Tag Archives: Filipino

The Filipino Obsession with PAT Babies

My nephew JoJo

Meet my little nephew, JoJo (officially, Solomon Joseph but that didn’t stick).  He is “PAT” (Tagalog English for fat (using the word “PAT” was my Filipino brother-in-law’s idea)).  And he is the cutest baby ever.  Most of his powers of attraction are attributable to his one year-old fatness.

As much as every culture appreciates a chubby baby, there is something about the Filipino culture that just adores fat babies.  As I got to see JoJo this weekend, this post is dedicated to him:

Filipinos think fat babies are cutest – There are no two ways about it: whether or not a baby is stereotypically good looking, fatness is the deciding factor.  It is the x factor that changes everything.  In fact, a baby with less in the way of traditional “beauty” genes will generate more attention than one with more, if he or she is chubbier.  Kind of nice.

The highest compliment you can pay a baby is to say “Oh he/she’s so BIG” – Watch any Filipino gathering.  When Filipinos see their friends’ babies you are BOUND to hear some comment about how big the baby is.  Of course, people from other cultures will remark on children that have grown but there is something about the Filipino enthusiasm about the sheer size of babies and toddlers that is unique.  Don’t believe me?  Hit any Filipino potluck, grab a plate of pancit and watch.

They are always offering up food to the baby - Babies and toddlers are doted over and fed relentlessly.  The Filipino love affair with food must come from this early experience of growing up around food.  The mere experience of watching a baby being fed draws onlookers in the Filipino community.  Aunties, uncles, interested friends and random passersby will gather around the feeding baby:  “Look at him eat, he is so Pat !

But they don’t like fat kids – There’s always a catch.  Once you turn 10, fatness is no longer a plus.  (Trust me, I was a chubby 10 year-old living in the Philippines and I got hell for it.)  You better hope on some kind of a growth spurt…. and the development of considerable musical and/or academic prowess.  The doting process has transitioned into a 20-year pressure cooker that, in the United States, had better result in your ascension to the loftier rungs of the medical field… but that’s another post.

I’ll close with this video of some of my Filipino (Salagubang) family trying to get JoJo to look the right way for a picture yesterday…




Bjorn Karlman


On Filipino-American-Swedish Marriage

I certainly would not have predicted it before meeting Jammie but 13 years after leaving the Philippines I married a Filipina-American in Los Angeles on April 3, 2011.  We were polar opposites on the one hand – an American of Filipino descent, born and raised in Los Angeles and a vaguely Swedish Third Culture Kid born in Stockholm and raised in too many different places.  Seen differently we had very similar backgrounds – we both loved and understood Filipino culture (Jammie as a matter of heritage and I from living there for six years) and we both loved Los Angeles and its chaotic creativity, with near-foolish abandon.

We’ve been married for five months today so I thought I’d post on a few defining features of our Filipino-American-Swedish union so far:

Loud vs. Shy Culture – Anyone that knows me well would condescendingly smirk at this understatement:  I am loud.  I love talking to and engaging people.  I therefore enjoy Filipino gatherings because they tend to be high energy and boisterous.  My family on the other hand, is a lot more Swedish in that they tend to be a little more quiet – especially when you take a step beyond my nuclear family.  I remember my aunt’s reaction to raucous laughter at our rehearsal dinner in LA’s Chinatown.  She thought something was wrong.  It was just a buddy of mine being himself.

How to Really Party – Traditional Swedish birthday parties involve your nuclear family and some carefully-chosen close friends and often take place within the safety of your locked home.  The birthday parties I went to in the Filipino fishing village I lived in involved the whole village and a lavishly roasted pig, displayed dramatically on the spit against a backdrop of lesser dishes and assorted balloons.  For my 30th Jammie and I compromised and only invited my work friends, an entire think tank, and the volunteers and Board of Directors of the Chamber of Commerce.  Our one bedroom apartment was crammed beyond recognition and people spilled out onto the lawn.  We had a piñata.

Don’t Eat Off my Plate! – Jammie is an ardent proponent of eating off of other people’s plates.  This took a while for me to get used to.  I was all about eating my own food and finishing it.  It barely occurred to me that I would need to share it or at least offer it up for multi-person sampling.  In fact, that seemed a little gross.  Jammie cured me of any such inhibitions.  I will now eat off your plate.

Visiting Family – Family is extremely important to both of us.  But visiting and communicating takes on different forms.  For starters, we live in Northern California so driving or flying to LA to see the Filipino side is easy.  If we lived in LA I am sure we would be over at Jammie’s parents’ place a lot or they would come to ours.  Scandinavian culture is a significantly more hands-off.  Even if my parents didn’t live in England but right here in California, the visits would be more spread out.  Not because the family bond is weaker but because Swedish parents believe it wise to “let the kids work things out for themselves” unless their help or opinion is directly solicited.  I am happy with either approach and am not sure yet how I will treat my future kids.  Probably some kind of hybrid approach as usual.

What Qualifies as Fashionably Late? – This is a biggie.  Jammie and I both are a blend of event-centered and time-centered cultures. The question is not so much one of when to arrive to work.  American culture can explain that one for you with a pink slip in record time.  Social engagements are the real question.  Last weekend we got to our favorite car show so late that the sun had set and we could barely see the cars.  That’s what you call unfashionably late.  So we do need to be more punctual with our social engagements but we want to keep the focus on the event, the people and the relationships, not militaristic time card punching.

As I said, we are just five months in but I’ll keep you updated on our very intercultural marriage.  In the meantime, leave a comment with how you navigate diversity in your relationships.



