by Hiroshi Ishii-Adajar, ’16
I was recently working on homework amidst the rush of preparation of Pilipino Cultural Night (a showcase of Filipino culture through theatre and dance), and I read Sammie Wills’ stance on why cultural shows make her cry. Her thoughts prompted me think about the evolution of my take on culture, especially after entering college.
As a high school, I despised what I perceived as “culture.” This dislike was partially fueled by the way it tempered the lens through which people viewed me, a.k.a the stereotype. Even deeper than that, however, the word “culture” seemed to imply to me that everyone belonged to one; as a man of mixed descent whose “cultures” have little in common, and one of which has oppressed the other, I could not identify strongly with any established culture. “So create your own,” one might say. But what is a culture that only you belong to? Most people just call that a personality. So I festered in my moral relativistic distaste of my cultural heritage.
Despite all of those feelings, I joined the Filipino group at Stanford. In all of my life, I had had minimal exposure to Filipino culture. I grew up in Japan, I went to Japanese school, most “cultural” activities I participated in were Japanese. And yet, I joined PASU, the Pilipino American Student Union. The reason, as many in PASU already know because I relate this story a lot, is that when I visited Stanford after I was admitted and committed, I ended up wandering around on my own quite a bit. Now, solitude is my forte, but even I get lonely sometimes, and my loneliness felt especially exacerbated walking around alone in what was supposed to be my future home. Fortunately, when I sat down to eat at a dining hall, two members of PASU happened to be sitting in front of, and I happened to be wearing a Manny Pacquiao shirt (for those of you who don’t know, Pacquiao is a well-known boxer and a celebrity in the Philippines). They were quick to approach me, thinking that I was some Stanford student they had not yet met, and were even more enthusiastic when they found out I was an incoming freshman. Although this might have been more of a recruiting scheme, I was overjoyed to find that for that one day, I was as welcomed in PASU as any long-time member of the organization. I decided that day to join PASU when I came to Stanford.
Throughout the year, I’ve had my doubts about my decision. It was a lot of work being part of Kayumanggi, the dance and performance branch of PASU, and sometimes I told myself that it wasn’t worth doing this, that I’m not even Filipino. Yet I stuck with it, and now I know why.
The reason I am part of Kayu, part of PASU, part of SLE, part of Stanford, and most of all, happy to be where I am today, is because the meaning of culture has changed for me. Culture has nothing to do with where I’m from. It’s really just a community. It is a group that I choose to join, and it is a group that chooses to accept me, not because of any faraway standard of who can or cannot join, but because they want to build strong relationships between its members. In that sense, SLE is a culture. Stanford is a culture, albeit to a lesser extent because of its size. And, rather strangely, my family is a culture. This is the reason why I fit in to many cultures fairly well, as some of my Indian betis and betas can attest to: it is not my heritage that matters, but my willingness to be part of a community with commonalities between its members.
So what about cultural performance? What is that to me? Is it a showcase of skill, or the value of Filipino culture, or a statement of rebellion against the white domination, this oppressor of cultures? In my case, hardly. I learned my dances in a year, which is a long time, but a year pales in comparison to how much time actual dancers spend honing their skills. Filipino culture is also not my native culture, despite having Filipino heritage: the only Filipino words I know are of food (you could argue that that’s all you need, but that’s another story), so it can’t be me trying to value Filipino culture specifically. As for fighting the oppressors, I find cultural oppression to be the least trying form of oppression I’ve been exposed to; class oppression, military oppression, these are far more serious problems to me. I’m not saying that these values in a cultural performance aren’t valid, because at times they are. I’m just saying that for me, at this time, they do not describe my situation.
Let’s look at the origin of performances in general. In the absence of any kind of performance, when people are getting by in life without seriously debilitating issues, why would performance arise? Because of celebration. A performance is a celebration of the community: the ideas it values, the history it has experienced, the people who have joined and shaped it. For me, Pilipino Cultural Night is a celebration, a glorification of the community I have been fortunate enough to be a part of this last year and will continue to be involved in in the future. There is no comparison with other cultures, no inherent value in the fact that the show is Filipino as opposed to Mexican or Maori or Mien. It’s really just PASU, its affiliates, and anyone who wants to revel in the celebration of one small, but fiercely proud, community.
My disconnect from my Filipino heritage, paradoxically, is the very reason I cherish PASU. Despite my lack of knowledge of the customs, of the traditions, of the culture, I feel as welcome in the group as I felt on that fateful first day. I am no longer religious, but I think it appropriate to say that it truly is a blessing to be part of this community.
Hiroshi is a humanist physicist, an atheist Catholic, a liberal conservative, a seamless contradiction. He likes playing basketball, reading books that challenge, and basking in the sun. He prefers small groups to big ones, and enjoys one-on-one conversations the most. He’s busy, but always has time to talk. You should talk to him.