Cultural Differences: Growing Up In 2 Different Cultures


I was born in the Philippines in 1992, to a Filipina Mum and an English Dad.

I was raised in the Philippines surrounded by my Mum’s family; I grew up being taught Filipino customs, speaking Tagalog and learning about Philippine history. Up until the age of 6 it was all I ever knew.

Maybe I was naïve when I was younger, but I never really understood that I was what you would call, ‘mixed race’ I mean, all my friends were Filipino, my family the same colour skin as me, my sister’s though a lot paler in colour than me, still looked Asian like I did. Whenever my Dad visited, I would notice how different he looked but I never really understood who he was. I mean, I knew that people would tell me to call him ‘Daddy’ but back then I didn’t really understand what that meant. I had my ‘Tatay’ Tagalog for Dad, who was my Mum’s brother, he was our main father figure and I never really understood that we actually had our own father. My Dad worked in Hong Kong and so we only really saw him a few special occasions a year. I think growing up it wasn’t really clear that we had a Mum and a Dad; in fact our family dynamic was not your typical family. It wasn’t like we had any shortage of love though, we always had a lot of family around, instead of being raised by a Mum and a Dad, my sisters and I were raised by my Mum’s entire family and if anything our lives were more enriched by having so many people to look up to and learn from.

Living in the Philippines I got to learn a lot about religion, family and working hard. I watched my aunties and uncles, work hard for a living and watched as their kids were all so family orientated. Everyone would help everyone else out. People would give whatever they could to someone in need even if they had so little themselves. There was a community atmosphere wherever you went and people from foreign countries were seen as amazing beings. People admired people who had travelled outside the Philippines.

I felt like I truly belonged in the Filipino community. Everyone I met was so welcoming and loving. Everyone was so generous and every occasion was seen as a celebration. People loved to have parties, good clean family gatherings and people loved to share. I was so happy to be growing up in such a nurturing and what I thought was a safe environment.

So when my Mum told us that we would be moving to England to be with my Dad and his kids, I resisted. Being 6/7 years old I was convinced that the reason they were taking me away from the people I loved was because I had been naughty and I pleaded with my Mum to let me stay. ‘Don’t take me away from my Lolo’ I would cry trying to clutch on to my grandfather like I was being reprimanded. My Mum had just bought me a new paint palette that I had barely used at school; didn’t my Mum understand how important that was? Was it some kind of sick joke, her finally caving and buying me such a beautiful paint set only for her to drag me away. I was distraught, I mean sure, at first I didn’t really care about moving, mainly because I didn’t understand that by moving to England, I wouldn’t just be able to see my cousins on the weekend or something. In fact we would be travelling oceans and countries away.

I remember being so heartbroken that I wouldn’t be able to grow up with my cousins who had for so many years been my source of comfort. My aunties who had helped raise me and had become my Mum’s were no longer going to help see me into my formative years.

I would have to learn a new language, meet new people and find my own way through a scary new place. But it made my Mum happy, she wanted our family to finally be together. No matter how many times I protested that we were fine the way we were, our parents had spoken and we needed to accept that.

So off we went on our first plane ride across the oceans. If you look at the photo the airhostess had taken of us you can see how unhappy my sister and I looked. It’s funny thinking about it now, but at the time I remember feeling so distraught that in my grief this random stranger was taking a photograph of me, like, thanks, because I want to remember this traumatic time for the rest of my life.

When we finally landed on British land, I remember feeling this bitter coldness and was confused by it. I could see the sun shining in the sky but unlike the Philippines where you could feel the sun rays on your skin, in this foreign land, could only feel the coldness, like something was blocking the heat out. On the drive to Devon, I watched as the city and roads, billboards and massive buildings began to fade and were replaced by fields, it wasn’t like the familiar country I knew, instead of mountains and beautiful colours in the background, I could see miles and miles of green fields, our fields didn’t look like that back home I remember thinking. I saw for the first time fresian cows. I was obsessed, I’d never seen cows that looked like that and I just loved how cute they looked. They’re still my favourite animals now.

Pulling into our driveway, it all felt so different. I was half expecting a welcoming committee, for thousands of relatives to come pouring out of the house, but instead we were welcomed by silence. I mean, we had a lot of family in the Philippines, I didn’t realize my Dad didn’t have a huge family too. I didn’t realize that this was a private moment and that we didn’t want to be sharing this with the whole neighborhood, it wasn’t like the Philippines. I never felt more alone in the silence.

I remember our first dinner as a family; it’s when the first cultural differences began to really appear for me. I wasn’t used to having to sit at the dinner table and waiting for everyone to appear before we could eat. In the UK my family sat and talked about our days, whilst that seems nice, I was frightened by it. It felt like conversation was forced. The food to me was foreign and I wasn’t used to it. The food tasted bland, I couldn’t understand the concepts of it, cottage pie? I mean potato was horrible enough without having to eat a whole dish of it. I missed my rice and noodles, the soups my Mum would make, and the barbeque we would eat.

When we first moved to England, I could not speak a word of English. I remember my aunties and uncles trying to teach us, I remember having a tutor to help. I was resistant to it because I was every bit proud to be Filipino and didn’t see the need to learn.

