CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 9 June 2018

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The shadow of my Filipino face

Believing that a lot more than money should be looked at before taking up a contract as a migrant worker in China, one Filipino has shared something of her experience of living and working on the mainland

I arrived in Central China two years ago in July and even though I can say that I am equipped with enough Chinese language to get around, I still find myself hiding my Filipino face in the obscure shadows of my identity.

Despite the fact that I can ask for directions in Chinese quite competently, buy stuff, negotiate a lease on an apartment, bargain and carry out casual conversations with strangers, even follow most stuff on television and read the writing on the wall, hiding in the shadows of obscurity is the only way I can protect myself from the hostile forces of society.

I travelled somewhere up north for 10 days during the summer last year to investigate new possibilities, but on my way back home, I received a text message from one of my hosts telling me to be extra careful, because China was about to bomb The Philippines.

News about the ruling in favour of The Philippines from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on territorial claims of what we call the West Philippine Sea and Beijing claims as the South China Sea wasn’t being taken lightly on the mainland.

“China’s army and fighter jets are now aimed at The Philippines. China is ready to invade The Philippines,” the text message from my new-found friend read.

Mystified-looking people sat glued to their television sets watching the news that night, which showed fighter jets and thousands of military personnel waiting for the command from the big boss to crumble the small islands of The Philippines.

Then, a few hours after the first text message, another one arrived, this time an advisory from the Philippine embassy in Beijing.

It read, “Due to the recent development of the territorial dispute favouring The Philippines, (Philippine) citizens based in China are advised to be extra vigilant and avoid any form of debate or discussions that may lead to confrontations and harassments. For security, it is necessary not to mention your nationality.”

The words, “Not to mention your nationality” stuck into me like sword. At the best of times this is how we Filipinos live in China and my constant question to myself is always, “Where to hide?”

A few days later I was on a 19-hour train ride. I had a lower bed in a six bunk compartment. My companions happened to be three university students and a couple of retired teachers.

I enjoy train travel in China as local people find it natural to be friendly to foreigners, especially westerners.

I am not a westerner, but that night I was the only foreigner in the compartment, so I guess they didn’t have much choice other than to be polite.

The students wanted to practice their English, while the retired teachers asked me a series of questions, mostly personal, which is par for the course in China.

People like to ask where I come from, what I do in China, my age, my civil status, how many children I have, how much salary I am receiving and those types of things.

Irrespective of what language they ask in, I always answer in Chinese, as I have my personal agenda as well and that is to practice the language.

When they ask me where I come from I have learned that the easiest thing to do is ask them to guess. Most of the time they suggest Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan or the Union of Myanmar as the most likely.

Then I would simply say, “Yes. I am Asian just like you.” It avoids lying and up until then I had always got away with it.

They never guess Filipino. I don’t know why. Maybe they just do not want to associate with a Filipino.

Unfortunately, that day on the train turned out to be one when my defences were down and my brain cells did not serve me well.
Disaster. Disaster. I answered forthrightly, blurting out, “I am from The Philippines.”

An arrow does not fly back to its quiver and by the time I realised what I had done, it was too late. I had exposed myself to a deep political discussion, even worse, an argument perhaps.

When I uttered the word Philippines, the retired teacher’s facial appearance changed radically, from gentle and friendly to hard and demanding.

Then the crunch. “The problem with The Philippines is that your country is not recognising how big and powerful China is,” he advised me.

“The Philippines will be wiped out in just a matter of seconds. Don’t mess with China or else!” he warned.

While the man was uttering those words, I just wanted to evaporate, as people occupying the neighbouring compartments could overhear the conversation and had started to crowd into our space.

They stared at me, nodding in agreement as the man spoke. I had stirred up a hornets’ nest. There was no escape now.

There was no shadow to offer me shelter, so remembering what I had learned early on in my journey through China, I resorted to what I call the art of empathetic listening.

I had to convince myself that the attack wasn’t personal. I just allowed the man to go on with his rant and remained calm.

Eventually some relief. He paused for a moment. I grabbed the opportunity and acknowledged what he had said, replying, “I believe this issue is for my government to resolve. This has nothing to do with me.”

He then remained silent.

The eavesdroppers quietly returned to their own compartments and, as I tucked myself between the covers of my bunk with an acute sense of discomfort, the question kept returning to my scattered head, “What’s wrong with who I am?”

Although that ordeal was over, I knew it would come back again and many times since then I have been searching for a shadow in which to hide my Filipino face.

Even the guessing game isn’t healthy in the long run. Being deprived of the liberty to own and claim my basic identity and nationality is like being non-existent.

The terrible thought sits with me that I do not exist in China. I suppose this feeling of insecurity will continue until both countries come to terms with each other, but how can they come to a peaceful resolution when power is the basis on which one controls the other?

To date nothing has changed and I don’t expect any improvement in the foreseeable future.

Name and address supplied


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