Pho, profanities and being part Pinoy

I was just hungry, but someone else’s verbal BS re-ignited an internal dialogue on my heritage.

Last summer, my husband Jon and I were eating pho at a restaurant near our place. It was pretty empty, aside from staff and one other customer; we were near one of the walls of the restaurant while she was eating closer to the door. Out of nowhere, a man stormed in and demanded access to the restroom.

I was now only half-listening to my husband who was talking about whatever weird, viral thing was trending on Instagram. It didn’t take long for him to notice I was watching the restaurant owner to see if he was okay. He too began observing as we heard the shop owner apologize and say his policy was simple, and posted at the front window: Sorry, no public washroom. Customers only.

The man started to yell, but Jon and I were taken aback when about 30 seconds later he said, “yes, I’ll order food.” The change in his tone was strange. I guess the restaurant owner figured out this guy wasn’t going to leave until he got to use the bathroom, so he caved: “use it. No need to buy food.”

The man stormed into the bathroom, did his thing, and came back out and demanded an order of food to go.

Where the hell was this going?

It must have been a small order, because it was ready in about five minutes, nicely packed into a take out container. During the wait, bathroom man sat near the cash register with his headphones in, seemingly calm. They rung up the guy’s food. Bathroom man picked up the bag. We thought it was done.

It wasn’t.

The instant the transaction went through, bathroom man walked to the entrance and chucked the bag, full of take-out, at the owner, who was on the other side of the room. The throw was horrible, and the food instead hit a light fixture, hanging from the ceiling. A part of it came undone, partially dropping the whole thing towards the floor. I was relieved no one was hurt. Bathroom man parked himself near the door to the restaurant, and started to talk inappropriately about everyone in the establishment.

And yes, you bet I was not spared from his ire.

After a few minutes of him going on and on about how everyone in the restaurant was a “dirty this” and a “dirty that,” I asked what exactly he would achieve by berating people who really didn’t want to listen to his derogatory, uninspired verbal diarrhea over a bowl of pho.

His reply was disarming, because I wasn’t expecting it. I was thinking I’d be the recipient of a “shut up,” or a “f**k you.” That’s all fine and good, because that’s where you call the cops.

“Well, look at you, you white f***….”

I’m not going to finish the rest of it because, well, it’s inappropriate, and you can probably figure out where he was going with his words.

When he was finished, I didn’t know how to react. I looked at Jon, and I just laughed and said, “wow.”

Inside me, feelings I’d been trying to shun for nearly three decades bubbled to the surface. I wanted to cry, scream and tell him he didn’t know what he was talking about. Despite being hauled away by New Westminster Police fifteen minutes later (turns out the man, who was not from New West, was intoxicated; unclear if he was charged with anything, but he’s banned from the restaurant), I wanted to let him know he’d opened the biggest emotional can of worms that, to this day, I still haven’t figured out, and probably never will.

*****

I am a Filipina-Canadian. I was born in Ontario to a Filipino mom, and an Irish-British-French father. Not that I owe anyone an explanation, but the reason why I tout my Filipino heritage all the time is because I lived with my mom growing up, and Filipino culture is honestly all I know. And I’m very proud of it. Filipinos are some of the loveliest, hospitable, hardworking people I’ve ever met. And I get it. I look white. I see the privilege in my appearance and my last name, and I acknowledge it.

My dad and my mom pose with me a few months after I was born. My father is from Newfoundland and Labrador, while my mom was born in the Philippines and came to Canada via the now defunct live-in caregiver program.

I know most or all the words to songs like Lupang Hinirang and Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit, both of which I love to sing; the former proudly with my hand over my heart. I still crave daing na bangus with bagoong, or tocino with my rice, because that’s what we ate for dinner. (Unless there was chicken, then it was either roasted or became adobong manok. Another favourite: corned beef with onions and rice.) When I’m sick, I want lugaw with ginger. I bring homemade lumpia and/or brazo de Mercedes to parties. It’s been fifteen years, and I’m still pissed I couldn’t learn to dance singkil when I competed locally in Binibining Pilipinas, because I thought it was such a fascinating part of our Philippine history. Sadly, we couldn’t afford the custom costume making or the private lessons to make it happen. I keep track of the country’s political situation, and I strongly disagree with the leadership in place right now. In fact, I refuse to visit until the guy “running” the country is no longer in power. Thank goodness for food, because it has been a relatively accessible way to try to make sense of my heritage.

Ever since I can remember, negotiating who I am, and where I can and can’t belong has been difficult. Discussions on mestizos — and especially mestizas — stupidly tend to reference marketability as an actor, actress, model or pageant competitor. You don’t have to go that far back in time: Catriona Gray and Pia Wurtzbach are Filipinas of mixed heritage who have recently won Miss Universe titles, and they’ve been the catalysts for a discussion on how Filipino one should be before they can represent their country at competitions. A Pampanga-born model was deemed too white to celebrate the fact that she, a Filipina, made it to one of the biggest runway shows in North America. I’ve read articles talking about how you’re more ‘palatable’ if you’re half Filipino, depending on what kind of mix you are. Every year, I field dozens of comments about being “white passing” or having a “white” last name, and while I acknowledge that ‘privilege,’ each time I hear that, I feel like I’m mourning the death of the Filipino culture that is very much alive in me.

I grew up with a lot of half-Filipino children in my circle, many of whom I played with every Saturday during my mom’s Filipino support group meetings. The group was meant to help our parents cope with life as an immigrant to Canada. Some of the kids were part Iranian, part Fijian, or part Chinese. Some of us were made fun of more than others, but we just went with it because we didn’t have a choice. As adults, we’ve reflected on how uncool it was to just take it on the chin, but we do recognize the discrimination we faced will never be what our Filipino parents experienced. Is it better? Is it worse? It’s not a contest, because I feel our parents — and generations before them — had it worse. But doesn’t it make you feel something when kids from high school see you and your mom together at the mall — and they call her your “old Asian babysitter?” Or maybe it’s only when they joke about one day finding a stash of dirty diapers in your locker, because as one boy I liked in eighth grade told me, “I don’t date Filipinos. They wipe the s**t off of a***s and toilets for a living.”

All the kids in this photo are half Filipino. I’m second from the left.

I’m not here trying to solve an equation. I’m not here to “beg people to understand my issue.” I wanted to write this because I guarantee there are mixed kids out there trying to figure this kind of stuff out, and they probably feel alone. I hope they see this. Our numbers continue to grow. This is not a new phenomenon, and has been discussed time and again in the social sciences: the way we interact with one another — be it immigration, technology, or other intersecting methods — has changed so much that humans will continue integrating with other populations and people of various ethnicities.

So: if you’re one of those kids looking for answers, please know it’s okay to be you. Don’t be afraid to get to know yourself; it’s okay to embrace your roots. There may be days where it sucks so, so much, but everything will be alright.

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