Think you have conyo prob­lems? Try be­ing a Filipino-Ital­ian who grew up in Canada, Switzer­land, and the Philip­pines


Pass the babae, please.”

Across the din­ner ta­ble, my cousins stare at me like I’m from outer space. “What?”

“The pork! Pass the pork.” My cousins lose their minds. One spits the Coke he’s drink­ing onto his rice; another laughs non-stop and mim­ics fall­ing out of his chair; the last facepalms, mouths “Oh, my God,” and just leaves the ta­ble. My tita tries to scold her kids and stop her­self from laugh­ing at the same time, the net re­sult of which makes her look like she’s hav­ing a seizure.

They’re laugh­ing be­cause I used the wrong word twice. Babae should’ve been baboy. (It should’ve been ulam to be­gin with.) I’m em­bar­rassed be­cause I think I pro­nounced babae wrong. No one passes the pork.

See, as a half-Filipino, half-Ital­ian who grew up in Canada, Switzer­land, and the Philip­pines, I am guar­an­teed never to be­long to any­thing, any­where at any time, for­ever. This didn’t stop me from at least try­ing to fit in, which is why I’ve found my­self in dozens of ridicu­lous sit­u­a­tions like the one above. But when I moved to the Philip­pines for good five years ago, I de­cided to stop try­ing— specif­i­cally, I stopped try­ing to speak Filipino—and it was one of the best choices I’ve made.


Liv­ing in Toronto at age seven, my life was like the wet dream of a United Na­tions Sec­re­tary­Gen­eral: I had a crush on a Greek girl, rode bikes with my Jamaican neigh­bors, and had enough di­ver­sity in my pick-up hockey games to rep­re­sent the full visual spec­trum. This changed when I moved to Geneva to be closer to my mom’s side of the fam­ily, and got crushed by a dou­ble dose of Swiss and Swiss-Filipino cul­ture shock.

The Swiss as­pect was tough but not un­fa­mil­iar: Canada’s other na­tional lan­guage is French, and my idol was a French-Cana­dian hockey goal­tender named Pa­trick Roy. But when I met and be­gan liv­ing with the dozens upon dozens of aunts, un­cles, cousins, nieces, and neph­ews of my mom’s fam­ily that all talked, acted, and con­sumed dif­fer­ently than I did, it be­came ex­tremely clear to me that I wasn’t like them.

My mom never taught us sib­lings Filipino or in­tro­duced us to songs or shows from her home­land, so the ex­tent of my Filipino cul­tural con­sump­tion was get­ting grossed out watch­ing Dol­phy eat janky food like din­uguan on Home Along

Da Riles reruns. My cousins, sens­ing weak­ness, im­me­di­ately boxed me out. They de­lighted in teach­ing me the wrong mean­ings of Filipino words, laughed at my mis­pro­nun­ci­a­tion of said words, and re­fused to speak to me in English for days on end. When they were feel­ing es­pe­cially vi­cious, they’d com­bine French and Ta­ga­log into Fra­ga­log (prob­a­bly the weird­est com­bi­na­tion of ac­cents in ex­is­tence) to dou­ble up on the lan­guages I didn’t un­der­stand. The lit­tle that I did pick up was greeted with sar­cas­tic praise.

Still, I desperately wanted to be part of the club. Th­ese peo­ple were sup­posed to be my blood, and they were peck­ing me to death like an al­bino jack­daw. I’d get so dis­cour­aged that I’d swear off ever try­ing to speak Filipino again, only to at­tempt slip­ping in a word here and there a week later and hop­ing it would pass with­out in­ci­dent. When I moved to Manila as an adult, the cy­cle of be­ing ridiculed for try­ing to speak Filipino was con­tin­ued by my friends and of­fice­mates un­til I swore it off for good.


My fam­ily moved to Van­cou­ver after that and it quickly be­came ap­par­ent that while I wasn’t Filipino, I was also defini­tively not any­thing else. My high school ex­pe­ri­ence was a bit like be­ing a mud­blood at Hog­warts, ex­cept when you put on the Sort­ing Hat, you find out that ev­ery house is Slytherin. I used to joke that I was “all slurs to all peo­ple:” I’ve had Filipinos call me “wop,” Ital­ians call me “flip,” Per­sians call me “chink,” and the Chi­nese call me things I couldn’t pro­nounce. It was pos­si­ble to so­cial­ize and date across the di­vide, es­pe­cially with the sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion kids who were born in Canada, but th­ese core groups were largely set in stone.

Canada prides it­self on its mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. Un­like Amer­ica’s melt­ing pot, which en­cour­ages eth­nic groups to as­sim­i­late into Amer­i­can cul­ture, the Cana­dian Mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism Act states “mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism en­sures that all cit­i­zens can keep their iden­ti­ties, can take pride in their an­ces­try, and have a sense of be­long­ing.” In re­al­ity, what this means is: “When I walk home from school, I have to watch out for the Ital­ian gang, the Ser­bian gang, the Korean gang, the Viet­namese gang, the Per­sian gang...” and so on. The adults of th­ese com­mu­ni­ties do business almost ex­clu­sively with each other and the kids nor­mally marry within the com­mu­nity. (I dated sev­eral Chi­nese girls in high school and, with­out ex­cep­tion, their fa­thers re­fused to ac­knowl­edge my ex­is­tence.) Cou­ple that mul­ti­cul­tural spirit with the fact that whites are a mi­nor­ity in Van­cou­ver, and the re­sult was that high school cliques broke cleanly along eth­nic lines. It’s the kind of en­vi­ron­ment where the Hong Kong Chi­nese wouldn’t be caught dead frat­er­niz­ing with the Main­land Chi­nese.

