Saturday, February 22, 2014

Eternal stranger

The BBC uses my images without asking, so it's all fair game

Sod it, I'll just become Asian. I don't have to give up anything really, I'll just be one of those Westernised ones. I already like most of the food, I don't have to eat the pungent preserved fish as well. I don't have to start warbling karaoke or buy an antisocial motorbike to do my bit towards the neighbourhood din. I already follow my girlfriend around as her personal photographer, diligently snapping excessive pictures for an imaginary portfolio like a well-trained Asian boyfriend. They'd never accept me with this face, but a little unnecessary cosmetic surgery never hurt anyone (according to the misleadingly positive news stories I used to be paid to write every day for a Harley Street clinic. Don't blame me for your botched boobs).

You know your foreign friend back at university? Whose English wasn't perfect but who tried to fit in and who - good-natured ironic racism aside - you basically accepted as one of the guys, since you all came from different backgrounds anyway? That doesn't happen out here. Even if I became pointlessly fluent in the local dialect of this one island of the best English-speaking country in the continent, the racism-tinged wisdom passed down by older, more experienced bloggers has led me to believe I'll always be viewed as the outsider. If I spend all my life here, I'll never be local.

So while that sadly means I'm condemned to be a tourist until I die or leave, it's at least a handy excuse for cultural and linguistic laziness. It's always worth trying to learn these lessons second-hand at an early stage so I don't become one of those bitter ex-pats in the future myself. I know, it's too late already.

Mighty white

You shouldn't have any trouble finding offensive nicknames for my mixed race offspring,
but just to get you started (Image:

I don't want to be white any more. Like when big glasses became popular a few years later than would have been ideal for curbing childhood bullying, and I stuck with sensible frames, I've never wanted to be fashionable. The whitening obsession of many Asian countries has really put me off the shade.

I won't bother going into detail on the obsession - you either already know or can easily work it out by extrapolating from the Western prestige of a holiday tan. It might have started as a disdainful distinction between sun-kissed field workers and pale, over-privileged, housebound layabouts (did you say something?), but today the unachievable geisha look is promoted as the ideal in countries like the Philippines and Thailand, where the overwhelming majority of celebrities are mixed race. Because why would you look up to someone who looks common like you?

A real thing (Images:

The desire for whiteness has become so ingrained, when I first went shopping for a bar of soap in our local supermarket in the Philippines there was literally no product in the long aisle that didn't boast of its whitening properties. If you're of indigenous Aeta descent and you're fond of your dark complexion (in spite of it being the butt of many jokes among your mongrel countryfolk), I guess that's just too bad. Or it would be if those products worked, anyway. No offence against mongrels by the way - what are the British if not the bastard litter of rapey conquests? (And that's just going back one generation, b'dum-tish).

And then there's this thing that also exists

My longing for bronzing isn't about vanity or peer pressure. It is partly about practical sun protection, if I'm going to spend most of my life in a climate I'm amusingly ill-suited to. But it's mostly so people won't feel the need to shout shit at me every time I step outside the door because I look different or carry associations of $$$ (no, not £££, I'm clearly Amerikano. Or kano or just Joe if that's too many syllables).

I'd swap with those desperate skin-bleachers if the technology was available. You're welcome to my impractically pale complexion and the inevitable skin cancer. I'll even throw in my pointed nose so you can stop pinching yours intermittently throughout the day in a hopeless long-term bid to get that authentic witch effect when you're old enough. I'd rather go the full chameleon and blend in with the dirty concrete and power lines so no one looked at me at all, but then I'm even more likely to get killed by the reckless drivers than I am already as a shining, red-nosed beacon.

But looking local isn't always enough to avoid comments, as we've noticed when my girlfriend is mistaken for a native in every country we've been to so far (excluding Singapore where they know what Filipinos look like and what they think of them). If they mistook me for a local when I wandered through the streets of Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam or Thailand with a backpack, scanning the gaudy shop-fronts for clues leading to my destination, they might still ask me a confused question in their local dialect, wondering what one of their own was doing acting like a foreigner, or ask how old I am while eyeing my foreign-looking partner suspiciously. She gets these things all the time. But maybe it's just 'their' women they think they can treat like that, and I'd get off fine as a member of the privileged sex.

Sun sets on the empire

I've long got used to the unpleasant notion that my foreignness conveys high status in some of these places, something I've done my best to counteract by generally appearing like a tramp. To snobs, shorts carry the stench of the agricultural worker (as does my stench generally), but then my dad is a farmer, and unlike some of my status-seeking adoptive countryfolk, I don't feel that's something that brings shame on my character. It just means I got to have fun on a farm on the odd weekend as a kid, when you just got to kill time in your dad's office. And my legs don't need to get all sweaty in jeans.

There are levels to this undeserved post-colonial respect, and my own slipping position in the hierarchy became clear on this most recent trip, when we discovered a new type of unpleasant racism - people from my girlfriend's country working abroad who look down on both of us because of our mutual choice of partner. It's not like they're xenophobically branding her some sort of race traitor - foreign dalliances are ordinary enough - but the Filipino staff at one Malaysian hotel treated my girlfriend pretty disrespectfully for a guest, and were noticeably abrupt with me too when compared to other white foreigners in 'normal' couplings.

I guess I've gone and sullied my status while my girlfriend's got ideas above her station. We're very sorry for our mistake, but it's a bit too late to fix it now. We don't even have an unpleasant age gap, I've got nothing to apologise for! Of course, it could have just been my unkempt appearance again getting me the treatment this person's superficial mind felt was appropriate, but I don't think so.

Us Filipinos can just be weird sometimes.

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