I'm Ashamed Because I Don't Know What It Means To Be Filipino

I never gave myself the opportunity to learn what it means.

Last month, a European hairdresser in Toronto greeted me with a jaunty "Kamusta ka," a Filipino saying that translates to, "How are you?"

With a wide smile on his face and an air of arrogance, he mispronounced the greeting — making it sound like an insult spewed by a cast member from "The Sopranos."

I quickly retorted, "I don't speak that language," even though I knew exactly what he was saying.

I don't speak Tagalog fluently, but I was surrounded by it as a kid. I also watched a shit-ton of Filipino dramas and sang plenty of Tagalog karaoke, so I know how to respond when someone asks me how I am.

You probably think that I'm an entitled asshole for not engaging in the conversation, but I promise you that I'm not.

What I am is ashamed. But it's not a type of shame that can be easily defined in a dictionary. It's a feeling that can be read in different ways, a social construct that both first- and second-generation Filipino-Canadians can relate to.

The reason this knee-jerk reaction occurred isn't really the point at all, but the consequence is. I realize that I continue to deny myself the opportunity to understand who I am, where I come from and where I want to go.

I don't know what it really means to be Filipino, because I'm too caught up with your idea of who Filipinos are.

I may feel ashamed, but it's not because I'm Filipino. I'm ashamed because I don't know who I am and never gave myself the opportunity to learn.


"Hiya." If you put this Tagalog word into Google Translate, it will tell you that the English equivalent is "shame," but experts say this translation doesn't capture the complexities of the word.

In the Philippines, it's typically bad when someone says "nakakahiya." This person is likely calling you out, saying that you're acting in a way that's embarrassing. The inverse of that word would be "hiya," a social construct that dictates the way we ought to act in order to avoid shame — an overarching social trait that Filipinos live by.

"Hiya" is at play when a Filipino host asks if you would like the last chicken breast, Ethel Tungohan, an assistant professor in the department of politics and social science at Toronto's York University explains.

Russell as a youth.
Russell as a youth.

Knowing that it's your favourite cut of meat, she would offer it to you, even though it's also her favourite. She wants to maintain her reputation of being a gracious host, because it would be shameful if she had taken the piece for herself — if she had put her needs before others.

While "hiya" can be seen as a virtue, it can also be a vice.

"It might prevent someone from being assertive in what they want," Tungohan says. In an attempt not to inconvenience someone, the person exhibiting traits of hiya would prefer to place himself at a disadvantage — to be without that piece of chicken.

Robert Diaz, a Filipino professor of women and gender studies at the University of Toronto, agrees that "hiya" has multiple meanings.

"Hiya is not only shyness or shame... it's a particular type of saving face," he says.

I denied my heritage saved myself from the embarrassment of being called Filipino, and all that that inferred

With this understanding, my salon scenario is an example of "hiya" at play. To save face, I denied my heritage — saved myself from the embarrassment of being called Filipino, and all that that inferred.


Early versions of me denied my Filipino roots altogether. I used to tell my classmates that I was Spanish, because my great-grandparents were. I also said that because my mom lived in other countries growing up, I, in turn, "wasn't really Filipino."

Because being Filipino in Canada was a bad thing. My nose was too flat and wide, the colour of my skin too dark and the career possibilities afforded to me, too limiting.

It's another type of shame (in the Western construction of the word) that Nicole Cajucom also felt as a kid. Having been born and raised in a predominantly European-Toronto neighbourhood, she too was embarrassed of her Filipino culture.

Her shame resulted in an "intentional disassociation," she calls it — a response she credits to the predominantly white community she grew up in, the few opportunities she had to explore her culture, as well as the deep-rooted after-effects of colonization.

"My experience is a very common experience, and has a lot to do with the colonial mentality that (many) of our parents and grandparents carry," Cajucom, who is a director at Filipino arts group Kapisanan, says. It's a mentality that, in part, favours a white identity.

That shame is really heavy and impacts you in ways you don't really notice.

The Philippines was a colony of Spain until 1898, at which point the nation was sold to the United States for $20 million. These waves of occupation strongly influenced the Asian nation. We can see that come to life in the food we eat, the religion we follow and our thoughts on colourism, class, politics and language, Diaz says.

More than 86 per cent of the population in the Philippines is Roman Catholic, a belief system brought to the nation by the Spanish. Arroz caldo, adobo and leche flan are popular Filipino dishes that have been adapted from Spanish cuisine.

The Spanish and American influences also come to life in Filipino media, Diaz explains.

A quick search of Filipino film and television reveals whiter-than-average celebs, and the celebration of Filipinos who were born and raised in the West and return home to find fame — people called "Balikbayans."

These are constant reminders that who you are and where you come from is not enough.

"That shame is really heavy and impacts you in ways you don't really notice," Cajucom says of her experience.

But I may have noticed it for the first time that day in the salon.

Maybe colonialism is to blame for the shame I felt when someone called me "Filipino" — an insult that revealed my class and a subsequent reaction that asserted my worth.

Maybe saying I didn't understand him was my way of reminding the hairdresser that my family was able to leave the Philippines for a life in the West. That I was better than his idea of me and better than the Filipinos he likely compared me to. I certainly am not a live-in caregiver, nurse or nanny.


I could say that the phenomenon of saving face was at play that day in the salon. I could call it colonialism and blame it on the internalized shame generations of Filipinos feel. I could even peg it to the fact that I hadn't seen myself reflected in media and in the textbooks I read in school. I could find the right combination of all three justifications and say it was these external forces that forced me to deny being Filipino.

But that would be a far too simplistic self-portrait, an incorrect rendering of Filipino people, and a blame game in which no one really wins.

You ask me how I am, stranger at the hairdresser. The truth is that I really don't know.