Defining a Meaningful Filipino Cultural Heritage and Identity for Negotiating Life in the Present Day World 
by Jem Baldisimo, BSc (EnvSc) MEnv EnP

Aspiring to be a Filipina marine  scientist in this present-day world can be challenging due to barriers to women in the STEM field, cultural norms, and stereotypical gender roles for women. However, I have managed to navigate through these challenges through my Filipino cultural heritage and identity. Ironically, despite growing up and living in the Philippines for about 30 years, I ever expected to feel more Filipino until I left the Philippines to pursue a graduate degree in America. It was only after leaving the Philippines for a PhD that I realized how my career goals, mindset, approach to life, and successes have been deeply rooted in Filipino traditions and heavily influenced by Filipino values and upbringing.

My Filipino heritage has influenced why I am in the field of marine science. In Tagalog, the word for marine resources is yamang-dagat, which directly translates to ‘riches of the sea’. This is apt for the Philippines having the highest concentration of marine biodiversity per unit area in the world. Growing up Manila, I only viewed fishes as part of our diet and fishing as a low-income livelihood. However, after interacting with fishers through undergraduate immersion programs in college, volunteering for a month with coastal communities in Southern Leyte, and being a researcher for a three-year project assessing reef fishes and reef-associated livelihoods in the Philippines, I realized that fishing was more than a livelihood. It was a way of life, an expression of culture, an appreciation of heritage, and a connection with nature. Fishers’ insights were as valuable as the data we collected in the field on fish biomass or types of fishes in the market. Sharing our results to fishers and the local government also increased community awareness and empowered them to protect coastal resources. I realized that sustaining marine resources should also include the economic and social dimensions in the field. Being a marine scientist was an opportunity to contribute to nation-building in one way or another. It is through this that I can help sustain our riches from the sea.

From my parents, I inherited the mindset that education is important and that you will achieve your career goals by doing well in school. Jose Rizal, one of the Philippine national heroes, has emphasized the contribution of the youth alongside the importance of education in building a nation. Knowing the impact of obtaining a degree for succeeding in life pushed me to excel in my academics and pursue graduate studies to specialize in a field I am interested in. While there were no barriers for me getting a bachelor’s degree in the sciences, ideas that women do not belong in the field because they may be ‘too sensitive for fieldwork in remote areas’ or ‘cannot lift heavy diving equipment’ often come up, sometimes even reinforced by other females in the field. As I was making big leaps towards a career, I was also bombarded with the expectation from others that as a woman, success was tied not only with building a career, but also with the added pressure of having family at a certain age. While I did have a strong mindset to succeed, I struggled with these societal norms and expectations that I must meet or overcome.

 While it was easier to travel abroad to pursue further studies in other countries when you are single, it can also bring about stress and anxiety. Being away from my family and friends, dealing with homesickness, different time zones, trying to find a sense of belonging in a new area, and balancing work and student life were a challenge. But somehow, I developed an open mindset to approach situations using my toolbox that contains knowledge and appreciation of cultural and ethnic diversity, the idea of bayanihan, my Catholic faith, and utang na loob.

 Learning about American culture and finding a sense of belonging after moving here to the US was not too difficult. Afterall, I grew up watching American pop culture on tv and in the movies. However, it was only recently that I discovered that the cultural and ethnic diversity of Philippine society has predisposed me to a knowledge and appreciation of cultural and ethnic diversity. The Philippines is a country with 7,641 islands, culturally and ethnically diverse. Unfortunately, here in the US, I have found that what is Filipino is conveniently, stereotypically, and too often relegated to lumpia, pancit or being a nurse. But if one truly dives into Filipino culture and traditions, one will discover that the beauty of the Philippines and Filipino culture is in its diversity. The beauty of our people is in our ability to share and express that cultural diversity while being open and engaged to other cultures and traditions. Bayanihan seemed like a traditional term to me when I was in the Philippines. But once I lived alone here in the US, I realized that I had this urge to be part of a community, to help, and to be more engaged, which allowed me to achieve a sense of belonging in whatever community I joined.

 When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, uncertainty about the virus, deaths, isolation, and the fact that my senior citizen parents in the Philippines were living with my brother who is a nurse working in a COVID-19 ward caused fear and anxiety for me. Being far away and unable to return home was debilitating. There were times when I said, “Bahala na” (come what may) when I was close to giving up. However, turning to prayer and singing made me get through this challenge. My Catholic faith has carried me through various obstacles and in life.

 When I think of what I have achieved and my successes in life, I am always filled with a feeling of gratitude and desire to give back to those who have helped me. Growing up with a very supportive family, a tight knit community, and inspiring mentors have inspired me to give back. This feeling of indebtedness is how I would describe ‘utang na loob’ in Filipino culture. While the concept of utang na loob can be misused in a transactional manner, like when someone manipulates the other to force something in return, I choose to interpret utang na loob as that urge to give back as an expression of gratitude for something that truly is priceless, often something we don’t truly deserve but given to us. In high school, we were made to memorize a quote from Jose Rizal, “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makararating sa paroroonan”

This loosely translates to “Those who do not know how to look back to where they came from will never arrive at their destination”. True achievement must include recognition of your humble beginnings and an appreciation of those that helped you achieve your goal. My success is result of not just my effort, but the efforts of those who have also supported me. Utang na loob has kept me humble and grounded. It has made me more mindful of and appreciative of those who have been my champions and cheer leaders as I went through the various phases of my life.

 Ironically, leaving the Philippines made me reflect upon what it meant to be Filipino. Are you a Filipino if you can speak the language? Are you a Filipino if you have lived or have been to the Philippines? Are you Filipino if you were not born there? Are you Filipino if you know the Lupang Hinirang and the Panatang Makabayan? There are so many ways to define who and what is a Filipino. Being born into the Catholic faith, seeing Filipino culture and traditions as norms, and growing up in the Philippines, I was never pushed to think more intently about what makes me Filipino. It just seemed like an expectation, an automatic answer. I would never hesitate to say I am from the Philippines. Somehow, after moving to the US, what has changed is my intent to be a Filipina, and to live out being one. Leaving the country made me discover my identity as a Filipina because I intentionally made choices to uphold and live out the Filipino culture, traditions, and values that I have inherited. My Filipino upbringing, culture and values have allowed me to navigate life as a graduate student at ODU with ease. Reflecting on the last lines of the Panatang Makabayan, “Sisikapin kong maging isang tunay na Pilipino sa isip, sa salita at sa gawa” (I will strive to be a true Filipino in mind, in word and in action), I am reminded that in any circumstance, what really matters is that we make an effort and we strive to be true Filipinos--in our thoughts, our words and our deeds.