Sunday, April 16, 2006

Balancing the slight books

When two or more Filipinos meet abroad, it is only a matter of time before they begin reciting from their personal catalogues of racist experiences. Each Filipino keeps such a catalogue and what has been inscribed there can never be erased completely. Modified, perhaps, through time and growing understanding and confidence in oneself and a gradual finding of one’s place in the new country. But never erased.

Moreover, the negative experiences in that figurative scorebook are all cumulative, that is, they build upon each other to produce a discouraging picture, over all, of the new country. I think the probability of finding a job here that, even if blue-collar, pays twice as much as a middle-management job at, say, a Makati bank, does brighten that picture a bit.

What else helps to mitigate those niggling feelings of frustration, fear and anger in an affluent mostly-white society depends on the Filipino individual.

When I told my teacher, Michael, I didn't think Denmark was any more xenophobic than other countries, I wasn't speaking from a thorough knowledge of this land, or, for that matter, because I agree with the interesting opinions of the populist Dansk Folkeparti.

For after all, the private scorebook of racial slights I keep has entries dating back to 1979 in America, a few small notes scribbled in Britain, and a good deal of stuff written in my very own homeland.

I could have told him, for example, about being a nine-year-old in Ventnor, New Jersey, pursued day after day by the same trio of boys, all chanting, "Chinese, Chinese." They kept it up on the playground, at the bus stop and in the bus itself, riding to and from school. It did not occur to them that I may have been something else besides Chinese, nor to be merciful or gallant on account of my being a girl. One day, one of them -- I can still recall his name and every detail about his appearance -- came loping up to me as I stood in line at the bus stop and gave me a running kick, as though I were a soccer ball. The resulting bruise high up on my thigh took weeks to dissipate.

I could not bring myself to write about that experience until 2003, at the University of East Anglia in Britain. My family knew about it but never discussed it, and I never broached the topic with them; instead, in a strange way, I referred deprecatingly to the redheaded one, in private discussions with my older sister, as Billy Chinese. Certainly I needed to separate myself from that identity and project it as far from myself as possible -- preferably onto the attacker himself. I am sure it was because I was ashamed of myself. Why did I feel such self-disgust? Why did these eight-year-old three boys have the power to make me feel so worthless? They were children, certainly, but who had taught them that it was all right to harass "Chinese" and subject them to violence?

My friend Filo will understand this experience. She, too, was a victim of violence, but in Denmark -- off the Parliament building in Copenhagen no less. "Victim of violence" sounds too prissy. A Danish man beat her up. Over a minor traffic accident. On the pavement, in full public view. Nobody helped her. I think much of the diffused anger she feels toward this country stems from that incident.

Compared to an actual experience of violence, lesser instances of racism—parlor racism, if you like -- seem trivial: annoying, but not debilitating. Yet they, too, add up to create a climate of insecurity, such that in the aisles of Superbest or Magasin du Nord, one steps aside instinctively for white Danes, teenagers or pensioners alike, averting a collision, trying not to be a nuisance of oneself. One steels oneself before stepping up to a librarian or a ticket seller at the train station. And so on --

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Of strangers and strangenes

One Thursday I had lunch with my American Studies teacher and a classmate from the same course. Apparently in Denmark it's quite normal to join one's teacher at one end of the long table amid the clatter of the canteen: in some other parts of the world it might be called sucking up. "Things are more informal here," Michael says, in the same wry unhurried manner he uses in the classroom. We call all our teachers by their first names.

I'm finding my place in the class, amid these tall, grave people -- most of them in their 20s and some shade or other of blond. I'm not the only foreigner -- there are a German and a Turkish exchange student, both girls, and a woman of about my age from Morocco, married to a Dane.

In the beginning they all seemed to be undifferentiated pink-cheeked Caucasians, but now I see how others are undergoing adjustment problems of their own, whether it's a matter of country or school or subject or language.

Michael asks me where I am from. I feel comfortable enough telling him I am a writer in my own country and have published two books, and a bit more about my personal circumstances, including why I am studying English in Denmark, and not Britain or the States. "What do you think of the xenophobia in Denmark?" he asks.

