Through my internship at the Kapisanan Centre, I have been blessed with the chance to meet so many wonderful Filipino artists. One of them is Patrick de Belen, who leads the Poetry is Our Second Language workshop at the K. This is the first poem of his that I heard him perform, and it resonated deeply with me. It’s rather long, but trust me when I say that it is powerful, and well worth the read. Thin, Hyphenated Line is a compelling piece on identity, ethnicity, and growing up Filipino in Canada. Here it is in full:
You’ll have to excuse me if I hesitate when you ask me about my ethnic background
I promise you it’s not an issue with me not being proud
I’ve just rearranged my thin, hyphenated lines, one too many times
I’ve forgotten which way is up and which way is down
So where do I come from?
I was told bedtime stories about a place rich of culture, where hope was delivered by sunrise
A country dependent on faith and hard-work, not just the suits that it’s run by
But six o’clock news told me stories of a motherland full of stray dogs and disease
Where a kidney and a wife can be bought for less than what you make in a week
So in attempt to hide my ignorance, I say I was born here
But I can’t even say that without shame
Having to explain how a Filipino kid ended up with Irish first name
My beautiful, tossed salad Canada claims to know my roots
But I look down to find mine, and all I see are these Nike shoes
Why walk a mile in my ancestors’ shoes, when my feet are far from blistering?
At this point my sneakers are the only thing ‘Made in the Philippines’
How can you tell me stories of how my skin is meant to represent the radiant sun rays
When whether it is high rises or designer shades, I haven’t seen the sun in days
I am a Filipino seed,
but I am planted in Western World soil
Which means my branches may bear plenty of fruit
But my roots are subconsciously digging for oil
My birthplace is based on the standard belief
That if you can’t handle the heat, you get the fuck out the kitchen
And I’ve learned that means we just hired some exotic women
Who can do more than just cook, but also scrub the floors and clean our dishes
And pay them just enough so they can’t bring their families with them.
So shall I kick back with my fellow westerners and enjoy life’s lemonade on a hot summer?
And wonder how we can make the nannies vacuum the rugs they get swept under?
And shall I just turn the other cheek?
As they market this market as an ‘escape from the floods, disease and loud thunder’
As we simultaneously hand out subscriptions of cable TV and celebrities on magazine covers
Am I just the white-washed liaison?
A puppet that changes color?
Here to justify the strings my birthplace has attached
To the sisters and brothers
Of my Motherland
As a Canadian hyphen born hyphen Filipino
I have been dealt a specific cultural deck of cards
One that comes with plenty of numbers and faces
But not one of them can tell you who you truly are
Like I’ve been given this map
That only indicates where I am, the destination and the distance left to go
So one day I’ll have arms full of gold, like ‘X’ marks the spot,
But realize I have no idea how to get home
When you come from two different origins of evil, the quest is not to find the lesser
I will always bleed the blood of the oppressed; I will always be born an oppressor
But what is a thin, hyphenated line?
If not just for attendance sheets & the many systems’ need to categorize
What if I had the freedom to create my own identity?
A beautiful combination of my both my cultures tendencies
That would finally give me an explanation
For all those foreign 2nd natures I had
I owned a roof, a bed, even a shirt that still has a tag
But if you gave me 3 minutes
I could pack my whole life in a bag
I’ve been trained to think out of boxes, but I’ve always appreciated being sheltered
I’ve shown off my colors, but I’ve never forgotten we are of all the same feather
I’ve always appreciated my youth, and I’ve always respected my elders
I never let my ignorance outweigh my will to be better
So maybe one day
You will no longer be able to clap your hands and have me dance
And only give me a birthplace or my narrow eyes to identify who I am
I shall bear both my flags as one tapestry, sewn by the seams
Because I’ve always been too creative to just chase an American dream
And if you catch a glimpse of my broken heart, understand that I am no longer trying to fill the cracks
I send a little piece overseas every day, hoping one day I could truly be half and half
And maybe loving this whole world will be easier when a piece of me lies in both sides
Instead of divided by some imaginary thin, hyphenated line
(Poem: “Thin, Hyphenated Line” written by Patrick de Belen, an amazing Filipino-Canadian poet.)