“You ain’t nothing but a dirty flip”, Derek* spat at me. Taken alone, it’s not so bad, like the word “Jew”, but when weaponized and spat out, it becomes a stabbing accusation. All racial slurs do. Chink. Gook. Spic. Nigger. These are all things I’ve been called at one time or another.

I was 12 and didn’t know how to take it. I was preoccupied with Piers Anthony books and wondering how Urkel was going to get himself out of the latest catastrophe of his own creation. My social circle had just changed from the elementary school friends I started junior high with to proto weirdos, druggies, geeks. These kids would go on to become gangbangers, punks, surfers, hip hoppers, goths, ravers, hackers, or most tepidly, alternative kids, but those identities were still being tried on and taken for a spin.

Hawaii is messed up racially. All the typical lame jokes about WASPy white people are told about the Japanese, and the same old punchlines are substituted thusly. Hawaiians/Samoans were stand-ins for Black folk, Filipinos for Mexicans, Portuguese for Polish, Chinese for Jews. The culture of Hawaii is best summed up as a culture of substitutions and making do. The Pidgin language evolved as a polyglot utility language, like the languages of the Silk Road.

And now, the glib clipping of Filipino to “flip” pissed me off. It dismissed me as a whole, even though it was only half my heritage, half my personal mythology. In our home, Filipino identity was often whitewashed. We’d occasionally eat some Filipino food, but we were an English-only household. My father explained my grandfather had suffered discrimination for being an immigrant, and so gave my dad and his siblings American-sounding names and spoke only English, my grandparents speaking Tagalog or even Spanish when they wanted to speak without the kids (and later, me) understanding.

Filipino was so foreign to me. It meant a large mason jar of tiny dried fish on my grandmother’s table, a salty treat with wide-open eyes. It meant talking like an underwater Spaniard. It meant you ate dog and ate with your hands and were Catholics. It meant your rice smelled weird.  It meant you couldn’t pronounce “Filipino”, because the label was forced on your ancestors 400 years ago, and pre-Spaniard languages in the PI didn’t typically have the “F” sound.  It meant “why don’t you learn to talk English real good?” It meant you were a few generations removed from being cannibals who killed Magellan with spears and rocks and ate him, it meant walking in the sun with an umbrella in one hand and a chicken under your arm, it meant your cousins wore loincloths, it meant you were laminated with plies of othering.

I went to a tailor to have a suit altered. The women in the back were speaking Tagalog, speed-chatting like the ruffest raggamuffin deejay. After my fitting, and being given my ticket, I said “Salamat, Ate.” She replied “Salamat apo. Pilipino ka?”  “A little, mestizo, my father.”  “Oh darling, why didn’t you say so? Where is your pamily prom?” “Pangasinan and Cebu.” “Maria. Really?”

It was a nice exchange. It was different from the incident with Derek*, as I chose to embrace and be defines by my Filipino ancestry. It was empowering, and opened a door to connecting with someone rather than closing it.

I’m still figuring all this out, but I’m comfortable in my own skin.

*Name changed. I just don’t want to deal with the conflict-he’s still an asshole.



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