It was the first day of classes and I found myself trying to make friends in the middle of a lecture hall filled with about a hundred people who have never seen a single Kris Aquino billboard in their life. And I came in there that day determined to change that.
I walked up to the orientation group I was assigned to, and the introductions began. One was Singaporean, another Japanese, the tall guy was German-American, and the bubbly one was Indian. Then my turn came up.
“Hi I’m Mark. I’m from the Philippines!” I said beaming with pride, and ready to enumerate a long list of reasons why my country is more fun than others. Then what one of them said a split second after I uttered my last word stopped me in my tracks.
“Oh wow! My maid is Filipina.”
Before delving deeper into this, I’d like to point out that I do recognize this topic may be highly sensitive for some. Talking about this experience with other Filipinos abroad, from former high school classmates to this group of delivery men I played basketball with, I witnessed a whole spectrum of reactions. The statement made some cringe, others cry out bloody murder, but most were left dumbfounded and silent as I was. When the shock settled down, everyone ended up pretty much with the same emotion – inexplicably uncomfortable.
Hearing this statement started me down a dark path. For the next year or so, I was embarrassed to utter the words “I am Filipino”. Every time the topic of nationality came up, I would go around in circles trying to avoid saying where I was from, or defending why the Philippines wasn’t just a breeding ground for the best household help on the planet. Sinking deeper into my shame, I began to understand how my shame fed on itself, and grew exponentially. It also wasn’t helping that a good number of Filipinos I would speak to confirmed what I felt.
It was a vicious cycle – We all seemed to just become more and more ashamed of the fact that we were ashamed.
Nearing the end of the program, I got finally fed up. I was fed up with talking about how life in the Philippines is heavily western-influenced, when I could be talking about what makes our culture beautifully unique. I was fed up of trying to hide the fact that many of my countrymen were working abroad in jobs deemed less than desirable, when I could be proud of the strong sense of values all Filipinos carry in their hearts and bring with them wherever they go.
I was fed up with trying to paint a picture of someone that I, a Filipino, was not.
During one of the last drinking sessions I had with my group of friends from the program, I ‘fessed up. After a five-minute speech about how I had been ashamed to say where I was from, my Swedish dorm mate was first to pipe up. “You know, you assumed something that probably doesn’t exist. I think you got it wrong.“ And at that moment, it dawned on me why.
“It’s not them, it’s us” was the first thought that crossed my mind. I was assuming all along that the moment I mentioned the word “Filipino”, I would be judged as uninteresting or be perceived by my peers as somewhat inferior. In reality, people are more likely to be interested to hear more about Philippine diving spots over judging me as a third-world castaway. When I actually did ask, my Italian classmate said, “when you say Philippines, I think of remote, mysterious islands with pristine, untouched beaches.” Definitely very different from what I was originally thinking. The amazing part was he wanted to learn more about my country. Which brought me to my next realization.
“We become who we say we are.”
This was the thought playing in my head after my Italian friend started telling me of how his office’s Filipino janitor spun stories of his hometown in Bohol. Then it dawned on me that on the five different occasions I received the “my maid/nanny/cleaner is Filipino”, each person had a different story. The Singaporean girl in my orientation group was told of the many ways a bag could be snatched or slashed in Manila, or how the children of even the richest tycoons in the country became targets of kidnapping. This, of course, led her to swear never to set foot on Philippine soil. On the flipside, a British lawyer I met in the university pub grew up on Philippine mythology, mangoes, and a spicy adobo prepared for him by his beloved nanny. The moment he received a one-year work assignment in Asia, Cebu was the first place he visited.
If anything, their stories stood as examples of how we all truly are ambassadors of our own nation, whether we like it or not. We inadvertently become the sole sources of information about our culture for most people we meet. Thus, what we say about our country directly reflects on what others would think of us as a people. Given this, my folly became clear – the best way to get my friends to come to the Philippines was not by trying to convince them of how similar we are to first-world westerners, but rather by being a positive personification of what the Philippines stands for – a country full of heart, a culture driven by soul, and a hard-working, determined people who have a strange affinity for Kris Aquino.