Navigating language, food and family: Interracial relationships in the Filipino community

Editor’s note: As part of our Filipino bureau, we wanted to explore interracial relationships. So we asked two Calgary women to share their experiences. They had a conversation, recorded it, edited it and then wrote it up for us. Here it is, in their own words.

Deanna Reyes-Kinzer immigrated to Canada from the Philippines as a teenager with her brother and met her husband, Paul, in high school. They’ve been married 19 years and have two children.

Darlene Casten met her husband, Arnold, in 1995, two years after he came to Canada with his parents and siblings. They have been married 18 years and have two children. 

This was the first time either one has spoken to someone else about being in an interracial relationship within the Filipino culture.

Deanna Reyes-Kinzer, left, and Darlene Casten share their personal stories about marrying into a different culture. (Submitted by Deanna Reyes-Kinzer and Darlene Casten)

On how the relationship started

Deanna: We met back in Grade 12. I’d always hear about Paul in high school because people would say that I better meet this guy, because he’s a white guy who is a Filipino at heart as he’s been around Filipinos for a long time. I met him when we were in the same class, and he liked to joke around and was just plain friendly. We started hanging out on the weekends during the summer after high school. 

One time we were talking on the phone and I told him I have a headache. Literally a couple hours later, I heard our doorbell and my stepsister came to my room holding a bag with leche flan and polvoron. And then I go, “My God, he’s courting me,” the way I know back home. You know, a guy will come to your house and bring something and start to get to know you in the hopes that you’ll agree to start exclusively dating.

Paul and Deanna have been together since high school. Over that time, Paul has learned to express himself in Tagalog. (Submitted by Deanna Reyes-Kinzer)

Darlene: We’ve been together almost 25 years, so there is quite a bit of understanding around the cultural issues. They don’t really come up very often anymore, so I really have to think back to when we first met.

I met Arnold when he’d been in Canada for two years. I was 18 and had moved from West Kelowna, which was a small place. 

I had very few people of any other ethnicity in my school, so I had never even met another Filipino until I met Arnold. 

The first thing I noticed about Arnold was he was so hard working. When I found out he was working three jobs and going to SAIT to be an architectural technologist, I thought, “Who is this guy?”  

Arnold was the first Filipino person Darlene met, and they’ve been together nearly 25 years. (Submitted by Darlene Casten)

On family relations

Pamilya (family) is a huge part of Filipino culture, so getting along with the in-laws is pretty important. 

Deanna: When we were just dating, it was a bit challenging for me because I think my mom was quite hesitant of me dating outside of my culture. I think she’s just being a typical parent, especially knowing that he’s from a different culture, she wants to know that he would understand our traditions, our practices and whatnot. Eventually they got to know each other better, and my mom saw his real personality and character. 

Paul just has this charm to get my mom to like him and see him as himself, for who he is.

Paul and Deanna Reyes-Kinzer met in high school and have been married 19 years. (Submitted by Deanna Reyes-Kinzer)

Darlene: It wasn’t hard to feel like part of the friend group or feel like part of the family. If there was any issue with me not being Filipino, I never heard about it. I did have to learn what I needed to do to fit in, though. For example, when we were first dating, Arnold told me his mom and dad were a little insulted that I was not calling them mama and papa. 

I would just start talking to them because I didn’t want to call them by their first names and I felt weird calling them mama and papa, but after he told me that, I got over it and started calling them mama and papa.

On Interracial give-and-take

Kapamilya is a Tagalog word that means, “you are part of my family,” and it doesn’t only mean a nuclear family or even extended family; it can be almost anyone. In an interracial relationship, becoming kapamilya includes embracing the other person’s cultures and traditions.

Deanna: I started spending time with his family, which eventually introduced me to how they celebrate Christmas. It’s their Christmas celebration that became my tradition. I mean, we do celebrate Christmas with my side of the family, but our children have now been introduced to singing carols from the Kinzer’s side. 

There’s a few of Paul’s family members who are into music, and they play the piano and guitar, and recently, our eldest son has joined them with his violin.

Deanna, Paul and their two children celebrate Christmas. (Submitted by Deanna Reyes-Kinzer)

Darlene: When I first met Arnold, he always spent time with his family, eating and playing mahjong. I learned how to cook Filipino food, and I think that that was the thing that really endeared me to their family. When I get introduced to other Filipinos, it’s usually mentioned that I know how to cook Filipino food. 

The other thing I did was learn how to play mahjong. I actually took Arnold’s spot at the mahjong table.

On not speaking the same language

The official language of the Philippines is Tagalog, but the country has around 175 dialects. English is taught and spoken in the Philippines, which helps, but doesn’t solve the language barrier issues.  

Deanna: When my family first met Paul, he didn’t know our dialect. Through the years, he learned it by himself. A lot of people would think he learned it through me, but I didn’t even know how to teach him. I learned English from back home but I was never comfortable using it as my friends and I were mostly using Tagalog. 

I would ask myself how I could get upset with Paul if I can’t pick the right words to tell him. But seeing that Paul wanted to learn Tagalog helped. Also, because of that, my mom and Paul got to know each other better and faster, maybe because Paul can express himself in Tagalog. 

Paul and Deanna with their sons, Caleb and Gabriel. (Submitted by Deanna Reyes-Kinzer)

Darlene: The language barrier was a big challenge at the beginning. His friend group was all Filipino, so I would not understand anything that was going on. At some point, they would speak English for a short time because I was there, but then they would go back to Tagalog.

Sometimes it was really frustrating not knowing what’s going on, being left out and being on the outside. But they already learned my language so I couldn’t just expect it’s a one-way street. Like, you’ve learned my language, so we’re good here — I had to push myself to learn his language, too. 

I would ask the meaning of words I heard over and over again. After a short time, I was picking up enough Tagalog to get the gist. 

I felt like it was sink or swim.

On changes in relationships

Darlene: Today a lot of people are talking about the importance of race, and respect and fairness, and it’s a pretty highly charged environment. If we were dating now, how difficult would it be? 

Back when we were dating, there might have been more room to make mistakes and be a little ignorant. Thank goodness, because I came here not knowing anything about Filipinos or many cultures at all. I was interested in learning, but when I was first presented with a totally opposing view, sometimes I did not respond well, and vice versa with him. 

So, it was hard in the beginning years. I think it is with most relationships, but it adds an extra layer.

Darlene pushed herself to learn Arnold’s language, and now can understand the gist of Tagalog conversations. (Submitted by Darlene Casten)

Deanna: Yes, there are definitely a lot of changes in interracial relationships comparing before and now. Since social media plays a big part in our society nowadays, it feels like you are under a magnifying glass. All I can say is that, when I was new in this country, I was kind of ignorant about other cultures. So when I first came here and when Paul and I had just started dating, I was just learning to understand and be aware of what to be sensitive of in other cultures, especially Paul’s.

But now, people are expected to be more sensitive and have more knowledge of the diversity around them, which makes interracial relationships more accepted and common.

Though that is the case, there will always be challenges being in it.

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