I Feel Like An Outsider Within The Filipino Culture

Hi, my name is Rowena Winkler. At first glance you may think that I’m of German descent, but that’s actually my married name. My full name is Rowena Briones Winkler, and I am a Filipino-American. Emphasis on the American. You see, I was born in the United States and I grew up in the suburbs of South Jersey, right outside of Philadelphia (Go Eagles!). I was raised in a predominantly white neighborhood, where the majority of my friends are white. Although I knew I was different, my Filipino-American identity never seemed to be a big deal growing up. I was treated like everyone else, and saw myself with the same privileges as everyone else. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school at the University of Maryland and took a course on Gender and Diversity that I realized…

…I feel like an outsider within the Filipino culture.Let’s unpack this a bit, shall we?

The Truth About Why I’m An Outsider According to communication scholar Bey-Ling Sha, individuals have what are called ascribed and avowed identities.

  • Ascribed identities are how others see you and is often based on your physical appearance, last name, and other stereotype attributions.
  • Avowed identities are what you feel most describes you as a person.

In my case, people who meet me for the first time might see me as a brown-skin Asian or a Hispanic woman with a Spanish last name (ascribed identity), but after getting to know me may realize I’m actually an extremely energetic, intellectually engaging, crazy passionate American citizen (avowed identity).   To others, I am simply my ascribed identities, a set of characteristics mostly handed down by my parents, but to me these characteristics did not and never will fully define me. Learning about ascribed and avowed identities shed some light to my internal struggle navigating both my Filipino heritage and American upbringing, which are highlighted by following examples:

  • I do not know how to speak Filipino, the national language of the Philippines. My mother was afraid my sister and I would get confused in American schools so we were never taught it. However, I never had any interest to learn, and made it a point to Americanize everything, including my name: I made sure to introduce myself to people as “Ro-wee-nah” vs. “Ro-eh-nah” as my family and other Filipinos would address me.
  • I never learned to cook Filipino food growing up (or any food for that matter, my interest in cooking emerged well after I moved out of my childhood home). For a long time I was disinterested in Filipino cuisine. I wanted to eat what everyone else around me was having, which for the most part was American foods like chicken tenders and fries.
  • My parents are very devout Catholics. I went to Catholic school until college, when I realized there was more to religion than what I had been taught as a Filipino. I floated around for a bit, joining a non-denominational Christian church, then learning more about the spiritual teachings of astrology and the universe, and now more recently attending a Universalist Unitarian church in Silver Spring, Maryland with my husband.
  • For a long time I was what I’d call a “convenience Filipino.” I’m not proud to admit this, but I found myself broadcasting my minority status only when it was useful, e.g., for scholarships or theater roles that called for people of color. Otherwise, my culture was not openly discussed unless prompted.
  • For a long time I was the only person in my immediate and extended family with an advanced degree (PhD), which would be very clear when I was reading books at family parties. For a long time I felt very isolated in my nerdy, academic bubble.

Me with my Filipino family at graduation

Behind the Scenes of How Things Changed I am happy to announce that I’ve come to terms with my insider/outsider perspective and might even go as far as say that I now embrace my multifaceted Filipino-American identity. What exactly changed? Well, several things:

    • My husband. Although Derek is not Filipino (I can’t help it ok, I like white guys! :P), he’s an extremely inquisitive and smart fellow who is genuinely interested in my history and pushes me to explore my roots. For example, when we started dating, he’d ask me how to say things in Tagalog, and I would be pleasantly surprised when I knew what to tell him.
    • The loss of my dad. He passed away in 2013 from esophageal cancer, and it pretty much flipped my world upside down. At 27 years old, I was suddenly finding myself reflecting on my own mortality and what I hope to leave behind, leading to questions of how much of my Filipino-ness I could incorporate into my life. I see it as an attempt to pay homage to someone so important in my life who passed away far too young.
    • My future children. With our current media landscape, the world is opening itself to us at a more rapid rate and the “melting pot” of the US is getting more diverse every single day. How can I teach my future children the richness of their Filipino heritage if I don’t take an effort to explore it myself? For my future family, this needed to change.
    • The 2016 election. If there was anything that made me reflect on my identity as a woman of color, it was the lead-up and aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Election. So many conversations were happening that both humbled and overwhelmed me, forcing me to to consider my role(s) at a local/national/international level and how my identities can make a difference.

Me and my non-Filipino hubby

So What Happens Now? I have no idea. I don’t think anyone does, which is what makes life so interesting. All I know is that I no longer consider my insider/outsider status as necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I think it makes me feel like this:

Bad ass Bitmoji Rowena coming for you 😉

Footnote: ¹ Sha, B.-L. (2006). Cultural identity in the segmentation of publics: An emerging theory of intercultural public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 18, 45–65.
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PhD in Communications. Copywriter. Freelance Content Strategist. Event Planner. Theater Performer. Spoken Word Poet. Yogi.
Please SHARE and COMMENT. Your experiences might be similar or really different from mine. I’d love to hear either way!

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