Adobo, karaoke, and professional boxer Manny Pacquiao. Upon hearing these terms in conversations, a bright spark of Pinoy pride gets lit within the heart of a Filipino-American (Fil-Am).
A Fil-Am is defined as an individual bearing both Filipino and United States citizenship—simple as that. However, after living a significant portion of my life in both countries, I realized that this definition does not capture the distinctions that exist between Filipinos that grew up in the Philippines and those who grew up in the States.
Admittedly, when I was living in America, I was blind to the deeper roots of Filipino culture. Like many other Fil-Ams who grew up without a formal introduction to such, my knowledge of Philippine history and the nation’s current events was very limited. All I knew about my heritage was based on what my immigrant relatives would show me—primarily Filipino food and some Tagalog phrases. As simple as these cultural components may be, even the slightest mention of them from the media or their peers could easily elicit enormous waves of excitement from Fil-Ams.
I can’t blame them for acting this way. Living in a melting pot of races and ethnicities, finding something—or someone—that is remotely relatable is thrilling. But as this may seem genuine and understandable to many, concern is raised when such overexcitement to achieve representation begins to overshadow the authenticity of the Philippines and its culture.
In Western media, there have been numerous times where Filipino references are woven in. These can be very simple—perhaps, through the inclusion of a few Tagalog lines in a script. Other times, it could be the selling point of one’s act. Fil-Am comedian Joseph Herbert, or Jo Koy, is a prime example of this. Skyrocketing his career off of Filipino-related jokes, he has become a very well-known figure in comedic television.
While adored by many Fil-Ams for presumably accurately shedding light on their beloved Filipino culture, Filipinos here tend to share opposing sentiments. It makes sense; a Fil-Am who grew up in a non-Asian community would probably feel like the only person who regularly cooks rice or listens to the interchanged “f” and “p” of their relatives’ Filipino accents. With that, it is expected that they would find the stereotypical Filipino jokes of Jo Koy hilariously amusing—they aren’t used to feeling that relatability. Yet, to some Filipinos who witness such activities by all their peers daily, these jokes feel extremely dull, to say the least.
Despite being aware of the controversy surrounding Jo Koy, my father and I still decided to watch his recent American comedy film, Easter Sunday. This film follows Jo Koy’s character, Joe Valencia, as he meets up with his Filipino family in California for the holiday. This Western-produced film starring a full Filipino cast had every opportunity to embrace and encapsulate the richness of Filipino culture—but it didn’t.
Although Filipino actors such as Lou Diamond Phillips and Tia Carrere made up the cast, they are all still American-raised. As such, the Filipino accents that they used in the film were fake and arguably inaccurate. The references to the Philippines were primarily stereotypical, revolving around Manny Pacquiao’s boxing career and family karaoke nights.
I can’t say that what Easter Sunday did was entirely wrong. After all, these references are a large part of why the Philippines has received its representation on an international scale. However, Fil-Ams who want to truly be proud of their Filipino culture should learn that there is so much more beyond tasty cuisines and talented athletes.
They should learn about the centuries of colonial rule that the Philippines has fought through, the beautiful aspects of our nature, and the remarkable pieces of art created by local artists. In the same way, they should educate themselves about the problems that the country faces and help fight against the injustices experienced by local Filipinos. Being proud of one’s culture should not mean cherry-picking the parts that are beneficial to them.
As mentioned, being a Fil-Am myself, I completely understand where this behavior comes from. Nonetheless, I still hope to see improvements in the Western representation of the Philippines. After moving to this country, I was able to see how much more there is to it—both good and bad—and how different the perceptions of the Philippines are to Fil-Ams and local Filipinos. Let us not forget that with appreciation comes the need for education.