Cultural Cringe

April 7, 2022

Image of various foods

You learn right away to leave a part of yourself at home. You fear that if you stand too close to others, they'll smell last night's pinakbet lingering in your hair. Yes, it was your favorite, and yes, you ate so much of it, and yes, when you came home from school you would reach into the Frigidaire seeking it. But no, to any public reveal of your home life to others.

It doesn't matter if you shower at night or in the morning, your home always smells like food and your clothes always smell like home. So you stand far enough away, but it doesn't matter because you learn so many names that aren't like yours.

They aren't white girls yet, they are American girls, because you aren't American. And they call you everything — Chinese, Japanese, Korean — even the Filipinos don't know. A Tammy says, in such a way, "You're Mexican."

And then you understand why your mother doesn't want you playing under the sun.


You were accepted into a graduate writing program in Westchester County, New York. A graduating poet from the program calls you. I’m Filipino too, he says. You ask if that is why he was assigned to you. He says, No. I don't think that's the reason at all. No, that's ... no.


The language you use to speak about race and ethnicity is not what is spoken in New York. Studying the art of writing means studying the arts of whiteness. The workshops exasperate formally against your form of brownness.

At the end of every day, there is no coming home when home is 2,826 miles away. There is no home in the refrigerator. There is no home to buy at the Stop & Shop. You ration what you've brought from home, though you do share selectively. Some of your new friends are eager to listen and taste, but others poke at and push away the items you've placed on their plate. You wince at your vulgarity.


Some food is dirty. You keep learning this.

You cook with patis only if everyone is away. You learn to like brown rice.

You don't want to explain canned meats with rice, sizzling pig cheeks, browning garlic, avocado for dessert, hot dogs in spaghetti, hot dogs for breakfast, the delicacy of chicken skin and the caviar of taba.

You feed yourself with subversion and silent histories. An Asian American feminist teaches you about Spam and the American military occupation of the Philippines, Japan, Guam, Hawaii.­ This prepares you for your roommate’s laughter, What is it with Filipinos and Spam? You answer with a question.

Do you really want to know?


You don't have the luxury of being taught. To have knowledge about Filipinos is the same way you have Filipino friends. You seek aggressively, going to poetry readings alone, until one day you meet Joseph. And after begrudgingly saying, I grew up in Paramount, he looks at you and says, I did, too.


Your meal with Joseph grows into meals with Joseph and Lara. Then Gina joins. And Nita. Sometimes Ricco. Sometimes Sarah. Marissa, transplanted from California, is placed into your life through your sister. They are brilliant and kind Filipino artists, a table of home so loud that when you return to Los Angeles, your old world becomes immobile with silence.


You stumble across cultural cringe and this meeting is not an accident. It is colonial mentality. It is your mother pulling you away from the sun. It is saying Holly instead of Hossannah. It is pretending cherry blossoms instead of mangos. It is laughing at that joke about dogs at the work lunch. Cultural cringe, this phrase, no, this feeling, names the self-hatred that is so adept at burying stories.


Your lonely and hungry body walks into the restaurant and reunites with what was disembodied and deleted.

There are the signs with words that look foreign and exotic even to you because you know them only through listening — the voices of titas and titos urging you to fill party plate after party plate with pancit, dinuguan, lumpia, lechon, pinakbet and puto. You say the words in your head with your mother’s voice punctuating with, Kumain ka na ba? Subukan mo ito.

There will always be a version of the Last Supper. Or comically large wooden forks and spoons. There might be a figurine of a carabao. There will be capiz — a chandelier or candleholder — the shells shaped into a diffuser of light.

Near the register there might be a small altar or donation bins for Catholic charities. There's a money plant or a bamboo plant. There's the framed first dollar that the restaurant made.

Sometimes what greets you isn't for you, and it isn’t Filipino but images of a colonizer — Chinese red lanterns or the waves of mass-produced Japanese textiles. This is a way to speak imperialism to imperialists; a shorthand way of saying, you’re invited to dinner.

But it’s what’s in the air that vibrates all parts that hold memory. The way some consonants bounce off the roofs of mouths, the repetition of syllables and the way someone's father combines a word from American with a word from Pinas. There is the clanking of spoon and fork. There's the sound of scraping the last bit of food into a box to take home.

And then there's the smell — the sautéed aroma of garlic, tomatoes and onion that is your aura, the piquant steam of fishy vegetable stew pressing your shirt and the way all of it remains with your body throughout the subway ride home as you stand close to so many strangers.


Hossannah Asuncion

Hossannah Asuncion

Hossannah Asuncion is a Filipino poet and the author of Object Permanence (Magic Helicopter Press, 2016), winner of the Ted Hawkins Innovative Poetry Prize. The recipient of prizes and fellowships from Kundiman, The Laundromat Project and the Poetry Society of America, she works as a professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College and lives in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, with her wife and child.