Yesterday, while lining up for Thai papaya salad at the Asian Festival in Virginia, a middle-aged Filipino man approached me and posed the same question he had asked each person in the queue. “Are you Filipino?”
My husband and I made the trip to the festival since its organizers were highlighting the Philippines this year. I wanted to see what this gathering was about, to taste some authentic Asian food, and to be around “my people” – Filipinos and other Asians.
Indeed, there was comfort had in being around folks who looked like my mom, lola, titas, titos, cousins and pamangkins. It was fun seeing women in baro’t saya and men in barong tagalog. It was heartening to see Filipino-American youth sporting t-shirts emblazoned with the Philippine flag and other symbols of ethnic pride. It was good to be among my kababayans.
But being surrounded by my kind also made me realize how different I am. I hold individualism sacred and personal space dear. I wanted to buy a parasol not to block the sun but to keep people at arm’s length. I was grateful not to have to deal with three generations in the swarm that overtook the small patch of park allotted to us.
I also noticed the elitism and sense of privilege from another place and time bubble up. “We are in America now, we are all equal,” a voice in my head gently admonished. “No me toques,” responded another.
Often have I bristled at people assuming outright that I am Latino. Although I understand why many would think so, since I look more Hispanic than Asian and have a Spanish last name, I want to be seen and acknowledged for who I am: an Asian and a Filipino.
But when it came to answer the odd little man’s question – are you Filipino? – I shook my head and said, “No, I’m Mexican.” I didn’t want him in my space and I didn’t want to engage. But my lie did not dissuade him from starting a discourse on the shared history and culture of Mexico and the Philippines, thanks to the Galleon Trade. Or from telling me that I should move to California where there are a lot of Mexicans.
Gratefully, the line inched on and I along with it. In the sweltering heat and humidity, overwhelmed by all the people – my people – I just wanted my papaya salad. The all too familiar accent of the man soon petered out.
“Next time, I’ll get my Asian from the Freer-Sackler,” I said half-jokingly as we drove back into the city.