“Atsi, tricycle!” (Older sister, tricycle!), “Ya sui, sidecar!” (Very beautiful, sidecar!), shouted two of many tricycle drivers at an informal jeepney stop near my family’s house. I threw my usual constipated look-slash-death glare at them and continued on my way, even if what just happened left me feeling disconcerted. I have been commuting on-and-off for most of my five-year stay at the University, and for more than four years, I have managed to ignore everything from the stares of drivers applying for their licenses at our local LTO office, to the remarks of a gay man, who looked at me from head to toe while boarding a jeep, only to insult me regarding my whiteness. That experience a few months ago was different, though, because it was said in my native Hokkien. It would have been fine if I lived in Chinatown, or if I regularly took the tricycle home, but I do not, which made the whole thing weirder than it should have been.
Ever since I started going to school, I’ve never felt like a Filipino. I’m too yellowish-white to begin with, and having smaller eyes than most people sealed the deal. My large stature didn’t help either. I might hold a Philippine passport, speak Filipino fluently, and I’ve even won a couple of Buwan ng Wika contests here and there, but my Chinese identity is never in doubt, especially when people press it upon me. Apparently, the Filipino look falls along a narrow spectrum, and extreme variations do not count. “Morgan Freeman is black, Barack Obama is brown, Josh Groban is white, and Constance Wu is yellow, but they are all Americans,” or so the statement goes—I thought I could apply it to the Philippines, but I was wrong. I am a fish out of water here, because I always have to go out of my way to create even a small semblance of safety.
Every time my relatives would ask me about the precautions I take while commuting, I’d tell them that looking fierce and dressing simply is my default way of surviving the dangers of being out and about in Metro Manila. And so far, it’s been effective in deterring strangers from staring at me, talking to me, or attempting to steal my things. However, now that I’m getting older, I’m beginning to understand why my relatives and parents are always so protective. They ask questions veiled with concern, they don’t allow me to go to certain places, and it’s imperative that I always inform them about my whereabouts, because being and looking Chinese seems to be a blatant warning device signaling evildoers of a prime opportunity to do whatever it is evildoers do.
Being a foreigner in my own country, along with the general inefficiency of every facet of life in the Philippines, is the main reason why I’m desperate to get out of the country. I want to be where I belong, where I am not singled out for my whiteness no matter what I wear, where my sudden compulsion for speaking in Chinese or straight English won’t turn heads. I hope the day comes when the Singaporean, Taiwanese, and Hong Kong nationals I come across won’t have to guess endlessly at where I come from, and consequently won’t be shocked when I tell them I’m from the Philippines. Most importantly, I wish that when I applaud an airline crew for a job well done, I won’t be landing in the Philippines, which honestly feels like an artificial habitat. I want to live in a place that feels like a natural habitat, where I do not only survive, but also thrive.