Returning to the Philippines, the country of my birth, I finally looked like everyone else—which was not the same as fitting in
I’ve always wanted to know what it feels like to blend into the crowd.
I was born in the Philippines, but when I was 3 we moved to a racially homogenous town outside of Boston. I could count the other families of color on one hand. Initially, I sought out the few girls at school who looked like me, adoptees from Korea and China. But we had little in common.
After an incident in the first grade, when a third grader danced around me making ching-chong sounds while pulling back the corners of his eyes, I did everything I could to be like everyone else. I practiced the Boston accent until it felt like my own. I wore green on St. Patrick’s Day to be as Irish as my classmates. I prayed before sleep for God to transform me into a white girl. When I did not wake up blonde and blue-eyed, I changed my prayer. A white girl with brown hair and brown eyes would be OK.
To this day, I have to remind myself that I have every right to be in spaces where everyone else is white. I understood why Tufts students walked out of classes in November and marched in solidarity with nationwide protests against campus racism. A major concern was the underrepresentation of black students and faculty. They were tired of being the only one in the room. Like me, they want to be part of the crowd.
So when I was given the opportunity in 2015 to live in the Philippines for six months as a Fulbright Scholar, I happily accepted.
I had not previously spent any significant amount of time in my birth country, so as we stripped off our sweaters and outer layers, I was fascinated by the frenzy of activity—dazed travelers dragging heavy luggage; returning Filipino workers flush with money and gifts, known as pasalubongs, from contract work in the Middle East and Hong Kong; relatives calling out to their loved ones from van windows and the back of pickup trucks. “There sure are a lot of Filipinos here,” I said.
I looked at Joanne and back at the crowds. She was one the few white faces. For the first time in our decades-long friendship, Joanne was in the minority. I wondered how she would adjust.
For the first time in my life, I looked like everyone else. Before the trip, I’d tried my best to learn Tagalog, but managed to communicate only at a toddler’s level, simple greetings such as “yes” (o-po) and “no” (hindi). The only complete sentence I could say in Tagalog was “I don’t speak Tagalog.” Thankfully, almost everyone I encountered in Manila spoke English, which had been introduced during the U.S. colonial period and was one of the nation’s official languages. Of course, once I opened my mouth, my American accent marked my difference immediately.
Still, I was sometimes misread. One afternoon, I came across Joanne with her toddler son. I was dressed in sweats, as I had just come from the upscale gym in our fancy neighborhood. While Joanne talked to the building’s security guards, I wheeled her son’s stroller to the lobby. Suddenly, two young men brushed past me, pushing me out of the way without an “excuse me” so that they could get to the elevator first. I was startled by their rudeness until I caught a glimpse of myself in the elevator’s reflection. They had assumed I was Joanne’s nanny, her yaya, and treated me accordingly. This, I discovered, was the other side of looking like everyone else. After that, I thought twice about offering to push Joanne’s stroller.
Even as I was blending into the crowd for the first time, Joanne, as a white woman, was experiencing the privilege of her identity on a whole new level. Strangers commented on the beauty of her light complexion and were explicit about admiring its whiteness. Joanne never opened a door for herself our entire time in the Philippines. When she waited in a line at the supermarket, the cashier would try to wave her to the front, cutting ahead of Filipinos. She always refused, of course.
I was initially surprised as I watched Joanne, technically a minority in the country, being adored and enjoying a near celebrity status. My experience as a minority had been much different. And then it occurred to me that, when I was teased as a child, it may have been less about the fact that I looked different from everyone else than because, quite simply, I wasn’t white.
Hundreds of years of colonialism and decades of U.S. military presence are visible everywhere in my ancestral home, and a fascination with light skin tones is just another way that history has played out. Advertisements for skin-whitening products are everywhere, and most models and actors are light skinned. I lost my temper in a store aisle when I was trying to find an antiperspirant without a skin whitener. “Am I supposed to feel self-conscious about the darkness of my armpits,” I blurted to the sales clerk, “because I’ve honestly never considered it.”
I know our lives are shaped by our identities, but the one place I didn’t expect to check my privilege was in the crosswalk of a Manila street. Blending into the crowd turned out to be a liability when it came to being a pedestrian on a Manila street.
I made sure to be a good pedestrian. I always waited for the walk signal and crossed inside the white lines, but I never moved fast enough and car wheels nipped at my feet. Cars did not stop, and it was up to me to dodge them as they crossed in front of me.
But when I complained about all of this to Joanne, she didn’t know what I was talking about. When she stepped into the crosswalk, she told me, almost every car made a full stop. They waited until she was safely on the curb. Someone told me that drivers were afraid of hitting foreigners, especially the white ones.
In all the years I’ve been friends with Joanne, a friendship that grew from living next door to each other in Hill Hall as sophomores at Tufts, I rarely considered how our lives have been shaped by racial identity, and I never expected this difference to play out in the crosswalk, headlights and front grills accelerating toward our bodies.
I joked with Joanne that I needed her beside me every time I crossed a Manila street. But I wasn’t kidding.
Grace Talusan, J94, teaches in the First Year Writing Program in the English Department at Tufts.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Tufts Magazine.