I distinctly remember a particular afternoon as a second grader. I was wearing my school uniform – a navy blue, gray, and white plaid jumper – and I was hungry from waiting in forty-five minutes of bumper-to-bumper traffic after a long day of tolling classes (tolling for a seven year-old). My mother brought my sister and me to a Taiwanese restaurant near our house, and got me some kind of broth with noodles and boba. “You might not like the boba,” she said. “It’s an acquired taste.”
She was right: I didn’t like it that day. But after ten years of exposure and familiarization to the culture that created it and the drink itself, I’ve developed an addiction.
While attempting to come up with an object that represents me for a presentation the other day, I realized it was obvious: boba.
Well, mango green tea with boba to be specific. The iced green tea is infused with some type of artificially sweetened mango and peppered with pearls of black tapioca balls. I am the artificially sweetened mango, an extract from the Philippine archipelago resembling the original yellow fruit itself yet estranged enough to be deemed inauthentic. I am the green tea: a product of cultural appropriation, of what was taken and tamed for conformity’s sake, whitewashed just enough so that I am not considered dangerous yet exotic enough so that I am still seen as different, still sexualized, still subtlety lesser. I am the soft gooey pearls resting within each cup; I have clusters of shame, confusion, and loneliness buried at the bottom of me.
Not only is the drink itself an accurate representation of me, so is the story of my interactions with it. I’ve spent a good portion of the past ten years discovering boba. (That means trying different flavors, different shops, and different add-ons, from every variety of milk tea available to every store with boba in a twenty-five mile radius of my house.) Those same past ten years have also been spent exploring the cultures I’ve grown up around, probably because I had a difficult time exploring my own. To my younger self, Filipino meant attending the occasional baptism and wedding out of the blue, hugging and kissing whichever “Tita” or “Tito” was hosting the event, and sitting quietly as my mother’s batchmates talked with her in Tagalog and piled lumpia and pancit bihon onto my plate – but never anything involving pork’s blood, they said I was too white for that. Filipino meant, at the very least, monthly reunions with relatives or family friends, where I’d receive the same questions over and over: “do you speak Tagalog?”, “want to sing ‘My Heart Will Go On’ on our karaoke?”, “will you be having a debut when you turn eighteen?”. The answers would always be no, and all partly rationalized by my father’s notable absence from each event. He’d attended a few parties with my mother when they first got married, but by the time I was old enough to remember these affairs clearly, he’d decided that Filipino culture was not worth celebrating or learning. (Too loud, too uncivilized, too much fried food, too much Third World.)
These were all reasons I tried to forget I was Filipino, and it was easy to assimilate in a region full of cultural diversity. Instead of discovering my own culture (what I believed to be a disgraceful one, thanks Dad), I immersed myself in the, predominantly Asian, ones around me, through food (i.e. boba), friends, and the many local events promoting multiculturalism.
But even as I forgot my origins, others constantly reminded me. Classmates grew so confused with my half white, half Filipino facial features that they just had to ask: “what are you?” When I told them, they’d usually tell me how unique I was, how “cool” that mixture must be, or how that other half white, half Asian person they met that one time and I were both gorgeous. If they didn’t ask what I was, they would ask me if I was part Asian. If I said “yes, Filipino,” some – especially Asian-Americans – would tell me the Philippines isn’t part of Asia; according to them, it’s a completely different category. Apparently, we aren’t Asian or white or Latino or brown or Pacific Islander or indigenous peoples. Most importantly was how men interacted with me; not just white men, but also men of color and Filipino men. To white men, I was exotic and quietly sensual in a let’s-try-this-oh-so-different-flavor type of way. To Filipino men, and other men of color, I was white enough to be a status symbol; adding me on Facebook was the equivalent of moving one wrung up on the ladder of racial and social politics for my second cousin and his friends in the Philippines.
I’m still seen in all of those ways, actually, and I still have to deal with people constantly questioning my identity. That’s why I can – and should – no longer ignore the fact that I am Filipina-American.
I like boba. I like boba a lot. I like pork buns, udon, pad thai, bulgogi, and pho too. But I can never fully love other cultures, because the sense of inauthenticity I feel in my own half-and-half culture will always seep into my relations with other ones; nor should I attempt to submerge myself into other cultures when I haven’t fully immersed myself in my own.