I must have been around 5 years old when I started to notice race. It was the early 90’s and my family had just moved up to Washington from Panama. At the daycare I attended, I befriended a kid that happened to be Filipino American. Over time, my mom became friends with his mom and then all of a sudden we were no longer friends but rather full fledged cousins. Looking back on it now, I find it fascinating that this transpired the way it did. I didn’t intentionally seek out Filipino friends. But life sometimes has an interesting way of weaving coincidences together like that.
My cousin and I grew inseparable. He was my best friend. We slept over at each other’s house. We attended the same daycare. We did practically everything together. As a result, our families grew close as well. This was my first experience of being Filipino American, however, I didn’t necessarily grasped the depth of what that meant until years later. As a child, all I knew was that his mom and my mom spoke in another tongue other than English. They shared similar characteristics (as do many Filipino moms). They ate a lot of rice. We ate a lot of rice. They made adobo. We made adobo. My identity was beginning to form around these cultural anchoring points. At a base level, I knew I was Filipino. All of the signs were pointing in that direction. As my burgeoning cultural consciousness began to take shape, life interceded and threw in a nuance that would come to define much of my outlook for the world. And it came from the least likely of places.
A Filipino party.
The Filipino family party is a fascinating phenomena to witness up close and personal. It’s similar to many large gatherings of Brown and Black people. The only difference is that there is an unmistakable and distinctive Filipino vibe present. The smell of pansit, lumpia, and freshly steamed rice fills the rooms. The chatter of a hundred voices, moving rhythmically in a dialect indigenous to an archipelago far away across the ocean. Everyone has their shoes off. Everyone is smiling. Everyone is laughing. Everyone is pointing with their lips. Everyone is agreeing with their eye brows. It’s quite a sight to see.
It was here when I first realized that I was different. Despite how easily my mom fit in and how similar all of these people were to her, I knew I wasn’t completely the same as them. In the midst of me running around with the rest of the Brown kids, I would take note at how different my father was compared to everyone else. He was the lone white guy in the sea of Filipinos. Sure he got along with everyone, he was respectful, he was charming, but to my 5 year old mind I still detected a noticeable difference. This meant that I was different too. Simultaneously, I occupied space as an insider and also an outsider. I was Filipino but also white. This dual awareness would become refined and acute as I progressed through childhood and transitioned into the turbulent times of adolescence. But at the moment, it was merely a peculiar observation to be made and quickly forgotten.
When was the first time you noticed race? What were you doing? Where were you?