Expand the List
Updated: Dec 22, 2020
I get asked this question a lot. Mostly when I’m on a flight, when I’m in a taxi, in an Uber, or just sitting beside a chatty person.
“You Filipinos are so nice. I have so many Filipino friends. They are always so friendly”
I hear this a lot too. We Filipinos are a fun, friendly bunch.
“Are you a nurse? Did you arrive here as a caregiver?”
I get this a lot too.
“I would like to have a Filipina girlfriend.”
If I could have a dollar for each time I’ve heard this, I’d have built a nice investment portfolio already.
“Filipinas are good at taking care of their men, but they are also very jealous,” some men would share this with me, as if I had some insight into this perceived phenomenon.
Usually when the conversation takes a turn to this direction, I would just stop engaging. I would feel a simmering indignation on what I’ve personally experienced many times; that the Filipina’s image is often tied to a man, or the role she plays to support her family.
After two weeks in West Texas for a work assignment, I was finally flying back home to Canada. I was already tired from the first leg of the trip because I had to fly in those tiny airplanes that could only fit 2 seats in one row. Thank goodness the next plane was an acceptable size Boeing 737.
Unfortunately, the Boeing 737 proved that you can’t judge a plane by its size. Before we could fully take off, the pilot had to bring the plane back down to the runway. The screeching sound of tires, and the smell of hot rubber almost overwhelmed the feeling of terror that encompassed my body.
By the time everyone had disembarked, there was a sea of anxious people at the gate waiting for the next announcement. I resigned myself to a longer airport layover, and took a seat to begin the long wait. Beside me was a man probably in his mid-fifties. He soon started a conversation.
“Are you Filipina?”
That question again.
“My wife is Filipina. I met her when I was stationed in the Philippines…”
I tune out usually when I hear this part. I know most of the people I meet mean well, and often they are just trying to make a connection; but I have heard this anecdote too many times to question why there is a pattern to share this story.
“What do you do?” he asked.
Sometimes, I don’t even get asked what work I do. I am often asked for confirmation if I am a nurse, a nanny, or a caregiver.
When I was a kid growing up in the Philippines, I always felt jealous of my friends when they told me about their weekends with their cousins. Most of my cousins lived in the United States because most of my mom’s family immigrated there. We would spend every other summer in Chicago until I finished high school, but that’s the only time I would see my American cousins.
“Why can’t we just migrate to the US like the rest of the family?” I would ask my father many times during my childhood.
There was no way that would happen. For my dad, America was only good for holidays, but we will not live there. Our life in Manila was comfortable, and there was no reason to move to the U.S. Most importantly, my father would often say, “We will always be treated as 2nd class citizens over there no matter how good we are, or successful we become.” I didn’t understand this. I didn’t feel like I was treated less, and I enjoyed my summers in the U.S.
Two decades later, I look out from my apartment window and I see spring has finally arrived in Toronto. By now, I have travelled a lot, and have lived in a few countries. Like my father before me, I work in the field of technology. Unlike my father, I did not stay within my comfort zone, and I moved where work took me. Because of these experiences, I now have a better understanding and empathy with my father’s concerns of not being treated with equal merit as a Filipino.
Living overseas, I have experienced many times the discrimination that he talked about. I am a Filipino, and I am a woman. This adds another layer in the struggle of identity in diaspora.
In my relationship with a partner who was not Filipino, I was seen as an opportunist who was after my foreign boyfriend’s money. In my professional life when I lived in the Middle East, I have attended meetings where the men would listen when it was a white woman or an Arab woman who spoke. I moved to North America, asked for a promotion, and was told by my manager that my cumulative work experience in Asia and the Middle East within the same company, is not considered equal as U.S. work experience; therefore I do not qualify for a promotion. Upon research, I discovered there was no performance criteria that differentiated work experience between US and non-US.
I have also seen many times the reaction of my fellow first generation Filipino immigrants during casual conversations. How is it that I am working at Starbucks in the middle of the day? Was it my day off from nanny work? This presumption makes me sad. Why do we immediately assume first generation means having a certain job, or immigration through marriage? Who wrote this narrative for us, and why did we accept it?
I dialled the number, and I heard a pleasant voice answer at the other end. I was going to do what I’ve planned since immigrating to Canada. I requested to be connected to the director who was in charge of the volunteer program for women. I was greeted by another friendly, if slightly distracted, voice. I said I was interested to become a volunteer for the women’s program at the Filipino center. The organization’s goal is to provide social, and employment assistance to the Filipino community in the Greater Toronto Area. She asked about my background, why I wanted to volunteer, and what role I was seeking. I already prepared a proposal, and I presented it to the director.
After I finished, she was very candid with her reaction. She was surprised I had such a clear objective.
To me, it’s really simple. I want to help empower our community, because in doing so, it empowers me. If more Filipino immigrants are encouraged to explore outside their comfort zone, then we get to enjoy the rewards brought by opportunities that were not available back home. The journey will have roadblocks, discrimination, and many disappointments, but these happen when you put yourself out there. And why shouldn't we be out there where we are hardly seen? We can expand our often constricting narrative. We left because we knew there would be more opportunities in the new home we chose, so why limit our choices to a few checkboxes like nurse, caregiver, and nanny? There is absolutely nothing wrong with these choices, but it is a short list. We did not leave the Philippines to live within a short list. We left our homeland so that our lives can expand, and in that expansion, our families and communities will grow with us.
Charisse Villamar was born and raised in the Philippines. Her childhood memories may be a little different from many Filipinos because she didn’t experience big family events like birthdays, weddings, and holiday parties. Most of her relatives immigrated to the United States before she was born. She does have fond memories as a child of spending summer vacations in the US to visit her relatives.
She currently works in the technology sector. Before immigrating to Canada, her job has brought her as an expat to parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Canada.
She loves hiking, gardening, water sports, and buying local books from places she’s visited. She is a big supporter of the Humane Society, and especially adores dogs.