I Hid Behind McDonald’s Instead of Embracing My Filipino Heritage
Being the only Filipino kid in my group of friends, I grew up ashamed of the tastes and smells of my culture
For a period of time during my childhood, I lived in close proximity to my mother’s Filipino family in northern Virginia. Having emigrated from the Philippines, they settled where members of their family had initially found opportunity. This meant Washington, D.C., working for the government, the World Bank, or one of the embassies — a city where they were largely in the minority. It also meant we’d gather for dinner a couple of times a week. My mom and her sisters would take turns hosting. My grandmother, with the culinary chops to rival any restaurant chef, was often the one cooking up Filipino food staples: lumpia and pancit and adobo and lugaw, along with delicacies like dinuguan, dilis, and balut. The dinners were rarely planned; often an aunt would call my mom and within seconds they were already gossiping and planning another family dinner.
Being from a half-Filipino household, I had the luck of growing up surrounded by a diverse and wholly unique culture. But Tagalog sounded fast to me, too harsh on the tongue. It didn’t seem “cool.” At 10, maybe 12, I had already begun forming a narrow view of what “cool” meant, cobbled together by what I saw at school and often defined by what my friends thought was cool. I look like I could be Spanish, some said; others speculated that I could be some sort of “halfie.” I am half Filipino, half white. I could blend in with relative ease.
At dinner, everyone would gather to first prepare and then eat a meal together. The dinner was less about the food itself and more about family, but I was too busy thinking about how none of my friends ate this stuff: the heavy aroma of garlic, the sharp smell of marinated fish, the foreignness of it all. My choice not to eat the food became a source of defiance. The food on my plate would remain untouched. Worse, I’d push it aside in protest.
“He’s just a picky eater,” my mom would say.
My aunt, whom we all called Tita Ninang — “tita” being the Filipino term for aunt, and “ninang” a sign of respect, the English equivalent of “godmother” — would often be the first to acknowledge me.
“Do you want McDonald’s?” she asked.
My eyes lit up. “I do.” My cousin, Melissa, Tita Ninang’s only child, joined me in the request. “I want a Happy Meal.”
If I said I was of a different ethnicity, I could certainly pass. I could hide in so many ways.
She went out of her way, heading out to pick up some McDonald’s for the two of us. It was for dinner that night, and eventually every night that Filipino food happened to be on the menu.
I wasn’t a picky eater. I was ashamed. You could smell the food on your clothes. The sound and cadence of Tagalog made me cringe because of the curious looks we’d get in public. I couldn’t speak the language, but that wasn’t anyone’s fault except mine. I didn’t want to speak the language. If I said I was of a different ethnicity, I could certainly pass. I could hide in so many ways.
My shame became so normalized that every time there’d be a family gathering, my aunt would pass by the McDonald’s drive-thru on the way to dinner. I’d get a crispy chicken meal, occasionally switching it up with a Quarter Pounder with cheese. Melissa would opt for the Happy Meal — who didn’t love a new toy? I already thought far ahead, to the way it looked holding that Happy Meal box, the yellow arches made into handles, versus the way it looked holding the generic paper bag, unassuming and perfunctory. The adult’s versus the child’s meal. The kid’s meal. I wasn’t a kid.
There was one time, in the drive-thru, when I opted to try something different. I’d recently seen one of my friends, Jeff, eating a Filet-O-Fish and marveling at its taste. I was baffled by the way the sandwich looked, the way it seemed to satisfy Jeff so faultlessly.
I had to try it. “The filet, Sprite,” I ordered confidently. Then we were off to my aunt’s home, where the family dinner was set to take place that night. The food prepared that evening was lugaw, a rice porridge with chicken and copious amounts of ginger and garlic, topped off with scallions. I would never admit it, but it looked good. Sitting down with the sandwich and fries, I tackled the fries first, dipping them in one of the barbecue sauces my cousin didn’t want, delaying the inevitable.
When I took my first bite, I gagged — that strange not-quite-fish, not-quite-anything taste, so anomalous yet piquant. The fish patty unraveled in my mouth, and I could feel the deep-fried batter scraping against the sides of my throat with every swallow. The tartar sauce seeping into the bun saved it from being completely intolerable, but the damage had been done. I couldn’t eat it.