Bjorn Karlman

Surviving “Fresh off the Boat” (FOB) Parenting…

Junge Türkin bei Dreharbeiten

It happened WAY too much.  And it always happened when we were already running late.  Our old, disgracefully dilapidated beast of a Buick would shut off at the bottom of the long, steep driveway to the cookie-cutter Marietta, Ga. apartment complex where we lived.  My high-strung über-Scandinavian mother would then proceed to frantically wind down the car window, stick her head out as far it would go and yell “It STOPPED!!” with shrill, Nordic determination to the annoyed assortment of early-morning drivers behind us.  Humiliated, my sister and I would shrink down in our seats, willing the moment to pass.

This, of course, was only one of the whole smorgasbord of awkward experiences my sister and I had growing up with FOB (Fresh-off-the-boat) parents who had about as much interest in blending into local culture as we did in sticking out like sore thumbs.

I’ve met enough children of FOBs to detect some patterns.  The first of these is that immigrants often have an idealist, nonconformist streak.  It took guts and ignoring naysayers to move from their homelands.  Now that they are here, some of these qualities manifest themselves in a stronger-than-usual sense of motivation. They are also less likely to concern themselves with what others think.  While this singular focus has worked well for them, their children (who are more concerned with blending in) will often find this focus too narrow and abrasive.  I’ve rarely witnessed kids that have been able to change their FOB parents.  It seems that the best thing to do is to appreciate your parents’ work ethic and recognize that they are who they are.

Another thing about FOB parents is that although they (in most cases) chose to leave their home countries, they often are extremely patriotic and nostalgic about the homeland they left behind.  They will wax lyrical about the food, the culture and the beauty of home.  Ask them if they would like to go back though and they quickly shake their heads or talk loosely about what they might do in retirement. If you were born to FOBS and have to listen to your parents and their nostalgic rambling, take it all with a grain of salt.  It is good to be aware of your roots but realize that time and distance have probably embellished the memories of your parents’ home.

One of the more obvious things about FOB parents is their accent and how they carry themselves. Accents rarely change if someone learns a language as an adult so chances are that your FOB parents really sound foreign.  My mom’s accent used to embarrass me, but nowadays it is much more of a source of amusement.  As with most things about foreign parents and their cultural idiosyncrasies, if you can see the humor in the situation, you can actually enjoy it.  On that note, let’s conclude with a video from HappySlip, a YouTube-based comedy series by Christine Gambito, a Filipina American who plays all her characters and who has the funniest take I have ever seen on the FOB experience…


Bjorn Karlman

Border Skirmish – Boundaries in Cross-Cultural Relationships

Voluntary Restrictions
Voluntary Restrictions

You know how it goes: Straight-laced white guy with IBM pocket protector meets exotic young curvy thing from Guadalajara, they fall in love, struggle through no end of relational issues and cultural adjustments and then finally reach some kind of happy cultural equilibrium and live happily ever after. The predictability of these Hollywood cross-cultural romances is touching. But how do you navigate cultural diversity in real-life relationships? Some would say that the most important thing is to break down all boundaries, to create a complete blend of both cultures. I would say the exact opposite: in order to have a successful cross-cultural relationship, you need boundaries. Effective boundary setting is the most effective way to multicultural relational bliss. Here are a few boundaries to watch:

Overgeneralizing: Familiarity in multiclutural relationships can easily lead to slips of tongue and overgeneralizations about the other person’s culture. “You Swedes are such emotionally unavailable bores…”, for example, is not something that needs to be heard. “National and cultural stereotypes do play an important role in how people perceive themselves and others, and being aware that these are not trustworthy is a useful thing,” says Robert McCrae of the National Institute on Aging http://bit.ly/4kXDgE.
“No cultural stereotyping” is a great ground rule for cross-cultural relationships; it will spare you a lot of conflict.

Comfort Levels: It is entirely unfair to expect your significant other of another culture to enjoy or feel at ease with each one of your cultural practices. Come from a loud, spontaneous culture? Don’t judge your boyfriend for his inability to jump straight in and blend in. Decades of conditioning to one way of life are not reversed overnight. Give your partner some space and allow for very gradual change. The Harvard University International Office tells Harvard international students that it is possible to control the discomfort of living in a new culture and the accompanying culture shock. The first step: Realize that dealing with culture shock is tough. Students are advised to reach out to family and others from “back home” to have some connection to their roots. (http://bit.ly/1dMfXT).

Superstition: Whether or not we come from a background of organized religion, most of us have beliefs that seem very true and very important to us. As personal and non-transferable as some of these beliefs may be, we do not appreciate ridicule about them. An example from Filipino culture: turning your plate around when someone leaves during a meal to ward off bad luck. This may look petty or silly to the outside observer but it speaks to the importance of community-building and sharing food in Filipino culture… ignore it at your peril. Check out this article that touches on the benefits of respecting cultural superstition, no matter how strange it may seem: http://bit.ly/2pPlWC.

Historical/Political Pressure Points: It is important to know a little about the historical and political landscape of your partner’s home country. Often, seemingly harmless jokes can have disastrous consequences if they indicate insensitivity about another’s culture. Realize that jokes about political developments in your girlfriend’s country may wreak havoc when her father decides you are an uneducated brute who hasn’t even bothered to understand basic cultural taboos.

Good boundary setting is ultimately one of the most freeing things if you want to have a happy cross-cultural relationship. Solid ground rules and structure facilitate respect and understanding and the ability to appreciate and celebrate differences.


Bjorn Karlman