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Finessing the art of being Filipino

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OCTOBER 27, 2016

The minute you walk into a party thrown by a Filipino family, you’ll see three things: a smorgasbord of food, a humongous pile of shoes in the foyer and a Magic Mic. The first Magic Mic I knew wasn’t Channing Tatum. For most people, the Magic Mic is an innocent, run-of-the-mill karaoke system. But at every family gathering, I always saw it as my enemy.

My titos and titas (Tagalog for “uncles” and “aunts”) would assemble around the living room, taking turns serving up their best renditions of ABBA, Bee Gees and Donna Summer hits. Tito Tan would drunkenly sing “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” but instead of “thing,” he mispronounced it as “tang.” My cousins and I watched them, clapping and laughing along.

They’d beckon us younger kids forward to join them. I’d hide in dread with the knowledge that my older sister would get the highest score anyway. She always got a near-perfect 99. When the mic traveled its way into my sweaty palms, I, for one, awkwardly fumbled with the words and shuddered at the sound of screeching feedback. Off-key, off-pitch, off-tempo; you name it, that’s me.

I’ve always associated the shame of being awful at singing with the shame of not knowing Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines.

When I was younger, I never really understood why my parents were always so comfortable with singing karaoke at the top of their lungs or why they were so proud to be Filipino. They might have been just as confused that I was so embarrassed about claiming the Filipino part of my Filipino-American identity. I was born in America. I wasn’t like them. I was so desperate to eschew any connotation of being Filipino.

Growing up in Stockton, California, a lot of my friends were also first-generation Filipino-Americans. When I went to school, I realized that I didn’t want any trace of a FOB, or fresh off the boat, accent. There was a specific culture to my first-generation friends that I felt I had to fit into or I just didn’t belong. Even here, I tried so hard to assimilate to American culture that I refused to speak Tagalog.

I was surrounded by B-boys, Swagapinos decked out with the newest J’s on their feet way before Miley Cyrus ever “rapped” about it. They could spin on their heads while the rosaries around their necks swung to the rhythm of the music. As much as I rolled my eyes at them, these same hypebeasts somehow also had the the dopest ukulele skills. The other Filipino girls were shorties who could sing as well as Jessica Sanchez from “American Idol.”

Then, there I was, a tall, gangly Filipino girl with no dancing or singing abilities to speak of. I tried to mask how green with envy I was, but I was still the color of buko pandan (a Filipino dessert) on the inside.

Because it’s now October and Filipino American History Month, I’m looking back on things that I regret and frantically getting my life together in that haphazard way you have to keep up with “Bohemian Rhapsody” lyrics.

I’ve come to terms now with the fact that expectation is far from reality. I’m not going to wake up one day with the dancing skills of B-boys. I’ve accepted the fact that I’m never going to sing the Carpenters’ “Top of the World” as well as my older sister or speak Tagalog as fluently as her.  

With karaoke, there’s a comfort in singing along to the lyrics. You have the safety net of words illuminated on the screen.

I haven’t been back to the Philippines since I was 5 years old, but I remember the stories that my relatives told me about their lives back home in between karaoke sessions. My memories of the Magic Mic are intertwined with their narratives of sacrifice.

After the final notes of “Don’t Stop Believin’,” my relatives would launch into tales of how their older siblings had forgone their own education to put their younger siblings through school. Once the instrumentals of the last “You’re So Vain” performance would fade out, my titos and titas would reminisce about how they made the decision to come to America to give their families opportunities they didn’t have.

I also never fully appreciated that my relatives could transition from singing Tagalog songs to English with finesse. So what if they had slight accents? They deserve a perfect score of 100 for the sheer reason of English being their second language.

At the end of the day, karaoke nights aren’t always meet cutes where you find Troy Bolton, sheepish grin and all, harmonizing to “The Start of Something New.” Alas, I am no Gabriella Montez at a serendipitous New Year’s Eve party. (Fun fact: Vanessa Hudgens is actually half-Filipino!) Sometimes, the reality is Uncle Tan singing Aerosmith after one too many bottles of San Miguel while you’re slumped over in the corner from a lumpia-induced food coma.

But I don’t think I’ve lost all hope quite yet that I’m not talentless. After all, Bruno Mars is Filipino. It’s in my blood.

“Cutting Room Floor” columns are one-off, arts-oriented pieces written by Daily Cal staff members. Contact Abigail Balingit at [email protected].

OCTOBER 27, 2016

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