Leave Taylor Swift Alone

Disclaimer: If you like Taylor Swift, well - come sit down next to me. If you don't like Taylor Swift, well - sit down anyway. Because this one's for you. tswift

Earlier this month, NYC & Company announced that Taylor Swift would be the New York City Global Welcome Ambassador for 2014-2015. People are pissed, and I'm not so sure why.

I'm not exactly certain what the job description or criteria for a "global welcome ambassador" is (nor certain if there was ever one before TSwift), but apparently there are a lot of folks who don't think that Taylor Swift fits the bill for a number of reasons - the most obvious one being that she is not originally from New York. But then again, how many people these days are pure born and bred New Yorkers?

Having lived in New York City for the last four years, I've found it a rarity to meet people who are originally from here. When meeting new people, one question that is almost guaranteed to come up in conversation is "Where are you from?" (insert my constant internal dilemma of how to answer this question -- you mean, where my parents are from? where I grew up? where I live now? WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!) New York City is filled with so many people who aren't necessarily from here, but who are making it here.

Not all of us have moved into a $20M Tribeca apartment like Taylor Swift, but who cares -- my five-story walk-up tells the same story. It's a story of someone who has always been fascinated by the lights and sounds of New York City and always believed (even before stepping foot in this country) that it's a place where dreams come true (blame it on movies and TV shows). It's the same story as all the others who moved from home to chase a dollar and a dream: the actress, the dancer, the hustler, the chef, the artist, the entrepreneur, the singer, the lost, the bored. They're all here and they're all a part of what makes New York City exactly what it is - a melting pot of diversity and dreams.

In saying someone isn't fit to represent New York City, it sends a message that New York City is unwelcoming, selective, limiting. I love this place for the way it has enabled and embraced me; I love it even more when I see it doing the same for others around me who aren't originally from here. Taylor Swift's big song as part of this whole campaign is called "Welcome to New York." The song even says, "It's been waiting for you." But between you and me, I think the lyric should be changed to "You've been waiting for it."

Taylor Swift has been waiting for it, and now that she's here -- she's taking ownership of it. She's putting her budding romance with New York City on display, publicizing their incompatibility while celebrating their differences and thus adding to the cultural fabric of this city. Who are we to fault her for that?

It's interesting to juxtapose this with the situation of many Pilipino first-settlers who come to the US, who (when finally here) celebrate their arrivals quietly - never wanting to attract attention to themselves, keeping their cultural practices and traditions behind closed doors, and sticking to their own little Pilipino communities - a true detriment, in my opinion. How else would the Pilipino identity and presence be seen and heard here if we all failed to assert ourselves in a land that's not ours among people who aren't like us? Okay -- that kinda got deep, but moral of the story is: Taylor Swift's not a New Yorker, but she's adding to the Big Apple's flavor, and it's time we took a bite and moved on.

New York City is just as much Taylor Swift's as anyone else's to claim. And if you don't agree, then please tell me why the Statue of Liberty gets to be the symbol of American independence and freedom when she wasn't even made in America?

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Uncovering the Truth about 'Kopinos'

In Seoul, South Korea, there’s a red light district called Hooker Hill. It is located in Itaewon, a tourist area filled with shops and restaurants catering mostly to ex-pats and foreigners. It is also very close to U.S. Army Youngsan Garrison Base. Young women seeking work in the region become victims of sex slavery and trafficking. Unfortunately, many of the sex workers at Hooker Hill are Pilipina women who were lured to South Korea for work. While I was in Korea a couple months ago, friends recommended that I keep a low profile when discussing my identity while in Seoul, as young Pilipina women are viewed as low-class citizens among Koreans. This was a harsh reality to come to terms with, for it is both disappointing and infuriating that such a skewed image could be associated with my fellow Pilipinas.

After returning from my trip to Korea, I learned about another connection between the Philippines and Korea that I had not been aware of.

In the Philippines, there is a growing population of Kopinos, with estimates of over 10,000 people. The term ‘Kopino’, coined for individuals who are Korean-Filipino, describes those who are born as a result of the sex tourism industry in the Philippines.

The Korean fathers, who visit the Philippines as tourists, seek out Filipina prostitutes during their stay and then return home. Sometimes, they leave after finding out their partner is pregnant, or are not even aware that they have fathered a child. Often, these Filipina mothers are impoverished teenagers, who have resorted to prostitution as a last resort.

A single Filipina mother and her Korean-Filipino son

Their Kopino children then grow up without a father, and are doomed to face the same realities that their mothers do. Similar to the ‘Amerasian’ (born to US military fathers and Filipino mothers) and ‘Japino’ children in the Philippines, Kopinos experience abandonment early on in their childhood, and are subjected to harsh living conditions and society condemnation. Many are then forced into sex tourism and human trafficking in order to survive, thus making this cyclical reality difficult to stop.

According to an article release by PhilStar earlier this year, nearly half a million Filipinos work as prostitutes within their own country. Other women in the tourism industry, who become mothers to Kopino children, work in guest relations or as bar girls. With the increase of Korean tourists in the Philippines over the past few years, this this problem is becoming increasingly more common.

So why is this relevant to us Fil-Ams?

Today, Korean-Filipinos and supporters are working on a campaign to contact the fathers who left their children behind. These efforts are raising awareness on this issue in the Philippines and in South Korea. Activists are working hard to get these Korean fathers to take responsibility for their children. Some organizations that have been advocating for this issue include TACTEEN, which focuses on eliminating exploitation of Filipino children by Korean tourists, and ECPAT, which works to end child prostitution, pornography and trafficking.

However, their efforts alone cannot change what Kopinos and their mothers face, and will continue to face in the future. While the efforts of these organizations are being portrayed in the Philippines and Korean media, the support it garners is not enough. The tourism industry continues to overlook the issue, so it is rather difficult to enact substantial change.

As members of the greater Pilipino community, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves on this issue. Be it by helping to spread awareness or getting involved in human rights initiatives, we must be active citizens and fight for those who are born into situations beyond their control.

Photo credit: Korea Bang