Saturday, March 29, 2014

Dear Expat, Whitey, or Balikbayan: Be careful what you say!

or: A Travel Tip for those visiting the Philippines

Written in: Calgary, Alberta, CANADA
Composition: Addressing some articles I recently read and couldn't help but react to...
Previous Post: No Medals for Being a Modern Day Pioneer

A traveller who wrote an honest review about her experiences with Philippine street food is chastised, criticized, and condemned to no end. She was even called names, told racist and sexist slurs, and labeled as arrogant, and uppity.

A Filipino who's been living and working in Singapore comes back to the Philippines after seven years, writes honestly about his experiences, and is again, chastised, criticized, and condemned to no end. More than that, his actions were labeled as traitorous, his bearing as pretentious, and he was even told to "go back where he came from" by his own fellow Pinoys.

Kind of ironic, considering he was already "back where he came from", in his "home", the Philippines - or more specifically, Metro Manila.

These recent articles and the backlash over them, particularly the latter one, prompted me to address something I was somewhat building up to in previous posts (here, here and here). I had been saving it, not necessarily for the end, but for another occasion when I could relate it to another narrative post in these here travel memoirs of mine. But since those two articles prompted another wildfire of discussion within the Filipino community - though admittedly, as is the case with these things, most pronounced only within the confines of the respective articles' discussion board, as well as in the blogosphere, twitterverse, and Facebook - I figured that I might as well deal with it now.  

Ika nga: Strike, while the bakal is mainit pa.


And so, let us parse some of the things said in the responses so that we may gain an insight to Pinoy logic:

1.) "Westerner" = Spoiled Brat

Blue Cheese: It's fine if you want to complain. But Mr. Dancel... you're being a spoiled brat. :) [Go back to Singapore if what you are looking for isn't here. It's almost as though you never lived in the Philippines, ah? It's not like you yourself did not experience culture shock when you moved to Singapore.] :DDDDDD
"Go back to where you came from!" In Canada, only the most racist and hardcore of white supremacists say such things. And even then, only rarely because such types of people and such sentiments are a dying breed in this egalitarian and multicultural place. Yet such things are said all the time in the Philippines to outsiders who so much as ask, wonder, express bewilderment at some customs and norms. You could be expressing it in the most neutral and objective way possible and they might just take offense to it, all because they have prejudged you as a whining, picky, and finicky "westerner"1.

To them, we are all "spoiled brats", as they tend to put it themselves.

Kind of ironic, considering Filipino parents are renowned for spoiling their kids rotten. Or that no one can rival the Philippine ruling class' entitled and asocial behaviour.

But, none of these matter to Filipinos. Regardless of whether you put yourself through school by working a part-time job, accumulated huge amounts of student debt, and completely forgot to live a balanced social life because you had a choice of only picking two among the three choices of sleep, study, or party every semester, you are automatically a spoiled brat for being from "the west"1.

Yes, simply because you had the random fortune of having had parents who were either living in "the west" at the time you were born, or moved here when you were young, or maybe you yourself, as an adult born outside of "the west" moved here by your own volition, perseverance, and hard work - you still are a spoiled brat.

Working class? Working student? Skilled Worker? Blue collar worker who took years and years to save up for your vacation in the Philippines? Nope. Spoiled brat, is what you are. All "westerners are spoiled", in their mind.

So don't even try forming an opinion because...

2.) "Westerner" = Mayabang!

Thatlilonewglasses: ...This guy just spoke what he experienced (sic), it's not an attack to the culture, it's what he felt and saw. Nothing he said was out of line so you should all just calm down. 
markrey: [Then you can go with him when he returns to Singapore... You two are made for each other... You and him, are people who are] Yabang
Ah yes, Yabang. It's supposed to mean "arrogance", "haughtiness", "douchy-ness", and - with the prefix ma to make mayabang and turn it into an adjective - it becomes descriptive of a "loud obnoxious braggart"; A guy who's always on about how awesome he is and thinks he's better than everyone. At its worst it is connotative of a mental disorder, like a delusion of grandeur. At its mildest it can be used to describe everyday confidence.

