proud Filipina

Written by: Grace Marie Lopez

Have you ever been walking with a big group of people but you’re not really close to many of them? So several people are mingling with one another on the right and to the left of you. At some point, you’re walking alone while others to the side of you are talking and conversing. You’re in the group but you’re not in the group. You’re somewhere stuck in the middle and it’s an uncomfortable place to be in. It's me, I’m in the middle.

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Grace-Marie Lopez. My parents gave me a two part first name (super filipino move. am I right??) but you can just call me Grace! I was born and raised on Oahu, smack dab in the middle of the island in Mililani Town. I am 20 years old and I currently attending the University of Hawaii at Manoa (UHM), majoring in Kinesiology and Rehabilitation Sciences (KRS). I actually had my plans set to attend nursing school at UHM but Jesus has a funny habit of throwing curveballs and leading us on a different path and journey. Everyone’s story is different and I’m starting to see the beauty in that. Food, family, friends, fitness (gym and hiking!), cooking/baking, painting, photography, and music are a few of the things I love! I love all of these things and the fact that each of my passions bring my family, friends, and communities together.

Many individuals have discussed the shame they’ve felt being a Filipino American and I am among them. I am a second generation Filipina. I grew up with traditional parents and grandparents, got fed all the Filipino dishes and vegetables, had the big family parties, and even was spoken to in Ilocano or Pangalatok. Growing up, I always felt as though I was on the outside looking in, to both my family and friends. To my family, I knew too little of the culture or language, but to my friends/peers, I was “too Filipino” or the kid who had FOB parents. At the dinner table, it’s usually my parents having a conversation, with me occasionally chiming in because of one or two words I understand. I can understand a minimal amount of Ilocano and Pangalatok but I never picked up on the dialects or was formally taught. However, my family is always testing me on different Filipino words and phrases. At family parties, I can hear my aunties and uncles say names and various words and sometimes piece together the gossip they’re sharing. Although Hawaii is a melting pot, I grew up with peers whose parents were primarily local born Asians. If I happened to have a Filipino friend, they grew up with local and non-traditional Filipino parents, unlike myself.

I struggled between the desire of immersing myself in my Filipino culture or being normal among my American friends and peers. I think that when I was younger, I definitely desired to fit in amongst my peers. I wanted the cool shoes from Sears. I wanted the brand new Spacemaker pencil box not the hand me down one I already had. I wanted a normal lunch like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I wanted to be what was “normal” to kids my age. As a young child, I was so consumed with the desire to be liked or approved by those at school that I didn’t care to “be Filipino” but rather I wanted to “be cool” which to me, I thought was American. There were several instances where I had leftover adobo for lunch. A few times my mom would volunteer to make food for our class potlucks but it was a Filipino dish/dessert. I felt so embarrassed and couldn’t help but be bothered by the disgusted look of their face or their tone of voice when they asked what it was. At times, I even wished I wasn’t Filipino. The kids in my class would always brag about how they were several ethnicities. Of course as an insecure being, I thought they were prettier or more talented than I was. At the time, I didn’t play sports or an instrument. I couldn’t even kick the ball straight during kickball! I really looked down on myself and oftentimes would blame it on the fact that I was Filipino. I pointed out all my flaws and insecurities and believed that if I was more than Filipino I would look different, be more involved with extra-curriculars, and be “cooler”.

At some point during my first two years of college, my outlook and mindset about my identity as a Filipina shifted. I can’t say for certain when, but it did and still is. The tug of war match became something like a tie. I stopped pulling strongly on one side or another but rather altered my mindset to, “How can I embrace all of who I am?” When I began to question my life in such a way, I placed my culture as a Filipina in that as well. Everyone says that college is a place of exploration and finding yourself, your passions, and lifelong friends. I am so blessed to attend college in Hawai’i where Asian culture runs wild everywhere. When I entered college, I saw that UHM had several Filipino clubs. There are individuals my age who have similar upbringings as a Filipino American and they’re not ashamed. This inspired me. I remember walking through Kuykendall Hall at UHM and at the end of the walkway, it was like I had walked into Waipahu or Kalihi. Young Filipino adults everywhere were waiting to attend a cultural event. I see so many young adults unapologetic and unashamed of their Filipino heritage. It made me contemplate how I could also be passionate about my roots. About a year ago after my grandma of 96 years passed, I took it upon myself to explore my rich history. My grandma was an influential role in sharing Filipino life, traditions, and culture and I felt like some part of my heritage was gone. I wanted to preserve it before it all faded away. My older sister and I began to ask a lot more questions; questions about the language, food, traditions, places in the PI, superstitions, etc. We asked our parents to speak to us in Tagalog (so we could learn) rather than Ilocano or Pangalatok. We cherished the time we had with our other grandma, Nanay, before she moved back to the Philippines. We even recorded and asked her questions about her family history, how she met our grandpa, and the life she lived in the Philippines before coming here. When I asked these questions, I found that my great grandpa was actually a judge from Spain! (So I’m actually not 100% Filipino!) I even learned to cook a number of Filipino dishes such as Kare-Kare, Pancit, Adobo, and Sari-Sari! Putting together a cookbook of family recipes is a project in the making. Food has been so influential in my understanding and exposure to the culture that I decided to put together a cookbook to preserve my family’s recipes for myself and future generations. A few of my favorite recipes include, Pinapaitan, Palabok, and Tambo Tambo (Ginataang Bilo-Bilo)!

What inspires me even more is the passion so many young adults have for their future careers or hobbies. We are future engineers, artists, entrepreneurs, dancers, writers, healthcare professionals, business men/women, athletes and so much more. Everything that we do either encourages others or brings people down. Whether we like it or not, our Filipino background and upbringing plays a key part in our various involvements and I think that’s inspiring for not only Filipinos but individuals of all kinds of ethnicities to be proud of where they come from. I think that especially for a Filipina like myself, it stirs a great conviction within me when I see other Filipinas walking so confidently in their accomplishments and who they are. I am a KRS major, quite unconventional for a Filipina, especially when nursing was the expectation. I don’t like to pry doors of opportunity open. I truly believe that God leads us to where He wants us to be in His perfect timing. I had no idea what KRS was until two years ago. I’m not the most athletic. Track and field was the only sport I was involved in during high school. However, when I started college, the gym/lifting quickly became a passion of mine! I love training, getting stronger, the accountability, and communities I’ve been able to build. What I find even more encouraging is that I’m not alone on this journey. My best friend, Caitlyn, and I both are Filipinas and fitness buddies. Just recently, we started a fitness instagram, @caitgrace_fit, to document our fitness journeys. We are both navigating this platform we’ve been given, how we can encourage others through fitness, allow our cultural roots to shine, and make our Filipino communities proud. It’s not everyday you see some 5ft Filipinas leg pressing 410 lbs! Furthermore, I continue to see Filipinos rising up in the fitness community as powerlifters, bodybuilders, runners, boxers, and so much more. It’s fun and encouraging to do the unconventional in such a conventional culture. If I could speak to my younger self, I would tell her, “Don’t be ashamed about your Filipino culture or how you were built. You may be small and scrawny right now, but someday, somehow God is going to use your background to encourage others and pave a way for future generations.”

Exposure to my Filipino culture has been a lifetime coming but navigating and learning about my rich heritage, how to be proud of it, and finding great pleasure in doing so has been a new and exciting journey. My name is Grace-Marie Lopez and I am a proud Filipina!

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