I don’t know if my Dad understood that I could not understand what he was saying so he’d often get frustrated if I didn’t do as he said straight away. When we moved to my father’s house we were strictly forbidden from speaking Tagalog, only English would be spoken in order to help our blended family unite. It also meant that I could not communicate with my sisters except in secret and I felt like this had such a negative impact in my ability to share emotions even to this day. I remember one dinner, early on, when my Dad had asked me if I wanted another helping of dinner, I had only just started learning to understand people speaking English, but it took me a while to understand what he had said. The thing is, knowing my Dad now, I know how loving and kind he is and I love him so much, but back then he was a big and scary stranger to me, I was frightened of him. I was afraid to say no and didn’t really understand the etiquette for dinners. I wanted to say no thank you, but I didn’t know the correct words for them yet. I felt sick and scared, I began to sweat, and I became too aware that everyone at the table was staring at him; I could feel the seconds pass, as I remained silent. Finally I raised my eyes and looked at my Mum who had also stopped to wait for my answer. My Dad got angry and slammed his hands down at the table in frustration. “You don’t need your mother to tell you if you want more god damnit!” he shouted, he voice thundering around the dining room. I felt myself shake from fear and I just nodded, so I was helped with more food I didn’t want, and if I knew what was good for me, I needed to make sure I ate it all up. I’m not sticking up for my Dad; he knows how he handled this transition wrong. Hindsight though. It’s just it was all so new to us all, none of us knew how to merge our life into one family unit and we were all so frightened and unsure of how to take daily tasks that were so much more complicated because of our language and cultural barrier. Because of the difficulty communicating, we all got frustrated, its just my Dad was more vocal than the rest of us (with the exception of my father’s children).

I grew up to develop a fear and distaste for dinnertime very quickly. I made sure to eat as quickly as I could, as silently as I could and any opportunity that I had to eat alone (which was rarer) I relished the silence and peace. I also realized how I sought comfort in my own privacy and time by myself, because early on in my life, I felt so much pressure from other people, to act the way they saw normal, to speak the same language, to like the same things. Being a kid I had very few opportunities to actually find things I genuinely enjoyed, so when I was on my own I didn’t have to pretend of be anything other than myself. I could speak my own language without feeling like I was offending or leaving anyone out. I could eat however I wanted without pissing anyone off. I could just be me, whoever that was. I don’t think I could really know.

When I first started school, I saw just how different I really was. The school was filled with children who had all pretty much grown up together. Everyone knew each other and I was the only one who was ‘new’ I mean, I was an outsider pretty much the moment I stepped into school. The diversity was lacking, in fact there was only really 4 other kids ‘of colour’ in a whole Primary school. Everyone was pretty british, they all spoke the same language and I became the odd one who could barely understand what they said. They studied a different way than I had known too. I struggled to fall into place, I couldn’t really join in on their jokes because I didn’t really understand them. Even so, the place was welcoming. There were a few kids who didn’t really look at me too much, some who felt uncomfortable being in the same group as me, or were too scared to offend me that they just didn’t talk to me. But I did find a good group of friends who didn’t care that I only spoke broken English and who embraced me into their sticky little fingers. Even though it took some time I eventually found great friends who I am lucky to call best friends to this day.

The language barrier was main sticking point growing up, but it was also the cultural differences. Kid’s at my school had quite wealthy parents, whenever we came back from the holidays people would share their extravagant holiday stories and I remained silent. They would show off their spectacular Christmas or birthday gifts and I never had much to share.

I mean, Christmas in the Philippines was more about the celebration and the family rather than gifts. It was similar with my family but for others it was more of an extravaganza than what I was used to. Celebrations like Halloween and Easter were celebrated a different way than we did back home.

Getting used to the new cultural norms were hard for me. At lunch people had sandwiches and I missed having rice packed for me. Every day my Mum reminded me things were done differently here and it would confuse me and make me feel alienated to feel so different to everyone else.

Over time I found a way to mask myself from my peers, I would do what was normal for them, I faked it until I made it, essentially I faked being British until I felt British.

Learning to speak English was my mountain and after watching TV all day everyday I finally got my accent to sound normal, at least normal for the community I lived in. My skin got a little lighter, my words got a little clearer and it was like I was beginning to find my English self, not realizing in the process that I was loosing my Filipino self at the same time.

Well when I began to meet Filipino’s here in England, a big shock came to me. In trying so hard to fit in with my new surroundings, I had also forgotten to retain a big part of my heritage.

I found it hard to fit in within the Filipino community. The parents saw me very much as a Filipino kid living a British life.

Not only did I not feel like I belonged within the British community, but I also felt very disconnected from the Filipino community. I often questioned where I actually belonged. I no longer felt this sense of pride I felt being Filipino, and try as hard as I did, I just wasn’t completely seeing eye to eye with my British friends. I felt so lost and for the longest time, I just felt so confused. It felt like one big joke. I thought about my parents, taking me away from my home, encouraging me to change my behavior to suit the new place we lived in, I try to change and I get about 99% there but I’m still not quite the same. I am still the darker kid, I still have weird family quirks, my favourite meals aren’t the same, my traditions are not normal, and then I find a Filipino community in the area and I don’t fit in there either. It made me such an angry kid, angry because I just didn’t feel like I could ever belong anywhere.

