On Being Filipino American
A Letter to My Grandfather
It’s been a year and four months since you passed. I wish you were here for many reasons but today, as I write the first part of this letter, I’m in Bohol in the Philippines. I wish I was able to articulate to you how meaningful this trip has been for me as a Filipino American. At this moment I’m looking out to the sunset over the Loboc river. It’s humid and I can hear a variety of jungle animals mixed with staff speaking Tagalog, and roosters. So many roosters. They crow at all hours of the night and I can’t seem to understand why. I came here with three Americans and a British friend and it is in the moments when they embraced our culture that I’ve never been more proud of my Filipino Heritage. This trip has been a cultural pilgrimage — a deep rooted need to visit my own cultural Mecca, and I want to tell you about it.
We’re staying in this tiny town called Loboc. My friend (a puti) actually picked it out, it’s about 40 minutes from Taglibaran, the port city of Bohol. It’s pretty deep in the jungle and I saw a massive red flying cockroach and ran from it like a little kid.
We rode scooters to the Chocolate Hills of Bohol. Have you seen them? I read on a rusty plaque there that a million years ago the hills were in fact under water. Over time as the land rose, they emerged into the lush green hills tourists flock to. In your later years, you would have had a hell of a time getting up those stairs, but I wonder if you visited Bohol in your younger years. On the way, there was an “Enchanted Forest” that took my breath away. The tall green trees towered and arched over the road like a tunnel. It was one of the most memorable moments I think I’ve had traveling anywhere. Pride rushed through me as my friends and I observed the natural beauty of the Philippines.
At night, we took a rickety boat out on to the Loboc River. Water would creep into the boat toward the end of the ride. There was a gathering of fireflies that can only be seen in complete darkness. As our eyes adjusted, we looked up to the sky where the tropical rain clouds had vanished, revealing an endless view of the stars. It was impossible for any words or images to capture the beauty and serenity of that moment. You really have to be there, and I wish you could have seen it.
My skin is getting dark and I haven’t shaved in over a week. It’s remarkable to me how much I look like the people here and how recognizable they are as people of shared heritage. Growing up I’ve always felt like my skin, my nose, my hair — it always made me feel different. It didn’t bother me but it is fascinating to be around so many people that look like me. I see these young Filipino boys and think, could that boy have been me? Will the next generation of Rastrullos look like those boys? I often reflect and wonder what life would have been like if I grew up here. Would I have traveled to Bohol? Would I have traveled to Boracay? What industry would I be working in?
I saw a Filipino family at the hotel restaurant last night. Aunties, uncles, children all gathered around the table that looked just like our family. A friend of mine put together that they were actually there to support the young girl who was singing at the restaurant. She did a great Sade cover of “Smooth Operator”.
It feels that sometimes people I interact with are unsure if I speak Tagalog or not. I can’t tell if they’re weirded out that I can’t hold a conversation with any of the wait staff in Tagalog yet I know that I want the pork caldaretta and pancit bihon with a proper Tagalog accent instead of the club sandwich. Or maybe they don’t care because the all speak English just fine anyway.
I now understand why Filipinos speak English the way we do. Filipino English is a language in and of itself — a variation of Tagalog rather than a variation of English. Unlike many other Asian countries, our alphabet mirrors that of English so closely and English has permeated the Filipino culture so deeply that Filipino English maintains a vocabulary of its own. Frigidair (refrigerator). AirCon (air conditioner). Slipper (sandal, but also interchangeable with actual slippers). I understand that the restaurant Tito’s in Boracay is pronounced differently than Tito’s the vodka from Texas. I understand why “medium” is pronounced mead-JOM. Why “Do you have” is djyoo-hab. I’m convinced now that the true pronunciation of our last name is in fact russ-TRROOL-yo. That’s what everyone here says when they read my Passport. Perhaps years ago when I asked you how it was really pronounced and you said “Whatever” you really wanted me to discover that answer on my own.
The deeply complex, intertwined relationship between Catholicism and Filipinos has fascinated me lately. Much like Filipino English, Filipino Catholicism has many deep rooted traditions unique to the Filipino. After you passed, the family gathered in the following nine days for the novena prayers. My cousins and I chuckled when it was time to lead the prayer and say the name Pedro Calungsod because you have to really play up your Filipino accent to say it properly. Yesterday I visited the Chapel of Pedro Calungsod in Cebu. I sat in the chapel and reflected for a few moments before venturing into a gigantic mall. I happened to be in Cebu during the celebration of Sinulog, which as you well know, is the celebration of Santo Nino. I remember seeing Santo Nino figures growing up our homes. I see them in taxis, airports, and at restaurants here in the Philippines. I finally understand now, why I never saw them in any American Catholic churches or ceremonies. You were a deeply religious man and I think my visit to this chapel would have made you happy.
Since your passing I’ve given a lot of thought about what it must have taken for you to decide to uproot your family and move to the Bay Area. I think about how the job opportunities that my cousins and I have and how they don’t exist in the Philippines. I think about how my parents grew up in a middle class home and how other immigrants struggle greatly just to make ends meet. I think about the kind of life you and your family had when you decided that the United States was where you needed to continue the Rastrullo legacy. These thoughts have found myself at an obvious and undeniable crossroad of my heritage, my past, and the present.
Part of me feels, fears that the next generation of our family will lose much of the Filipino culture that I’ve grown to love. My generation has already lost the language and for the most part, the ability to cook the cuisine. While I grew up hearing you speaking to my dad and my uncles in Tagalog, the next generation of Rastrullos won’t. They won’t hear someone say “aray!” instead they’ll hear “ouch!”. They won’t have to mano po anyone, not that I ever did. What will they think of the Filipino accent when they hear it for the first time? What will the think when they eat kare-kare and bisteak tagalog? What can I really do to continue the heritage that has been instilled in me? Should I try and learn Tagalog? Who would I speak it to state side? I promise to expose as much of the culture as I can but some day the next generation will have to make their own pilgrimage as I have, to the Filipino Mecca.
While I have discovered much, many questions remain. I understand more than ever what it means to be a Filipino American yet I still struggle when filling out the country entrance forms when the words NATIONALITY need to be filled in. Do I put Filipino? American? Filipino American? There’s not enough space for both. What would you put there?
It’s been a long journey to get me back “home” as everyone referred to the Philippines growing up. I’d been here once as a child but only faint memories remain. I was too young to understand or appreciate where I’d come from or grow culturally from the experience. I’ve since seen a decent slice of the world before I decided to come back, and it had to be that way. Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Morocco and others gave me much needed context as to the complexity of how different cultures of our vast world can be. Seeing people so prideful in their own cultures made me want to rediscover my own. As I reflect on the first half of my trip, now in Cebu’s domestic terminal, I look forward to spending time with our family who are native here. Joe has offered to show me around. My final flight to Manila, the real Mecca, is about to board.