On my numerous trips, I’ve been constantly approached and asked where I come from. For fun, I make a game out of it to let them guess. Most commonly, I’ve been perceived to be Thai. I’ve also been thought to be: Singaporean, Nepali, Kazakhstani, and on rare occasions, Chinese or Japanese.
But never Filipino. When I tell them my real identity (like Batman), two reactions alternately happen.
Either: “Oh really? You don’t look Filipino!” they say it like a genuine compliment, so I say smile. But I couldn’t help but wonder what they really mean by that. What’s a Filipino supposed to look like, anyway?
Or: Utter ignorance. “Where is the Philippines? Oh wait, wasn’t that in the Bible?” During these times I sometimes wished we have something notoriously spectacular, like the Fidel Castro or the Angkor Wat or the Dalai Lama. Oh wait, a lot of people aren’t even familiar with these. Oh wait, we have Manny Pacquiao.
‘So, are Filipinos Asians or Pacific Islanders?’
A fellow traveler asked as follow up, seeking to ensue an intellectual debate.
This gets a little more interesting. Before I could answer, another one butted in: ‘Neither? They seem more hispanic or latino to me.’
To note, these were raised by people who were neither Filipinos, but Americans. As westerners try to lump us into a particular ethnic group, we become more alienated and confused. Hence the understandable Filipino identity crisis. In the first place, we never classified ourselves as such or such before. It is all a western invention.
The Philippines is a creation by Western colonizers to begin with. If the Spanish never came, force-baptize the natives and named our islands after a historically unimportant king, there never would have been ‘The Philippine Islands’ in the first place. Our islands would probably have been absorbed by Chinese civilization from the north, or be integrated into the Muslim Malay nations from the south. Who knows?
To get back to my nationality guessing game, there was only one person who got it right once. Once. A Slovakian Arnold Schwarzenegger-esque guy we encountered in Ibiza.
Wow, you’re the very first person who got that right the first time!” I said, really impressed.
“It’s not that difficult. You’re a tan Asian with very good American English. So there you go. Filipino.”
I was stammered, because now this includes another element to the whole equation: the Filipino Americanization. This is getting more complicated than I thought.
Geographically, we are in Asia. Hence, we are Asians! I cross-checked and consulted the world map and I confirmed that we are in the right continent.
Likewise, we love our rice to death. There’s nothing more Asian than that!
To be more specific about it, we are Southeast Asians, particularly, of the Austronesian or Malay0-Polynesian ethnic group. Identifying features include: short face, mild epicanthic fold, straight, black hair, and a happy, light-hearted disposition. Sounds familiar?
‘Orphans of the Pacific’
On the other hand, being labeled as ‘Pacific Islander’ is not entirely wrong, either. Historically, we used to be part of the Spanish East Indies, which comprised of Moluccas (Indonesia), Guam, Mariana Islands and the Philippines.
Our islands were once called ‘The Philippine Islands of the Pacific’. We are located in the Pacific Ocean; a tropical island paradise, 7,000 of it. Even if most of the comprising ‘Pacific Islands’ are 4,000-8,000 km away, we see plenty of similarities in physical features and culture among people in Guam, Hawaii, etc.
Filipino migration to Guam has been happening for several centuries– the Spanish were fond of exiling Filipino rebels and prisoners to Guam. The Americans continued the practice when they took over.
Kumusta / Como estas?
The term Hispanic is a broad representation of the people and cultures with historical linkages to Spain. This term commonly referring to her former colonies, although strictly speaking, it refers to the former Spanish colonies in Latin America.
After 333 years of colonization, we have a rich hispanic heritage. The native tsokolate and mais made its way to the Philippines after centuries via the Galleon trade with our latino brothers. We share our fervent Roman Catholic faith with other hispanic cultures; as well as our love for lechons, siestas and fiestas. Do you know that ‘Filipino time’ and ‘Latino time’ is exactly the same?
And who else do we share our enduring obsession with boxing and beauty pagaents?
Today, very few people in the Philippines speak Spanish, although many of our abuelos still do when they’re angry. A few Filipinos also claim Spanish ancestry. I’d like to think my aquiline nose and freckles proves some European descent. Disclaimer: I swear I’m more modest in person.
