You don’t know that you truly don’t belong until someone points it out to you.
A few months ago, a Filipina woman was knocked down and beaten in midtown Manhattan in broad daylight. The attacker screamed at her, “You don’t belong here.”
After it happened, I talked about this with my friend of mine who is Black. We shook our heads at the travesty of it all. The attacker was Black. Why this hate between communities of color?
Then I asked: when did you know that you were different? That you didn’t belong?
For both of us, it was around middle school, around twelve-years-old or so. Talk about a coming-of-age! Not only is your body growing in awkward and unfamiliar ways and your voice sounds like some kind of farm animal-depending on the day-but you’re also told that your relative secure place in the world was a lie (as a kid, what did you really know about your world? You simply accepted things as they were and presumed that’s how it was for everybody else.).
Of course, growing up, I never felt like I belonged anywhere anyway. Especially at home. I wasn’t allowed to speak my parent’s native language (Tagalog). I wasn’t really allowed to express myself or assert my beingness. Because as a girl in an Asian family, I was supposed to be invisible. Unless I get called on to perform like a show pony. “Anak, play the Cats on the piano.” The only time I got attention was when I made trouble. Like picking on my poor little brother who’s three years younger than me.
In elementary school, I was usually the smallest one in the class. Thin and fragile looking. Always the one in the front row for chorus concerts (I hated being in front. I never got to stand on the risers.) Always picked last for teams during gym class. Always the first target in Dodgeball.
But at least I didn’t feel different because of my skin.
There was a large Filipino community in the Jersey town where I spent my childhood. And so there were a lot of Filipinos in my school. It wasn’t until I got to seventh grade, when we moved to a mostly white town, that I was shown difference.
I stood out like a sore thumb in a sea of white. I don’t think I had ever seen so many white people in a whole school, let alone one room. That’s when my subconscious kicked into protection mode and said: oh shit — we’d better do something about blending in here!
So I spent decades trying to fit in, trying to be white, with a few brief blips of me trying to be Filipino.
And what does that mean anyway? To “be Filipino”? Am I not already that simply by BEING? Why yes, of course, if you’re just talking about genetics. But there’s some kind of cultural requirement that, if met, you are officially “being Filipino”.
Which is what, exactly?
Well, over the years, I’ve found that it varies, depending on who you talk to, who you hang with, and where you’re located geographically. The cultural “requirements” have ranged from loving hip-hop to knowing at least 3 local Filipino DJs, from knowing how to speak Tagalog to knowing how to dance the tinikling, from wearing a mestiza dress to participating in a cotillion. Based on this short list, I’m probably only half-Filipino. Haha!
There have been times I’ve been called a banana: white on the inside, yellow on the outside. Or a coconut: white on the inside, brown on the outside. Same idea: white on the inside = not Filipino enough.
I was trying to survive in two worlds simultaneously: the outside white world and the inside/home/Filipino world. One foot in one world, one foot in the other. Belonging nowhere. Straddling the diaspora as the gap grows wider. Soon, I’ll just fall into the abyss.
I’ve learned how to make a home for myself no matter what space I occupy. But I’ll admit: it can get lonely.
What IS home anyway?
Is it a place where you can relax? A place where you can just BE yourself? Without pretense or façade? Where you can let your guard down? Probably.
But what about belonging? What if your home is just you and no one else?
We humans thrive on community; we are a communal species (which is why the psychological effects of the pandemic will continue to unfold in the years to come). What happens when we don’t have a community to call our own? A community to which we belong? What happens to our sense of identity, of who we are or what our purpose is on this planet?
Well, for one, it’s pretty damn lonely.
What I’ve found out about myself is that I create communities I need wherever I go. And relatedly, they show up in my life when I need them. What’s interesting to note, is that these communities come into my life in cycles. They pop up, I connect with folks, we have a good time, needs are fulfilled, and then the community fades out. They don’t stick around. At least in my life. (Which then raises the question: what is it about me that communities don’t stick around? Is it me outgrowing them? Or them outgrowing me? Is it possible to grow together? Is this a reflection of my “belonging” skills? Is that even a real thing? A “belonging skill”? I laugh at myself, half seriously asking the question, half absurd.)
The good news of today is that I’ve found a community of women of color business owners. And whew! What a beautiful and amazing thing to experience! The language we use when we talk with each other, the way we are direct with our communication-direct with a full dose of love-, the way we see each other and support each other in the things we are doing with and in our businesses-it’s all so magical! At least to me, this brown girl who spent the better part of her life trying to be white * and * Filipino in mostly white spaces. Of course, communities-like families-are not without some hitches and a little drama. But to be in the presence of grown-ass women who take responsibility for their own actions and words AND will take NO SHIT from NO ONE? It’s powerful and empowering. AND because I can be myself-no overthinking about how to word something, no restraint on my sass, no questioning if I’m brown enough-AND still be welcomed, heck even loved-because of that, I feel like I’m home and I belong.
This is part of the Maverick Monday series, where I talk about healing trauma (micro and macro) through the lens of a woman writer of color (that’s me!). Each week, I’ll share a personal story from my healing journey in the hopes that others will find comfort in knowing that they are not alone. I hope that by doing this, you can see that YES! healing-true, lasting, deep healing — — IS possible and that you can thrive in your life, living as your most authentic self without shrinking from the world. If you’re interested learning how to do that, check my offerings, from memberships to retreats to coaching, and find what’s right for you! https://suryagian.com/