My mom always gave me a hard time for eating unhealthy foods. Seeing me gag on the fish filet gave her the perfect opportunity to make a point. My mom prepared a bowl of lugaw for me. The warm and hearty broth, the smell of fresh ginger — I didn’t want to admit I was wrong. I felt the first spoonful in my bones, warming me to the core. On the second and third, I enjoyed the rich, comforting flavor of the rice-imbibed broth — by the end of the night, my face carried a full reddish glow. After three bowls, my stomach was full.
My folly didn’t come back to haunt me until lunch a week later. My packed lunch was typically uneventful: peanut butter and jelly, Capri Sun, and maybe a bag of Doritos — Cool Ranch, never Nacho Cheese. Sometimes the sandwich was ham and cheese, but never anything special. It was what most kids had, and I’d swallow the food down without much interest. After eating and enjoying the lugaw, it had proven that if my mom made Filipino food, chances are I would eat it. So on a random Tuesday night, she made adobo, a staple of Filipino cuisine. The rich adobo flavor was to die for. Served over rice, the adobo sauce seeped into each kernel like any good curry does. That enthusiasm translated to: “Yes, Mom, pack adobo leftovers for lunch.” I opened my lunch box, finding the Tupperware full of rice and meat. The sauce had already begun blending together, with its dark brown color. Unheated, it didn’t look very appetizing.
“Eww, what is that?” Jeff asked.
Before I could answer, he recoiled. “Hey, I think your food went bad.”
Not wanting the table to make a big deal, I agreed, “Yeah. I think you’re right.”
I dumped out the food, and went hungry that day, for the sake of not making a scene. From then on, whenever my mom would pack me leftovers, I’d toss it before anyone would see. I preferred not to eat rather than be seen eating Filipino food. During recess, as was typical of schoolyard legends and gossip, I caught wind of a few kids chatting about the myth of dinuguan, a Filipino stew, being comprised of dog meat marinated in dog’s blood — the color of the stew was almost charcoal, an effect of food coloring. The food coloring didn’t help with dispelling the myth of the dish being made from dog. They made all the expected grimaces and exaggerations. Instead of speaking up and telling them it wasn’t true, I didn’t say anything. I could pass as being like everyone else; I could pass for not being Filipino.
“They probably couldn’t afford anything else,” one of the kids said. “Yeah, they probably eat rats, too.” I was upset, but I kept my silence.
During my 14th birthday, the year the Sega Dreamcast came out, I saved up and asked every single family member, including my parents, to help chip in on buying the system and as many games for it as possible. Some of my closest friends, like Jeff and Andy and Ben, had preordered their own Dreamcasts. For my birthday party, we opted for a blowout gaming marathon, each of our systems connected to its own TV. Our games — between the three of us, we had two dozen titles — would be played extensively for over 24 hours. Naturally, my entire family also celebrated my birthday party, and that meant the sounds and smells of Filipino cuisine. I was nervous about how my friends would react to my family: the manner with which they socialized, the loud, often mean-sounding Tagalog, the intensity of having dozens of people crammed into a single room. And the food, the food… I had already used all my favors, really stretched the limit. No one was going to buy McDonald’s — and definitely not enough to satisfy four kids. “We’ll have good food,” my mom said. I knew what she meant. But I was at a loss.
Our eyes scanned the table, crammed full of so many delectable options. Ben was the first to reach for food, lumpia Shanghai, a small, deep-fried egg roll crammed with meat. It is often served with a sweet sauce. He picked one up and glanced at it.
Slightly hesitant, Melissa tried to compare it to a recognizable food: “It’s like French fries.”
Tita Ninang laughed. “Filipino French fries.”
I clenched my jaw. Ben brought it to his mouth and took a small bite. The lumpia was already bite-sized but he managed to turn it into a twofer. He chewed; I watched, holding my breath until he swallowed and downed the other half. “This is actually really good,” he said, before grabbing three more.
We took a platter of lumpia as a late-night snack. Between battles in Soulcalibur and trying to beat Sonic Adventure in one sitting, we tried some adobo. Ben even tried some pancit. I finally realized that night that I have no control over being Filipino, just like, say, I have no control over how tall I am. It was devastating to me to be judged for something that was essential to my being. I just wanted to be accepted for who I was, but for that to happen, I needed to first accept my own heritage.
And my friends couldn’t get enough of the food. Soon we were all fighting over the lumpia. When they asked what the savory treats were called, I told them, nailing the pronunciation perfectly.