This week, we continue to share select speeches written by seniors from local private schools. The following speech is re-printed with permission from its author, Abigail Mendoza, a senior at Bryn Mawr who is excited to become a proud Terp at the University of Maryland, College Park this fall where she plans to major in Computer Engineering. Abbey, the only Bryn Mawr senior of Filipino descent, writes about what it’s like to be a first generation Filipino-American citizen. – EH 

Abbey Mendoza

My name is Abigail Mendoza. My first name is Hebrew, my last name is Hispanic, yet I am a first generation Filipino-American. Nineteen years ago, my parents moved to the U.S. to provide better lives for their future family. Although I have only visited my homeland as a baby, my parents and relatives that live in America have exposed me to Filipino culture throughout my lifetime. However, because I grew up here, there are many aspects of the Filipino culture that are just not part of my lifestyle and probably never will be.

For one thing, I can’t speak the main language, Tagalog, to save my life. I know some expressions and I can understand it in conversation, but I cannot speak it fluently. Learning Spanish at school has helped me a lot with Tagalog, since many of the words have similar meanings. And as much as I want to be fluent in the language, it’s nice to know that some Filipinos think I don’t understand what they’re saying, when I actually do. Over the years, being able to at least understand Tagalog has proven to be my secret weapon.

Even though I can’t speak the language, I’m proud to be a Filipino. However, one thing that I have come to understand is that, given the way I look, many people assume I’m from a different Asian country, and will try to guess said country just by looking at me. It’s very rare that a person will guess that I’m Filipino on the first try. I’ve been mistaken for a Chinese, Japanese, or Malaysian girl before. When I was little, I used to have a bob, and my skin was lighter in tone. This once resulted in an old man bowing to me and muttering something in Chinese, which then had me holding on to my mom for dear life because I just didn’t know how to react. When my family and I went to Hawaii this past summer, some tourists actually thought we were Hawaiian and would greet us as locals. Then there was the time over winter break that I went to McDonald’s to grab a quick breakfast with a couple of friends. When it was my turn to order, the cashier (a middle-aged man with a wannabe mullet) decided to greet me with a cheery “Ni hao!” I was with a group of other Filipino people and he only greeted me in Chinese. Just because I have a lighter skin tone than my Filipino compadres doesn’t make me Chinese. I could sense that this person was trying to expand his horizons on diversity, but it kind of backfired on him.

There are many perks to being Filipino, and a major one is the food. Although Filipino food was once featured on Andrew Zimmern’s “Bizarre Foods,” I love this type of food and it is a big part of the culture I’ve been exposed to. One popular dish that we eat is called pancit, which is basically our version of lo mein. There are different versions of pancit, just as there are different versions of lo mein. My favorite pancit dish is called pancit palabok, which consists of clear rice noodles topped with shrimp, crushed pork rind, pieces of hard-boiled egg, smoked fish flakes (no, I’m not talking about fish food), and fresh green onions, all doused in a golden shrimp sauce. Having all of these ingredients in one dish might sound kind of fishy, but it’s serious comfort food for me, and for many Filipinos.

We also like to eat a lot of other Asian foods, and these foods often become inspirations for our own dishes, like the pancit I mentioned. For example, many Filipinos eat curry, Korean barbeque, and sushi. We love rice just as much as the next Asian and it truly is a staple of our diet. I will be bringing a rice cooker with me to college, and my roommate will be a first-hand witness as to how essential rice is to my diet. If she laughs at me, that’s okay.

Speaking of laughter, one thing that all of my family, friends, classmates, and teachers know about me is that I LOVE to laugh. If you ever hear an obnoxiously loud and hearty laugh, it’s probably safe to assume that it’s coming from me. If you think I’m loud, wait until you get a group of Filipinos together. When we’re all together, we truly enjoy each other’s company and make the most of it. One night, I was eating dinner with some friends (all Filipino) at Olive Garden. We were just telling each other jokes that probably weren’t even that funny, but our laughter was extremely contagious. Next thing we knew, the manager came over to graciously thank us for coming to eat dinner at the Olive Garden. However, the next table was complaining that we were too loud. This resulted in more laughter in our attempts to quiet down. In general, I’m a pretty reserved person until you really get to know me. But once I start laughing, I practically shriek like a hyena. I start clapping like a really excited seal, and on occasion, my eyes brim with tears. I apologize to all those who have partially lost their hearing because of my obnoxiously loud laughter—I owe this quality to being Filipino.

As I mentioned earlier, my parents decided to move to the U.S. to provide better lives for their future family. I honestly can’t say what life is like in the Philippines since I’ve never lived there, but from the stories my parents and family members tell me, I know that it is definitely not easy. According to the CIA World Factbook, as of July 2012, the population of the Phillipines is estimated to be about 103 million people, making it the twelfth most populous country in the world. Of these 103 million people, 26.5% live below the poverty line. Life in the Philippines has improved since my parents emigrated, but there is still a long way to go.

Having parents, relatives, and friends who come from a developing country has taught me a lot. My sister and I have many resources my parents and their parents didn’t have. I have a roof over my head, food, a bed, a great education, and more. All of these things are blessings, and I am extremely privileged to have access to them. I admit that while my parents and relatives come from a developing country, it is hard for me to not take things for granted sometimes. I will never truly experience what my parents have experienced, and what many of my relatives are currently going through. It is the times when I realize this that I truly feel small, and even useless sometimes. But at the same time, it is heartwarming to know that my relatives in the Philippines are still happy because we have each other. My parents and grandparents may have lived through hard times, but they have come out stronger for it.

If being Filipino has given me anything other than a big appetite and a loud laugh, it’s an appreciation of my surroundings and all that I have. I encourage all of you to be aware of how privileged you are to go to a school like Bryn Mawr, where long-lasting friendships are made, hard work and passionate opinions are encouraged, and food is at your fingertips. I know that we hear this a lot, but it’s truly important to realize how lucky we are. We all have our bad days when we feel like we just want to give up. But never forget that you have people who care about you and you will come out of these challenges stronger than before. As much as hearing this doesn’t help, somebody out there does have it worse.

I also encourage each of you to be thankful for your friends and families, and the people who have had an impact on you. I am so grateful to each and every one of the girls who have made my years at Bryn Mawr so memorable. Whether it was my cross-country or track teams, my fellow seniors whom I will miss TERRIBLY next year, my underclassman friends or my teachers, I am lucky enough to say that each day has been happy for me because of everyone in the Bryn Mawr community. I hope that I will have the opportunity to go to the Philippines soon and see the rest of my family, but for now, I’m just going to enjoy every moment I have with my friends and family here in Baltimore. So, in the words of a Filipino, salamat po. Thank you for making this magical adventure we call life a happier one.