Dance Dance Revolution: A Game of Cultural Confusion

Isabella Tumaneng, 1st Place
10th Grade
Daly City

My most recent family reunion took place in Florida this past February, during the celebration weekend of my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. Family dinners led up to and followed the formal event, each filled with laughter, food, and gossip–the same “catching up” routine my mom and her numerous female cousins followed religiously since they grew up together in the Philippines. Of course, the event itself was everyone’s designated center of attention.

That night, high heels clicked on tiled floors, laughs echoed off the walls, and hors-d’œuvres circulated on platters. I walked slowly around the room, embracing people I know and lingering by my mom while making conversation with an aunt, uncle, or family friend I did not remember meeting before. Somewhere along the line, though, the conversation always turned to me.

“I heard you were doing something special tonight,” said one of my Lolo’s (grandpa in Tagalog) good friends.

“I’m…singing,” I reply. Never mind originality, stereotypical formal Filipino events always have some kind of program, and someone always sings. “It’s a French song,” I added quickly when he asked me which one.

“So are you still going to that French school?” someone else asked later. When I answer yes, I am, the usual questions begin to flow in. Whether the curiosity sparks about my classes, how fluently I speak the language, or how familiar I am with the culture, answering became second nature to me. After twelve years of being just about the only Asian student that I know getting a French education, nothing could surprise me less.

Before I started school, I spoke and learned to read in English. My mom, who speaks Tagalog fluently, used to speak basic Tagalog words and phrases to me when I was young. Back then, I never gave identity a second thought, because such things never interested a child my age, and while I was not questioning who I was, I never doubted my Filipino heritage.

When I was four years old, my parents enrolled me in the French Immersion school in the city. I spoke absolutely no French in my first few weeks of school, but despite being one of the only two Asian students in the classrooms, I managed to grasp a few words here and there in a matter of months. Within a few years, I achieved the near impossible for many students in a situation similar to my own: reaching bilingual status. However, absorbing the romance language required one small price: ceasing to speak the few Tagalog phrases I knew.

Over time, my lack of Tagalog grew into a lack of connection with my Asian heritage. I no longer thought of myself as Asian. I always knew that I looked different and that the way I lived was also slightly different when it came to the kinds of food I ate (rice) and the number of cousins on each parent’s side of the family (innumerable). My parents never spoke French because they never learned it the way I did, but I always brushed off those thoughts because to me, those characteristics in parents were those of the “American student” at my school. Because I lost my Tagalog and replaced it with a combination of French and English, the only mentality left in my head regarding culture came from the school I attended.

One day, I caught myself analyzing my reflection in confusion and some kind of unfamiliar frustration. I wondered why my skin was so dark, why my eyes were somewhat almond-shaped, and why my hair was so thick, so black, and so straight. My physical appearance permanently and undeniably connects me to my Filipino heritage, and upon my lack of recognition for these features, I suddenly lacked recognition for where my family comes from: Asia. Only then did I notice what kind of habits I developed over the years of thinking of myself as American in a French school, and how in some ways I began to see myself as culturally French, thanks to the language and my form of education.

From that day on, I began to notice how for apart from my relatives I stood at some family reunions, especially when most spoke Tagalog and I could not understand. Family members would ask me questions regarding my French, which in some ways pushed me even farther away from them, because then I could feel the cultural difference between them and myself. My grandparents’ generation grew up entirely in the Philippines, while the generation my parents belong to grew up split between the Philippines and the States. My own generation currently resides in the United States, and all of my cousins attend American, all-English-speaking schools in which other Filipino students most likely enroll every year. Their worlds are limited to two cultures: the American one, which we all have because of where we live, and the Asian one, because we are all Filipino, and which I also share with them. However, I also have an outside cultural influence, the French one, that over time established what I understand today to be a true language barrier: a constructed wall between me and my family.

At this point in time, I lost familiarity with my heritage, my pride in being Asian, and, because I lost both of these traits, I lost a part of my identity. When I no longer recognized myself in the mirror, I was no longer recognizing my full identity. I found that I could see myself as American, and I could even in some ways see myself as French, but I could not possibly envision myself as Filipino, or as Asian in general. In some sense, I could only recognize two thirds of the person I truly was. The last third had grown into a complete stranger.

When I looked at myself closer and thought even harder about myself, I began to see three people rather than one: the American, the French, and the Filipino. As I began to regard myself in this fashion, I tried to embrace the stranger, now a childhood companion that needed a friendly hand. Around this time, I was entering middle school, and I noticed that a certain group of friends came from different backgrounds: Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Sri Lankan. Our family’s cultures have their differences, but we all knew immediately what we had in common: we were Asian girls attending a French school. Suddenly, I felt a sudden pride in being part of that group, and I tried embracing the words, “I am Filipina.” And just like that, my Filipino self became my long-lost best friend.

Balancing my different identities, on the flipside, became a challenge, as if I was playing a game of Dance Dance Revolution with three arrows: to my left sat French, to my right was American, and behind me was Filipino; and the game proved impossible to win without jumping from one to another, and there was no common ground to the three. After so many years of stepping only to my right and to my left, I felt awkward trying to hop backwards. For a while, my entire cultural world was upside down, inside out, and mixed up. At school, I still identified as the American; with my family, I was the little French girl. On the street, when I felt like neither of the two, I felt Asian, as well as numerous times in school when I suddenly remember that I am a minority; and while I had a difficult time accepting that I stick out like a sore thumb no matter where I go, through it all, I remember that being different never hurt me. Through it all, I feel proud.

So on the night of my grandparents’ party, I felt myself going through the habitual shift between my three identities: I felt American when I understood nothing of what my aunts were saying to each other; I felt Filipino when my grandmother’s friends commented on how I look so darn much like my mother; and when I repeated the lyrics to the song I was to perform under my breath, I felt French. Over and over again, I repeated the sequence of Dance Dance Revolution steps. Right, left, back. Right, left, back. Right left back. The series of dance steps continued until my aunt, who introduced every one of my performing cousins one by one, called me up for my turn.

The stage was mine. All I had left to do was press the little “Play” button on my iPod and wait for the music to slowly seep through the speakers and settle into the room, like the lingering smell of a family dinner that escapes from under a kitchen door. Catching onto the rhythm of the first few bars of the song was easy; I felt reasonably comfortable. Sure, I don’t ever remember a day where I wasn’t uneasy in front of people, but, as always, the natural feeling of the romance language on the tip of my tongue was powerful enough to overcome my nerves. As I glanced around the room, seeking eye contact with selected members of my audience, I suddenly cracked a smile. There I was, an American student singing a French song at a Filipino family reunion. In that moment, my three identities had fallen into step with each other at last. I felt my French-American self reaching out to my Filipino family; and there I was, finding the perfect balance between where I live, where I learn, and where I come from.