The predicament of Filipino Americans, children either born in the United States or immigrated at a very young age, is usually not a lack of knowing the culture but having an aversion to it. Because our parents and rather large families are determined to remain attune to traditions from the homeland, in a desperate effort to fit in, we trade and ignore our Filipino identity for an American one. This leads to the loss of the language from a refusal to use it and persisting embarrassment in all things relating back to Filipino culture.
The novel, Letters to Montgomery Clift by Noel Alumit, mirrors the life of the author. Bong Bong was born in the Philippines and immigrated to the States. Similarly, Alumit was born in Baguio City and grew up in Historic Filipinotown in Los Angeles, California. While Alumit often returns to his Filipino culture and the country’s history for his work, he presents to us an alternate perspective with Bong Bong, or later known as “Bob.” He acts as our audience surrogate reporting on this cultural aversion to the reader. As the novel unfolds, it progresses as a coming-of-age story with Bong Bong as our unwilling protagonist in which he is forced to flee the Philippines during the Marcos Regime. His father was a rogue journalist writing against the Marcoses, and his mother sends him to her sister in San Diego, California to ensure his safety. He creates a fictitious version, much like an imaginary friend, of his beloved movie idol, Montgomery Clift and writes letters to him as a means of coping with the traumas of his life.
Early in his childhood, we are introduced to a fellow student and bully, “Big Head Milton.” Though he and Bong Bong share more in common than differences, Bong Bong’s inability to speak English eloquently is the cause for his bullying. A reader’s first assumption may be that this student is white, but it is later revealed that he is actually Filipino as well. In a desperate attempt to solidify his status within his Caucasian group of friends, Milton bullies Bong Bong, establishing him as the “other.”
Bong Bong reacts to this event by wishing he was “American.” He studies English furiously and educates himself on “American” pastimes, such as baseball. His name is eventually changed from Bong Bong to Bob per his foster mother with her reassuring him, “Yes, Bob. It sounds like your old name, but more appropriate for your life in the States.”
Bong Bong makes all the changes he believes is appropriate to Americanize himself. He often refers to his desire to fit in wherever he is. He states poignantly, “I wanted people...to know I belonged.”
Bong Bong experiences what most Filipino American children face growing up in America: backlash from peers for not being “American” enough and scolding from parents and family for not being “Filipino” enough. Despite renouncing his culture, he finds himself back in the Philippines searching for his answers in the land of his origin. I resonated with Bong Bong’s sentiments reflecting on my own childhood. I rejected my mother’s teachings and refused to learn the language to the point of fluency. I regret these decisions in my young adulthood, wishing to “fly away...back to the beginning,” like Bong Bong. Even as my awareness of my culture grows, I still feel confused on what my identity is; however, with time and education, we can change our perceptions. It is possible to be both Filipino and American. If we can overlook the shame instilled in us of our culture, we can truly take the time to find and create our own definitions of what it means to be Filipino Americans.
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Keana A. Labra - Milpitas, CA
Utilizing her background in English Literature, Keana would like to learn more about Filipino literature and history to bring an understanding and awareness to the culture. As a Filipino American, she is interested in further researching the impact of the feminist movement and how it affects Filipino tradition. She would also like to uplift the Filipino Americans who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community. She hopes to encourage fellow Filipino Americans to participate and immerse themselves in the Filipino culture. Her hobbies include watching anime and reading manga.