The Ever Fleeting Feeling of Being Filipino

For Filipino people, pursuing a nursing career is as natural as breathing. To put things in perspective, my mom, my several Titas, and the several family friends I call my Titas for convenience, are all nurses. Meanwhile, a couple of my cousins and I plan to be joining the nursing world, too. If you ask any Filipino person if they have a nurse in their family, I can 100% guarantee you they’ll say yes. As you can gather, nursing is practically a tradition in Filipino culture. 

There are many other established practices amongst Filipino people, but, truth be told, I don’t know a lot of them. Despite growing up surrounded by it, Filipino culture and the Filipino experience have always felt out of reach to me. My fingers just barely graze the threshold of feeling truly immersed in my culture, but their reach isn’t enough to cross the barrier that hinders me from assimilating into it. Even though I am Filipino, I seldom ever feel so. 

I can understand just enough Tagalog, a Filipino dialect, to grab the gist of a conversation, but the words form an emulsion of intelligible noises when the composition of the colloquy starts to progress past basic syntax. Jokes sown by my more well-versed cousins often reap no sounds of genuine laughter from me. Their charming quips consist of intricate jests in Tagalog, topped with just enough unknown nuance that is far too late to learn for me. The kind of quiet that fills you when you’re the only one not in on the joke is suffocating, the feeling of estrangement from your culture more evocative than ever. The silence echoes across the room, resonating even louder than the voices.

I’ve never been able to advance past offering paltry politenesses in Tagalog with no real conversational substance, either. I’ve listened enviously to my cousins who, despite us being the same age, can navigate through conversations with a hereditary naturality that seemed to be unattainable to me. My voice always comes out in unsure and awkward spouts. The words never run smoothly off my tongue, as if they aren’t mine to utter. I emulate the persona of an actor who just can’t deliver their lines, even though mine were gifted to me at birth.

My knowledge of Filipino pop culture is basically non-existent. Almost every movie star or musical artist referenced by my family goes over my head, and I always just hope they’re complimenting me when they compare me to some celebrity from back home. I think I can count the amount of classic Filipino movies I have seen on one hand and I always nod my head to the beat to mask the fact that I’ve never once heard the song my family is butchering on the karaoke machine. Though these affairs seem simple, the weight it holds in my soul is anything but. Not knowing what composes the identity that encapsulates you so wholly, fills you with a harsh sense of disconnect, reminding you of just how detached you are from your culture. 

Despite being so familiar to me, being Filipino has always had an underlying sense of foreignness that has made me feel so far away from a world so close. Filipino culture should be mine to experience, mine to hold in my heart, mine to fully engulf me as a person, but it isn’t. It sits amongst the stars, taking form in a coruscant light with an inimitable glamour, a force far too extraordinary to occupy an entity as meager as Earth. Although I yearn to be amongst those celestial bodies as well, I find myself amongst the meadows that sit below the sky, gazing longingly at fluorescence that embroiders the twilight. The glades of the ground limit me to the constraints of the Earth, where I’m sentenced to forever only admire the artwork in the sky that I’m supposed to be a part of. 

However, I feel that pursuing a career in nursing would guarantee my place amongst those same stars. Even if I’ll forever trip over my tongue and skittishly ask my mom to translate every word that my family says to me. Even if I’ll always have to look around the room tentatively before I join in with an inauthentic laugh to every joke my dad makes. Even if I’ll always be on the outside looking in, with a career in nursing, I’ll still have a little spark that will allow me to be amongst the stars I’ve dreamed so much to be a part of. 

I do genuinely like the idea of being a nurse, really I do. The fact that I’d be able to have a job where I’d be lucky enough to spend my days helping others is more than gratifying. I would make a difference in someone’s life by simply living mine, and if that doesn’t evoke contentment within you, I don’t know what will. 

Seeing all the nurses in my life work so diligently in the midst of such chaos during quarantine invoked even more inspiration within me to pursue the career. However, what really solidified my choice was when the doors to the world were opening again, and we had our first family party after almost a year of no contact. The divide between my family and I was supposed to be closed, yet I felt nothing but forlornness when I stood alone from the rest of the room, silent amongst the buzz of noise from a culture I wasn’t really part of. Though COVID-19 had started to fade away, the feeling of isolation from being Filipino was still as present as ever.  

As much as I do want to be a nurse for all the right reasons, the more selfish and solipsistic part of myself sees nursing as my final and fleeting chance to feel Filipino. It’s my last wish on a shooting star, and I can’t let this one slip past my fingers.