Now, as per my observations, the criteria they use to accuse anyone of being mayabang is a bit fast and loose. While there are douchebags who certainly would be called its equivalent in whatever culture, I've seen it overused once too often. Sometimes, I've seen someone simply glad to have had a bit of success, luck, or fortune labeled as mayabang. Anyone who's doing better can be called mayabang.

Which, to me, always comes off as an expression of personal insecurity more than anything.

Unfortunately for us, we "westerners" are easy targets for the mayabang label. As I said in another post:
"In the Philippines, I was cool again. In fact, I was way cooler than ever before. Everyone assumed I was rich or had money, even though I wasn't and I didn't. Everyone assumed I was highly educated, even though I only had a Broadcasting Diploma around that time. Everyone just thought I was bigger and better in every way possible. Being "westerner" kind of imbued me with a halo of sorts, as though I were a step above Filipinos. Just as Laurel Fantauzzo says in her essay, "Under my Invisible Umbrella", "I was top one-percenting for the first time in my life." 
 And I wasn't even white."
Obviously, this has its consequences. As I said again in some other post:
"The privilege Filipinos give to foreigners is a double edged sword. The Colonial Mentality, which elevates white skin, foreign pedigree, or perhaps foreign experience and schooling, also produces a kind of resentment which runs deep in Philippine society. After all, they both stem from the same inferiority complex.
Praise their culture, their food, their ingenuity, their creativity, and their kindness, and your opinion - seeing as it matters more than the average Pinoy - is going to be elevated, celebrated, and even oft repeated above all. But be a bit critical, or be so much as perceived as being critical, and watch everyone erupt in protest. Suddenly, you're the arrogant visitor who's throwing their weight around..."
Bonus points if you're white, because...

3.) "Westerner" = Whites
dabianang_payat: [You've only been gone for 7 years and you experienced culture shock when you returned here in the Philippines? Bullshit...]
Only those who are white tend to be viewed as "true" foreigners. For someone like me who was born there, who then left before adulthood but after childhood, I sometimes got the sense that some people doubted my culture shock and all the other hardships I faced during the adjustment period for this Philippine trip of mine. They may have even thought I were faking a foreign pedigree in a quest to attain a higher status2. I guess some of them just can't understand how time and the mere act of living elsewhere that is almost literally "worlds apart" can change you.

Besides, if I were to assume a different persona, I could have done much better than a certain doe-eyed fascination with everything. EVERYTHING!

Even the stuff I should have filed away as a negative experience, I still took as a learning experience. Why? Because that's why I went to the Philippines! I went back after a decade's absence to experience and/or witness the grit, the harshness, and the hardships, maybe even the brutality of everyday life. I wanted to experience what the average Filipino3 experienced on a daily basis.

And yet the Philippines still surprised me a great deal. There's just no way to prepare for everything.

Speaking of fakery: If anything, I was doing the exact opposite: I was faking being Pinoy. In an effort to blend in, my first two months were spent studying their mannerisms, their body language, and even their slang. Because although I spoke Tagalog, Filipinos are so quick to adapt and change that their everyday language is updated almost on a daily basis. You can't even call it Tagalog anymore. It's really only Taglish nowadays (Tagalog + English) - its rules unwritten, and its conventions, non standardized. The only way to really learn, is to experience and absorb it. In some strange twist, I - the person who had been away for a decade - spoke deeper, more literary, businesslike Tagalog than my childhood friends and family.

Like I said elsewhere (herehere, and here), my mind was a time capsule of the Philippines when I left.

And whatever information was on it back then, was all largely useless. In some cases, what I thought I knew, what I thought would have helped me cope, was so out of date, I might as well have been born outside of the Philippines.

But I wasn't.

