By: Aria Mallare

   I’ve never understood what people really meant when they said that they “didn’t see color.” My brown skin and long, wavy hair are part of what makes me, me. My reflection in the mirror is a reminder of where my family came from and of the ancestors who came before me. To others, the way I look is a chapter of a vibrant history, a glimpse into everything that led up to who I am. I’ve always thought that people who “don’t see color” don’t see me for my whole self like they only read the SparkNotes version of my story. My ethnicity has shaped me into who I am from the way I brush my hair, to my favorite foods, to my taste in music. Learning and understanding who I am has helped me to better understand my heritage connect with my culture.

   There have been a lot of events and people that have helped me to get in touch with my heritage. When I was younger, my grandparents taught me how to properly eat with my fingers in the traditional kamayan style. I remember sitting at the dinner table with a bowl of white rice and chicken in front of me, my legs swinging wildly beneath the table. I watched as my grandfather brought the bowls of food and set them on the table, not realizing the intention of not opening the drawer where the forks, spoons, and knives were kept. I remember being unsure of how I was expected to eat the food put in front of me and asking him if I should get the cutlery. He simply asked me if I had washed my hands before sitting down at the table and then instructed me to watch him. With expertise, he demonstrated how to hold the rice between my fingers and push it into my mouth using my thumb. I remember him laughing as I clumsily brought the rice together with my fingers, lifted it to my mouth, only for it to cascade from my small hand and crash into the bowl, before nodding at me to try again. My grandfather had explained to me that this was how my ancestors ate before colonization and utensils. Mastering the technique and coordination needed to pick up the ulam with the right fingers was the first time I truly felt proud to be Filipino.

   I remember sitting on the couch at families parties while instrumentals of pop songs played and pictures of white sand beaches and calm waters flashed on the television. My titas would sing for hours on end between trying to get all the shy children with flushed cheeks to pick up the microphone as the younger children babbled into the microphone in awe of the wondrous sound that they could create. I remember trying to sneak peeks into the songbook, breaking the rule that if you touched the songbook, you had to sing. Finally, when I had surrendered my will to resist their prodding and allowed them to choose a song for me to sing, they would choose a song in Tagalog. As I struggled to get through each syllable, let alone each note, I felt twangs of success when I was able to get through a verse without stumbling over the words, causing the crowd of relatives to ooh and ahh. From the sidelines, family members would whisper the words to the songs to me, giggling when I couldn’t get out the right sounds. Even as I obliterated each and every song, listening to my family encourage me as I tried to sing their favorite songs made me feel like I was a part of something and made me more comfortable learning and practicing Tagalog.

   I remember watching Miss Universe with my lola, wrapped in fluffy blankets on the sofa, halo halo in hand, in hopes that Miss Philippines would claim the title. We would cheer her on through the screen, admire her dress, and stay up for the entire contest, worried that if we even blinked we might miss the moment that would grant her the crown. In 2015, I was in the basement of my lola’s house with a gigantic smile across my face as I waited for Miss Philippines Pia Romero to waltz across the stage. Finally, the moment came when she emerged from behind the curtain and I was able to see her in her full beauty. A glamorous princess who, though I had never met her, never even really heard of her before the contest, felt a connection with. She was like the real-life-look-like-me Barbie doll that I had never known that I needed before the moment I heard her talk about her beliefs about world problems. Watching her win made me see a different kind of beauty in my reflection and made me carry a different value to my voice.

   I remember learning how to do the tinikling dance, the amazement, and pride that my grandparents had in their eyes as they watch me weave in and out of the clapping bamboo sticks. I had felt so accomplished in the moments I stood on the stage bowing after completing the full dance routine without getting caught in the bamboo traps. I had spent so much time practicing the dance, and in doing so, and learned something passed down in my culture for hundreds of years, something that my grandparents videoed and sent to their friends and families. I remember my father teaching my sister and me to make tinola and how happy we were working in the kitchen, how warm we felt sitting at the table and eating something that we had made with our own hands, something our grandparents and their grandparents had made and eaten, something that we could pass down to our children and their children.

   I remember watching my first YouTube video on how I should take care of my hair. How I felt after learning what types of oils and creams worked best for my hair type, what kinds of brushes would detangle my hair without making it too frizzy. I remember going through my lola’s closet and finding the old photo albums of her younger years in the Philippines. I remember feeling a nostalgia for somewhere I had never been as I flipped through the pages of her life, trying to comprehend the woman in the pictures who resembled me, piecing together the parts of her life.

   Even though I was born and raised in the states, though I never learned Tagalog and speak English with a perfect American accent, though I have never set foot in the Philippines, I have been able to connect with my culture through the little things. Looking back, even though I haven’t made a conscious effort to learn about my culture, it’s something that’s been infused in me through other people’s guidance and a sense of pride for our country.

Aria Mallare is an avid reader, writer, and creative who is proud of her Filipina roots and believes that everyone has a story to share. She hopes to study child psychology and produce children’s tales shows in the future.

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