Brown Girl Abroad
Over the last decade of my life, I have become quite adept at explaining the nature of my existence.
As anyone with a hyphenated identity can tell you, traveling and living abroad exposes you to the limited ways much of the world associates a person’s ethnic identity with their country of origin.
I know how to say in four different languages, “I’m from [the United States of] America, but both my parents are Filipino.”
I spend half my year living in a country where I look like the native population, and have found that it simultaneously works to my advantage, and creates a deficit in my credibility — particularly in my line of work (international development), where being white associates you with having money and/or status, meaning people in power (i.e. men) are more likely to cooperate with you.
There continues to be, despite the years of getting used to it, a knee jerk annoyance when people, white and brown alike, express a sense of disbelief at my American-ness — that I couldn’t possibly come from where I claim to be from.
I’m sure as other brown Americans can attest, being made to feel as if you are lying about where you grew up isn’t the most pleasant feeling. I didn’t know for years, what to do with this.
With startling clarity, I am easily brought back to spectacularly jarring moments in my past. I once lived in Paris, and was mistaken for the maid at an apartment I was renting. I remember walking down the street and petting someone’s dog, only to be told I better not eat it. Even just a week ago in Kathmandu, as I walked into a restaurant to order food, some old man jeered at me a very unwelcome “Konichiwa!”
It all comes with the territory — being identified by your outward appearance. I’ve learned to forgive a lot of the less maliciously stupid comments with the fact that Asian people born in and from Asia probably love it when they are greeted in their native language. Of course, blatantly racist things, especially sometimes from people you actually like and/or respect, reflects to me the ways we aren’t always respectful of cultures we’re not intimately familiar with.
A few years ago when I was trekking in Nepal, I was eating at a tea house with some companions I’d made along the trip — people I love very much and still think about fondly. However that particular day, the question about whether or not Nepali people eat dogs became a humorously toned topic, and all the moments from my childhood to that present moment where I had been jabbed at for the same reason came roaring back. I don’t even recall now what I had said, probably just snapped at everyone about the stupidity of the statement, and how it annoyed me in a personal way (they don’t always get the best treatment, but no, Nepalis do not eat dogs, and even celebrate them during the biggest festival of the year).
I left the lunch table to talk to the family who had cooked our food. The occurrence of feeling more at home with Nepalis, has been a theme over the years in Nepal. It could be because I relate to the deep prioritization of familial piety, or maybe it’s just the shared deep appreciation for rice as a meal staple, I’m still not 100% sure.
The guest house owner was standing by the door smoking a cigarette, his wife inside laughing as she played with their newborn son. After saying hello, I was immediately posed with the routine question: “Where are you from?”
Depending on whatever level of affection has been built up with a person, I usually do or don’t offer the full explanation.
“Mero ghar America ho. Ma Filipino ho. Mero amma ani buwa ko ghar Philippines ho.”
My home is America. I am Filipino. My mother and father’s home is the Philippines.
I’ll never forget his enthusiastic, “Mabuhay!” He had just come back a few months ago from working in Qatar, and had made many Filipino friends of his own. Though this man was one of the first I’d met, as of now throughout my time working in Nepal, it’s been common for me to meet Nepali men who’ve worked in Gulf countries that have deep friendships with Filipino men and women.
I felt a sense of pride, in being associated with the warm, hard working people he met during such an isolating, difficult experience. A sense of pride, which after spending more time in the Philippines myself, feels a little displaced. We spoke a bit more about where my parents were from, and what his time in Qatar was like. Like the Philippines, Nepal is a country crippled by work migration, with most families who stay behind are dependent on remittance for survival. Many Filipinos find themselves working abroad in places like Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia as something akin to indentured servitude, but yet even with it’s economic struggles, the Philippines is still far ahead of Nepal in terms of economic development and access.
I remember warmly saying my goodbyes to the family while continuing on my way with my friends, feeling as if the universe had reminded me an important lesson about what my identity meant when I needed it most.
I exhibit a particularly unique positionality in Nepal. I look like someone from Nepal, but I am not Nepali — therefore any critique or influence I try to have on the culture continues to come from an outsider’s perspective. I function as a camouflaged foreigner, using the exterior to build familiar rapport, but then shrug away the intimacy of their struggles as they do not relate to me in a personal way.
I say this in juxtaposition to what my identity means in the Philippines: a privileged Americano who doesn’t even speak her native tongue, and is therefore not Filipino, conversely next to my identity in the US, which is that I am not “from” there, and therefore not American. I could speak on this indefinitely, but I’ll save that for another installment more acutely focused on what I’ve learned about “being Filipino”.
I still remember the first time traveling in Thailand, and then Vietnam, and then Myanmar. Staring into the faces of women who looked like me, who could feel impoverished by their situations or perfectly satisfied — I could never know — but yet still left me wondering how much we could’ve had in common, had I not been born in a first world country.
Growing up in ethnically diverse immigrant communities (like the Bay Area) so uniquely shapes one’s perspective on the world. It opens up your understanding of what influences identity and values, and truly gives meaning to the oft-quoted, Hallmark card phrase, “Bloom where you’re planted.”
Funnily enough, that year I lived in Paris, there was a banner of this exact phrase splayed across the doors of the American church, on bus 63 on my way to Saint-Germaine for school every morning. I’ve never forgotten that, as well as all the lessons I took away from that first experience living abroad and being confronted with my Asian-ness outside of my comfort zone.
I am deeply appreciative, always, for my circumstances and privileges, for the life my parents carved out for me so that I could truly do whatever I wanted and live wherever I wanted, if I so chose it. I may not have a trust fund or a job waiting for me at my dad’s venture capitalist firm, but I do have more freedom than most women in this world will ever have, and that is a gift I have learned to never take for granted.
Living in so many places has taught me the fluidity and flexibility of identity, specifically in terms of ethnicity and nationality, and that how we’re perceived as referential to cultural norms is completely out of our control.
Even if it is annoying, I like to think there may be some psychological benefit to having to explain why I am the way I am on a near daily basis — as if being casually asked to make sense of my immigrant history and American sense of being forces me to be honest with myself everyday.
It serves to create a sense of displacement that I’ve always held close since I was a child, this ability to relate so deeply to intrinsically “American” cultural beliefs and practices, but not have an image of myself reflected back at me as representative of that culture.
Ultimately maybe the most rewarding thing about being a brown American abroad, beyond what I can comprehend even in the present moment, is how riding the waves of thoughts and emotions in response to these experiences has made me a much more insightful human. However much I continue to dwell on this topic, probably for the rest of my life, I know I will at least be grateful for that.