A Tale of Two Tabos: What Assimilation Looks Like As a 2nd Generation Filipino-American

BY: Ethan Alonzo

Growing up with immigrant parents can be one of the most interesting yet odd experiences. From my own life, my parents would weave in Tagalog with their English anytime there wasn’t an English word that translated well. The perfect, yet somewhat strange example, is the tabo. I’ve never had so much difficulty explaining something from the Philippines more than the tabo.

When I was explaining common cultural symbols that represent the Philippines to my roommate, such as a Jeepney or how a Magic Mic in the Philippines has nothing to do with Channing Tatum. Things were going smoothly until we reached the tabo. After explaining its use, describing what it looked like, and even watched videos on how to use it, we settled on a “manual bidet.” This wasn’t the first time I’ve had to explain something specific to my culture and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Looking back at other times where my Filipino heritage was the topic of discussion, I’m thankful that instead of constant jokes about my race, the conversation has shifted to curiosity over animosity. If it was like this growing up, many other Asian Americans would have been proud and not shy away from their heritage.

As a 2nd generation Filipino-American, our experiences of assimilating to our American culture and while keeping your parents’ culture alive is quite a big plate to take on during our adolescence. However, as generations change, the challenges we face shift too.  

I’m no expert on generational assimilation by any means, however, what made it easier for me was breaking it down into three main groups. The first group of Filipino American assimilation was what became known as the Manong Generation. They were the ones who immigrated to the States and established roots. After them was my generation, those who were born here and had to learn how to balance our own culture with the culture we were thrust into. The last group is the Asian Americans who are thriving in this day and age, where it’s finally “okay” to be Asian. 

The Manong Generation became known as the group of Filipinos who immigrated here after the Philippines became a U.S. territory. In a foreign land, the Manong Generation faced constant racial challenges. Filipino men were demasculinized and Filipina women were fetishized for being “exotic” and fantasy fulfillers. For them, fitting into a culture that wasn’t an option yet, because they first had to understand how to live in the unforgiving United States.   

The next group, my generation, were the ones who were born here. The ones who had to learn what it meant to both belong, and by extension to not belong. Unless you were raised in a predominately Asian community, things were rough. Speaking from experience, assimilating felt impossible. At times, I would feel out of place when mentioning a bit of my culture, whereas other times, I wasn’t Asian enough. Almost every famous Asian American actor, musician, or comedian has a story about growing up Asian American. Whether it is Jo Koy and his Tupperware lunchbox, Margaret Cho and her mother’s accent. The Asian Americans of our generation had a golden ratio to find when fitting in.  

In fact, it wasn’t until high school and college where I was aware of just how “Un-Asian” I was. For the longest time, I tried my best to hide my culture only to be shamed for not embracing it enough. Not knowing how those Asian jokes I was the subject of in the past weren’t jokes I was supposed to laugh with my peers, they were jokes where I was being laughed at. By leaving my culture behind to assimilate, I, like many others, almost lost that culture the Manong Generation before us fought so hard to protect. 

Thankfully, in recent years, being Asian American has become something to be proud of. The last group of Asian Americans are making waves with cultural change. From an Asian face in Hollywood being more common to political movements. This generation of Asian Americans are changing the way assimilation is done. Instead of trying to fit in the little cracks left for us, they are making their presence known and creating a space for the next generation to come. Movements like #TheyCantBurnUsAll headed by rapper China Mac and actor Will Lex Ham forgo the passive Asian stereotypes and face racial violence head-on through protests.    

From humble beginnings of Asian immigrants trying to start a new life by assimilation to Asian Americans choosing not to assimilate and instead trailblaze a new path, it has almost come full circle. America is just as unforgiving to Asian Americans, if not more due to Covid-19 related xenophobia. Hearing about a hate crime toward an Asian American on Twitter is becoming more common than it should. Like the foreign land, early Asian immigrants faced, today’s new generation faces a similar yet daunting landscape. However, if history can repeat itself, then the generations of future Asian Americans forced to assimilate will come out stronger. 

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PINAYSPHERE is a youth arts program founded by Jennifer Benitez that provides not only mentorship and networking opportunities but dialogues on culture and self care for rising FIlipina artists. This group is a safe space that caters not only to Pinay artists, but also gender non-conforming members of the creative community. It is open to youth from the ages of 12-24 years old who are actively pursuing careers in an artistic field, or who value artistic contributions.