When I first arrived in Europe at the beginning of the semester, I got asked the usual “What are you/Where are you from originally” question a lot more often than I had expected (including the case of the drunk Italian in Rome who tried to pick me up by slurring “Manila, Manila!” in my ear).
The French have a slightly different way of asking the same question (which I have found to be much more favorable when compared to the Italian alternative). Shortly after meeting a person for the first time, I am often asked, “Tu es de quelles origines?”
I like how this question is phrased better than “Where are you from originally?” as I am often asked in the United States. The latter implies that I am from the Philippines, as opposed to my parents or my grandparents. As someone who has never once step foot on Philippine soil, Tu es de quelles origines somehow lands more easily in my ears. At least the way I interpret it, it implies that the other is not solely referring to my origins, but those of the generations that came before me.
As for my origin story: I am a second generation Filipino-American. My parents immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines in the 1990s. I was born near the end of their early struggles trying to achieve the American dream. I spent the majority of my life in New Jersey (far away from any extended family) and went to a prestigious public school in a predominantly white neighborhood.
Despite my desire to get in touch with my roots, I feel more American than Filipino. My ears perk up when I hear Tagalog in the streets, but I can’t speak the language and can only understand half of what is being said. There are some familiar words, like sinigang, the taste and sound of which slide smoothly off my tongue. My mother, who has long since lost her Filipino accent, blends in with white middle class America just as well as I do. Last year she went through a kale-mason-jar-smoothie phase (as I once joked, that’s more basic white girl than I can ever hope to be).
I’ve been told by my friends that they sometimes even forget the Filipino half of me because I’m “so white.” I’ve been told that I “act white,” and that I even “talk like a white girl” too. But despite being raised by a mom who makes kale mason jar smoothies, I will never be able to completely forget the half of me that is Filipino. Maybe it’s because I’ve taken too many sociology classes, but there are things that make conscious of my “otherness” every day.
I think about it when I walk around the richest areas of Paris and wonder whether all of those Revolutions really changed anything. I think about it when I talk to the man who cleans my host family’s apartment every Monday and Thursday. He too immigrated in the 1990s. He remarked on how American (and, I suppose, not Filipino) I sounded, and told me that many Filipinos in France are housecleaners.
Back home the majority of Filipino immigrants I know (including my father) are healthcare professionals – part of the Philippines’ decade-long problem of brain drain. I often forget about the other Filipinos who work overseas, and the drastic difference between my family’s immigrant experience and theirs.
I know that I’m lucky. Very, very lucky. And yet whenever I walk up the swanky staircase in my host family’s Hausmannian apartment in the 6th, and I can’t help but wonder if the other residents ever mistake me for the Filipino “help.” And this is something I’m ashamed to admit.
However, men (of all cultures and nationalities) tend to remind me the most of my Filipino “otherness.” Take the case of the drunk Irishman I encountered on the streets of Madrid who caught my attention by making masturbation gestures at me. He told me he wasn’t racist but that he’d love to “drop his load all over that.” After confronting him, he apologized and said that he didn’t mean to insult me (and who said that chivalry is dead?).
Not long after coming to Paris, I found myself head-over-heels for a very wonderful Frenchman. About one month into our budding relationship, long before I had confessed to him (and myself) that I was hopelessly in love with him, he explained how sometimes he was unsure about my feelings. How at times it was like I was just dating him because it would be cool to have a French boyfriend while I was here in Paris. That maybe I was using him.
Of course, this was shortly after we started dating. Although it is still early on in our relationship, I know things are different between us now. There is a stronger connection, a certain understanding. We’ve come to know each other and care for each other so well by now that we have moved way beyond these early insecurities.
It wasn’t until he confided in me about this that I realized: oh my god, he feels fetishized – and perhaps for the very first time. I didn’t realize that Hot French Boyfriend could be considered just as stereotypical, and just as dehumanizing, as Hot Asian Girlfriend.
What I didn’t tell him is that I, too, shared this fear. That perhaps all he saw in me was rice paddies and porn – another island adventure. Underneath it all, the nagging fear that he was only dating me because he has a type, and that type was based on the various stereotypes the world still holds about Asian women.
In those uncertain early weeks, I couldn’t help but dwell on those offhand comments, lighthearted jokes his friends had made when he told them I was dating me. That uncomfortable, irrational fear that my boyfriend was just another guy who likes those “exotic girls.”
Sure, my boyfriend has a type, and perhaps so do I. But how can talking about racial preferences without sounding accusatory?
This is a fear that I try to ignore, and one that no longer bothers me as much as did before (because, come on: a guy who listens to me explain the process of HIV transmission has to be interested in more than my ethnicity). I have yet to bring this up to him, because in our seemingly “post-racial” society, there’s something about being in an interracial relationship that makes talking about race so freaking awkward.
I know now that him being attracted to me solely because of my ethnicity simply isn’t the case. At the end of the day, we’re more than stereotypes; we’re just two fools in love. For this is a man who has read my words, listened to my thoughts, and seen me in all of my bare-boned vulnerability – and together we share a bond that goes more that skin deep.