When I was two years old, my family packed up and moved from New York City back to the Philippines.

I remembered nothing of my life in America; my first memories were of humidity and heat, summer storms and floods, trips to Jollibee and meals around the wooden table in our kitchen. In my mind, despite the fact that I was born in America, and couldn’t speak a word of Tagalog, I was as Filipino as they came.

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Young me in the Philippines, circa 2001.

When we moved back to the United States, I went through a pretty extreme state of culture shock. I went from classes where everyone looked like me to classes where I was more often than not the odd one out. I went from a beaming, outgoing kid to a shy, quiet kid. I hardly ate; I barely talked; I cried a lot. My brother, three years old at the time, confided in my mother, “I think Ate’s dispressed.”

Being five years old and “dispressed”, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time, but I felt this acute sense of not belonging. My classmates squinted suspiciously at the sinigang and monggo I brought for lunch. And although by my birth I was just as American as the next kid in the class, the color of my skin and the shape of my eyes continued to prompt questions from other kids and well-meaning adults:

“Are you Mexican? Chinese? Japanese?”

When we traveled back to the Philippines over the following years, I started to feel a needing but particular sense of not belonging there, either. When my family joked with each other in Tagalog or Bisaya, I was only able to nod along, unable to understand what they’d said. I felt too awkward and American to truly fit in. When we went back to America, suntanned and jet-lagged, I’d lie awake wondering if things would have been different if my parents had never left the Philippines. Would I be Filipino enough if I had been born there, raised there, and stayed there? On other days, I’d wonder: would I be American enough if my family had simply stayed here, without ever returning to the Philippines?
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My family in the Philippines, all reunited for my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary in 2011! I had hardly any idea what anyone was saying for this entire trip.

The years went by and I continued to ponder these questions, until I made it to college and encountered FASA for the first time.I actually didn’t come into UW intending to join FASA; I had had my heart set on the Husky Marching Band. After I failed the audition and got rejected from HMB, it took a coincidental stroll through the RSO Fair, a friendly face asking “Hey, are you Filipino?”, and the promise of free ice cream to bring me into my first FASA event, the 2014 New Member Social.

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Me at my very first FASA general meeting!

Even then, I still didn’t feel like I belonged right away. I was an ice-cream sundae of shyness and awkwardness, with a heaping scoop of social anxiety on top. But despite all of that, FASA welcomed me in anyway. Every time I wandered through the door, a friendly face would greet me by name and ask me how I was doing. Slowly, I made friends, and was delighted to discover that we shared so many commonalities. It was amazing to talk to other people who had shared the same experiences I had had. Little by little, I finally started to get the feeling that I belonged.

At the end of freshman year, I became FASA’s historian. The year that followed was honestly one of the most life-changing experiences I’ve ever had. Suddenly, I was a leader, someone who not only belonged to a group but constantly worked to make that group even better. Although I had a new position, deep down I was still the same old socially awkward me — at the beginning of the year, I lurked at the edges of meetings with my camera, taking candid shot after candid shot. I challenged myself to do better, and bit by bit, I broke free of the introverted, quiet shell I had been developing since the age of five. I did things I had never even dreamed of doing before. I researched Filipino American history and presented it every other week to fifty or more people. I joined Sayaw and performed in front of hundreds of people.

I became proud to be Filipino American in a way that I’d never been before.

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Presenting a historian corner at a general meeting! I pioneered these presentations during my year as historian.

The story doesn’t end here. I still worry about what to do or say whenever I talk to someone, I’m still someone who hovers around the edges of a group at first, I’m still someone who wonders from time to time, “Am I Filipino enough?”.

But that’s the beauty in alpas, I think — it’s a verb, not a noun. You don’t just break free once and then never again. Little by little, bit by bit, you continue to break free of the way you used to be, spread your wings, and soar ever higher.

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Find out more about Saralyn and her position here!

What’s your FASA story? #alpas