A few months ago, as my family and I were planning my study abroad trip to Taiwan, my dad quietly asked me if I could go to another country, a “safer” country. The half-joking request boggled my mind at the time because I had never gotten the impression that Taiwan was a dangerous country. I kept his question in the back of my brain, and did not contemplate switching my study abroad destination. I’d always liked Taiwan and, besides, I was already too deep into the application process. After letting the question brew in my head for awhile, I realized that he wasn’t worried that I would be stabbed to death and left on the streets in a foreign country. He was more worried that I wouldn’t fit in. Sometimes I look very Pilipino. I know that not all Pilipinos look alike; but I have the stereotypical nose, the big eyes, and the tan skin. Sometimes, my stunningly good looks throw people off, as people guess that I'm anywhere from Chinese to Malaysian. My dad probably fretted over my Pilipino side coming out and assumed that I would stick out like a sore thumb. In fact, a few days ago, he sent me a text briefly warning me of potential racism:
“If ever, don’t let it affect you. Be careful.”
However, despite the advantages of my dual looks, I have had a bad experience with racism in the past, so my dad's concern was quite understandable.
Now that I’m settled in at my university in Taiwan, I can assure my dad that he need not worry. I don’t stick out as much as my two white friends who tower at least a good foot above everyone else. In fact, the only moments where it’s obvious that I’m a foreigner is when I am speaking, because my Chinese is laced with American tones. When I go to places with my friends, I’m lumped with my Taiwanese friends. The waiters and waitresses welcome us with “ni hao,” while my white friends are greeted with “hello.” The most I get to a strange look or reaction from the local population is when I’m standing on the bus and people get the chance to give me a good look-over. Or so I assume.
Ironically, when I was in the Philippines, there was no doubt about it that I was American. My demeanor made it obvious that I was a foreigner. I could do as the locals do, but the way I held myself made me stick out. Once, while I was in a market helping my cousin buy flip flops, a schoolgirl passed by and gave me a look that was dripping with disdain. I'm not quite sure of what she was thought, so one can only assume. To this day, I still can’t find the words to express the difference between me and the locals. While I thought I was blending in, I must’ve seemed like a piece of cauliflower in a field of broccoli.
There are many factors we need to take into account when comparing my experience in the Philippines to my experience in Taiwan. For example, the locations that I frequented in the Philippines and those that I explore here in Taiwan. But those factors aside, I felt more like a foreigner in the Philippines than I do in Taiwan. In Taiwan, there may be a little confusion as to my ethnicity when you first look at me, but for the most part I blend in.
Still, you never know. Perhaps it is obvious that I’m Pilipino, but my foreigner status protects me like a shield from any racism I might incur. Or maybe my dad, wracked with worry over his first-born traveling to a foreign country alone for five months, was just overly concerned. The constant repeats of failing to fit in possibly heightened my dad’s dread of my departure.
Being Pilipino in Taiwan isn’t a problem. I think the problem is the fact that we fear that there is one.
Credit: Pam Wang