It’s strange to me how the ig­no­rance and racism of eth­nic groups of­ten man­i­fested di­rectly— racism with in­tent, as if my ex­is­tence posed a threat to theirs. That kind of racism is usu­ally per­ceived as the prov­ince of white peo­ple, but for

me, it was mostly the op­po­site: The generic Euro­mutt whites were the only group to let me into the club. I think this is be­cause white cul­ture isn’t ex­clu­sive; any­one can par­take of it freely be­cause there’s no gate­keeper check­ing your cre­den­tials at the door. I could talk to my white friends about the same shows, movies, and mu­sic and I could com­mis­er­ate with them about our sim­i­lar fam­ily lives (di­vorced par­ents), whereas the eth­nic nu­clear fam­i­lies were usu­ally in­tact (but strained and un­happy).

I found the racism of whites to be just pas­sive ig­no­rance, limited to not know­ing and not car­ing to know about any cul­ture ex­cept their own. Case in point: when school would start after sum­mer va­ca­tion and peo­ple would swap sto­ries about what they did over the break, I learned quickly to make sure that my sto­ries about vis­it­ing the Philip­pines weren’t too “ex­otic.” Any men­tion of pick­ing and eat­ing man­goes right off the tree or hack­ing open a co­conut with a ma­chete was met with univer­sal de­ri­sion. Still, the ho­mog­e­niz­ing re­ac­tion of whites to open dis­plays of eth­nic­ity was avoid­able with prac­tice. To me, it was prefer­able to be­ing con­stantly made to feel that I didn’t be­long with the eth­nic groups I wanted to be­long to. Almost all of my close friends in Canada were white.


All of this changed when I moved to the Philip­pines for good. Among other rea­sons, I thought that fully im­mers­ing my­self in the coun­try and its cul­ture would fi­nally grant me ac­cess to the “Filipino-ness” that had been de­nied to me over the course of my life. But my last ditch at­tempt to go na­tive ended like all the oth­ers—with laugh­ter.

I saw my first job in ad­ver­tis­ing as the per­fect op­por­tu­nity to swing for the fences. I picked up Rosetta Stone to learn Filipino at home and com­mit­ted to speak­ing as much of it as I pos­si­bly could. I was con­fi­dent that my of­fice­mates wouldn’t give me a hard time. After all, it’s child­ish to pick on some­one’s dif­fer­ences and they weren’t kids. My in­ter­views were in English, which I ex­pected be­cause I knew English was the business lan­guage here, but I looked for­ward to prac­tic­ing my Filipino in day-to-day con­ver­sa­tions.

I've had Filipinos call me “wop," Ital­ians call me “flip," Per­sians call

me “chink," and the Chi­nese call me things I couldn't


At my first business meet­ing, my boss in­tro­duced me in English to business part­ners of our company and fol­lowed it up with a long joke in Filipino, which I couldn’t follow. The room broke into laugh­ter, and not want­ing to be the only one stand­ing there silently, I laughed along with them. My boss put me right on the spot: “Em, why are you laugh­ing?! Did you un­der­stand?” I hes­i­tated and the room burst into laugh­ter again.

My peers, while kinder, had a hard time sup­press­ing their grins when I mis­pro­nounced and used the wrong words. While I was learn­ing the lan­guage much faster by dint of eaves­drop­ping on con­ver­sa­tions and fig­ur­ing out the con­text from the English loan­words, I quickly started erring on the side of cau­tion and limited my­self to English verbs and Filipino nouns—a style of speak­ing that got me teased for sound­ing “conyo.”

I be­gan to get bit­ter over the sit­u­a­tion a few months into my job. I knew that my of­fice­mates weren’t be­ing in­ten­tion­ally cruel—there was no mal­ice in their jokes—but I was frus­trated that my at­tempts to be the same as they are were al­ways met with a re­minder of how dif­fer­ent I was. Ev­ery time I hear some­one mis­pro­nounce or mis­use an English word, I imag­ine how they’d feel if I laughed at them. I felt like Ein­stein’s def­i­ni­tion of in­san­ity: get­ting my hopes up for a dif­fer­ent re­sult by do­ing the same thing over and over again.

What’s more, I no­ticed that my flu­ency in English is a huge ad­van­tage: For­mal business com­mu­ni­ca­tions are al­ways in English, as well as the ad­ver­tise­ments I serve to the pub­lic. I’m not hand­i­capped in my day-to-day deal­ings be­cause English is so per­va­sive. While I’ve been try­ing so hard to be like them, the cul­ture has been shift­ing to be more like me.

There was no “straw break­ing the camel’s back” mo­ment, but I even­tu­ally gave up on speak­ing flu­ent Filipino. The way I speak has set­tled into a mash-up that steals my fa­vorite bits from both lan­guages, which per­fectly matches me. My fam­ily vis­ited from Canada re­cently and they com­mented on how I don’t sound like they do any­more. My ac­cent has changed, but no true Filipino would mis­take it for a lo­cal one. In­stead, how I sound re­flects what I am: An awk­ward col­li­sion of two cul­tures. I have a life’s worth of proof that yes, I am dif­fer­ent, but I’ve learned that it’s not a weak­ness. Iron­i­cally enough, my choice to move here and claim my her­itage is what made me re­al­ize I can make my own.

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