When my husband texted me and my fellow Filipino group members simultaneously Facebook messaged me this week about how we won the title of “Best Tasting” dishes at Darden’s International Food Festival, the only word to describe my reaction would be … shocked. I honestly chalked up that night as just one more of my failed attempts at being Filipino. (See documentation below of my prior attempts from an article I wrote about my high school days.)
I only joined this group after SY students and partners reached out to me. And even then, I had other stipulations (some unsaid, but definitely felt):
1) I would cook and serve with a friend. By successfully roping in a fellow Darden Partner and Americanized Filipino, the activity was more bearable and we even bonded while sharing anecdotes of our upbringing.
2) I would cook something easy – like rice. However, I couldn’t get away with just that, so I Googled “easy Filipino food recipes” and found lumpia (AKA egg rolls). Because it was our first time frying egg rolls and neither of us owned a deep fryer, we improvised with a fry pan and baking sheets…It took an hour longer to cook than anticipated.
3) I would be able to take frequent breaks to try more authentic food. Thank goodness for our understanding husbands who grabbed us drinks and filled our plates, and then eventually took over our serving duties for a bit so we could walk around. Note to anyone who visited our table when there were two white guys serving food: I apologize for any confusion when they didn’t know how to pronounce or fully describe what we made.
The most entertaining – borderline embarrassing – moments of the night was whenever true Filipinos (anyone actually born there) publicly noted the “unique” traits of our lumpia. Uneven crispness in the wrapper (never again without a deep fryer), potato chunks (my parents put them in our egg rolls as children – maybe, that was paying homage to the traditional American combo of meat and potatoes?), and the thickness (with being an hour late, we needed to rush the process). It was difficult to defend our choices with a straight face. Not to mention the fact, that I was wearing a borrowed traditional Filipino dress while serving our Allrecipes.com version of traditional Filipino food.
But then, surprisingly enough, one person came back for seconds of our egg roll. And others came up to us, mentioning how they heard good feedback about the table as whole. And then, by the end of the night, we ran out of our tray of egg rolls.
Despite the comedy of errors, I am ultimately grateful to have been a part of the International Food Festival at Darden. This experience reminded me of the importance to understand – better yet, embrace – my long lost heritage. Beyond this fest, I consistently stumble upon learning opportunities to see another side of the world within the Darden community: I often either find myself eating ethnic cuisine, sharing cultural traditions, and discussing varying religious beliefs.
I am truly thankful for such a diverse and accepting environment at Darden that showcases significant events, such as the IFF, as well as allows for those smaller moments of conversations in passing about differences in lifestyle with international students and partners.
My flashback: An article I wrote for The State News, my college newspaper, shortly after I graduated from high school in June 2003
“Understanding hyphenated identity comes with time, learning”
At 6 years old, I had already denied my Filipino heritage.
“I’m not Filipino, I’m an American!” I yelled at the top of my lungs whenever my relatives would try to converse with me in a language I didn’t understand or feed me food that I didn’t know how to eat.
My parents recorded this proclamation one time on video during the first Thanksgiving I shared with my newly emigrated younger cousins. They looked at me with confusion, because, despite being related to them, I refused to believe I was a part of their minority group.
Thus began my parents’ attempt to infuse my life with the culture they grew up with in the Philippines.
My parents were born and bred in the Pangasinan province, living on the farms and were raised strict Catholics. They moved to America in search of the dream life everyone talks about.
Every other year, my family and I would revisit the home country for two to three weeks. No matter how much I tried to memorize all of my cousins’ names, I would always forget one. My mom is the oldest of nine children, and my father is in the middle of a family of 17 children.
It was a joke that, for my paternal grandmother, giving birth was like going to the bathroom. Each of my parents’ siblings married and had at least four kids. My parents were the oddballs, though, because they decided to go with the normal set of two children: One boy and one girl.
When I was younger, I found living in the provincial farms an adventure. I would wake up early in the morning to hear the rooster’s call or see caribou roaming aimlessly through the fields. I stayed in a house my grandfather built from the ground up. I would stroll through the tiny village of Basista and wave to each passer-by.
Then, as I grew older, I felt almost out of place when I visited. In the souvenir open-air markets, my mother and aunts would tell me to be quiet because if the vendors heard me speak, they’d know I was American. With the American dollar equaling 50 to 60 pesos, it would be typical for an unknowing tourist to be ripped off. At home with my relatives, I would be scolded for showing disrespect to my elders because I would forget to “mano-po”(kiss or lift their hands to my forehead when I see them).
Thus began my personal search of discovering my identity as a second-generation Filipino.
By the encouragement of my parents, I joined the Little Miss Philippines Pageant in the fourth grade. I met many other little Filipino girls vying for the trophy and grand prizes.
Unfortunately, I’m not the beauty pageant type. I spent more time goofing off and trying to make friends than I did practicing my talent routine and perfecting my makeup. Needless to say, I didn’t win the pageant, but I did meet people who taught me the importance of knowing about my background.
In my high school, Asians were the minority majority. Some of my friends would even go as far as to say it was an “Asian Invasion.” Every year, the International Club would hold an Ethnic Fair, complete with an array of exotic foods and traditional performances by various ethnic groups represented in my high school. By the encouragement of my friends, I joined the Filipino group.
I learned how to cook “pancit,” a noodle dish with chicken, vegetables and shrimp. I learned how to do “tinikling” – quick rhythmic dancing that required me to jump over bamboo sticks – and also how to candle dance, which required me to balance candles while gracefully twirling my arms. Despite thinking I had the routine down, in front of more than a hundred people, I tripped in the middle of the performance.
This ended my stage attempts at Filipino pride.
High school had ended, and I still didn’t entirely feel like a true Filipino. But at my high school graduation party, among all the catered American food, sat this huge piece of pork, “lechon.” It is a Filipino staple at every benchmark holiday or celebration.
This gigantic roasted pig, head and all, sat next to the sub sandwiches and fruit trays. I had to explain the tradition to a lot of surprised people who had never been to any of my family’s parties.
Right then, I realized that being a true Filipino didn’t mean having to show off on stage. That Filipino dish, mingled among the American food, represented that I am Filipino and American.