• Giannina Ong

Chopsticks Alley Pinoy: Letter from Giannina Ong, Co-editor

My Dear Kababayan and Chopsticks Alley Pinoy Readers,

As I am writing this as protesters and Black Lives Matter activists across the United States are in their second week of taking action against police brutality and working to dismantle systemic racism. It is safe to say that when I reached out to Trami Cron, Executive Director of Chopsticks Alley, about this position, the world (although already COVID-19 stricken) was a different place.

I should introduce myself first: My name is Giannina and I am a master’s student at the University of Toronto. I am currently wrapping up my thesis, which is centered on Asian women’s experience of postpartum care in North America. I was born to Chinese parents who immigrated to the United States from the Philippines. In the Chinese language, they identify themselves as “Chinese-by-way-of-the-Philippines. However, that descriptor makes it seem like they had a four-hour stopover at Ninoy Aquino International Airport and then hopped on a plane here.

The truth is my parents were both born and raised in Manila. They learned to speak Chinese, Spanish, and English in school but spoke everyday Tagalog. My mother’s father, one of ten siblings, dropped out of school to run barrels of oil to restaurants and businesses in the Philippines with his father. After my grandfather was kicked out of the family communal house, my mother recalls the number of times they spent the night at the massage parlor, my grandfather’s first solo business, and the table she would sleep on, because my grandparents had worked past curfew. My mother and father met in first grade while attending St. Jude Catholic School in Manila. They wove in and out of each other’s lives, marrying at the age of 23, and migrating to America soon after in the early 90s. In that way, the “islands” are a small place.

It should be noted that my mother grew up with a humvee, essentially a jacked-up metal Jeep with no doors or windows, to get her home from school during monsoon seasons. Less well off, my father, his parents, and three siblings squished into a Fiat-type car, which his family won at a mall lottery nonetheless. Both my parents describe their romps around Makati, the shops at Greenhills, and the beach city of Cebu, but their journeys rarely took them to the barangays of Tondo or into the streets late at night. I recognize their privilege.

Born in California, I too am privileged to be immersed in Filipino culture, but not a victim to Filipino governmentality. Yet growing up I was taught to deny our Filipino heritage. In my teenage years, it became increasingly clear to me that my family was more culturally Pinoy, than Chinese: We ate homemade adobo, sinigang, palabok, etc. and lived for Jollibee runs. The second language I picked up—simply from hearing it around the house—was Tagalog, despite the many Chinese classes I was forced to attend. It was and is still difficult to choose between either label: Chinese American or Filipino American.

I am torn because the place my parents call home is a place where they utilized their privilege as Chinese people to survive, separating themselves as an elite population. At the same time, the place my parents call home is the closest thing to a homeland that I have. Our family’s history, the stories shared, and our family still today are located in the Philippines. My mother recounts running in the streets as part of the EDSA revolution. She remembers the ash falling on the city after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo. Now as a mother myself, I wonder what my child will consider his racial/ethnic background to be.

Last year, I lost both my grandmother on my mother’s side and my grandfather on my father’s side. Having a newborn son in the same year, my heart tore at the notion that neither got to meet my child. Being separated by more than an ocean that is the plight at the heart of being an American immigrant family.

This reflection brings me back to the protests and a Tagalog notion I heard often while studying in Canada, kapwa. Kapwa has no direct translation into English, in that way it eludes colonial grasp. The best way to describe it is as a shared identity, a way of being with others, an inner self. I am still coming to terms with its definition as well, but know it gets to the heart of being Pin@y in America.

As co-editor, working with the Chopstick Alley Pinoy team, I seek to navigate these complex issues of identity with Filipinx in our community. From mundane food questions—Why do we eat our spaghetti sweet?—to urgent matters—such as the unfolding BlackLivesMatter protests today—I am here to develop a deeper sense of “being with others” and being with you.

I am honored to call you kababayan and, alongside Asela, be the face of Chopsticks Alley Pinoy. Tutuloy na ako; sa susunod!

Giannina Ong

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Giannina Ong - Bay Area, CA

Co-Editor Chopsticks Alley Pinoy

Giannina was born and raised in the Bay Area. A self-proclaimed social justice warrior, she is currently wrapping up her master's in women's and gender studies at University of Toronto, writing a thesis on Asian American mothers. As a Chinese Filipino American, she moves beyond the binaries that lock people into dichotomous thinking. She is a nerd: she loves reading, writing, and being in the classroom. She loves Filipino food, especially sinigang (sarap ng maasim!). She hopes to one day be a professor, sharing knowledge that empowers women and minority groups.

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