There was always something that somehow made me feel like I didn’t fit in.
Was it always a bad thing? Perhaps not.
Did it make life a little harder for me? Sometimes I think it did.
I don’t think I would have it any other way though, for it strengthens who I am and paves the way for even more growth.
I am Filipino.
Born and raised in the Philippines, and though I now live in the United States and became a US citizen in 2008, I would have to say that my primary sense of identity and consciousness remain very much Filipino.
I lived in Metro Manila (the main metropolitan region of the Philippines) until the age of 30 when I had to permanently migrate to the US due to marriage. I come from a Filipino middle-class family which translates to;
(1) being born and raised a Catholic;
(2) valuing education and not obtaining a degree (college or even beyond) was never an option;
(3) having parents who subscribe to conservative / traditional values; and
(4) being quite sheltered from, though never left unaware of, the harsher face of my country.
You see, being privileged or being an outsider gives you this face:
while there is also this face that should never be ignored, denied or forgotten.
Much like any developing or third-world country, the Philippines has a very uneven development, with the rich getting richer and the poor losing even more hope for a better life every single minute. In theory, social mobility is open to everyone. In reality, opportunities are limited to the underprivileged.
Despite the widespread poverty, it always surprises foreigners when they discover that almost all Filipinos, regardless of social class, understand and even speak basic English. I guess this is why, as far as tourism goes, the Philippines has always been an easy choice for foreigners since communication is manageable. I would attribute this to our colonisation history, which in turn shaped our education institution (among countless other things) and media.
The Philippines is exposed to Western ideas, especially American. You turn on our televisions and you see a lot of American shows. You listen to the radio and you hear a lot of songs by American artists. Hollywood films are extremely popular and sometimes even shown in Manila a day or two ahead of their US opening.
Western books, journals and other reference materials are used in our schools. English is also taught in schools and when I was a student, our teachers all spoke and taught in English, save for our Filipino language, Philippine literature and history classes. As part of the Sociology faculty in the university, I taught primarily in English, I guess mainly because it was easier to some extent given that I used reference books written in English. (It would’ve been exceptionally difficult teaching the grand Sociological theories in Filipino although I think that would be very elegant indeed!).
It cracks me up when some Americans are surprised with my fluency with the English language. When they remark at how well I speak, or that I even speak English, I don’t know whether to be flattered or insulted because some of them seem to have a very backward idea about my country. From experience, those whom I’ve heard make such remarks are always those who have not travelled much or have not had any exposure to other cultures.
My (slightly different) Heritage
I can’t talk about my heritage without mentioning that I am what Filipinos label as mestiza or having mixed ancestry. My maternal grandfather was American making my mother half-American. As such, I don’t have the typical Asian look which in a way makes me stick out a bit. Living in the Philippines, I would have to say that the most difficult part about my physical difference is that most other Filipinas are petite and I am obviously not. I always felt insecure about my body and never felt comfortable enough with it to tell myself that I am beautiful just as I am. I grew up hating my body shape, my bigger frame, bone structure and the extra weight I carried and convinced myself that unless I can look like everyone else, slim and as close to petite as I could get, can anyone really find me attractive and desirable.
As I grew older and a little wiser, I understood that I was not as deviant as I had labeled myself to be and that maybe it’s societies standards that are skewed and that it’s all relative. I remember thinking
If I lived in the U.S., I would probably be closer to the normal size and finally be able to find clothes that fit well.
I got my wish. We ended up migrating. But as with most things in life, something new always comes up and you end up wishing you hadn’t made that previous wish.
After Shape Comes Colour
When I first arrived in the States to live permanently, I didn’t expect any major difficulties as far as adapting. Other than missing family and friends, and getting anxious over leaving all that was familiar to me back home, I felt confident I came from a society that was very much exposed to American culture. I had also visited the States before as a tourist, so thought I knew what to expect.
Culture shock was not at all in my mind. And really, it never happened to me. Or at least not to the extent or form I had anticipated. I was not prepared that America was not prepared for me. It was a shock realizing that in these modern and even post-modern times, in a society that prides itself for being open and diverse, racism still exists. And it is very subtle which makes it even more dangerous. Often I think that most racists either don’t know that they are one or won’t admit it, but you’ll see it in their looks, body language and seep through the words they spew.
I feel it when I line up in a store and the cashier is remarkably chatty with every single white person checking out until my turn comes. Even when I say ‘hello’ with a big smile, I get nothing but a cold acknowledgment.
I resented it when I felt dismissed by some mothers in a play group I joined a few years ago. It was a huge deal for me given that I am not a very social person and I made so much effort to go out of my shell and be friendly. I forced and trained myself to be the one to approach and not wait to be approached. I tried to overcome my fear of being in new situations with people unfamiliar to me and attended play dates for both me and my son to meet potential friends. However it did not take long for me to realize that I was not being given a fair chance. Some of the moms congregated by themselves and I did not see any effort on their part to make me feel included. If anything, I felt like they were waiting for me to feel uncomfortable so I would leave. I remember one particular play date where the host herself practically ignored. When it was time for me and my son to leave her house, she just casually nodded her head, barely even looked at me, and waved her hand in a very dismissive manner as she chatted with another mom from the group.
That was the point I thought, That’s it. It just wasn’t worth it. I had joined hoping to make new friends, but instead ended up realizing that friendships will never be easy for me because of my ethnicity and assumptions certain people make by looking at me.
I have not totally given up and still know the value of opening myself to new situations. However, this time I won’t have false hopes and won’t expect too much too quickly from too many people. Not everyone is evolved enough. Nor are they prepared enough for the richness to be found in diversity.
A Realistic Optimism
There will always be something that would make us feel different and set us apart from the rest. It could be physical, political, religious, or moral. But uniqueness and diversity should be celebrated, for amidst diversity is the capacity for tolerance to be nurtured and where deeper enlightenment becomes possible. This is how we evolve as human beings. This is how we are able to accept each other for who we actually are. You could be turning away from a potential loyal friend, wise mentor, or the love of your life if you shun anyone that appears different from you. You’ll just never know unless you become open.
Our utopic world, where differences are embraced and equality is genuinely alive, is not quite here yet, so as I had written before, in the meantime I think it’s best for us to stay realistic and be aware of the continued presence of prejudices, yet doing our best to aim for more evolved minds. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it here again –
Navigate the world knowing that race (still) does matter, but behave like it does not.