“What’s your name?” the friendly white Australian academic asks me, and I tell her.
“What’s your Asian name?” she persists. Mine is a name that turns up in Google attached to Latin American women, a minor actress numbered among them. This is the second time I’ve been asked this question during my first month in Australia.
No one ever asks that in the Philippines, an archipelago shaped like a sitting puppy surrounded by contested islands and waters in the part of the world now called Southeast Asia. In the Philippines, you can have a Chinese professor with an Anglo first name and a Spanish family name, or someone with none of the physical features commonly attributed to Spanish or Latin American people, yet possessing a name that sounds like it belongs in the roll call of a Hispanic classroom. If we are Asian, then this is what Asian looks like, and these, too, are Asian names.
Former Spanish colony. Former American colony. The only majority-Christian country in Asia. They speak English there. They love Americans there. No, they don’t speak Spanish. Didn’t they once have a first lady with 3,000 pairs of shoes?
To say that the Philippines is a cultural oddball in the region is something of an understatement. In a 1968 Foreign Affairs article, the late Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. wrote: “Filipinos are bewildered about their identity. They are an Asian people not Asian in the eyes of their fellow Asians and not Western in the eyes of the West. They are in Asia, but they know more about the Statue of Liberty than about Angkor Wat in Cambodia; more of the lyrics of Whitman than of Tagore or of their own Nick Joaquin; more of Patrick Henry’s soul-stirring liberty- or-death oratory than of the ageless wisdom of Confucius or Lao-tze. Lately, they have taken to insisting they are Asian, but they are so American-oriented that-by reflex-they still react and respond like little brown Americans”. Much of this identification confusion still lingers amongst Filipinos today, if you substitute literary Americana with Hollywood and other pop culture references. For a more nuanced, contemporary take on the “little brown American” tendency, check out this Manila Review essay by historian Leloy Claudio.
In his book Authentic Though Not Exotic: Essays on Filipino Cultural Identity, University of Hawaii-trained Filipino cultural anthropologist Fernando Nakpil Zialcita writes that Philippine cuisine seems “out of place” in dominant notions of what Southeast Asian cuisine should be, lacking as it is in liberal amounts of spice. He shares that “in Amsterdam, a Filipino restaurant uses plenty of chilli to cater to this preconceived notion of [Asian cuisine] by Dutch customers.” One of my favourite spots for sit-down Filipino food in Melbourne is a Vietnamese hole in the wall in Footscray, where one of the staff is Filipino and a couple of items on the menu are Filipino – but only a Vietnamese or Filipino customer would be able to tell the difference. Indeed, when I first moved to Melbourne, my Southeast Asian house mates made much of how food I cooked wasn’t as colourful as theirs, or how “Westernised” my palate was. In these cases, it would appear that “being Asian” carried similar meanings for those Dutch customers who expected intensely spicy food from the Amsterdam Filipino eatery, as well as some Southeast Asian international students in Melbourne. For both groups, Southeast Asian flavours had to be fiery, striking, and exotic, and Filipino fare, that bastard child of Spanish, Chinese and Malay flavours, just wasn’t exotic enough, not “other” enough.
In 2008, I was research assistant to a German architect who was researching Manila houses and structures that survived from the pre-World War II times. During one of our long walks around Manila, a local told me, “Why do you even bother with this project? Our real cultural achievements are those straw houses (nipa hut) from before the Spaniards came.” To this fellow, we were most culturally “ourselves” in our moments of precolonial innocence, and were now forever damaged goods because of our colonial history. Still, to some, to be culturally “oneself” was linked exclusively to discourses of resistance against foreigners, where to repel, rather than to create or to transform, appears to be the highest expression of selfhood. A glance at the history of the Philippine Army Reserve Command on its official website shows that the army traces the history of the reserve forces to Mactan chief Lapu-lapu’s defeat of the Christianisation efforts of Ferdinand Magellan (Fernando Magallanes), a Portuguese sailor loyal to the Spanish king, who had ended up in the Philippines whilst seeking Southeast Asian spices, then highly valued commodities in Europe. For the army, the defeat of Magellan in 1521 was “the first recorded and successful defense of Filipino reservists against foreign subjugation… when Lapu-lapu and his men defeated the superior Spanish military forces led by Magellan in the historic battle of Mactan”. Never mind that, the Philippines as a somewhat unified political community, only came into being under Spanish colonial rule; before then, each island had its own locality, leadership, and trade networks with societies all over what we now know as Southeast Asia. Quoting Filipino National Artist Awardee Nick Joaquin, “How can we say we are being nationalist when… to recapture our pre-1521 identity, we would first have to abolish this nation called the Philippines?”
What, with all this, does it mean to be “Asian” anymore? Who gets to be called Asian these days? If the Asian Cup lineup is to be believed, any country that isn’t in Europe, Latin America, or Africa is Asian – which means that Oman, Kuwait, Yemen, Iran, Palestine, and yes, Australia, too, are Asian. Two years ago, I met a Turkish woman in Berlin whose Jamaican boyfriend who took out on her all his rage against his white ex-girlfriend; she told me, frustrated, “I don’t even know why he thinks I am anything like her. I am not white. I am Asian!” And to be seen as Asian, or not, or a particular type of Asian, can result in one occupying space, and in others taking up space around one, so differently. Despite the ease of travel for many, and the spread of Western, especially Anglo-American cultural forms, all over the globe, Asia, for many Westerners and Asians alike, still tends to represent an exotic destination prized for its presumed difference from a modern but decadent, corrupt Western referent. A case like the Philippines defies easy typecasting and contains infinitely exciting multitudes. This place we call Asia is far more complex, and indeed, worthy of attentiveness, than so many of us give it credit for. We were not at our most interesting during our moments of precolonial innocence, and we need not be “exotic” to have something worth saying to the world.