In which I make sense of my Asian-ness.
“Oh, I thought you were Thai,” said a flustered massage therapist in Phuket, where we just spent a week. I laugh. In Thailand, locals chatter away at me in Thai, before getting clued in by my clueless expression that I probably wasn’t who I seemed. And then they apologize. It’s okay, I tell them. I get that a lot.
But then, it also happens in Vietnam, where my slitty eyes (as D teasingly calls them), get me mistaken for Vietnamese; in Indonesia, where sarong vendors, mistaking my skin color and hair, plead with me to buy their wares in Bahasa or Balinese before they realize I couldn’t understand them; in Cambodia, where tuk-tuk drivers speak to me in the local dialect. I’ve also been mistaken for Chinese and Japanese. D teases that I am “the girl with many faces” or maybe no-face girl, referencing Game of Thrones.
The most memorable so far was at the London Eye. D and I were in the queue when one of the ushers told me to follow the line of people down the corridor, before ending his instruction with “Sawasdee krup“. I was bemused and asked D what was that all about. His explanation: The usher probably mistook me for a Thai bar girl visiting London with her English lover. Hmmm… D says it wasn’t unheard of for British men go off to Thailand for a holiday and come back with a girlfriend. Oookay then.
Do you mind it, he asked. Not really, I replied. It’s not as if I can control people’s perceptions and preconceived notions, anyway.
Oddly enough, I don’t get mistaken for my own race all that much — at least, not outside Singapore. However, in Pilates class, one of the instructors, who is Filipina, thought I was Thai. She initially said she didn’t feel the “lukso ng dugo” (poetically, a leap of the blood), a Filipino term which refers to that sudden leap of recognition of one of your own. For instance, I can usually tell if a person walking towards me was Filipino and can accurately tell if a person is Thai, Malay, Indonesian or some other Southeast Asian race. “How do you know this?” D would ask me, frustrated by his inability to tell which Asian is which. I don’t exactly know how. I guess we all have an instinct for recognizing one’s own, or what’s familiar. It’s not a trait that’s unique to Filipinos. D can usually tell what kind of European it is just by looking, while I have to wait until that person speaks, and not even then.
So what’s with the preoccupation on race and color, you might ask. Shouldn’t we all be color-blind? I guess I became more aware of my nationality/color/race when I started living in another country where being part of a multicultural society was more predominant and race factors in pretty much everything. Being in an interracial relationship has also gotten me to thinking more about it.
In the Philippines, it wasn’t something we thought of at all, mainly because we are a fairly homogenious lot and consider ourselves Filipino, whether or not we’re half something else. In fact, we tend to adopt Filipinos from other countries (like Hollywood actors with a hint of Pinoy blood, whom we claim as our own). We’re inclusive that way. But I think there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging each other’s color (or race). It is after all, part of who we are. It’s when we assume certain characteristics or take on prejudices about races that it becomes a problem. I don’t see anything wrong in genuinely wanting to know about a particular nationality so long as there’s an openness and acceptance of each other’s differences. In my case, people mistaking my identity always leads to an interesting conversation about each other’s differences and ways we’re alike. It’s an ice-breaker and a door-opener. And ultimately, people-connecter.