Foreign Woman

I promise to update re: the Foz do Iguaçu weekend eventually (maybe later tonight).  Right now, there’s something else on my mind.  I think it’s best expressed in a poem by Trinidad L Tarrosa-Subido, that I read in The Likhaan Anthology of Philippine Literature in English from 1900 to the Present.  It’s called Vanity, and while I know I’m risking copyright infringement for publishing it here, it pretty much sums up my sentiments at the moment perfectly.

Vanity   

By Trinidad L. Tarrosa-Subido 

We call her Foreign Woman, God…
Burnished copper dusts are glinting from her hair;
White as the tropic sky her face; her eyes sea-blue;
Like the silver of a levant star her smile. 

My eyes are dark and, too, my hair;
And brown the flesh that shrouds my soul.
If I should die tonight and be reborn,
O, Lord Creator, make me too
A foreign woman to my native land. 

End.



Obviously Asian.  Satin cheongsam by Amelia et Nicole.



When I was planning my trip to Brazil, my aunt–well-meaning woman that she was–cautioned me to be careful, because the novelty of my appearance, the classic China-doll face, would be sure to invite attention simply because it was exotic.  I told her no, that Asians were not “hot commodity” in Latin America, and that my cousin, with her Spanish eyes and curvy figure, would have better luck than shorter, paler, moon-faced moi.  Little did I know how accurate my predictions would be.

I never thought I had the “colonial mentality,” the obsession to be all things Western, particularly Anglo-Saxon.  While I am, admittedly, quite insecure, I’ve never felt the need to change my look drastically with blonde or light-brown hair and blue eyes and skin lighter than my own Asian white.  Yes, true, there was a time when I wished I had green eyes to accent the red-brown of my hair, but for the most part I’ve been fine with the genetic cards I’ve been dealt: Filipino-Chinese-Spanish, medium-build, dark hair and eyes.  In fact, I can be quite proud of them, because both my Filipino and Chinese heritages come with significant legacies of their own: heroism and creativity on the Filipino side, innovation and delicacy on the Chinese one.  I proudly proclaim that “Where I’m from, everyone’s a hero.”  Given a choice, I probably wouldn’t choose to be from anywhere else.

(Yes, even the UK.)

The past few weeks, however, have shaken that assumption.  When I first entered Brazil, I noted that I was a small, pale bird surrounded by colorful macaws and toucans and other tropical birds of paradise, but I was comfortable with that fact, certain that the fact that I came from another country and culture would incite interest, and I would be able to forge connections on the basis of international understanding.  For the most part, this is true–the Brazilians have welcomed me with open arms, and I am happy to find people here who are more similar to me than they are different.  (For instance, I just met a Nerdfighter.)

But at the same time, the longer I’ve been here, especially as the only Asian girl in a group of predominantly European interns, I’ve noticed that, on occasion, my “exoticness” pales in comparison to theirs.  See, in Maringá, there is a huge Japanese population, which means that, to Westerners, I “blend in.” (Asians will, of course, note the slight differences.)  I’ve been mistaken for a Japanese so many times, that even when I explain that I am a Chinese-Filipino, occasionally I will get a confused look and a repetition of “Japonês?”

…Apparently my little group of islands is not as well known as I thought it was.  Or maybe it’s just the language barrier.  I am rubbish at Portuguese–occasionally I speak French by mistake.

It doesn’t help that all three of my co-interns are very attractive (in the Philippines, they’d be mobbed).  When I first met them, I immediately noted that all of them had the most beautiful, intense blue eyes I’d ever seen up close.  In fact, during that hour-long meeting, I was even able to rank them in order of intensity.  While my skin was fair, they were fairer, and next to them my coloring looked closer to natural Brazilian than it would have if I had been back home in the Philippines, where the sight of my bare legs usually elicits surprised reactions at how white they are.  What’s more, in conversations about ethnicity, people (not my co-interns) have, in passing, brought up that I look quite “typical” for an Asian: straight dark hair (what’s brown to me is black to them), dark eyes, a flat chest, and, not to be crass, a comparatively flat ass.  I’m not curvy or voluptuous, and I do not have the advantage of a true winter complexion to compensate for those “deficiencies.”

Next to the Brazilians, I felt like a slight nightingale.  Next to them, I often feel like a drab little sparrow.

Add to that my blog of a few weeks ago, where I worried that I could not represent the Philippines well enough next to my teammates since I, myself, am a Europhile (specifically an Anglophile), and I’m beginning to think that I have more of a colonial mentality than I’m willing to admit.  Otherwise, why else would I pride myself on my schoolgirl French or the fact that once, a casting director asked if I had been raised a Londoner?  Why else would I value my English so highly, call my general fashion sense (back home anyway) European, and do so much research on cultures that are not my own?  Sure, I have never dyed my hair blonde or worn colored contacts, but I’ve worn a blonde wig, and once I tried to rig a raffle so I could win a pair of blue-gray lenses.  I’ve even tried whitening products, and this is with skin already “white” by Filipino standards.

