I used to hate being Filipino until…

Food has always been a big part of my life. My earliest childhood memory was choking on fishbones. Perhaps I was curious. Perhaps I was greedy. I learnt later in life that it was abit of both.

Growing up in Singapore as a Filipino, I was in a constant identity crisis. While my parents are Filipino, I could never really identify with being one. Why? I am not going to lie. I was embarrassed to be labelled as one. The biggest export of the Philippines are its people, many of whom are women who migrate to neighbouring countries to become live-in helpers or maids. These women have days off on Sundays typically, and would picnic in Orchard Road while the air conditioned malls around them glowed with Louis Vuitton or Prada. Going to Orchard Road was at least a monthly ritual for my parents, typically to go to Lucky Plaza to send money back to relatives and at the same time eat at a Filipino restaurant. It was in Lucky Plaza that my parents felt like they were with kababayans (fellow countrymen) as we gnawed on crispy pata (deep fried pork knuckles), slurped kare kare (oxtail stewed in peanut sauce) with at least two helpings or rice. And yet, I walked with my head held low as I would hear murmurs of people commenting about how Filipinos were a disgrace to the “high class” streets of Orchard, eating rice on picnic mats while singing and dancing. 

Amongst many socio-economic issues faced by my parents and the peer pressures of striving to be successful (aka rich), being called “Maria” or “maid” as a “joke” in school infuriated my resentment towards being a Filipino. I vowed never to be like a Filipino, or show any Filipino traits. That is perhaps why I only had 1 Filipino friend in school (you know who you are). I rebelled against my parents’ ideologies; the only time I felt at peace was when I was watching Anthony Bourdain on the travel and living channel. And so, following the advice from a man I met via television, I left Singapore to run away from the box I was living in. 

Going to the UK, I was ill prepared to be a student. I had taken 2 gap years, working as an assistant at a healthcare company, so that I could pay for half of my tuition fees. I wasn’t ready for school but I knew I was savvy. A cringy letter led to a small university scholarship. And with a stroke of luck, the GBP was suffering against the SGD as I made my way to England in 2010. As the bus from Manchester drove through the Peak District on the way to Sheffield, I felt a sense of freedom similar to the sheep grazing in open pasture. I was ready to experience all that England was known for. It went by in a flash: party, party, party, almost failed first year, did not learn the lesson i.e. party some more. However, I did meet people from around the world, many of whom are still good friends today and one whom we lost to brain cancer. It was through those interactions, with food as the medium, that I got to know more than my friends’ cultures. I got to know their personal stories and what mattered to them. One night, we decided to have an international dinner. We would cook something from our country. I was suddenly homesick and thought immensely about my mother’s roast chicken, mainly because it was a dish we ate when we were celebrating something. She would bathe it in soya sauce and stuff it with lemongrass. My 3 sisters and I would always fight for the chicken wings. It was comforting. It was home. It took me a while to realise this following graduation but the roast chicken partnered me through every ebb and flow, as I weathered through the highs and lows of living in London as a graduate, paycheck to paycheck, a gloomy spring to summer. My mother, through her roast chicken, and me cooking it, was holding my hand. 

In full circle, I went back to Singapore. Family drama coupled with the prospect of working in one of those tall buildings in the financial district brought me back. Some part of me had changed, however. I had no longer aimed to achieve the famed Singapore 5Cs (Car, Credit Card, Cash, Condominium, Country Club Membership) to feed my ego or to prove to “them” that I could make it. With a newfound confidence and appreciation for what was important, I really just wanted to make money to travel and eat. And so I did. 

Amongst many experiences which I have a great deal of stories to laugh and cry about, my work as a consultant, ironically, brought me to travel to the Philippines often. Trust companies to throw a Filipino who didn’t grow up in the Philippines to a Philippines based project just because she is Filipino. But, as an adaptable consultant, you learn as you go. And so I did. Some of my best and worst projects happened in the Philippines. The best: Finding strategies to help call centre agents improve their diet and habits. Piloting a telehealth service aimed at supporting women through their pregnancy. The worst: Ending up in the hospital I was supposed to assess (my foot was infected following a hike). TLDR: The hospital sucked, first hand experience. Their business model was to take the ignorance of the patient and admit you for as long as possible. 

Through my travels to the Philippines, I started to experience the joys of being Filipino. Singing karaoke as a form of release, celebrating Christmas starting September because for better or worse we love Christmas, eating with my hands and eating like we mean it. When I finally brought my now husband, Paul, to my grandfather’s province, I knew he was for life when he ate more grasshoppers and dancing shrimp (live shrimp from the pond, eaten as they are literally jumping out of the bowl) than me. 

The biggest perk of working in consulting was getting to know my clients, colleagues and the locals outside of work. With food no less. The local food. My best times after work in a different country was drinking a beer while eating street food that I had no clue about. Or letting the magic of sitting somewhere local take you places. I attribute my success as a consultant to my curiosities around people and food. Because food was always the medium to break any form of boundaries between us. 

Despite the joys I experienced through my travels, I, like many, eventually got burnt out from working as a consultant. I had grown weary of the many flights to different countries, a different bed and the long hours. So in 2020, I pursued a sabbatical unbeknownst to the fact that the Coronavirus was to hit hard following my 1 month of travels in Sri Lanka. So my plans to travel to France to learn some French food from friends’ grandparents was cancelled, as with many around the world. I stayed home, reflected a tonne and decided to pursue a brand new direction; culinary school in New York. Fast forward to 2021, Paul and I made the move to the Lower East Side…to an apartment that was steps away from a Filipino cafe, Kabisera. It wasn’t my intention to move next to a Filipino cafe (we were very much drawn by LES and our apartment) but my Filipino parents were probably praying hard that I would be surrounded by my kind. So that they don’t need to worry about me in the way Asian parents do. It’s funny how things work sometimes in this world. Through Kabisera’s community parties and kitchen, I am able to embrace my Filipino-ness more and more.

What does being Filipino to me actually mean? To me, it is about community. From the Filipino women in Orchard road picnicking together on days off to decompress, to celebrating Christmas as early as September because we don’t want it to end and to my mother’s roasted chicken that my sisters and I lovingly fight about. Looking back, I’ve always had it in me. Community has always been at the core of why I cook. And that is how I’ve come to embrace my Filipino identity.

One may argue that food is just food, that you either eat to live or eat to live. I have a third argument, and that is: we eat to discover. Why? We all need to eat. And therefore, it is the easiest excuse one can make to burst your personal bubble, to walk in someone else’s shoes or even, to heal. Invite yourself to someone’s home and allow them to serve you what they want to cook. Go to a market where the produce makes you uncomfortable and speak to strangers about what they buy there. Walk into a restaurant or bar that is filled with the type of people or vibe you don’t usually hang out with. 

Through every food or meal, there is a story waiting to be told. And with that story, you and I can bridge that gap. 

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