The Filipino traveler’s identity crisis

Rachel ArandillaRachel Arandilla
Postcard Travels

ON my numerous trips, I’ve been constantly approached and asked where I come from. For fun, I make a game out of it to let them guess. Most commonly, I’ve been perceived to be Thai. I’ve also been thought to be: Singaporean, Nepali, Kazakhstani, and on rare occasions, Chinese or Japanese.

But never Filipino. When I tell them my real identity (like Batman), two reactions alternately happen.

Either: “Oh really? You don’t look Filipino!” they say it like a genuine compliment, so I smile. But I couldn’t help but wonder what they really mean by that. What’s a Filipino supposed to look like, anyway?

And then there’s utter ignorance. “Where is the Philippines? Oh wait, wasn’t that in the Bible?” During these times I sometimes wished we have someone or something spectacular, like a Fidel Castro or the Angkor Wat or the Dalai Lama. Then again, a lot of people aren’t even familiar with them either. Oh wait, we have Manny Pacquiao.

So, are Filipinos Asians or Pacific Islanders?

Filipinos: What do we look like?
Filipinos: What do we look like?

A fellow traveler asked as follow up, seeking to ensue an intellectual debate.

This gets a little more interesting. Before I could answer, another one butted in: “Neither? They seem more hispanic or latino to me.”

To note, these were raised by people who were neither Filipinos, but Americans. As westerners try to lump us into a particular ethnic group, leading to more confusion. Hence a Filipino identity crisis. And yet, we never classified ourselves as such or such before. It is all a western invention.

The Philippines is a creation by Western colonizers to begin with. If the Spanish never came, force-baptize the natives and named our islands after a historically unimportant king, there never would have been “The Philippine Islands” in the first place. Our islands would probably have been absorbed by the Chinese civilization from the north, or be integrated into the Muslim Malay nations from the south. Who knows?

To get back to my nationality guessing game, there was only one person who got it right once. Once. A Slovakian Arnold Schwarzenegger-esque guy we encountered in Ibiza.

Wow, you’re the very first person who got that right the first time!” I said, really impressed.

“It’s not that difficult. You’re a tan Asian with very good American English. So there you go. Filipino.”

I was floored, because now this includes another element to the whole equation: the Filipino Americanization. This is getting more complicated than I thought.

Geography 101

Geographically, we are in Asia. Hence, we are Asians! I cross-checked and consulted the world map and I confirmed that we are in the right continent.

Likewise, we love our rice to death. There’s nothing more Asian than that!
To be more specific about it, we are Southeast Asians, particularly, of the Austronesian or Malay-Polynesian ethnic group. Identifying features include: short face, mild epicanthic fold, straight, black hair, and a happy, light-hearted disposition. Sounds familiar?

‘Orphans of the Pacific’

On the other hand, being labeled as ‘Pacific Islander’ is not entirely wrong, either. Historically, we used to be part of the Spanish East Indies, which comprised the Moluccas (Indonesia), Guam, Mariana Islands, and the Philippines.

Our islands were once called “The Philippine Islands of the Pacific.” We are located in the Pacific Ocean; a tropical island paradise, 7,000 of it. Even if most of the “Pacific Islands” are 4,000 to 8,000 kilometers away, we see plenty of similarities in physical features and culture among people in Guam and Hawaii, among others.

Filipino migration to Guam has been happening for several centuries – the Spanish were fond of exiling Filipino rebels and prisoners to Guam. The Americans continued the practice when they took over.

Kumusta / Como estas?

The term Hispanic is a broad representation of the people and cultures with historical linkages to Spain. This term commonly referring to her former colonies, although strictly speaking, it refers to the former Spanish colonies in Latin America.

After 333 years of colonization, we have a rich hispanic heritage. The native tsokolate and mais made its way to the Philippines after centuries via the Galleon trade with our latino brothers. We share our fervent Roman Catholic faith with other hispanic cultures, as well as our love for lechons, siestas and fiestas. Do you know that “Filipino time” and “Latino time” are exactly the same?

And who else do we share our obsession with boxing and beauty pageants?
Today, very few people in the Philippines speak Spanish, although many of our abuelos still do when they’re angry.

So the whole debate was really much ado about nothing. Our islands have been a melting pot of cultures for centuries. It’s okay to be a little confused about demonyms assigned to us. Identity crises have always been part of us, and maybe that’s why it was so easy for foreign entities to colonize us. But who cares if you identify yourself as Asian, or Pacific Islander, or even Hispanic? It’s all a western invention.

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