I grew up in the Tagalog region of the Philippines. My maternal grandparents raised and cared for me. I came to the United States when I was 17 years old, only after my mother became a legal citizen. She and my father left the Philippines to work in the United States. My younger sisters and I arrived in this country in 1990. When we arrived, it was the first time my family had been together in 10 years. People who know first-hand the complexities of immigration and overseas labor, especially their effects on families, can comprehend the meanings of this paragraph.
In many ways, I still don’t think of myself as “American.” Sure, I am a legal citizen of the United States of America. I work, vote, pay taxes, and live in this country. I have a legal license to drive a C-class vehicle and a legally obtained Social Security number. My children were born in this country, go to public school, and my family uses public institutions provided for by the local, state, and federal governments. I am married to a man who was born in this country and grew up in the Midwest and the South. But these are not all that constitutes being an “American.” At least I don’t think so. Interesting that the previously linked video focuses on beliefs, traditions, values, and personal traits and behaviors.
When I think of the moral and cultural imperatives that drive my adult actions, I think of my childhood and upbringing in the Philippines. One of the most significant values I was raised with was the notion of utang na loob. Debt of gratitude. “Depth of gratitude,” I think, is appropriate, too. A sense that a debt is so great, so beyond simple repayment and reciprocal turn, that words fail proper description of this feeling of gratitude. On top of the fact that the feeling is already hard to describe, I have trouble expressing this without appearing or being considered weak, insecure, and too emotional (all thought of as extremely negative in many circles). That’s just one common example of the cultural divide I (still) experience in this country. I guess it doesn’t help that I have a strong sense of hiya as well. (Hiya is often equated with shame.) When I was a child, one of the worst things to be called was walang hiya (without shame). These were fighting, insulting words. To be without shame is to be without honor and respect for self and others. I still hold this to be true. Having some shame is good. (Shame, I think, can be correlated with a sense of pride, though I haven’t done a research study to investigate this opinion.) It’s just having too much of it that’s problematic.
There are moments when others felt compelled to make me feel like an outsider, that I didn’t belong, and that my presence in this country, or within a particular group, was not wanted or welcomed, that I was an interloper, somehow inadequate. During those times, and times when I have felt unjustly wronged, asking others for assistance, consideration, or support is difficult for me. Like many people, I feel I need to resolve things on my own, though I know and accept that seeking help when needed takes strength of character. It still feels wrong, so I sometimes ask for help when it’s too late or just absolutely necessary. These are the times when my utang na loob and hiya clashes with my lakas ng loob (bravery, daring, nerve, courage, or inner strength). From my own lived experience and the video linked on this post, American values place higher premium on overt displays of lakas ng loob. Working in advocacy and outreach demands a high level of it, too. The times I need to show lakas ng loob often conflicts with the part of me that privileges utang na loob and hiya. I must work to resolve these somehow. And the process of this resolution is continuous and, seemingly, neverending. I am sure I am not alone in this. I don’t think this is something that is unique to Filipinos either.
All these posts that I write about resilience, bravery, courage, and fighting are, really, ways for me to bolster my own nerve so I can quiet my sense of inferiority in the face of challenges. I do this so I can rise up and meet problems directly. I want to be fearless, but I am not. I wish I was infallible, but I know I am not. I don’t have superhuman capabilities. I am not impervious and bulletproof. I bleed all too easily. I tire and wear down from running away from the nagging self-doubts. They always catch up to me no matter how fast or how hard I run. Each. And. Every. Time.
All I really have is a desire to be better than what I am right now…and at the same time, I also have the need to accept that what I am is enough. The contradiction between the two is glaring and painful. So the struggle continues.