I had dinner with a few of my other Asian-Australian friends the other night and we started sharing our own immigrant experiences and how our personal immigrant identity formed. Most of them were born here in Australia or moved here while they were young (as pre-teens or as toddlers).
My family and I moved to Australia more than 7 years ago. I was 18 when we left the Philippines. And in a lot of ways, it was here, in Australia, where I came into my being. It was here where I grew comfortable in my adulthood. It was here where my adult identity was formed. Yes. My formative years were spent in my motherland, the country of my birth, but it was here in the land that adopted us where I came of age. I was a child when we left the Philippines and my adult life has been spent here in a country which has now become my own.
We are immigrants. I am an immigrant. I am a 1.5 Generation Immigrant. The term First-Generation Immigrant refers to the very first immigrants in a family line. The term Second-Generation Immigrant refers to the children of first-generation immigrants. 1.5 Generation Immigrants refers to those who may have emigrated to the the country as early or late teens. They bring with them aspects of their mother culture while also assimilating into the culture they’ve emigrated to.
We were new to a country that likes to claim it is accepting, and tolerant, and multicultural—a country that is proud of its “immigrant” history. (Although immigration isn’t really the term we use for a group of Europeans slaughtering the indigenous population. In the Philippines, we call that an invasion, an act of war.) My parents were learned people. My dad was a university lecturer and my mum managed our family’s business, a private school. But when we moved here, they had to give up their careers for our future, for a life that is measurably, at least by all human standards, better than the life we left. My childhood wasn’t particularly bad—one might say that it was better than most, idyllic even. My parents were (and still are) affectionate towards each other and towards us.
We weren’t the Asian stereotype. My parents didn’t force us to go into medicine, or engineering, or law. In fact, my Arts degree in English Literature and French Studies are proof that they didn’t. I didn’t grow up particularly wanting. But my parents felt that a degree from a top university here in Australia is better than a degree from the best university in the Philippines. They were right of course. I graduated from a Group of Eight university, the University of Western Australia, and it makes me more globally competitive—especially because I have a degree in Commerce and Arts—than if I were to graduate from the University of the Philippines (a considerably harder university to be accepted in).
My parents, wide-eyed and hopeful, packed our idyllic lives, uprooted our planted feet, and moved more than 4,000 kms south of the Philippines, here, to Australia.
Before our move here, I have never really been subjected to discrimination or systematic marginalisation. I grew up quite privileged. We weren’t rich but we weren’t poor. In French culture, we would have been called the bourgeoisie—not nobility, not quite gentry—the middle class. My skin is lighter than most Filipinos (you can thank Spanish Colonisation of the Philippines for 300+ years for that). And in a colonised country, skin colour says a lot. Lighter skin was seen as clean, higher class, better than the olive and brown skin tones of my Filipino ancestors. My skin is called mestizo, something skin whitening soaps and treatments tell my darker-skinned brothers and sisters they should aspire to. My life has been relatively easy and I haven’t truly experienced injustice.
Our life here in Australia is a different story. Although this country that I’ve come to call my own loves to claim its multiculturalness, it is still a predominantly white country. This means that systems (of government, of society, of community) set-up to favour whiteness are still perpetuated. I have experienced blatant racism and its more subtle brother, microaggression. I have been told to “go back to my own country” as well as praised because my “English is so good, like really good”. And so in our first couple of years in Australia, I often chose to pass as American (you can thank American occupation of the Philippines for more than 50 years for my accent) rather than claim my Filipino heritage. I was afraid that I’d be seen as an Asian stereotype, from ones that range from funny (like how Asians can’t drink milk because we’re all lactose intolerant) to those that are harmful (like the model minority myth). I have been followed around high-end shopping centres (which due to my fear of being sued, I shall refer to as Daniel James). I have been told by one of my professors at University that the “Orient has a certain allure”—referring to the British occupation of India. I have been praised because I pulled my “bootstraps up and came to Australia”. When people realise that I have mastery over the English language their first question, more often than not, is “where are you frooooom?” As if my skin colour disqualifies me from being Australian.
In Filipino circles, I am often “not Pinoy enough”. In Australian circles, I am often “not Aussie enough”. This is the duality of diaspora. You are often still connected to your mother culture while also being privy to the culture which adopted you. You live in constant dichotomy. Your life as an immigrant will always be that of duality.
Sometimes, this duality is advantageous: I am fluent in both English and Filipino. And sometimes, it can be quite harmful: My right to be in this country is often questioned either through blatant racism or through microaggressive comments. But living in this dichotomy, in this duality, in this diasporic experience, I am able to unlearn harmful mentalities and ideologies that colonisers have forced upon the throats of my ancestors. This duality has opened my eyes to internalised colonial mentality and internalised racism.
This is why intersectionality is so important to me. Intersectionality sees me not as someone that should fit in one category but as someone who has intersecting and multiple identities. I am both Australian and Filipino, at the same time, all the time. It understands that I can be both at the same time.
The Immigrant Identity can sometimes be hard. It can be confronting, especially when your right to occupy space is constantly questioned. Sometimes, it can be annoying (like a low buzzing sound), and other times it can be hurtful (like a slap in the face or a stab in the gut). But I would never want to erase my Filipino and immigrant identities, as easy an out as it may seem. Immigrants are hard-workers, we are driven, and we are unstoppable. And to quote Hamilton, “Immigrants. We get the job done.”