Friday, April 17, 2009

The hyphenated Filipino-Canadian

Filipinos in Canada, perhaps also in the United States, are often conflicted about their allegiances. They seem ambivalent between two solitudes, the motherland they left behind and the new country they’ve chosen to live in.

Those who have difficulty adjusting to the foreign culture and the way of life in their new country simply have stuck to their roots. This is obvious in the food they eat, the groups they hang out with, their regional accent when they speak, but more than these manifestations of filial devotion to their motherland and its culture, is their world outlook. They think and talk with the point of view of the Filipino who has never left his moorings, i.e., almost everything to them is “Pinoy-centric.”

On the other hand, those who have integrated and blended well with the social fabric of their new community suddenly appear to be afflicted with “Pinoy-amnesia,” i.e., any reminders of their past and their roots have been summarily blocked out from their consciousness. Again, this is obvious in the food they eat, the groups they go out with, the way they talk with the airs and manners of those who are Canadian-bred, but beneath all these outward symbols of association with the foreign culture they have embraced, is a repressed and deep-seated longing for their motherland. Here lies the conflict in those who have become Canadians in every way of life yet inwardly pine over losing grip of their ancestral roots.

Thus, those who have remained steadfastly faithful to Filipino values and aspirations or the Filipino culture as a whole seem to be more at peace with themselves. They keep themselves abreast with Filipino current events, the politics in the old country, and everything there is to know or to follow, like their favourite television programs back home, or up-and-coming movies or sports news. The downside of this inner peace they have achieved is their loss of connection with mainstream Canadian society. They have remained virtual foreigners in their land of choice, and sadly, without a political voice. They are simply content to celebrate Filipino culture during Philippine Independence Day or other festivals that showcase Filipino local talents or entertainers imported from the Philippines. When they go out and vote during elections, they do so perfunctorily.

But those who become Canadians by virtue of their conscious assimilation into the main fabric of Canadian society have much bigger problems, for they are really the ones who are conflicted. They have forsaken their Filipino roots to become full-pledged Canadians, but they are still at the threshold of acceptance even if they think they have been fully integrated. This has led others to label Canadians of Filipino descent as an “invisible minority,” obviously due to their lack of political power and representation in government despite being the third largest Asian group in Canada, after the Chinese and the Indians.

This is similarly true in the United States. A Filipino-American author has called Americans of Filipino descent as the “hidden majority,” referring to a census that showed Filipinos in the United States are the second largest Asian group, right behind the Chinese. The author was wondering why most Americans don’t even realize that Filipinos are this big in number in America. “Unlike the French who know why there are many Algerians in Paris, or the British who know why there are so many Indians in London,” the author laments about the invisibility of the Filipino multitude.

It is quite understandable that those who have chosen to hold fast to their Filipino ancestry have no political clout or voice in their government through their own so-called leaders. This is a political choice they have made, partly because they do not have the necessary wherewithal to be engaged in the civic nation, and also partly because of lack of interest. Political involvement or civic engagement in their new society, as it is now more popularly called, hardly exists among this group. But gauge their interest in politics and what’s going on back home in the Philippines, and you’ll get a very warm response.

In the city of Toronto, which is traditionally the centre of economic prosperity in Canada, Filipinos have embraced what one Pinoy describes as a “leaderless lifestyle.” Although this could be a misnomer since there are several hundreds of organizations of Filipinos in the city, where every town and province in the Philippines is represented by its own association, or where every school, whether secondary or university, has an alumni organization. Even national heroes have their own respective followings, or even religious groups organized based on the intensity of their devotion.

It is “leaderless” probably because every organization pursues its own self-interest. Every so-called leader has his own agenda. Once in a while, these organizations may align themselves in a common cause, but eventually they part ways when the rationale for such an alliance wanes. Unity among Filipino-Canadians is ephemeral, and very difficult to sustain. It’s much more practical for each organization to exist on its own.

Someone has commented that “we don’t have a Filipinotown” in Toronto, apparently in reference to Chinatown, Little Italy, Little Portugal or India Bazaar, which are little pockets in the city that represent concentrations of ethnic or national origins. But this may not be a negative thing at all because it could also indicate how seamlessly Filipinos have integrated into their communities without necessarily erecting walls around them and isolating themselves like private enclaves as other ethnic groups have tended to do.

