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halo halo
Credit: clarabiznass / https://www.instagram.com/p/BMNLWSrhmTL/?taken-by=clarabiznass

October is Filipino American History Month.

There’s a popular Filipino dessert called halo-halo. The name approximately translates to “mix-mix,” and it’s appropriate; the drink-sundae hybrid contains multitudes.

A base of shaved ice and sweet evaporated milk is topped with a variety of ingredients, all mixed together for a delightful experience. Traditional toppings include leche flan, an egg custard that’s a bit more firm than Mexican flan (but also derived from the recipes of our colonizers, the Spanish). Sweet red beans are a nod to the cuisine’s Chinese influence, also present in noodle dishes like pancit, or the egg roll-like lumpia. Ice cream was introduced during the post-war American Occupation, and Pinoys have put their spin on it with flavors like ube (a purple yam similar to taro) and quezo real (cheese — yes, cheese ice cream. Trust me, it’s good.) Different forms of local ingredients like coconut, sago, plantains, and jackfruit are a few more options. Fusion restaurants and foodies have remixed the recipe in countless ways, and anything goes.

Filipino fast food joint Jollibee has an excellent halo-halo.

Halo-halo is the history of the country in one delicious dish, speaking to the story of a land occupied by Spain for 300 years and by the United States for 50.

If I were a dessert, I’d be halo-halo.

Like gumbo, a food analogy often used to describe my birthplace of New Orleans, I’m a mix of a lot of things. I’m Filipino and American, European and Asian, Californian and Southern, and Appalachian and a New Yorker. I’ve lived all over the place, including months at a time in the Philippines, where I took my first steps as a baby. It’s where I spent sweaty summers swimming in various relatives’ pools, sightseeing, shopping at Manila’s mega malls, watching MTV Asia, attending LOTS of church, and of course, eating. I remember my grandmother’s house. I remember wooden churches with bloody Christ statues and saints galore, permeated by the smell of incense and tiny fragrant sampaguita blossoms. I still see the power outages every afternoon to conserve electricity, a people’s revolution on the television, a volcano raining ash over swaths of the country.

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That’s me, in the middle. The pale tiny one.

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Credit: Claire Beaudreault

My mother’s family, despite being massive and spread all over the world, is extremely close-knit. My mom is the seventh of eight children. Her father, my Lolo, was an instructor at the college of forestry at the University of the Philippines. He was also a colonel in the Philippine army, later taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese. My Lola raised the children, including her only son born after his father’s death, by working as a seamstress and sending all of them to good schools. I have literally hundreds of cousins. It’s likely that, if one of my older relatives meets someone from Manila, they know their relatives by surname and neighborhood alone.

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Credit: Claire Beaudreault

Being tall and having a lighter complexion, I stood out in the Philippines.

I distinctly remember seeing some people practically fall out of a Jeepney window to stare at my sister and me. “Fair” skin, as is the case in many cultures, is a symbol of status and beauty. I’m considered “mestiza,” meaning mixed with European blood. In the Philippines and other non-Western countries, skin whitening products are sold widely by companies that show ads promoting “real beauty” here in the States. Makes you think.

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Credit: Claire Beaudreault

I spent most of my childhood in Los Angeles, around a lot of Filipinos. We moved to West Virginia when I was a teenager, where — for reasons not limited to my ethnicity — I felt a sense of otherness. Today I live in Queens, New York, the most diverse place in the world. I’m not far from excellent Filipino food. I want to connect to the culture, but I still feel that sense of otherness. I can understand Tagalog when I hear it, but I’m very shy about deploying the few phrases I know (my Yankee accent gets in the way). I want to be seen and recognized by my people, so I’m always letting people know it. Most of the time other Filipinos don’t recognize that I’m one of them until I say so.

As a kid, I largely rejected my mother’s culture in an attempt to be more American. Now, I’m trying embrace it.

I’m connecting with groups of Filipino-Americans involved in women’s and LGBTQ activism and the arts, both here and in the Philippines. It’s a process, and like a glass of halo-halo, I’m always adding new elements, textures, and flavors.