As I Am

Gabes Torres

My culture is known for our hospitality, and how it is a central expression of love and service towards others. I’m from a home where we only used the best set of utensils when visitors are joining us for meals. At a young age, I mastered the art of making our guests feel welcome and comfortable. It became a visceral habit to ensure that our visitors take the best part of the main course, and that they receive a more generous amount of dessert than us as hosts. It gives us life to see them receive.

When I came to the States from the Philippines, I was not only acutely aware of the differences between Western and Asian-Pacific Islander cultures, but I also had to significantly adjust to how people lived and related to one another. It seemed that having feasts were devoted merely to special occasions and events, and that it wasn’t a frequent endeavor. I also discovered that spending an entire afternoon together doesn’t commonly happen among friends—much less, the entire day. I learned that people needed to begin and end on time, and “to split it down the middle.”

As I showed more of my Filipina-ness, I could sense eyebrows raise and bodies motion backwards from me. Inwardly, I made a choice with myself: “I have to tone it down.”

I became actively attentive to my expressions of verbal and physical affection—making sure I wasn’t “too much” or “too emotional.” I’d apologize whenever the “accent” came out, or if I accidentally blurted out a word in Tagalog. I changed my wardrobe entirely—in fact, I changed almost everything! It felt as if there was a standard way of living and being, and this notion left me ashamed of my personality and qualities that didn’t seem to match this standard.

My interactions made it easy to assume that I didn’t belong, or that I had to change so that I could. I felt there were conditions and limits to belonging. Some prompts to tone things down were delivered “politely,” which made me wonder whether or not they were harmful. Slowly, I began to recognize the difference between “you are welcome here” and “you are welcome here as you are.” The former continues with an unspoken conditional phrase: “You are welcome here, but don’t be like that,” or “as long as you behave this way.”

My first few months in the States were unbearable, with a constant internal dialogue: What’s wrong with me? Why am I being so needy and demanding? Why do I want so much? Why do I have questions and problems that others around me don’t have? Why can’t I just be grateful for what I already have?

Over time, I recognized how no one in this world is exempt from the desire for deep and good connection.

There was an illusion that persuaded me to believe that authenticity and connection couldn’t belong in the same place, and the other’s gaze will likely turn away if I present my uniqueness that’s not only found in the color of my skin. I then tried to take on the the time-oriented, task-driven, and individualistic mentality in order to survive, wishing this change might distract me from my desires.

These forms of hiding were disguised as my method of getting people to stay, and my lifelong skills of welcoming and making people feel comfortable did their work. It felt as if I continued hosting and offering the best of myself, even though I was the visitor in a land that wasn’t my own.

For a long time, my Filipina-ness was overlooked. There was no space to acknowledge and address the nature of my needs, which differed from those of my white friends. I entertained the illusion that all our interpersonal needs were the same. I either belittled or dismissed my own needs, leaving me hungrier by the day. But in other times, I was singled out as my Filipina-ness was emphasized more than I was seen as a friend or human being. These interactions left me feeling like an object under a microscope, an artifact, or a mere representative that speaks on behalf of an Asian culture.

With my collectivist mentality, I found nobility in the sacrifice of constantly adapting. I wasn’t willing to do anything that would cost me my relationships. But how do I see love in relationships that cost me me? Who would thrive in a community when they are split from themselves and ashamed of who they are?

If the faith community associates our unity and oneness with sameness and uniformity, then I’m afraid we haven’t desired enough.

Over time, I recognized how no one in this world is exempt from the desire for deep and good connection. More compellingly, such desires are meant to be fulfilled according to the beauty and complexity of how we are distinctly designed. I’ve been a witness of how desire is only half-fulfilled or not fulfilled at all after eliminating parts of who I am as a cultural being. I’ve also seen how self-deprecation and shame can arise apart from considering this design.

If the faith community associates our unity and oneness with sameness and uniformity, then I’m afraid we haven’t desired enough. I hope for us to foster curiosity towards the other and ourselves. How different would our community be if we examine and challenge the expectations and standards we impose upon others before welcoming and loving them?

I long for others to say, “I welcome you because of your individuality and Filipino background,” and not “I welcome you amidst your individuality and Filipino background.”

I also long to personally rejoice alongside God in the integrity and complexity of who I am, celebrating the outward and inward intricacies He created.