I've been dreaming about answering such a question for months. Usually Europeans will skirt the matter of my Asian-ness: crack lame jokes, fall into an uncomfortable silence, speak too loudly or too slowly, or -- and this is most typical -- assume the manner of the confident, worldly lecturer handing out pointers to an obedient child. It could have happened that way at RUC, but I took matters into my own hands. A classroom setting is, by its very nature, a smart and democratic setting, where opinions are solicited and respected. I have control over how others perceived me, and so, to abort the image of the desperate sexualized Oriental drudge, I speak out avidly in class, especially American Studies class, where according to the RUC philosophy we form into small discussion groups in the course of the morning and regroup in a plenary session afterward.

Now, asked that question, and on the level playing field of academe, no less, I hedge.

I suppose I might tell my teacher about the Christmas Eve party one year to which I had been expressly barred. I was living in the house of a Danish friend, and the party was at his son's. Someone, the son, or the son's wife perhaps, decided I was not a member of the family and did not belong at their table.

Or I suppose I might tell him about the children's birthday party to which I was invited, during which no one but the host husband spoke to me. We were all there around the dining table, surrounded by festive little Danish flags and pork cutlets, and then strawberry layer cake and popcorn and beer. Five couples and the children, close enough to make eye contact if we wanted to, and nothing but Danish spoken, no openings given, and apparently no notion throughout the company that this could have been in any way different.

But are these examples of xenophobia? At any rate, they are but two slight incidents out of the barrel of doubts and triumphs that constitute my experience of Denmark so far. I hem and haw, as other memories flit through my brain, a year in Britain, a year in the States, my own life in the Philippines, and at last come up with a lukewarm answer: "Well, I don't think Denmark is any worse than any other country."

I can see Michael had been expecting at least a measure of outrage. Why couldn't I muster it? What is xenophobia, anyway...?

Monday, April 03, 2006

How should a Filipino speak?

The Danes always need a little help in placing me within their social framework. They want to know what I am, and why I am like this. They ask me, "Where are you from?" and I tell them the truth, “The Philippines.” The question that inevitably follows is, “You speak with an American accent; have you lived in the States?” A few people actually assumed I was from the States.

So the strapping young people at Roskilde University (RUC) inquire, as do the body-builder behind the counter at the gym, and librarians and other professionals meeting me for the first time, and even one of my teachers, whom I happily managed to have lunch with at the university canteen after class.

I could shrug and say, “This is a Filipino accent. All my friends in Manila speak like this,” and leave them to wonder.

But I don’t—not anymore—because the truth is, I have lived in the States, as a child; and I do speak more fluently and with a slightly more American inflection than most Filipinos, and after years and years of worrying about it, I no longer feel I have to apologize for this fluency, or be magnanimous about its obvious advantages, or be embarrassed because I don’t sound like a “true” Filipino, whatever that is.

So I tell them the facts—the year in New Jersey when I was nine, and the Americanized subculture of Silliman University in Dumaguete, where I grew up. The school was founded in 1901 by missionaries; within its boundaries American culture has always been something to aspire for and acquire, even during the nationalist seventies and eighties.

The MA students at the RUC are taking a course in postcolonial literature—a required course, not an elective—so they can immediately contextualize American missionary education and understand its impact on the Third World.

At first I found having to explain myself all the time quite unpleasant feelings no doubt shared by many university-educated Filipinos who have lived or traveled abroad. I have a choice, I suppose: I could say—“I am from Måløv town, in København county,” where I live at present. But my politics doesn’t run in that direction—wherever country I choose to settle and, however long I stay, I will always define myself as “from the Philippines,” originally and at the present time.

Furthermore, I have come to the conclusion that their curiosity has little to do with the novelty of a brown-skinned woman equipped with good language skills, than with the global phenomenon of Americanization and the ascendancy of English as a world language. Danes are often remarked to be extremely proficient in English next to other Europeans. They learn it in school at age 9 or thereabouts; my classmates (most of whom are in their 20s) would probably have received instruction in the language a bit later, at age 11 or 12.

For English, in Denmark, is both a second language to the populace and a foreign language in schools—and as such, it is taught with the strictest adherence to pronunciation and grammar. Only two kinds of English pronunciation are accepted in schools—“British” and “American.” What constitutes proper British or American pronunciation is material for an entirely separate discussion, but it has slowly dawned on me that when youngish Danes compliment a foreigner for her articulacy, they are doing so in the context of a strict school-based system that grades their oral proficiency on a standard scale of 1 to 13, a framework in which they, too, are foreigners.