Cheyanne Atole’s Poetry of Identity

While majoring in sciences, she’s discovered a creative outlet in writing—and a vehicle for exploring her Filipina history

For Cheyanne Atole, A25, who she is has always been an open question.

“I have been so confused about my identity for so long, and my parents were never exactly equipped to talk about it,” said Atole, who was born in the Philippines, but moved to an Air Force base in Virginia as a toddler. Her family then lived in California for eight years before moving to Guam.

Luckily, Atole is used to wrestling with tough questions. “When you’re debugging your code and you get stuck on a problem and you stay up all night thinking about it and you finally figure it out, it’s so rewarding,” said Atole, who is majoring in cognitive and brain science and computer science.

Now Atole is turning that love of problem solving to her Filipina American identity, exploring her memories and feelings about her background through poetry. She recently read her poem “Filipino Groceries” at an open mic on the Medford / Somerville campus.

Atole spoke with Tufts Now about what it’s been like unearthing her conflicting feelings about her mother’s home country—and beginning to make peace with them.


How did you get started writing poetry?

I’ve been trying to write seriously for a long time, but I only started when I came to Tufts. I was inspired by the friends I met from different walks of life who are very creative and artsy, and I pushed myself to take an intro poetry writing class.

In the beginning, I was just trying to take the images that came into my brain and describe them the best I could. My first poem, published in the Observer, was about the skin on our bodies, and its pores being a bunch of doors that can open and close. 

Since then, I’ve been trying to be more vulnerable about myself on the page and to use it as a therapy, to gather my thoughts and dig into questions that I ask myself. The way my friends talk about their immigrant or minority experiences and identities has inspired me to think more about my identity as a Filipina woman and first-generation student. 

How do you relate to that identity?

I feel like I’m constantly tussling with my own identity. I’m biracial—my dad is white, and my mom is Filipina. And that’s been confusing. Especially in the military bubble, it’s very common to see a married couple where the man is white and the woman is Filipina, and I’ve come from that stereotype. I realized my identity is political, and I had trouble confronting that. And Guam is mostly Asian and Pacific Islander, so the second I set foot there, I was told I was white. I feel like there’s a toxic tendency within our own communities to alienate one another.

When I was 12, having grown up in the U.S. for most of my life, I visited the Philippines. I had such severe culture shock. My brain rejected the idea that I came from this place. I just felt so foreign, and I felt terrible that I didn’t know the language my family members were speaking. I mean, most of them know English, but there was this barrier in terms of cultural understanding. I reacted very poorly and have been trying to articulate why ever since.

What inspired you to write about Filipino grocery stores?

When I was growing up in California, I wanted these Nutella sandwiches my friends at school would have. I wanted the fruit and the Kraft mac and cheese.

But my mom would go out and try to find these Filipino grocery stores, and I was dragged along. I hated these stores. I remember seeing dried fish and leaves and foreign exported items that I knew would get looks if I presented them in my classroom. I was like, I don’t want to go to the Philippines if this is what it’s like. The fish smell really punches you in the face.

And I didn’t want to admit that I loved the smell. I love the smell of my mom frying tilapia with lemon and garlic, and eating it with our hands. I love taro leaves. I love munggo beans—my mom makes this delicious soup with it.

I haven’t been able to travel to a Filipino grocery since being here in Boston, but I still find my ways to get my little Mama Sita sinigang soup packets, shrimp chips, and corn puffs. I look up Filipino restaurants in the area, and a few pop up, but they’re not exactly what I’m looking for. I want my mom’s cooking. I want the paper plate.

How does your mom feature in your poetry?

I write about my mom and our relationship a lot. When I took Contemporary Asian America my sophomore year, we talked about how common that is in the Asian American canon, the relationship between mother and daughter.

The Philippines has always been home for my mother. Every day, she says, “I can’t wait until we go home.” But I just have never been integrated into that way of life. And there’s a linguistic barrier, so in a way, I feel like I’ve never really understood her the way most people understand their mom—through language. Even though I look the part, and I’ve grown up the way my mom raised me, eating chicken adobo, I still feel this huge distance and this thing I don’t understand. 

Has writing poetry helped you clarify or come to terms with your identity?

When I first found out I could write about my identity, I started rage writing about how confused I am. With “Filipino Groceries,” I decided to be more kind to myself, and try to unravel the culture shock I was experiencing. I think the first step is to admit your assumptions and your negative ways of thinking. I had to admit that growing up, I was actually ashamed of being Filipina. Now I’m wondering, where do I begin to talk about my pride in all of this? 

I have found that writing about my confusion is very soothing because I can really articulate the emotions through metaphors and sound. And I enjoy the revision process, and discovering the many subconscious things that I’ve put on paper and should look at again. Hopefully after a couple more poems, I’ll have gotten it all out. I don’t know exactly what I’ll embark on after that. I’ve been wanting to take a sociology class on Asian American history to understand how that context impacts my experience and my mother’s, in the Philippines and here.

Right now, I’m just trying to understand the basics of my identity. I am proud to be Filipina and have this identity, experiences, and perspectives—but I’m allowing myself the grace to be confused.

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