I spoke Tagalog. I had memories of the 1980's and 1990's over there. And worst of all, I am not white. Had I been visibly, blatantly, and obviously a foreigner, I may have been forgiven for my culture shock and general awkwardness. Instead, there was this expectation - this general pressure - that, having been born there, having once been Filipino, I had to know what it was like, I should not have been surprised by anything, and that I must be able to blend in as though I had not gone away at all. Instead of praising me for still maintaining my Filipino heritage, I can be potentially criticized for having become "too westernized", and for having "forgotten my roots".

...which is deeply insulting in its dismissiveness considering I went away when I was 15 years old, and came back for a visit at 25. I went from being a kid to an adult - from Jr. High to College - while outside of the Philippines. In between all that, I had been in the Canadian Army, I had been part of the Canadian workforce, paid my taxes here, voted, and formed all sorts of friendships and relationships. I even witnessed world events from Canadian perspective, such as the 9/11 attacks and subsequent War on Terror - still big news, way back in 2006-2007.

More than anything else, the last thing I should have known back then is how to be a Filipino in the Philippines. Yet, some people over there still had the opposite expectation, all because I was born there.

However, not being white may still be an advantage since, to some Filipinos...

4.) Whites = Racist!
akramgolteb: Immigration people [would you please mark this jerk's passport as PERSONA NON GRATA so that he cannot return to the Philippines ever again, even though he has a Philippine passport. Might as well include his parents, siblings, and if he has children, might as well exile them to Singapore too. Let's see what kind of life they'll have there, considering they have brown skin!]
Indeed, to some Filipinos who have never been outside of Philippine borders, we overseas Filipinos are assumed to be suffering under the crushing oppression of foreign powers. To them, the United States is still home to regular Civil Rights riots, Germany is still run by Nazis, Australians would all scold you for not wiping your ass properly, and Canadians would thumb their noses at your improper table manners.

I honestly don't know what to make of these, except to remind myself that given Philippine history, it should come as no surprise that Filipinos are very preoccupied with who is racist towards them. Observers have noted this as a form of insecurity or even an inferiority complex. Nowadays, it is this insecurity which breeds contempt for the western powers, as well as whoever is visibly identifiable as from there (ie. whites).

Kind of unfortunate since it diminishes our true experiences - by this I mean us, we Foreign Filipinos - with stereotyping and commonly held clichés regarding being an immigrant. As I said elsewhere regarding discrimination in Canada:
"It's subtle. It's not overt. And it is never in your face. But it's there. You'd actually be surprised who ends up inadvertently displaying them! Somehow, this actually makes them all the more insidious"
More importantly, I feel that it is best fought with stoic and dignified resolve, rather than a loud mob, demanding for apologies. "Be the bigger man", so to speak. 

And if you happen to have read my other articles in this here travel memoirs disguised as blog, you probably know where I'm going with this: The Philippines is way more racist compared to most democratic and developed nations. Whatever little racism there is in Canada, does not concern me as much as racism in the Philippines. There is no other way to say it - the Philippines is still a place where racist attitudes are held, racist beliefs still propagate, and challenging blatantly racist actions are still not the norm.

The worst part is that the racism is often towards other Filipinos!

Indeed, only in the Philippines - my own place of birth - did I get to experience the most blatant form of racism, discrimination, and preferential treatment. Over there, I have seen washroom attendants smile and be overly courteous to the white guy in front of me, and in turn either be completely snobbish towards me or are even bastos, as though I were a second class citizen4 - the same goes for wait staff, security guards, sales personnel... you name it, I got to witness a lot of preferential treatment over there, while among my "fellow Filipinos".

To be honest, I don't really know how to square the two together: How can some Filipinos in the Philippines view "foreigners" and "westerners" with such suspicion, all while others elevate them above their fellow Filipinos? Come to think of it, maybe that's exactly why. Maybe the great number of Filipinos who treat whites better than other Filipinos have internalized feelings of inferiority, while Filipinos who view whites with suspicion have more than once witnessed how their fellow countrymen treat whites better than them. Perhaps this could begin to explain why, taken as a whole, the country seems conflicted on how it treats outsiders and foreigners. As I said elsewhere: "They put you up on a pedestal, even if only to find your faults."

