One’s true name is a powerful thing. It may not be apparent, but the name I tell people to call me indicates their status within my social network construct. See, my social construct of relationships and networks reflects my belief in the notion of kapwa, the core-of-the-core of the Filipino values-system. The way I see it, at least.
I ask people to call me Melissa. Only my mother, my grandparents, my aunts, and uncles call me by my childhood nickname (which I will not reveal here). My siblings and cousins call me Até (pronounced ah-teh). Or Até plus my childhood nickname. I am the oldest in my generation. The honorific title means something (literally, it means “oldest sister”). My children call me Mom. My husband calls me Melissa. I will answer to Mel, but I do find it confusing. It makes me think of my younger sister Melanie, whom we call Mel.
Anyway, what all this says is that the idea of kapwa creates connections and distinctions. Great, more tensions. And these tensions are always fleeting. While I strive to be open, I also distinguish between ibang tao (outsider) and hindi ibang tao (non-outsider, insider). And this is where cultural characteristics become very difficult to explain. There are some circumstances where certain people are ibang tao to me, even those whom I would otherwise consider insiders. Some of the reasons are just purely circumstantial. For instance, though my husband is the closest person to me, at some level he is still somewhat removed. This is largely because of our cultural differences. He can’t pronounce my childhood name right, no matter how many times he tries. He has trouble understanding me, my thoughts, feelings, and motivations. And I him. We make it work, however. Not a bed of roses, but it works.
Some reasons for my placing people within the ibang tao category are intentional and deliberate. My daughters understand this very well. I tell them not to say a lot about our family’s history to others. I don’t think it’s anyone else’s business. I didn’t realize how much of it “isn’t anyone’s business” until Maddi had a genealogy school project for which she needed to make an oral report about her family roots. It made her remark to me, “you are very Confucian, you know that?!” I never thought of it that way, but I suppose that is true.
Maddi told me that her teacher told her that I was a very private person. I didn’t think so. I thought I was just being respectful of my elders by not airing out family stories that may be construed in an unbecoming manner. I didn’t intend to guard my family’s privacy at all. But there it was. Privacy is just one resulting aspect of the Filipino value of kapwa. Considering I have this blog and write about matters that are pretty close to my heart, a strict sense of privacy is something I wrestle with and haven’t quite figured out.
Honorific titles such as Até and Kuya (pronounced koo-yah, literally means “oldest brother”) indicate a level of closeness and respect. It is fairly common for Filipinos to bestow these and other family honorifics on close friends and distant relatives in order to signal love, respect, and membership into the hindi ibang tao construct of kapwa. Até Gina is a very distant cousin. I call some of my mother’s and my aunt’s female friends Tita (pronounced teeh-tah, literally means “little aunt”), though we are not related by blood.
I tried to instill this sense in my children, at first insisting that teachers and friends call my daughters by their long name. I gave up after both my girls seemed to prefer to be called by their shorter names indiscriminately. Explaining the value made it seem stupid. I figured, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. Since it only mattered to me, it seems.
Privacy isn’t the most important aspect of kapwa, however. It is commitment to consideration and care for others, their feelings, and their well-being. Kapwa is more about unity and togetherness than privacy and filial piety. Never doing things alone. Never letting others feel as if they are alone. You help when and where you can.
One of the biggest things I wrestle with in my life as a Filipina immigrant in the United States is the notion of interdependence. Simply put, I think Filipino culture places greater emphasis on the needs of the collective over those of the individual. American culture tends to be the opposite. There are many times in my adult life when I know people think I need to be “less insecure” and “more independent.” I’ve even been told this (in a manner as if I needed to be told). Reconciling the two value-systems, however, goes beyond simply becoming “more independent” and “less insecure.”
Sometimes, in order to show commitment to the welfare of others, one needs to be more open and approachable. Showing one’s vulnerability means showing the limits of one’s sense of self-assuredness and independence. Risky.