( originally written 26th September 2009 )
Dear batchmates, kabayan and friends :
QUICK QUIZ : Which of the following smacks of race (not racist) undertones, and which more importantly are you familiar with?
(A) you are walking along the footpath (sidewalk), and from the other end, a Caucasian is doing the same. Shortly, before you realize what is going on, he/she crosses the street, for no apparent reason, giving the impression that a face-to-face encounter with you, however momentary or fleeting, was being avoided.
(B) two Caucasians are talking or discussing something, and the moment you enter the room, they stop for the shortest of nanoseconds, as if deliberating whether or not to acknowledge your presence, send an unspoken message to each other, continue as if you’re invisible, and give you an impression, however subjective, that their topic was hurriedly altered by your arrival.
(C) you are heating your lunch in the office microwave oven. It happens to be fried fish with rice (waiting for patis or bagoong & kamatis for good measure), and of course, the aroma escapes into the lunch room. The Asians and non-Caucasians don’t seem to mind (although you don’t know for sure), and everything is peachy until a late luncher walks into the room and in a raised voice, booms “What the bloody hell smells?” An uncomfortable silence ensues, sheepish smiles emerge all around, except from the individual with the acute olfactory sensibilities, who happens to be non-Asian, non-Indian, and non-Polynesian.
Give yourself a point for each YES answer, another point if you have experienced something similar to any of the scenarios, and if you scored anything above 4, you have gone through the gamut of Noel’s Portfolio of Race-Generated Awkwardness.
It is our way of saying that in varying degrees, and we’re sure this applies to every kabatch and kabayan overseas, we have tasted many permutations of these and other eksenas that bring up awkward sentiments.
No, we hasten to hesitate (is that possible?) using the word racial or racist but you can’t deny that there’s an element of race involved in all the skits above.
And that’s part of the migratory adventure. You are caught between letting the moment slide, as par for the course, mitigated especially by the fact that you will ALWAYS be a guest in this country, in the face of all political correctness, on the one hand, or doing the brave thing and bringing it up in the next staff meeting, in no uncertain words letting it be known that there is a pebble of discomfort in your shoe, not life threatening but nevertheless causing you discomfiture whenever. The mother company in fact encourages you to write, email or phone in any situation where even a whiff of something improper or awry passes your flared nostrils. In practice, though, we don’t think anyone has ever written HQ about anything like Scenarios A, B or C above.
It was different when we were much younger back home. We always associated being white with God (the ubiquitous pictures of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary made sure of that), visiting priests and nuns (pedophilia was a word far far away from anyone’s lexicon) and of course, our beloved police detectives, superheroes and entertainers on TV and radio. Being white was not only superior, it was on a totally different plane of existence for most of us. Even in Makati, Cubao and (shudder!) Divisoria in the 1970s being white guaranteed that your little brown (and yellow) brothers and sisters would stop and gawk at you, as if to say si Jerry West (or Larry Bird) ganyan pala ang hitsura or nakakasilaw ang Marilyn Monroe (Farrah Fawcett). And who could blame us for thinking so?
Do you sometimes agree that not only individuals, but a people or community of persons may mature and evolve in their view of others? We have the audacity to say such because at home it is no longer uncommon to hear word-of-mouth, common wisdom, op-ed pages pooh-pooh whatever previous generations thought of as pre-packaged Anglo-Saxon, American or even European superiority which, fairly or unfairly, characterize our perceptions of the White Man. It has even become the fashion to debunk First World-oriented ways of looking at things, a perspective which no doubt has been associated with white devils, or what the statesman Blas Ople famously called, at the Manila Hotel lobby to their faces you white monkeys.
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Two more observations : We don’t want to Google it right now, but Eleanor Roosevelt, who as a First Lady was certainly ahead of her time, said it all: No one can humiliate me (or make me feel inferior in some versions) without my consent. While this certainly makes sense, it’s the rest of the world that we’re sometimes concerned with, especially if the offending material reaches more than a few eyes or ears but which seems to be directed to us. While most Filipinos (and Asians for that matter) have the self-respect, composure and elegance to breeze by the most pointed undereducated barbs and redneck rubbish thrown our way, it’s how others perceive the way we react to it that is sometimes cause for concern. And of course, the bandwagon and domino effect that it unfortunately generates.
This is why to our humble mind, it always makes good practical sense to raise a hoot whenever there is a slight (no matter how slight, heh heh pun intended) however inadvertently, directed to people of our color and culture. Not for any other reason (e.g., that it’s because we are famously K.S.P.) but so that it’s for the record (emails, public statements etc), to remove any future uncertainty on how we perceive it, as well as for the later generations not only in our particular community but in other similar communities.
We promised a second anecdote. On our first day in our present workplace a year-and-a- half ago, our manager startled us with a slightly emotional pep talk :
We will always be second class citizens here. Not just HERE in the mill, but in this country. You and I know that. But let’s use this to become better workers, because our skin will not allow us to be just as good as them. We have to become better, and not just better, but a lot better than our colleagues and workmates. Anything less and they see not a lesser workmate, or an inferior level of work, but brown skin, smaller eyes, or your cheeky off the boat accent . . .
Needless to say, our boss was / is a non-white, a Sri Lankan, probably the only one in his level in this First World country.
He had been here for the last 20 years, and yet feels the same way as he did in 1988, when he first arrived. Is he with the minority, or the majority, of our kind? is the question we cannot answer.
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This is ironically all so unfair to the White Man, but like everything else in Life, is the way things are, and the way things will always be.
Thanks for sharing your time with us.
Your Loyal Batchmate / Your Loyal Kabayan