So the whole debate was really much ado about nothing.Our islands have been a melting pot of cultures for centuries.It’s okay to be a little confused about demonyms assigned to us. Identity crisis have always been part of us, and maybe that’s why it was so easy for foreign entities to colonize us. Who cares if you identify yourself as Asian, or Pacific Islander, or even Hispanic? It’s all a western invention.
Traveling to an unfamiliar place is always full of surprises. Traveling takes you out of your comfort zone and urges you to leap unto the unknown. That’s why traveling can be so liberating and beautiful. Seeing the world gives you a whole change of perspective. The customs and beliefs you’ve learned since you were young suddenly get challenged when in a strange and new place. Europe has always been a place of wonder and romance for me–a place from dreams of a little child. I thought I’ve read enough books seen enough Downton Abbey to prepare myself on what Europe is like. But, just like marriage, you can never be fully prepared for what’s to come. Here are 10 moments of culture shock you’ll likely experience as a Filipino traveler!
1. Sparkling Water
The first culture shock I experienced was in Venice after a long-haul flight & three stopovers from the Philippines. Thirsty and famished, my family and I found the first restaurant we could find in Venice. I ordered one bottle of water, and when it arrived I drank it up immediately, only to spit it out in shock because it tasted like gas.
In Europe, they serve two types of water but Filipinos are only used to drinking the still water kind.In some other areas, they serve two types of iced tea too–the still and carbonated kind. So be specific if you want your drinks without the bubbles.
2. You have to do a lot of walking.
You’ll get to do a lot of walking. A lot. One time, I was told we were going to visit a friend’s place and not to worry because it’s ‘just a five-minute walk away’. To me, a ‘five-minute walk’ meant walking to the next block. To them, it means a 1-km walk. I wasn’t prepared with layers so was not happy freezing to death.
The Philippines does not have the ideal setting to nurture the pedestrian culture. Blame it on a combination of climate, politics, urban planningand discipline (or lack thereof), but we grew up in a car-priority society. To get from point A to point B, we mostly ride the jeepney or taxi, we drive our cars (and get our licenses without taking any driver’s test). The option to walk is very limited in the Philippines, mainly because our cities are built to discourage walking. There are no safe place for pedestrians on the road, and walkers have to run for their lives even when walking on pedestrian lanes. Doctors say that walking is good for the heart, but how can we eliminate the risk of dying every time– either by getting run over or developing a pollution-causing terminal illness?
3. Sorry, we’re closing.
While in Europe, I’ve been refused by shops a number of times because they were going to close in a few minutes. I was appalled at first (the businessman in me wanted to scream: but don’t you want my money?!?!).
We are so used to the 24-hour convenience of Asia that the idea early closing times is distressing. What if I crave for 7-Eleven ice cream or Korean instant noodles in the middle of the night? What if I suddenly want to work out at Citigym Waterfront because I feel fat at 3am? In Cebu, many shops, restaurants and even gyms are open 24/7. In Europe, shops close early at around 5pm-7pm.
Many shops close on Sundays and holidays (museums close on Mondays, by the way). On some occasions, you will find your favorite store suddenly closed for the whole summer because the storekeeper is on vacation. Or closed for winter because no one really wants to work on winter. Did I mention that they don’t have 24 hour drive-thru? Nor a pizza delivery service? Tsk.
4. Don’t they feel just a little bit claustrophobic?
For such tall people, the Europeans seem to like everything tiny and cramped. All over Europe everything feels like it’s specifically Asian-tailored–their hotel rooms, wardrobes, toilets, cars… While I don’t mind, being Asian and all. But I wonder, If I’m a six-foot-tall European, I would probably feel just a little claustrophobic.
I wish Europeans would better take care of their cars though. Drivers would bump on to other people’s cars just to squeeze in a tiny parking space. But just as one Italian friend put it: ‘what’s the use of the bumper but to bump on it?’