Even when we visited the Philippines, the differences in me was evident. I no longer shared certain values or views that I once did. My cousins were all growing up together, and I was separated from them, I knew very little Tagalog and even when I tried to speak the language I had a very British accent. When I tried to speak English it was like my accent was Americanised and there was no happy medium. I couldn’t belong to either or. It made no sense.

It’s sad to say that my disconnected feelings continued until I went to University.

It wasn’t until I went to University that I finally found the answer I was looking for. I met so many people like me. Growing up in one country only to move to another, struggling to understand or even fit in. It wasn’t to say none of us had friends it’s just that even the friends we had were more similar than we can ever be.

My friendship group in Uni shared the same complaints I did, not fitting in in your home country but not really fitting in here either. In our shared frustrations we found a love for one another, and a newly formed appreciation for ourselves. We may not fit in 100% with our different backgrounds but together we found our happy medium, we all didn’t fit in and therefore together we belonged. It was like our own community.

Instead of trying so hard to be the same we just embraced the fact that we were all different. We took the time to learn about each other’s cultures, tried to share each other’s favourite meals but overall just spent time enriching ourselves learning about new cultures.

I realized in those moments that I didn’t need to try so hard to fit one category because being a mixed race person from two wonderful countries has already given me an opportunity to fill my mind with lots of wonderful facts and information. I am lucky to be able to tick White Asian when writing my ethnicity. I’m lucky to have been granted this opportunity to learn of my two cultures and find a middle that is plain old me, not my friends, not my family but me.

No two people are the same and if in order to belong we must be the same, then everyone would be truly lonely, and I just don’t see that.

Having said that I often felt lonely as a kid I will have to mention some truly great friends I’ve had over the years, I’ve had a muslim friend attend church with me during a dark and difficult time, I’ve had one of my bestfriend’s ask me what my favourite dish was, I told her corned beef and rice and whilst many would have been grossed out at the thought, she then cooked it for me and every so often she still says ‘by the way I cooked that and thought of you!’ I’ve had my Filipino family embrace our British side and cook meals like we have here in the UK, they even teach their children how to speak English so that we can communicate in more than one language.

Even though it took a long time for me to be proud of both my British and Filipino sides, I am now able to say I appreciate my mixed background. I’m now fine that my sister’s and I look so different from eachother. I’m okay to walk into a room where I’m the only Asian person, though this is a rare occasion now that I am living in London.

England is so different from the country I first saw way back when. When we were first off the plane, the world looked so white washed, but now, I see so many people of different cultures and colours and I’ve never felt more at home. I love to see all the colours and diversity. I love seeing people celebrate Hanukah, or Eid. I love to see the richness people bring into the British culture. I love how one of the favourite dishes in England is curry, I love how we have German Christmas markets, I love how my favourite fish and chips shop is owned by a Turkish man, I love how when I learned to speak Spanish my teacher was Polish, I love how in 2016 we can embrace each other’s differences, how we can see someone completely different and not even do a double take. The other day I was shopping and I saw a white kid and a black kid both holding hands and just playing like kids do. I know this is normal, but you have to understand that I have lived a part of my life when that was a really unusual sight. It gives me so much hope that my kids may someday live in a world when racism is gone where they only hear about it in History lessons.

My hope for my future children is that they will never have to question whether they are British or Filipino, or hell if my partner and I decide to part ways, whatever race, gender reiligion my new partner will be, I hope it doesn’t affect my children’s way of viewing themselves.

Because honestly and truly, the country you were born in, brought up in, shouldn’t give you your worth. Home is where the heart is, you may find yourself going to a completely different place and just feeling the connection. My sister in law moved to New York, whilst she’s very proud to be English, she is still very much entitled to feel like a New Yorker if she so wishes, the important thing is that we’re happy. We don’t need labels or a colour, or a behaviour to tell us where we belong, only we can make ourselves fit in, or not.

Something I have learned from being me and not trying to be anything else is that there is nothing more satisfying than being comfortable enough to admit that you’re different. Once I stopped trying so hard to fit in I felt like I began to feel like I belonged, and that I actually belonged to more than one group. I actually felt like I didn’t need to change depending on who I was with, and with that when I was accepted as me, it was just that much better.

I understand some people haven’t reached that stage of clarity yet, but I want you to know you’ll get there. I spent 20 years of my life feeling like an alien, but once I learned to love myself, it was like this mask being lifted off and my friends were there, waiting to meet the real me. Find the strength to lift up your mask and show the world the beautiful you that’s waiting to be released.

Don’t hide that quirky accent, don’t be afraid to use the wrong words in sentences, share your favourite recipes, share your culture, be you, it’s the only way our society will be able to move forwards to make a better life for our future generations.

Always remember,

Do something to make your parents proud today, your kids proud someday but most importantly, you proud every day!

Peace and Love

Jessy x


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