Hapa Happy Hour
A lively discussion and celebration of the mixed heritage experience.

After weeks of traveling and visiting family, I am finally home in Los Angeles!  Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the Filipino-American National Historical Society's (FANHS, for short) biennial conference in Anchorage.  Organized in 1982, FANHS is an organization that "collects, preserves, and disseminates" the history and culture of Filipino-Americans in the United States.  The conference is a place for experts from various fields to share their knowledge and experiences with the FANHS community.  Topics presented over three days covered a wide variety of subject areas: from the Filipino pioneers of the Lousiana bayous to the Filipina wives of Hawaii's plantations and the Alaskeros of the Alaskan canneries.  There were films, dances, panels on pinoy pedagogy, books galore, and no Filipino anything would be complete without FOOD.  Over three fabulous days, the conference enlightened, educated, and energized me. 

Dare I say it?

I had forgotten I was Filipino.

Of course, I knew it.  I love it.  But what does it mean to be Filipino-American?  It was emotional reconnecting with my "Asian" heritage, learning things new, and seeing research historians come together and create a community of Mabuhay in the frozen north.  Here are some my highlights:

In a writing workshop led by author Patricia Justiniani McReynolds, I was reacquainted with the word, "Mestizo," the Filipino equivalent of Hapa, but specifically for those half-Caucasian and half-Filipino.  Patricia's memoir entitled Almost Americans, A Quest For Dignity chronicles her experiences as a Mestiza, growing up in L.A. in the 1930s-40s!  Needless to say, I was in awe of her, mesmerized.  Her parents, a Norwegian mother and Filipino father, had been married in 1922. 

In the workshop she gave us 10 minutes to write about a turning point in our lives.  Since it was my personal theme of the day, I wrote about attending a high school dance sponsored by the Filipino Community (of Anchorage) and being stunned that none of the other kids would dance with me.  It was the moment that solidified my "otherness" as someone multiracial.  Patricia asked for volunteers to read their pieces, and after I spoke, an older gentleman passed me a note that said, "I can very much relate to your experience."  I was surprised and gratified at the same time.  Also an author, he was Ray Guimary, a retired gentleman who was Norwegian and Visayan.  He said when he would go to FANHS meetings, people would look at him like, "It's cool that you're here, but...why are you here?"  I introduced him to my mother, and as we were walking to the car later, she kept saying, "He looks white.  He looks white," as if she, too, could not believe it.  I found myself getting completely defensive for him.  "He's not white,” I told her.  “You see, that's it.  That's what I'm talking about."

There were three other sessions besides ours that discussed issues surrounding interracial marriage and families.  One was a round table of Native Alaskan-Filipino "Hapas" entitled, "Double Identities, Double Conflicts, and Double Fulfillments."  It was incredible.  Max Dolchok, an Athabascan (Alaskan Indian)-Filipino, talked about how he wasn't Native enough, he wasn't Filipino enough, he wasn't Japanese...  He said, "Nobody knew what to do with me."  He grew up in an orphanage, and because he could not fit into any group, he was treated mercilessly by the other children.  Ironically, his wife, Lisa, was Yupik-Filipino.  Most surprising, however, was George Quinto, an old family friend, who, as it turned out, was Filipino and Tlingit.  All these years, I had no idea.

As an actor and a director, I just have to share a session entitled, "Transforming Our Communities through Art: Theatre and Photography on the Edge."  Filipino artists on the edge?  You know I was there.  Noted playwright, musician, and poet, Timoteo Cordova, and documentary photographer, Abraham Menor, were not to be believed.  First of all, what these two guys could do with a kubing (Filipino jaw harp) would knock your socks off.  No lie.  Revolutionaries in their own right, they both expressed a desire for (Filipino) artists to produce work that is compelling and evocative.  "...Understand there are no limits," Timoteo said.  "Tradition has its place," but we "show proper respect to these art forms by being innovative."  He spoke of fusing different traditions and sounds and through self-expression, creating something new.  Say no more.  He was speaking my language.  My brain was on fire.   

