So if you’re from Asia, why are you white?
My name sounds white. Kara Stephanie Gordon, my surname carrying the Scottish immigrants that came to the States in the 1850s. They would eventually make their way to the Philippines around 1900.
My parents and their parents and their parents were born and raised in the Philippines. For all intents and purposes, I am full-Filipino. Even an AncestryDNA test showed that 80% came from the southern Pacific islands of Asia. The other 20% is European: English and Scottish on the Gordon-Grey side of my paternal grandfather and the Viaplana Spaniards of my paternal grandmother. Small fractions and markers of one of the most heavily colonized countries in Asia.
You can see the colonization in my face. As a toddler and through elementary school, I was obviously Asian, clearly Other from my white classmates, gravitating toward the blonde and blue-eyed, envying what I thought of as the standard for beautiful. But in middle school, classmates began to express shock when they learned I was Asian. Granted, I am not brown and not Chinese or Korean or Japanese—faces my white classmates recognized as distinctly Asian. I took it as a compliment. I blended in. People thought I was white. If I was white, I could be pretty.
Even a teammate in high school, a child of Chinese immigrants, would insist that I was not really Asian. I balked. I remember the day my parents became naturalized. So if I wasn’t Asian what were they? What was I? I told her: we’re from the Philippines. That’s in Asia. I’m Asian. That doesn’t count, she said.
The Philippines was colonized by the Spanish after Magellan tried to circumnavigate the globe and was handed over to the US after the Spanish American war. They were occupied by Japan during WWII, and granted independence from the US after the war. While it has a distinct culture: its own languages and dialects, foods and customs, nearly everyone speaks English and I've heard plenty of sentences weave in and out of Tagalog, Spanish, and English. Assimilation in the US, for this reason, might come a little easier for Filipinos. My parents came to the US having spoken English at home, relatively fair-skinned, with the white-signaling last name.
I understand the eye rolling that comes when someone asks you your race, and it’s a question I get often. I actually enjoy the guessing game, though I empathize with those who find it offensive, but I find that making someone guess makes it much more awkward for the person guessing than it does for me. And I’ve gotten everything: Italian, Mongolian, even on rare occasion someone guesses I have some African tucked in there although that's not the case. I live in a Puerto-Rican and Dominican neighborhood and old women and men will speak to me in Spanish before I frantically interrupt: Lo siento, no hablo español. When I am greeted with surprise when someone learns I’m Filipina, I explain: there's Chinese, Spanish and some Anglo mixed in. There usually is. I began proudly identifying as a mutt in college. Happily ethnically ambiguous.
I’ve been in the Philippines for two weeks with my parents. It’s been a wonderful vacation: it’s a beautiful country and the warm weather has been a welcome respite from the cold fronts and snow squalls across the US. But one of the most incredible things here is the hospitality. Tourism is the main industry, especially on the smaller islands and I’ve reaped the benefits of having parents who communicate in the native tongue. It's amazing what happens when you speak to someone in their first language, and my mother especially made fast friends with the staff.
I had one gripe, however tiny, and that was that the staff constantly assumed that I spoke Tagalog. I can't blame them—it was less that I looked Filipina but that my parents were easily speaking with them, so it was natural to assume I could as well. But my parents never taught me Tagalog, and never spoke it in the home. (My chief complaint is that my bilingual father and trilingual mother raised a unilingual child.) My vocabulary is limited to a few numbers, thank you, and the overlap between Spanish and Tagalog that my parents would occasionally throw into their English at home, mostly words of exasperation. It was frustrating to not be able to communicate as easily on my own, but also brought the question I’ve been asked my whole life to the forefront: what am I?
The answer is: a lot of things. I was born and raised American and, as all of my cousins live abroad, I know that my upbringing was distinctive from what would have been had my parents stayed in the Philippines. I am the daughter of immigrants: two kids who moved to the other side of the world and worked their asses off to build a life with more opportunity. I am the granddaughter of a pilot, a politician, a journalist, and academic, their love and values of the importance of travel and education embedded and passed down through my parents. My cousins and I live across four countries and three continents, and while we don't see each other often, we are united in our international outlook.
I understand that with my name and my face, I am white passing, and I understand the privilege that has afforded me. I recognize that, at best, I look Happa, mestiza, even to my parents’ siblings. I also understand its double-edged sword: the pretty-privilege afforded to mestizas and the exoticism that certain white people pin on me. I’m not quite white and as offensive as I found it, as my teammate implied, I’m not quite Asian. I’m Other.
My heritage is the hustle and bustle of the city my parents grew up in, but also in the islands. It’s fresh mango, ube ice cream, and freshly chopped buko. Despite my contentious relationship to it, my heritage is the heat and constant summer. It’s tinto de verano and tapas. It’s floating comfortably underwater, marveling at the worlds below the surface. And it's mine.
All my love,