MANILA (Reuters) - Alan Marasigan looks like any other Filipino as he fiddles with his cell phone inside a shopping mall in Manila. But his American accent and perfect English give him away.
In his early 30s, Marasigan is a Filipino American or “Fil-Am” as they are more commonly referred to in the Southeast Asian country with historic ties to the United States.
With around 8 million Filipinos working overseas, roughly 10 percent of the population, the number of second generation Filipinos is growing rapidly.
Every year, thousands of them flock to the old country for a holiday. Wearing more expensive clothes then their poorer compatriots and sometimes speaking hesitant Tagalog, the main Filipino language, they come from America, Europe and elsewhere in Asia.
Some, in a quest to really get to know their heritage, stay on. That’s going against the grain in an impoverished country where millions believe going overseas is a passport to a better future away from a country where 40 percent of the population earns $2 or less a day.
“A lot of people here don’t get it, especially my relatives, because they see it as: ‘We are working so hard to try and get out. Why do you want to stay here?’,” said Alaskan-born Marasigan. “They think it’s strange.”
Marasigan, who worked as an actor in Los Angeles and whose parents are from the northern island of Luzon, came to his parent’s homeland in 2005 to learn Tagalog for two months.
He ended up staying longer to explore the country and to study filmmaking at a local institute.
“All I knew was I had to really immerse myself in the culture again. I wanted to find my roots,” he said.
“By going to the film school here, it made me get closer to the heart of Filipinos, the culture, the language.”
Exact numbers are unavailable but there are certainly hundreds of ethnic Filipinos from other countries who come back to the archipelago to study, carve out careers or set up businesses.
The upside is having family nearby, an easy-going way of life, authentic Filipino food and a cheaper cost of living.
The downside is trying to figure out a culture that is both familiar yet unknown. The crazy traffic and numerous security checks in Manila can take a while to get used to and literal translations of Tagalog phrases into English can cause confusion.
And life in the Philippines is much slower compared to the constant rush in the United States.
“I’m still walking faster than anyone else here,” Marasigan remarked.
Vina Lonzana, who teaches Philippine Studies at the University of Hawaii, said she noticed a need among her ‘Fil-Am’ students to see their parents’ homeland especially during college years and beyond.
“Once you are 18 years old or older, there’s almost an itch,” she said. “That’s really the time for searching for your identity and trying to gain more familiarity with the culture.”
Filipino Americans make up the second largest Asian population in the United States after Chinese Americans at 2.5 million, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.
In Canada, the third largest group of newcomers come from the Philippines. And in Europe, there are an estimated 500,000 Filipinos, according to human rights group Migrante Europe.
Across the globe, Filipino parents strive to keep their foreign-born children in touch with their culture. They cook Filipino food at home and tell stories about their childhood.
Belinda Navis’ mother encouraged her to learn Tagalog.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, the half Filipino, half Iranian college senior eventually came to the country to study her mother’s native language in 2006. Her visit was an eye-opener as she became familiar with issues that plague the country.
“I knew poor-rich, Tagalog-English, island-mainland, but I didn’t really understand the differences,” Navi said.
Marasigan, who will head to Los Angeles in the fall to pursue his acting and filmmaking career, plans to make the Philippines a part of his life and work.
He became a dual citizen so that entering and leaving the country would be easier and one day hopes to make a film in the country.
“I’d like to visit and eventually direct here, absolutely,” he said.
Editing by Carmel Crimmins and Megan Goldin