5. Thinking about Clothes.
Dressing in the Philippines is relatively easy. You put on a shirt, shorts or jeans, snickers (slippers if you’re feeling more casual), and you’re good to go. Some people choose to suffer for fashion and put on boots and suits in this sweltering 30-degree weather. Dressing up in a place with four seasons is fun at first. Later on, it gets tedious. Dressing up takes at least 30 minutes for me on winter. I hate the fact that I have to wear five layers of clothing–and make sure all the clothes match together. I hate the fact that it adds 5kg to my weight. I hate that I couldn’t look cute if I wanted to. Nor the fact that clothes and shoes I got for UK would be impossible for me to use when I’m back in the Philippines.
5.1 …or the lack thereof.
I’ve seen a lot foreigners in Philippine beaches and it’s easy to tell which one’s American and which one’s European–their swimwear. Americans settle for the long swim shorts that Filipinos wear too. Again, Europeans seem to like everything teeny-weeny. (If I were male, I’d probably feel claustrophobic inside those Speedos too)
Nude beaches are all the range in Europe. They are laissez-faire when it comes to public display of personal goods. However, if you’re a little squeamish about nudity, do research on which beaches are ‘family-friendly’. All other beaches that aren’t family-friendly will most probably give you some degrees of a good boob show. I’ve been to a cruise ship in the Mediterranean Sea and have seen women go topless by the pool or on beaches in Greece. I have no problem with that but… based on my experience, most women who don’t go topless, should. Most women who go topless–really shouldn’t. I’m talking about you, Grandma.
6. Feels like you’re back in the past
It still amazes me how people in Europe still prefer to read a book in the subway, or sketch outdoors in the park, or actually talk to people and make actual eye contact. In cafes you’re forced to talk to your acquaintances because wi-fi is mostly not available (or horrible).
I remember coming back to Hong Kong from London and the moment I stepped out of the airport– each face is glued to their respective screens–and I’m suddenly reminded that I’m back in Asia. Technology hasn’t escaped Europe though, and you’ll find some people in their mobile phones. They aren’t as selfie-crazed. The kids still prefer to play in parks rather than stare down at tablets all the time.
7. Nothing ever costs like peanuts.
I remember exchanging my months’ worth of savings to euros–a thick wad of peso bills changed into five notes in the euro currency. Five notes–all my months’ salary worth and my confidence down the drain. Coming from a third world country, I can’t help but convert everything to local currency. Shopping in Europe means I would mentally convert it in peso and think really hard if I really need it. Who wouldn’t feel bad if a cup of nuts in the UK would be able to be feed you lunch and dinner in the Philippines?
Everywhere in Europe, especially Paris, I am forced to watch soft core porn–whether it’s on the romantic lock bridge by the river Seine or while queuing up for a crepe.
Yes, even during the Je Suis Charlie rally.
9. European smiles take a bit of effort.
Filipinos are generally cheerful– we love to laugh and smile. We give it openly and freely. We laugh when we’re happy, excited, embarrassed or even when we’re a little annoyed. In fact, even when I’m chatting with friends, if I don’t put a ‘hahaha’ at the end of every sentence they would think something’s wrong with me. That’s how we take our jovial attitude seriously.
Europeans look more stern and very serious. They keep a straight face when telling a joke. I thought at first that it probably hurts for them to move their zygomaticus major muscle. Or,maybe they have poor dental care. hehe. Kidding aside, Europeans aren’t really aloof or miserable, as is the common misconception– but they just don’t like to smile without reason. They are generally more reserved and somber compared to Americans or Filipinos.
10. The churches are empty.
I come from a country where it’s dominantly Catholic, people are very religious, and the church is still relatively powerful when it came to people’s and government’s decisions. Most Filipinos from middle to upper class studied in a Catholic institution where we were taught to memorize our prayers and observe religious practices strictly. Going to church every Sunday is part of every Filipino’s lives. So to get to Europe and to see all these beautiful churches and cathedrals–and to find their Sunday service almost empty–feels a bit weird. Most of Europe’s churches now work as museums for tourists to gawk at. While some churches still hold Sunday mass, attendees are sparse and few. Even the shoddiest chapel in a Philippine barangay get more attendees–and observers are willing to pack in like sardines just to observe mass.
What are your personal moments of culture shock while you’re in Europe, or Asia, or other parts of the world? Share your own experiences in the comment box and let me know!