Custodians of Culture
Growing up, I was always grateful for my cultural experience. From being raised on rice to instinctively perking up whenever an adult says anak, I had always loved being in an environment that starkly differed from the broader environment that existed outside of the house. It was like my own little bubble with rules and customs that none of my friends were privy to.
But that gratefulness is often followed by guilt, as the realisation dawns that the culture will likely die with me. My Western upbringing, coupled with the fact that I can’t speak my mother’s language – Tagalog – means it’s very unlikely any hypothetical children of my own will enjoy the same cultural experience, outside of maybe eating the food if I ever get around to learning to cook.
I guess it should come as no surprise. Growing up in the West has naturally bred different ideals and values in me than my parents – a generation gap coupled with a cultural rift are potent barriers, believe me. Plus, not knowing the language has locked me out of a majority of my cultural literacy.
My father’s side of my cultural makeup isn’t much better. My predominantly East Asian appearance and my father’s distance to the rest of our family meant my exposure to the Sri Lankan part of my heritage is virtually non-existent. If I looked a tinge more Anglo-Saxon, I doubt anyone would be the wiser.
We always applaud progress, but I can’t help that feel like my particular progress is a disservice to those who came before me. As the world becomes increasingly global (read: Euro-centric), different cultures are starting to fade in the background, and even disappear into the melting pot. As a child of cultural diversity, I feel it falls to me to help keep this diversity alive, and in that regard, I feel like a failure.
This guilt also comes from the role that myself and many second-generation children play. We’re the go-between of our two worlds, connecting our parents to the broader community, and our local friends to cultural diversity. I’ve spent my life acting as something of an ambassador for everyone in my race, be it by being the only Asian in the room, or writing a copious amount of words on my cultural experience now. Yet with all the hot air I’m blowing, I can’t be a middleman in the way that most honours my parents and cultural background: keeping the culture as I know it alive.
My inability to carry on my parents’ culture exacerbates the many identity crises that keep me up at night. I’ve never quite shaken this feeling of disconnect I have with my parent’s cultures. It’s like I’m Asian by association, but not by practice.
You hear the term “whitewashed” thrown around among Asian Australian friends and laugh, but I can’t help but feel put down whenever I’m branded as such. I don’t want the identity I fight tooth and nail to defend from microaggressions and larger systemic issues to be washed out of me, nor do I want it washed away from the world. But I feel like my existence is taking my culture one step closer to obsolescence.
And don’t even get me started on the Australian aspect of my identity. My appearance immediately prescribes me as “Asian,” even though I’d feel more at home hosting an Australia Day lunch over attending and celebrating a Sinulog. I’m othered, but I don’t even know what that my “otherness” truly is.
So do I have a duty to keep my culture alive? Or is it just expected that I fade into the Euro-centric conglomeration that is the Western world?
For one, it seems much too onerous to berate myself for being raised and socialised a certain way. I just responded to my environment, and here we are. It was no one person’s fault, nor should it be. Believe it or not, my existence in itself isn’t cause for concern.
Culture is a constantly evolving phenomenon, so maybe my existence is just another evolution, rather than an attack. And it’s not like I want to emulate everything my parents ingrained into me – values and ideals grow stale with time and progress, so even if I could speak the language and cook the food I still wouldn’t replicate the exact same Filipino experience I was given. I’m consoled in the fact that there’s no one Filipino culture, and any children I may have will get my own special recipe, shortcomings and all. I’m trying to conceptualise my cultural identity as a snowball of experiences, rather than an incomplete puzzle.
Navigating a mixed-race identity is a murky, lifelong journey that has no right answers. Ultimately, I think the best I can do is carry on the aspects I can, and not beat myself up for the things I leave behind.