Home and Away: What Jo Koy’s comedy special can teach all of us about being Pinoy

There’s been a lot of talk lately about what makes someone ‘Filipino.’

Is it based on whatever color passport you have? Is it dependent on the amount of actual Filipino blood you have flowing in your veins (which by the way is ridiculously impossible to measure)? Is it measured by how many years of your life you’ve lived residing on our islands?

The Commission of Filipinos Overseas states that there is north of 10 million Filipinos living, making families, contributing greatly to our economy, in countries all around the world. That’s about 10% of our total population. Does that make them any less Pinoy than you and I?

Jo Koy lived in the Philippines for a few years in his childhood, grew up in Washington, went to school in Las Vegas and is now one of the most popular working comedians in the United States, even the world. His mother’s Filipino, his dad, American. He makes jokes about his mom’s thick Pinoy accent, educates Instagram about the virtues of a tabo and will tell you he loves chicken adobo every chance he gets.

Photo from Netflix

He’s world-famous, he’s waving our flag, his new Netflix special In His Elements aims to “introduce the world to his heritage and culture.” It was filmed at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay, and also features a slew of talented Pinoys, who, with the exception of Iñigo Pascual, all grew up and live in the United States.

So again the question is: Is Jo Koy (and his merry band of Fil-Ams) by any means less Pinoy than you and I?

Let’s get to me for a second. I grew up in Malanday, Marikina. A place called Filipinas Village of all places. I proudly represented Malanday in inter-barangay basketball leagues, attended Marist School in Marikina Heights, and went to college at The University of the Philippines. Los Baños. I’m as kayumaggi as they come, not an ounce of “foreign” in our family tree. 

But then I was also born in Arcadia, in Los Angeles, California – not because we were particularly wealthy, we weren’t. Like I said, Malanday boy, Laguna boy. It’s just that, like many of you, we had family abroad and my mom gave birth to me there. I have a passport that’s the same color as Mr. Gabby Lopez’s. Like him, I work here, pay taxes here (although often begrudgingly), and reside here. Shoutout Pasig City, shoutout Mayor Vico.

Am I now somehow less Filipino than you?

In the special, Jo Koy makes it a point to bring home some comedians, musicians, performers, who either haven’t been back in a long time, or even at all. He takes them to Tenement, he feeds them adobo at Farmer’s in Cubao. Hell, he even fetches a couple of them in a jeepney from the airport. 

You might think to yourself: well now that’s a bunch of clichés, a bunch of caricature descriptions of what being Filipino is like. You might think to yourself, there’s so much more to us.

Photo from Netflix

And you’re right. But not just about us who live here, but there’s also so much more to our 10 million plus countrymen who raise their children by only talking about the heritage that we who live here get to experience everyday. The crippling homesickness, the unending search for identity. I can only imagine.

As I watched the special, which is a kaleidoscope of Filipino talent that is bursting from the screen, I thought of what it must have been like, growing up in Washington as the only Filipino for miles, or in Iowa, where no one has a clue where the Philippines even is. I thought about why Jo Koy was doing this, why it was these things specifically he was making these guys experience. 

It dawned on me how easily it is for us, Filipinos, to claim people when they make it big. Bruno Mars was Pinoy when he had a Billboard Number 1 single. Jo Koy was Pinoy when he went on The Tonight Show with our flag printed on his shirt. Hell, Andray Blatche became Kuya Andray whenever he helped Gilas win.

But there are so many who live among us, Filipinos by blood, who we are just as quick to think of as ‘other’ just because one of their parents is foreign, or because they look different, or because they have a twang, or darker skin. How many racial slurs have Fil-Foreign PBA and UAAP and NCAA players heard from the very crowds they play for? How many kids right now get bullied or made fun of because they have different hair, or an unusual-sounding name or because this is their first time visiting here and they don’t know how to ride a jeep or because they don’t know the Panatang Makabayan by heart?

The PBA for example, has a stupid rule. Only five Fil-Foreign players to a team. The rule, they say was born to maintain competitive balance during the boom of Fil-Ams coming home and dominating the league. That rule’s creation, however, and much so its continued existence is a product of either ignorant or intentional racism. Racism of our own people.

Photo from Netflix

Pinoys are Pinoys. Whether they know everything about being Pinoy, or are only tasting chicken adobo for the first time. That’s what I learned from Jo Koy’s very intentional comedy special. During a poignant, moving part of his set, the classic Pinoy Tita accent that he does so well is essential not just in delivering the best joke of the whole hour, but more importantly another look into how much his very Filipino upbringing made him the man he is, even if he didn’t grow up here.

Hospitality, family, bayanihan. We pride ourselves on these values. We cannot apply them selectively. More than 10 million of our kababayans are out there all over the planet. Pinoys are as close as you can get to global citizens. Let’s learn from the world then, and realize that much like many things in life, things that happen in one place more than likely happen in another too, or at least some version of it.

Let’s allow the Jo Koy’s of the world – the Jo Koy’s of our country – to show us that to love your country means to love all of it. The cliche, the nuanced, the heart-warming and the hard-to-talk-about. To love your country means to love every single one of your countrymen – wherever they may be from.

I’m proud of Jo Koy. I’m proud that he’s one of us, teaching the world about Pinoys, and teaching Filipinos how to be proud of every Filipino.