Pinay’Merican: All About That Tsismis

Pinay’Merican is a series of personal entries about exploring identity, as a Filipino-American, an aspiring writer, and a millennial. This is also kinda sorta for my final project in Asian American Media this semester.

Yesterday, I attended an annual gala hosted by a non-profit organization catered to the Filipino community in the tri-state area. I have attended the gala a few times in the past, and the best way I could describe it is that of a fancy “senior” prom (as in, old folks in gowns and tuxedos, taking pictures and dancing). There are barely any people my age in attendance, so I often feel out-of-place. (But still lookin’ stylish~)

This is also the case for church gatherings in my community. Filipino church groups organize and host events that are designed to bring together Filipinos from different parishes in the county and network with each other. At least in these events, there are people my age, but not always because of college and work. So again, I would feel out-of-place, since I’m not away at college during those times. (I am a commuter student, so it doesn’t make a difference.)

Why do I attend these events if they make me feel uncomfortable? One reason is my obligation as a “dutiful daughter” to accompany my parents who want to attend these events. But the implicit reason, according to my mother, is to “observe the people and see how they interact–besides, you’re studying sociology, di ba? It’s also good for you as a writer.” And of course, there is that cliché in writing that authors “write what you know,” but should this come at the expense of my social comfort?

For most Filipino Americans born and/or raised in the States, we go through two distinct upbringings by our parents: the Filipino and the Catholic. But for us, they are indistinguishable. We cannot separate the masses dedicated to the Blessed Virgin or Saint Lorenzo Ruiz and the Filipino feast that follows afterward. The Simbang Gabi, which will begin in a few days, is another indication of our upbringing: the “struggle” to wake up at dawn to attend 5am mass, for nine days, in anticipation for the breakfast in the church basement or school cafeteria. (In all honesty, the food is always the incentive to go to any religious function… Any Filipino kid will tell you that!)

So for me, as an emerging Fil-Am writer, it is difficult to discuss what goes on in these events because I never viewed them as good material for my writing. I have always seen them as social obligations I needed to participate in, even if they make me feel awkward. But how many stories are out there that talk about Filipino/Catholic upbringings (in mainstream literature or media)? Should I make it my obligation, as a writer, to create such stories so that other Fil-Ams can relate to? Would they feel less awkward, knowing that someone has also felt the awkwardness of attending these events?

I could tell you one thing I have noticed in these social occasions: it’s all about the tsismis, or “gossip”. From the titas speaking in their fast-paced, boisterous accents to the dads chuckling in their baritone voices, everyone is doing tsismis. It’s told in their mix of Tagalog and English (and sometimes in other Filipino dialects). Even the older kids are doing tsismis, talking about other Filipino kids they know in the community. It is the tsismis that connects everyone; it’s what brings people together, as a community, and keep the connections strong and tight-knit. But for the wallflowers like myself, we don’t get the appeal of tsismis. We find ourselves out-of-the-loop and end up being the “oddball Filipinos” who don’t participate much in these social events.

To what extent does tsismis serve as a connection? To be the subject of gossip is either a good or bad thing, but the outcome is the same: it makes the subject uncomfortable. This is especially in the case of children, when parents compare them to other people’s children, in terms of achievements and aspirations. How often do we hear our parents talk about a friend who is studying nursing or engineering, or if another friend is in a relationship? This probably applies to non-Filipinos as well, but the weight seems heavier for Filipino kids who grew up in communities that are deeply connected to the church. We would be asked by the same titos and titas about certain aspects of our lives, knowing that they will do tsismis later with mutual family-friends:

Do you hab boypren now, hah? Wala? Bakit?

Are you studying nursing? Why not? Nursing is good!

But I’m not condemning anyone who does end up doing nursing or is in a relationship. The main argument is that tsismis is invasive to young Fil-Am generations who have a different upbringing from their parents. Back in the Philippines, professional studies were prestigious pursuits that would give way to social and economic mobility and a chance to come to the United States for better opportunities. Courtships were also common in our parents’ days, and it still remains relevant today.

So tsismis derives from these assumptions of people’s lifestyles that are carried out in social gatherings. I think the uncomfortable feeling lies in the possibility of being a subject of tsismis: someone approaches you at a party and asks about your studies or family life. In the absence of a parent, it is up to you to be cautious of what gets told. You never know if that person will misinterpret what you have said.

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