Being Pilipino in Taiwan


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

The Words That Bind Us

I sometimes wonder about the words that come into people’s minds when they look in the mirror. As a former student of literature and journalism, words affect me deeply - words are never just words to me. They create boundaries and definitions. Words are capable of shattering and undoing, but also of rebuilding and morphing. And perhaps it’s this preoccupation with semantics that troubles me when it comes to selecting the words I use to define me. When I look into the mirror, I don’t see an Asian, and never have, despite the fact that this is might be the first thing most people first see about me. I feel uncomfortable marking in Asian for anything that asks for my race. To me, Asian is just as loaded a label as “Oriental.” “Asian Pride” is something I’ve never felt close to. I don’t know how many times I’ve been told things like “You’re Asian, right? So you must be good at math.” Or, “So you’re studying to be a nurse?” a question that has long irritated me with its double assumptions: Asian girls study nursing, Asian boys study engineering. All of these absurd presumptions that I couldn’t relate to have made me resistant to adopting the word “Asian” as part of my identity.

What baffles me the most is when these presumptions come from the Asian community. If I announce that I don’t identify as an Asian, it has sometimes been taken as derogatory or offensive. I understand the lens by which I view the term has been shaped by stereotypes imposed by society, and that doesn’t necessarily make it the correct definition of the word. But that raises the question of whether or not labels HAVE to be defined by stereotypes in order to relate to them.

I am more intrigued than I am disturbed that I don’t see an Asian in the mirror. I would rather be confused by the name, space and place that I take up in the world, than be bound to the limits of race and origin that others may impose on me. I write this with absolutely no answers, only questions. I’m not trying to say anyone who does identify with the term "Asian" is wrong or fitting of any stereotypes by virtue of simply using a word to define themselves. The problems of defining oneself are ongoing, fluid and changeable, and highly unique to an individual.

I am always curious to know what others identify with, or reject. I’m beginning to understand the value of questions, because that opens up a dialogue. So, I ask: will we ever be able to disassociate words with their stereotypes? Can the label "Asian" ever hold within it, the complex identities of all the individuals it qualifies?