“Where are you from?” asks a man across the aisle from me on a flight to Hong Kong from Tokyo. He is a middle-aged Asian, stout and short, and has been working on a Japanese language exercise book since the plane took off.
“Philippines,” I say nonchalantly. I am hesitant to get dragged into a conversation with him, but I am loath to be outright rude to anyone unless blatantly offended. His question seemed harmless enough anyway. In retrospect I can hear my French-Filipino friend’s voice in my head chastising me for being so “damn naïve” and it being a product of an all-girls education – lacking the gumption and acerbity to cut down men before they can even begin to make an advance.
“Oooh, Philippines. I love Philippines. I’ve been to Cebu, Bohol, Boracay…” This reaction is the usual spiel I get from foreigners who have been to my country. Nothing strange about it, I do the same sometimes when someone says they’re from a country I am fondly familiar with.
Chances are, however, when it’s a strange man gushing to me about the Philippines – and this happens to me on almost a monthly basis – he is reliving memories of scantily clad, giggling, brown-skinned girls fawning all over him. It’s usually a foreigner who got more bang for his buck, literally, in my homeland.
Little is being said about it, but everybody knows: Filipino women have a less-than-savory reputation abroad. Although many good things are being said about us (loving, affectionate, kind, customer oriented, good nurses / helpers / nannies / caregivers), the negative overpower the positive, at least in Hong Kong where I’ve been living for the last five years, and in Singapore, as I have heard. (And on that note, I’d like Filipinas to also be known for being strong, intelligent, ambitious, and educated, but that’s a more complex social issue tackled elsewhere).
The negative: easy targets, gold-diggers, lazy, untrustworthy, promiscuous, dirty, opportunistic. That woman your husband will cheat on you with. That woman who will be all over you because you have white skin and/or deep pockets. The easy lay.
A foreigner will not see or respect a Filipino woman the same way he will see or interact with a European, Latina, or Australian woman. On a night out in Madrid, my Spanish girlfriend and I were making our way out of a nightclub. At least four men stopped me on my way out, a couple downright telling me to go home with them.
“How dare they!” said Almudena, my friend. “They do this to you because you’re Asian! If it were a Spanish pija they would never come on that way! I am outraged!” She flared.
“Oh Filipinas!” A Madrileño brightened up immediately when I mentioned it offhandedly. “I’ve been there! Do you know these girls? They took me out in the Philippines, they’re celebrities!” He shows me a few photos of dancers from a noontime show. “I’d love to go back to the Philippines,” I turn my back on the wistful expression on his face, my skin crawling.
This is what they think of us.
It is with a sinking feeling that I listen to the beginning of that all-too-familiar speech, that has invaded introductory conversations with men (and some women) for most of my twenties.
An Irish man I used to date told his officemates about me once. “I’m seeing an amazing girl tonight,” he said over lunch.
“That’s great!” said his Hong Kong colleague. “Where’s she from?”
“The Philippines,” said the Irish.
“Oh,” an uncomfortable look passes over the colleague’s face. “What’s she doing here?” Carefully said.
“She’s a journalist.”
“Oh!” A look of relief. “Great, man.”
Frankly, the colleague was afraid the Irish was yet another white-man-in-Asia “victimized” by one of many Filipinas who squeeze men dry to send money home to pay for their family’s food / rent / education. This is how they see us. It’s not a situation anybody wants to be in, and desperation drives these cases.
I will surely offend many by saying I hate to be branded this way. The sad reality is that most of my countrywomen are only doing what they can to make their lives better. And yet there are people like me too, yes privileged, but also with the right to feel and say: I don’t want to be labeled like that. I want to be regarded with more respect and dignity.
Of course you prove them wrong when they get to know you. It’s a shallow and bothersome thing, ultimately. But it should not be dismissed. It’s a reality I want to discuss, because more and more Filipinas experience this by the day, and why shouldn’t we acknowledge the minority of us who feel this way?
A few days back in Tokyo an Australian man – a friend of a friend, introduced in a birthday event – turned passive-aggressive on me when I refused to pander to him, as clearly he was expecting something else. “Bitchy” was one of the words he used in that conversation, aside from trying to prove to me that my English was bad by whipping out a dictionary after I used a word he didn’t recognize: “repressed”. “We don’t say that in Australia,” he scoffed. “Let’s see if you’re using it right.”
After quickly realizing the expectations men have of me upon learning I am Filipina (that I will be warm, open, flirty), during my first year in Hong Kong, I would try to avoid saying where I was from. Later I realized I was doing myself and my country a disservice. I am not ashamed to say it, but many a time I do have to brace myself for the reaction following my country introduction.
Hanging out with friends one Wednesday night in Hong Kong’s street drinking scene, I refused to talk to a Japanese man who was trying to chat with me. Walking away, his friends followed and tried shoving a thousand Hong Kong dollars in my face, as if that would change my mind. I was so shocked I couldn’t react until my friends dragged me away.
Once, going home on the minibus, a South Asian man followed me out. He was trying bargain with me: five hundred Hong Kong dollars was all I was worth that night. My terrorized twenty-two-year-old self had to run across Nathan Road and jump the barrier to get away from him.
Another time, my sister and I were walking home when a French guy crosses over the street to us. “Do I need to pay you to talk?” he jeers after being ignored for few meters.
My experiences have in some ways molded me into the “least Filipina Filipina” people have met. I am reserved and cold, the opposite of friendly; I cut people down, do not smile or laugh at the onset, I rarely initiate conversation.
“Where in the Philippines are you from?” says the man on the plane.
“Manila,” I say curtly. I don’t even look up from my copy of The Economist. Dressing decently and carrying yourself well helps a lot, but apparently it doesn’t spare you from the typecasting and advances all the time.
“Manila! I always go to Manila. I recruit health workers to send to China,” he says. “Have Weibo?”
“If your friends want a job they can get in touch with me.” He shoves his workbook on my tray table and motions emphatically for me to write my details. I know this trick, they try to lure you in with opportunities as bait, because I think that actually works with many women.
“No,” I raise my voice to make sure I’m clear as day this time, firmly returning his book and pen.
“Alright forget it then,” his tone turns nasty when he realizes he won’t get anywhere with me. Again, this is standard.
I may be accused of being a shrew, but sometimes, there really is such a thing as being too nice, something many of us have to learn the hard way when we leave the country.