First Person: How to Cross the Street in Manila

Returning to the Philippines, the country of my birth, I finally looked like everyone else—which was not the same as fitting in
street scene in metro Manila
Pedestrians vie with traffic along a bridge on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, known as EDSA, one of the busiest thoroughfares in metro Manila. Photo: Alonso Nichols
June 3, 2016


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.

Grace Talusan visits her mother's family home in March 2015. The compound was commandeered in World War II by the Japanese military as a headquarters and later taken over by the U.S. Army after the Japanese withdrew. Photo: Alonso NicholsOver the years, I have developed the habit of scanning any place I enter—a classroom, a workplace, a party—searching for the faces of people who look like me. I don’t expect to find them, but I still look. Over the years, a few of my students at Tufts have asked if I was Filipino. The Filipinos they knew from back home, they explained, were their drivers, domestic helpers and nannies. But I am often the first and only Filipino American that my students have ever encountered at the front of a classroom.

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.

Workers enter Bonifacio Global City, a financial district, through a service road. Construction workers, retail clerks and call center workers there might earn about $4 a day, meaning they can’t ever afford to live, shop or even buy lunch there. Photo: Alonso NicholsSnow began to fall as our plane took off from Logan in January 2015. After a 24-hour journey, I landed in Manila with my husband, and also with my best friend, Joanne Diaz, J94, whose husband was also on a Fulbright. It was nighttime as we waited on the curb for our ride, but the tropical heat was powerful enough to make me dizzy.

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.

A couple shares a moment in the back of a jeepney near the Guadalupe area of Makati, one of the many cites that make up metro Manila. Jeepneys are the Philippine version of the city bus. The original jeepneys were stretched versions of Jeeps left behind by U.S. forces after World War II. Photo: Alonso Nichols Not that that was necessarily a bad thing. As an American on a Fulbright, I enjoyed life in a way that I had never before experienced. I never once worried about expenses. Almost everyone I interacted with wanted to chat about who I was, where I had come from, and why I was in the Philippines. So much seemed possible. In Manila, I became aware of how much power and privilege I possessed, something that wasn’t so clear back in Boston. Even though I was new to the city, I felt at home.

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.

A billboard of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the Guadalupe area of Makati. Photo: Alonso Nichols America continues to prize white skin, of course, but then again, so does the Philippines.

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.

A traffic guard is dwarfed by construction and vehicles in the Bonifacio Global City area. Photo: Alonso Nichols It didn’t do any good, but I would swear at drivers and yell, “I’m a person!” I became fearful of crossing the street, and it was a source of great stress. Later, I found out that my fears were grounded in reality. In 2014, there were 196 pedestrian fatalities in Manila, about one pedestrian killed every other day in the city. One-quarter of those killed were children. Suffice it to say that I had never felt so viscerally inconsequential and expendable as when I was crossing a street in Manila.

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.