Originally published in Deadnite Mag, Issue 2, Summer 2018.
A white man, after learning my ethnicity, tells me that his first wife was a Filipina. He tries to say “I love you” in Tagalog but instead of mahal kita — musical and sweet and crisp — he says muh-hawl keeduh. He grins at me, proud, expecting a pat on the back for butchering my mother tongue. I offer a smile and a forcibly impressed, “Wow, that was good.”
“Filipina women are the best,” he continues. “They’re the kindest people I’ve ever met. The best cooks, too.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I say deflectively. “I guess I’m a good cook, if you count instant ramen.”
This happens often. When someone finds out that I am Filipina, I am always made to listen to a story about a nurse, a nanny, a cleaning lady. All the stories sound the same: Filipinos are so generous and hardworking, they say.
Every time, I smile shyly and say thank you, playing the role they expect of me.
My ethnicity makes for great pick-up lines, too.
A Tinder match messages me, “chillin’ with a filipina at your local jollibee,” quoting Childish Gambino. One asks me to make lumpia for him. Others ask me to confirm whether Filipinas are as freaky as they say.
Who told them Filipinas are freaky, I wonder. Was it a friend who visited my homeland looking for sex? The guys who write articles titled “Ten Reasons Why You Should Date A Filipino Girl?” Pornhub? I wonder if they knew how many Filipinas find themselves in sex work because it was their only option, how many young Filipinas are kidnapped or sold into sex trafficking.
I delete the app, but even in public — at concerts, at parties, in the streets of my own neighborhood — men’s advances remind me that, in Western eyes, my brown body does not belong to me.
Almost two decades of microaggressions later, I find myself humiliated. How can I be so brazen in private, but become so quiet and deferent in the presence of whiteness? How ridiculous must I look contorting my body into the cookie-cutter mold of the quintessential Filipina?
I find myself looking to the past, scouring through centuries of history like they can explain why there are so many pairs of hands claiming ownership of my body. Why people tell me I am so kind, so hospitable, so subservient, so demure. Why I am always someone’s wife, someone’s prostitute, someone’s maid, someone’s nurse.
I learn that I am a colonized subject.
Colonization is not just a chapter from my high school history textbooks, but a lived reality, etched into my mind and written all over my brown body. The Philippines, though independent now, has been under someone else’s rule for so long that the ghosts of colonization remain, ingrained in the way we see ourselves and the way our colonizers see us.
Spain and the United States, our colonizers, turned Filipinos into second-class citizens in their own land and wiped away centuries of rich indigenous cultures and histories. Under Spanish rule, over 100 distinct ethnolinguistic groups were flattened into a single people and placed at the bottom of a strict racial hierarchy. The United States established a nationwide colonial education program that valorized American politics, culture, and values.
Filipina women — many of whom held powerful positions in indigenous Filipino societies — were systematically disenfranchised as the Spanish enforced the Western patriarchy. Centuries later, as immigration and the global economy grew in prominence, the United States and other Western countries began importing Filipina nurses and domestic workers. War and militarism turned many Filipinas into war brides or prostitutes. These histories created the quintessential Filipina, and its consequences continue today.
This is why Americans and Westerners claim ownership to my body and the bodies of other Filipinas — not just for sex, but for labor, for companionship. It’s why I — and other Filipinas — let them: it is our role, our history, what we Filipinas do.
Knowing this, how do you decolonize yourself? How do you recognize the parts of yourself that are constricted by colonization, and how do you free them?
It begins with the mind. I read articles and books written from Filipina perspectives. I watch documentaries, I attend events and conferences, I take classes. I discover narratives that present Filipinas not as tragic victims, uncivilized savages, or obedient subjects, but as providers, leaders, and fighters. I learn to love my culture and history for what they truly are, not the false versions rewritten by my colonizers.
I learn to see beauty and pride and strength — and then I embody it. I stop censoring myself and stop whitening my skin. I start speaking Tagalog again, my tongue curling around once-familiar syllables. I ask questions and criticize and try my hardest, in all settings, to make the Filipina visible.
It is a difficult task, learning then undoing the ways that my mind and body have been so profoundly colonized. I am lucky for and indebted to the Asian American Studies department and the Filipino American organization at my university; I know I am at a place of privilege because I have access to such knowledge and communities. Thanks to them, I have a wealth of resources and support in my journey to reclaiming ownership of my mind and body.
And yet, I know that no matter how conscious I become, forces of colonialism and postcolonialism remain, and I can’t fully change the way others perceive me. Because of my brown skin, my last name, and my gender, I can’t stop Americans from viewing me as a caring nanny, a hardworking employee, a freaky prostitute, a good Christian wife.
But, as I learn and grow in confidence, I’m beginning to outwardly resist. Progress is slow, but I am breaking out of the role of the colonized Filipina, stretching my sore limbs, learning how to occupy space on my own terms. It is terrifying and tenuous, but I have never felt so free.