On our panel was Dr. James Sobredo, a professor from California State University, Sacramento, who presented the work of Dr. Penelope Flores of San Francisco State University.  In Dr. Flores' new book, The Philippine Jeepney: A Filipino Family Metaphor, she interviewed 100 Filipino students and compared the answers of Philippine-born students to U.S.-born students.  One part of the study I found interesting was in asking these students how they identifed themselves: 49.3% referred to themselves as Filipino-American, 31.9% as Filipino, 7.2% as American or Biracial (I'm curious as to why these were lumped together.), 2.9% as Pacific Islander, and 1.4% as Asian.  It was the last one that struck me.  It's true I don't subscribe to being "Asian" in the traditional sense.  We're islanders.  We are not Confucius-based like our neighbors to the north.  (The Philippines actually "belongs" to Indonesia as it was part of the Indonesian trade network before the Spanish came.)

The study above prompted me to ask my cousins at home how they identify themselves.  Three of my Hapa cousins in Alaska said they were
Filipino and one said he was Asian/Pacific Islander.  None of them claimed to be mixed.  When I questioned Ivan about this, he said what people are really asking about is this, and then he pointed to his face.  "What you are," he said.  My cousin, Alex, thought that "being two things has made things more clear" (for him).  "When you're only one thing, things are not always as clear for you," he mused.  I'd be curious to ask my Aussie Hapa cousins how folks down under see them and then compare their answers to the Americans.

Also on the panel was Evelyn Abello who presented her research on different ways Filipinos cope with stress other than therapy.  One of the cultural characteristics she identified surprised me because I recognized it as a trait I possess.  While I'm not opposed to a good rant in a therapist's office, I will rely on my own inner strength (if you're curious, "lakas ng loob") to get through a rough patch.  I always thought that I just came hard-wired this way.  I never considered that it was cultural, that it was Filipino.

Finally, my mother, Maria, and I spoke about the need to provide context for children being raised in two cultures, Hapa or not.  We worked together, taking turns between theory (mom) and practical application (me).  I talked about my parents' ethnic backgrounds, their hometowns, and agreed with Mr. Dolchok that being Hapa is sometimes problematic for others. I told how my mother raised my brother and me to be proud of our heritage, but also to her family's dismay, to be "mouthy" Americans.  In Filipino culture, children do NOT talk back.  We did.  We were allowed because my mom wanted to know what was going on with us.  Information revealed itself in the discord.

Maria quoted Edward T. Hall, saying that "every individual is made up of many cultures and subcultures within himself.  The goal of education is to integrate all of these into one whole identity."  It's a dynamic process, one that never stops.  The Filipino culture, like all "Asian" cultures, needs context.  People discipline their children differently all over the world, and it's been said that the Filipino child is the "best" child that there is.  (Submissive, obedient, respectful.  Basically, seen and not heard, y'all.)  But if your children are growing up here in the U.S., they need to be guaranteed survival here.  Parents must define their values, communicate them to their children, and put them into context for them.  Then children can make sense of the conflicts they will encounter while trying to honor both belief systems.  Parents must also be willing to dialogue with their kids and be receptive to what they have to say. 

It's been said that culture is the sum total of all the answers to questions about daily life.  Language is the mechanism we use to pass on these ways of living.  Culture, then, is like the pair of glasses through which you see the world.  That means that I, and all of my Hapa brethen, have acquired coping skills, answers to everyday problems, from two different voices, born in two different places; these ideas embedded in my upbringing.  It's no wonder then, as cousin Alex pointed out, that we hapas have a unique perspective.  We seek to make sense of two (or more) different value systems and to live by these multiple sets of rules.  It's a dynamic process, one that never stops. 

I am this fusion.

I have made two cultures, two sets of answers, co-exist in one identity.

 It was an incredible, eye-opening, invigorating conference.  I was thrilled and honored to be a part of it.

 For any of you Mestizos out there, the next one is in Seattle, 2010.

Let's go


Category:blogs -- posted at: 11:58pm UTC