Manitoba·First Person

'I love you, but you are a bad Filipino': How my grandmother's pointed words sparked my identity quest

Filipino-Canadian Jim Agapito is on a recovery mission to learn about his Filipino roots and culture in his new podcast and radio series Recovering Filipino.

Jim Agapito is on a cultural recovery mission in new CBC podcast, radio series Recovering Filipino

Epifania Bulaong, 97, with her grandson Jim Agapito in Winnipeg. Bulaong has been in the Philippines since December 2019. Before she left Winnipeg, Bulaong called out her Filipino Canadian grandson, encouraging him to learn more about his culture. (Submitted by Jim Agapito)

This First Person article is the experience of Jim Agapito, host of the new CBC Radio series and podcast Recovering Filipino. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

It's an awful feeling knowing that you might not see someone ever again because of the pandemic. It's even worse when that person's parting words at the airport are basically, "you can do better." That person is Epifania Bulaong, my lola ("grandma" in Tagalog).

In December 2019, my lola was leaving for the Philippines with my mom. At the airport, lola looked at me and said, "My apo ['grandchild' in Tagalog], what are you going to do when you can't speak the language and know nothing about our culture?

"I love you, but you are a bad Filipino."

First off, I've never been called a bad Filipino. Secondly, to be called a "bad Filipino," especially by your lola, sucks. 

I was pretty lost for words. I felt like a failure. As she walked away, I thought of a quick comeback.

"But I can kind of understand Tagalog. And I know about food and stuff. I also love karaoke!"

But it was too late. She was gone. 

My mom said not to worry about it but I started dwelling on it. Was I a bad Filipino? I wasn't sure.

But I did know one thing: I had to make my lola proud.

That exchange at the airport was the beginning of what has now become my recovery mission. I am on a mission to recover my Filipino culture. 

Recovering Filipino, my new CBC podcast and radio series, is my quest to understand and embrace my heritage. My lola is still in the Philippines but here in Canada, my mom, Yolanda, has become my unofficial guide on my mission. 

I want to understand why we do the things we do. For example, why do Filipinos love the three b's: basketball, boxing and beauty pageants? What's up with our sweet spaghetti? What's behind our elaborate superstitions and crazy nicknames? So many questions. 

For my mission to be successful, I had to start with myself and my lola's stinging comment at the airport. 

I didn't embrace my 'Filipinoness'

What would make my lola call me a bad Filipino in the first place? Well, I can think of a few reasons.

Growing up, I was rebellious. I didn't embrace my "Filipinoness."

Filipinos love basketball. I don't really. I used to be decent at basketball but it was never my passion, and I eventually got outplayed. 

Aside from a few favourites like lumpia, I don't eat Filipino food. This is sacrilegious for a Filipino.- Jim Agapito

Oddly enough, I love watching playoff NBA basketball but I frequently cheer against my family's teams. That's still a tradition I keep today.

Aside from a few favourites like lumpia, I don't eat Filipino food. This is sacrilegious for a Filipino.

Food is a huge part of the culture and I was a vegetarian for about a decade. That nearly had my lola throw me out of the family.

She always tried to snap me out of it by ordering buckets of fried chicken anytime I was around. I love fried chicken. Heck, I even have a fried chicken tattoo on my thigh.

My vegetarian years from 1997 to 2007 were dark, dark days for lola and my family. 

LISTEN: Where are all the vegetarian Filipinos?

For one decade, Jim was a very bad Filipino, aka a vegetarian. His lola wasn’t proud. Jim discovers the Hobbit connection and makes a meat revelation. He navigates modern Filipino cuisine with Jeremy Senaris, of Master Chef Canada fame. 27:26

Filipino food has a lot of seafood in it. I can't eat it. I developed an allergy as a child and to this day, I will break out in hives and rashes after eating it.

My family thinks my dislike of seafood is a rebellion, not an allergy. My mother still asks me if I've gotten over my hatred of seafood. 

My "rebellion" extends to my appearance. I rock some pretty long hair. My lola and my dad constantly ask me to cut it short. I refuse.

Jim Agapito is the lead singer of Agapito, a rock 'n' roll-influenced punk band. Having long hair is one of the ways he rebelled against his Filipino roots, he says. (Dwayne Larson Photography)

Why? For starters, I sing in a rock 'n' roll-influenced punk band. If I didn't have long hair to whip around while we play, I'd probably be pretty boring on stage.

But one of my family heroes, the late Rolando Bulaong, or Tito Bong, also rocked long hair when he was young.  He introduced me to drinking, rocking out and having fun. He was a rebel and had a profound effect on me, both good and bad.

So lola, the hair stays. Sorry.

Recovering my cultural roots

So maybe I am a bad Filipino, like lola says.

I spent so many years avoiding my Filipino culture. I choose to party with friends, going to concerts and avoiding family get-togethers because I had this stupid notion that I couldn't relate to them. Boy, was I wrong. 

The truth is, I'm always going to be Filipino. Just because I was born in Canada isn't an excuse to forget my cultural roots. I forgot that. I'm sorry. But I know I can't be the only one.

Recovering Filipino host Jim Agapito, bottom centre, was born in Canada in 1980 and never closely connected to his Filipino roots. Today, he is on a quest to learn more about his culture and become a better Filipino. (Submitted by Jim Agapito)

My lola is 97 years old. She's old, and God forbid anything happens to her before I see her again.

My greatest fear is breaking my lola's heart for not trying to learn about my Filipino culture and heritage. 

So I'm on a recovery mission — a mission to recover my Filipino identity, one question at a time. 

Meet Jim Agapito. When his lola (grandma) called him a "bad Filipino," Jim realized she had a point. Now Jim's on a mission to recover his culture one conversation at a time. His mom Yolanda is his unofficial guide and chief lumpia maker. 2:13

How to find Recovering Filipino

  • Tune in on CBC Radio One, starting June 28 at 11:30 a.m. across Canada. New episodes will air Mondays at 11:30 a.m. throughout the summer, and on Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. (7:30 p.m. AT, 8 p.m. NT).
  • Listen anytime on cbc.ca/recoveringfilipino.
  • Follow us on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts.
  • Join the conversation at #recoveringfilipino.
  • Send us an email.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jim Agapito is a Filipino filmmaker from Winnipeg. Jim writes, boxes, takes photos and sings in a punk band.

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