**For more information on the prompt that inspired this post please visit here**
I remember being chased around the schoolyard in second grade by two third-graders chanting “Chinese, Japanese!” Well, I wasn’t really being chased. I was just going about my business, and they were awkwardly following me around. I remember being more upset by the sneers on their faces than by what they were saying. I knew I wasn’t Chinese or Japanese, and I knew that it wouldn’t have been a bad thing if I were. And I was happy to be half-Filipino, the only half-Asian at my Orthodox Jewish school. I knew that it didn’t detract from my Jewishness, and even back then, when I probably didn’t know the word “diversity” yet, I still liked the idea that people learned something about the world just by meeting me.
From those moments until I returned from Israel a year after I graduated high school, I never stopped being the “Asian kid.” I was still an accepted member of the Jewish community wherever I went, but my connection to the world’s most populous Catholic country, a country of brown people, was widely known and acknowledged. I became the authority on all things Asian even before I decided to start learning about Asia. I was the guardian of Asian truths, pointing out when someone’s impersonation of Korean was sounded more like Chinese, explaining which countries used chopsticks and which didn’t, correcting my peers’ casual uses of Asian slurs, at least to make sure they were directed at the correct ethnic groups.
As Jewish as I was, I was still the most Filipino person around, and that’s how I came to be identified and valued.
The first time I visited the Philippines, as I walked through a shopping center in San Pablo City, my sister and I walked by a group of transgender women lounging on some couches in the mall. As we passed them, they began to touch my sister’s hair and smack my butt, exclaiming in thick Filipino accents, “So butipul.” My grandmother, who was walking with us, said that the women were envious of our light skin. It was one of the first times I ever felt white.
Throughout my stay in the Philippines, relatives as well as strangers would comment on my appearance, calling me “pogi,” meaning handsome, each time reminding me that to them, I was white. Among my Filipino family and friends, I have become the authority on all things white and Jewish. I am expected to know about American politics and pop culture as well as Jewish law and tradition. They all accept me as a member of their family and community, but I am also the perpetual white guy in the group, the embodiment of America, the definition of wealth and success in the eyes of millions of Filipinos.
Being immersed in strong, tight-knit ethnic communities but being bound to histories outside of those communities has positioned me in the margins of all of them. No matter what group I’m in, no matter how committed or involved I am, there is always a bungee cord of kinship pulling me elsewhere, always a stream of knowledge pouring into my brain from the outside, reminding me that there is another way to look at things. This cord pulls me into that small area when Venn diagrams overlap, the area that people in the other parts of the circles sometimes confuse for being on the outside. But I’m not outside, and I have the cultural capital within each community to prove it. I generally have no need to deploy this proof. I save it for instances when one community of another needs to hear from one of their own that there is more out there than just the Jewish way or the Filipino way of looking at things.
I live for moments when I get to use my marginality for the benefit of either of my main communities. They remind me that I have the blessing of being way more than just one thing, that I can be all of these things at the same time, and that doing so is a signal to the rest of the community that they exist within a larger community of people with different-sounding last name, differently hued skin, and different ways of solving the world’s problems.
Post submitted by Jacob.