Most of all, if I was really proud to at least look Asian, then why did I feel so ugly today, walking around with my co-interns?

See, here in Brazil, my European workmates immediately attract attention.  Shopkeepers want to know where they’re from.  People immediately start asking them questions.  When it comes to the boy half of our four-person team, when I step out alone, girls immediately ask me, “Where is the German, and the British boy?!”

(I had a taste of this last Sunday when I felt like I was Ciarán’s manager…to put it mildly.)

In contrast, I’m immediately assumed to be Japanese (well, to be honest, I look more Japanese than Chinese, as my stint in Japan sort of proved to me), until I open my mouth and issue a stream of straight, American-inflected English, punctuated by the occasional Portuguese expression.  I know I should be relieved to blend in, because so many travelers want to, but I can’t help but wonder if I blend in…or I’m just invisible, unremarkable, because I’m Asian.  I know I’m not supposed to think this way, but sometimes…I do.

At the end of the day, I know it’s just vanity.  Because, really, I should be proud.  I come from a country that people are beginning to discover is a captive pool of intellectual and creative talent, and I also carry with me the legacy of what was once upon a time the greatest nation in all the world: the Middle Kingdom.  I’m not any of the unfortunately common global stereotypes for a Filipino: neither a domestic helper nor a bar singer (though I will sing on open mic night, if asked) nor some of the less savory associations the word “Filipina” makes.

Most of all, I should be, if not proud, happy to just be me, because race shouldn’t have to matter at the end of the day; you’re attractive for who you are as a person, not just where you come from.  And while I’m not absolutely gorgeous or alluring or amazing, I’m me, and I’m here, and I’m growing.  I get to represent my country.  That’s something to be both proud of…and humbled by.

So now that I know I have it, it’s time to ditch the colonial mentality, to reassess my mindset.  Because if I’m going to do the amazing place I come from any justice, I should, at the very least, be proud to look like I come from there.

~ NC

…is really, really vain and apologizes whole-heartedly for caring so much about how she looks.  I PROMISE MORE SUBSTANTIAL UPDATES VERY VERY SOON!!!  Just needed to get this off my chest.  You guys know how I need to process things all the time, right?

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One comment

  1. Hi, Frankie
    I was in your classes in the Talk Project last week, and even though I only saw you twice, I saw this on Facebook and some things that you wrote surprised me…
    Well, I understand if you don’t like when Brazilians think you are “japonesa”, but since the majority of Asians in Brazil are Japanese descendants, it’s difficult not assume that just by looking at you. As a Japanese language student and interested in Asian cultures, I enforce that Asians are not “all the same”, but I have to say that many Brazilians are so used to all Asians in the streets being Japanese that they even use the word “Japanese” as a synonym for “Asian”.
    *Showing my dad a picture with a Korean friend:*
    Dad: Who is this Japanese boy?
    Me: He is Korean.
    Dad: Uh, the Japanese boy is Korean.
    Lol. That’s probably why people keep saying you are Japanese even after you explain you are Chinese-Filipino.
    But please don’t think it’s very different for the European guys. If people ask where they’re from, it’s because they see that they don’t speak Portuguese. I couldn’t tell they are not Brazilians just by looking at them. If I thought Ciarán and Matthias were Brazilians, I would probably assume they were German descendants. Maybe Ciarán wouldn’t like that and would say “But I’m British, why do you assume me to be German?” Well, when a Brazilian is blonde and blue-eyed, he is usually German or Polish descendant. We didn’t have any British immigration in Brazil, so I wouldn’t guess British. See? The generalizations don’t happen only with Asians. And since the Brazilian nationality includes so many ethnicities, it’s very difficult to look “exotic” in Brazil, so don’t worry if you don’t.
    But the reason I’m writing this is because it really surprised me when you said “my “exoticness” pales in comparison to theirs”, because for me you are the winner of the “exoticness” prize in the group! lol
    I mean, we know a lot about Europe, but not so much about the Philippines (I confess I only knew that it was somewhere in Asia and that the independence day was on June 12 – and that’s because June 12 is Brazilian “Valentine’s Day”, and once my friends and I, who were single, were looking for something else to celebrate, so… :D). Well, I guess you think about the fact that we don’t know about the Philippines as negative, but did you notice that it makes everything you say interesting? In the Talk Project, your workmates showed us a lot of things that we already knew or had an idea about. But in your slide show, everything was new, you showed us beautiful pictures of places that we didn’t know existed… it was fascinating (and yes, you made me want to go to the Philippines. If this is not representing well your country, I don’t know what is). You caught the attention of everyone with your enthusiasm, your sense of humor, your singing (:D) and you think you are… invisible? Really??? You are not! You are remarkable and amazing. I hope you are proud of yourself. 🙂
    Good luck, Frankie!
    Débora

    Like

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