Parting Shots

To be fair I could understand the inner resentment which drives some Filipinos to judge us "westerners" in such a manner. 

There indeed are balikbayans who walk around the Philippines thinking they're better than everyone else all because they've been abroad.

There are indeed tourists who visit the place practically typifying the "Ugly American" cliché, regardless of their true nationality.

Even the backpackers - the travelling style I identified with the most - can get in the nerves of the locals. I guess wide-eyed earnestness does not always get respect when first hand experience is privileged over true understanding. Sure, they got to experience things first hand, but did they interpret it properly? Some of them also walk around thinking they're doing the world a favour simply because they've been to a developing country. (Expect a future post about this...)

In the end, keep in mind that the above quoted remarks are all the online rantings of people hiding behind anonymity. Should you ever decide to actually parse some of the article comments on your own, there still are some well composed replies which praise, agree, and support everything the author had to say.

Nonetheless, these are not isolated incidents nor are they restricted to ill-tempered internet posters. These are commonly repeated sentiments which I got to see, hear, and observe many times during my stay in the Philippines.

Then again, with 100 million Filipinos, you just might have a different experience than what I wrote about in here. So go ahead. Critique the Philippines and Filipinos if you dare.

Just don't say you weren't warned.

Next Post: Discussing Citizenship, Part II

Related Posts: White Privilege in the Philippines
                            White Privilege in the Philippines Part II
                            Dear Filipinos Stop Claiming that You're Spanish!
                            Last Thoughts Before Going to Bed Tonight: Pinoy Citizenship
                            Discussing Citizenship: Aba oo! Canadian na ako! Sino may angal?

Further Reading: I would rather go hungry than eat Filipino street food again! 
                             Agness Walewinder,

                             Back home in Manila, and Feeling out of Place
                             Raul Dancel,

                             The 5 types of foreigners you'll see in Manila
                             Charley Mendoza,

                             Are Filipinos actively looking for butthurt?
                             ChinoF, GRP Online


1 = Westerner, The West: That I put it in quotes is no accident: "Westerner", "Foreigner", and "Expat" have taken a unique meaning in the Philippines with all the baggage of East vs. West dichotomy, of experiences of oppression harking back to Colonial times (imagined or real), of concepts of core vs. periphery, and above all, of a deep seated insecurity which they try to mediate by judging everyone around them.

As I said in another post:
"With over Ten Million people scattered throughout the world who identify themselves as part of the Filipino Diaspora, be they emigres, OFW (OCW), or even those engaged in international business dealings and even the occasional diplomat, almost everyone in the Philippines knows a Filipino from abroad. Because of this, many Filipinos in the Philippines have at one time or another played "babysitter" to visiting family, friends, and acquaintances from abroad.
Yes, "babysit", with all the accompanying baggage of the term - as in to handhold a clueless visitor who cannot exist in a country that is all about matira matibay ("only the strong survive"). It's a dog-eat-dog place and some people who actually take some sort of twisted pride in this label, subscribe to the notion that we "foreigners" as maselan or too fragile, picky, finicky, and would perhaps be unable to cope once left to our own devices in that oh-so confusing and dangerous nation of theirs!! Oh noes!"

2 = Faking It: No surprise. Over there, people DO fake foreign pedigree all the time. It's a status thing. 

3 = Average Filipino: Remember, there are 100 million Filipinos in the Philippines. With a huge, ever-widening gap between rich and poor, averaging their experiences is not exactly easy. I guess what I'm trying to say is that, I tried to view things from as many perspectives as I can during this "existential trip" of mine. 

4 = Second Class Citizen: Of course I'm not a citizen of the Philippines. The point is, I was trying to blend in - for all they know, I was just another Filipino. Unfortunately, they treat their fellow Filipinos over there like shit. 

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