Written by: Lex Guelas
When I moved away from Las Vegas, I unknowingly began boiling down my identity to its very core and building it back up again, not unlike being a new kid at a new school only now with the added benefit of being an adult in a new city.
The question “where are you from” used to be a fairly simple one to answer. Partly because there was the adolescent excitement of being paid attention to, and therefore eager to give any old answer. And partly because my answer was fairly standard and therefore accepted. Normal. Shared.
Las Vegas has a thriving Filipino population, within which a cross-section of people from Hawaii who moved to Vegas to join its tourism industry exists, my mom included. “Where are you from” brought forth the answer:
Well, my parents are from the Philippines, but I was born in Hawaii, and my family moved to Vegas when I was three years old.
When I was a kid, I had fresh memories of visiting family in Hawaii and the Philippines, and I was young enough to be scolded but always excused by distant relatives for not knowing how to speak Tagalog.
As a kid, I learned that a long answer wasn’t expected of me, and as I got older, I started condensing my answer. Not because people were disinterested, as when I was kid at a dinner party, but because when this question comes from out of the blue, when it comes from complete strangers, more often than not “where are you from” implies “where are you from from.” I don’t want to answer at all, because it doesn’t lead to much more than exclamations of blunt fascination or disappointment from the person asking.
I started leaving out that I was born in Hawaii because I dreaded any follow-up questions it would lead to. I hadn’t been back for years and didn’t know what to do with the disappointment I would see on peoples’ faces once they started asking questions like whether I knew how to surf (no) and could I speak Hawaiian (no, and that’s an entirely different, other conversation to be had).
Every time someone would try to speak to me in Tagolog and I would ask if they could speak in English instead, or every time I would go to church (which, in fairness, wasn’t very often to begin with) and stayed seated during communion because I’d only ever gotten baptised, a very specific kind of shame began developing around everything I associated with being Filipino, because I felt like I was bad at being Filipino.
When I moved to the UK, I tried out “I’m from America,” and hoped that it would be enough. I quickly realised that even saying I was from Vegas would not always be deemed special enough to be a full answer.
Ironically, as a teenager, the American part - the Vegas part of me - was the bit I left out of my answer to this question. As far as I was concerned, everyone I knew was from Vegas and they all focused on the little percentages of everywhere else in the world that their heritages comprised of. It only seemed right that I should do the same.
I thought suburban living was mundane, Vegas was boring and I was too much of a rule-abider to buy a fake ID and try to do any of the stuff tourists came here for anyway, and ultimately, if I stayed here I would get stuck here.
But when I moved to the UK, I sought out little pockets of suburban-esque comfort, exchanging 7-Eleven taquitos for Greggs steak bakes, treasuring the packet of Fuego Takis my mom would send in an annual care package, and always talking about my family, our little old dog, and family barbecues on Sunday evenings. I learned how to cook sinigang and adobo from scratch with ingredients bought from the closest Asian supermarket I could walk to, and whenever someone asked where I’m from, I had stories to tell about growing up in Vegas. My memory of Vegas softened in the same way I had fresh memories of Hawaii and the Philippines when I was younger.
There are contemporary works that touch upon the multifaceted experiences of Asian-Americans - The Farewell and Michelle Zauner’s memoir, Crying in H Mart, come to mind as recent inspirations for me.
I still can’t speak Tagalog. This year marks ten years since I’ve been back to Hawaii and so far, I’ve spent the entirety of my twenties in the UK, not Las Vegas. While I’m sure the question “where are you from?” wasn’t intended to send me into an existential, spiralling search to figure out who I am, it did, and it’s something I want to explore more in my own work.
Lex Guelas (8th Edition Featured Artists)
Film Editor | Illustrator