Despite its increasingly growing population and the ease in how Filipinos assimilate into mainstream Canadian society, however, Filipinos still remain invisible and politically powerless. At least in the western Canadian provinces, Filipinos were able to elect members of the provincial and federal parliaments. Not so in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) where only a handful of Filipinos elected to political office still languish in entry positions such as school trustee or local councillor. The GTA is now the home to the largest Filipino community in Canada with about 1 out of 2 Filipinos in Canada residing in the area.

What is most disturbing about Filipino political engagement in Toronto is the apparent absence and lack of interest of the second- or third-generation Filipinos, children of Filipinos who came to Canada as toddlers or those born and educated here in Canada. Why is this so?

Second- or third-generation Filipinos in Canada are those born in the 1970s and roughly are now in their early or late 30s. Majority of these youth have gone to university, and some have become lawyers, doctors, engineers or management and computer professionals. While they focus on their career paths, their parents and elders meanwhile continue to hug leadership positions in various Filipino community organizations. Because they have not had this opportunity to lead back home, this seniors group is still ambitious to lead no matter at what cost. With the exception of one organization run by young writers, photographers and visual artists, the rest of community or advocacy organizations of Filipinos in Toronto are in the hands of older leaders, perhaps a cultural legacy from the past where traditional villages and communities were led by elders.

Another possible reason why younger Filipinos are disinterested is the nature and purpose of most Filipino community organizations. Majority of these organizations have been established to assist new immigrants in their settlement, such as helping them navigate the government bureaucracy to get their SIN, OHIP or help in identifying job opportunities. Others are organized as mere social clubs. These organizations are not structured along political or ideological lines, e.g., whether they subscribe to the platforms of any of the political parties in Canada. On top of their objective to help in the resettlement of new immigrants, these organizations have also assumed the task of preserving Filipino heritage and culture for which they could get funding from the government under its policy of multiculturalism.

The combination of “leadership-hugging by elders” and the limited objectives of most Filipino community organizations have driven younger Filipinos away from engagement with their community. Some of them may have joined mainstream political parties, but in the process they have also lost the necessary connection with their community that can potentially provide them support and the numbers they need to either get nominated or elected to office. A drawback to this withdrawal of younger Filipinos from their community’s narrow involvement in mainstream Canadian politics is their loss of meaningful affinity with their parents’ culture and ancestry.

Just like all other immigrants to this country, Filipinos will always be connected to their past and this relationship can either be beneficial or disadvantageous, depending on how it matters in making one’s world view. Too much reliance on one’s past or too close ties to ancestral culture and values may hinder integration with one’s new environment. Abandoning one’s past, however, may engender an individual’s loss of identity. Both rigidity and conformism can exact a heavy price.

Filipinos in Canada do not have a choice of favouring one side to the detriment of his or her new identity. Stick with being a Filipino, who is authentic and true, or be a Canadian who is fully integrated regardless of colour or creed. Straddling both worlds appears to be the only rational choice; yes, to be both, and to reflect the best of both worlds. Bridging the two solitudes or balancing the differences and similarities of their two countries is not only practical but sensible as well, especially in a multicultural society. Herein lies a possible solution to the Filipino searching for identity and authenticity in a global community.


Anna Gail said...

Great article and so true!
We have to know who we are, where we came from, what we're made of before we can decide what we want to be. In the same manner, we cannot get stuck in our heritage and disregard the opportunities this new country offers - a different perspective, an experience to explore a whole new world. The balance has to happen!

Anonymous said...

Very well said. Thank you for posting this. It is very liberating.

jayjay_cosico said...

A very good article indeed. A lot of truth as why we as Filipinos seem to be disorganized.
One aspect that I would like to point out on the issue why there is no "Filipinotown", if I may, is basically due to the fact that most of us can exist by ourselves and not bond together for almost all of us can communicate in English not like the communities that seemed to have grouped together. Is this supposed edge of Filipinos working against us?

In a sense it is! However this is not to say that we as a people cannot bond together and be recognized.
I was just reading an article from retired UBC professor Aprodicio Laquian;
“I’m quite sympathetic (to those that have assimilated to the Canadian way of life) because they are aware of what’s going on, unlike others who are ashamed to be called Filipinos,” Laquian told the Straight in a phone interview. “What we really hope to happen is that later, when they mature, they will become more active participants in the political processes here in Canada.”

How I wish that we can have a forum and/or a venue where we can all get together and be recognized not as Tagalogs, Ilocano, Ilongo, Cebuano, etc. but as Filipinos.