This could be a possible response to either of two scenarios. One, a well-meaning foreigner has just told you, “You speak really good English.” Or two, “But you don’t look Filipino?”
Apart from resisting the urge to teach these people a thing or two about our colonial history, Filipinos have to put up with a lot whenever we’re abroad. Who hasn’t encountered a few misunderstandings on a trip? Mistakes about nationality, sadly, tend to be one of them.
Thing is, it’s not always innocuous or funny. Notice how, after getting it wrong, most foreigners will feel deep shame and hastily try to course-correct, ironically, by saying something like, “Oh, you know, you guys look so alike!”
Others might say that these statements come with good intentions or they’re meant as compliments towards Filipinos. Are they really, though?
If they greet you in passing
Allow me to set the scene: You’re walking alone in a foreign country, minding your own business when a Caucasian man brushes past you and yells, “Konnichiwa!” You turn around to see if there are any Japanese tourists nearby. Otherwise, that would make things really weird for you. Naturally, you see none. It’s just you, along with a sea of white people who don’t know what just happened.
Reader, it’s definitely weird. These foreigners might think they’re trying to be friendly, and sure, there are moments when people just want to strike a conversation about where you’re from. If the person is sincerely trying to talk to you — as opposed to dropping a greeting like a hot potato and walking away — just smile, and politely say that you’re Filipino.
Unfortunately, some people do like to get things wrong and play up their mistakes about your nationality on purpose, usually as a poor attempt at picking you up. And sexual harassment is a different story altogether, especially when aimed at solo female travellers. These scenarios call for different responses, depending on the gravity of the situation; there are times when you have to stand up for yourself and times when it’s better to walk away.
If they talk to you in their language
Mistakes surrounding your nationality can be as simple as fellow travellers asking you for directions in the only language they know. Other times, they’ve mistaken you for one of their own. Maybe you’ve mastered their language to the point of fluency; maybe the way you navigate their streets and conduct yourself as a traveller shows that you know the place well.
In any case, all you have to do is politely clarify that you’re not from their country. Then, if you can express the words for “I’m a tourist” or “I’m sorry, I don’t understand” in their language, be sure to let them know so that they won’t pin their hopes on you.
Oddly enough, this scenario can sometimes be taken as a compliment. Not to mention, it’s a fun way to interact with the locals. If they attempt to strike a deep conversation with you beyond your capabilities, but you happen to be game for a linguistic challenge, then by all means, put all those foreign language classes to good use. You might even make a friend or two!
If they profile you because of your appearance
Being Filipino, and looking like one, is nothing to be ashamed of.
However, it can be disheartening when you realise what some people in the world really think of Asians and Filipinos. Nowhere else is this more apparent than places of transit, such as the airport, where people take in your appearance in the most clinical way — and you can be singled out and taken aside, just for looking the way you do.
When people make assumptions about your character based on how you look, it’s like a bucket of cold water being emptied on your head. By shrugging off any mistakes concerning our nationality, they might as well be saying, “It doesn’t matter what you do or say or how you behave. All of you look the same to us.”
Asia is the largest and most culturally diverse continent in the world. That’s a fact. And what’s really hurtful is not just that ignorance runs rampant in many parts of the world, but that some people can hold on to it so proudly.
Journeying abroad is hard enough without having to deal with lazy stereotyping or racial discrimination. You could be casually posing for a group picture with your tour group, when one of your members decides to pull their eyelids open because they think it’s more creative than saying cheese.
Either we’re exoticised, or accused of looking indistinguishable from other Asians. We give foreigners credit for their careless mistakes regarding our nationality. We cut them slack. At the end of the day, we tell ourselves that they don’t know any better. But then again, why don’t they?