Riyadh, Saudi Arabia—“You from China?” queried the Arabic-speaking Indian cab driver in halting English as we sliced through the morning traffic. I saw his eyes in the rearview mirror steal a glance at me.
“No,” I replied, “from the Philippines.”
“Ah, Filibini,” he said, smiling.
In Arabic, there is no letter that is the equivalent of the letter P. Instead, what is used as substitute is the letter B. Thus, the P in foreign names or words is changed to B when written or pronounced in Arabic. One example is the soft drink Pepsi. In Arabic, it is written and pronounced as “Bibsi.”
Thus, “Filibini” is the Arabic term for “Filipino.”
“You from China?” a Saudi teenage boy asked me one lunch time as we shared a table in the food court of an upscale mall.
“No,” I said, “Filibini.”
“Oh, sorry, sir. How do you like it here in the kingdom?” he said.
I told him I found it great except during summer when the temperature soars beyond 50 degrees.
One night, I was waiting for the General Motors Corp. office to open after the last evening prayer. (Here, all offices or establishments are closed during prayer time, locally referred to as “salah.”) I was there to pay my monthly car amortization. A Saudi, who had just come out of his sleek Mercedes, approached me.
“Hi. How are you?” he said. “You look great.” He was referring to the business suit I was wearing. And then he asked, “You from Japan?”
I broke into a huge smile on hearing the question, instinctively shaking my head. Before China, now Japan. What’s next, Korea?
Just last night, I was at a nearby hardware store staffed by several Pakistani nationals. As soon as I handed the payment, one of them asked, “You from China?”
I corrected him.
My wife would always be seized by a paroxysm of laughter whenever I told her about these occurrences. “It’s because of your slit eyes, dear,” she would say.
I have been asked a dozen times about my nationality. At times I find it amusing, but at other times I get irritated, too.
Last night I found it annoying, maybe because I was tired as I had just come from the office. I told myself before going to bed that, the next time around, I would bluntly retort to any inquisitive guy, “Don’t I look like a Filipino?” just to sort of let out my exasperation.
This morning I had to go to a building near our office to attend to some pressing matter. As soon as I was done, I got into the elevator to head to the ground floor. Three tall Saudis were having an animated conversation, and I noticed their observant eyes veer toward me. Instantly, I knew what would happen next. The same old question, the same irritating question. Do it and I’ll give you a piece of my mind, I told myself.
But I confess to a difficulty in controlling gas emissions. When the urge comes, there’s no stopping the gas from exiting my rear end, with the occasional accompanying disgusting sound. This morning was no exception. I could feel it coming.
Before the elevator reached the ground floor, the muscles in my behind gave way and a loud fart was heard. I bowed my head, pretending to ignore it. The Saudis abruptly stopped their conversation. One of them politely asked me, “You Filibini?”
“No,” I courteously replied without looking at them, “from China.”
The elevator door slowly opened. I almost tripped as I made a quick exit.
Amador F. Brioso Jr., a lawyer, has been working as a senior legal advisor in a Riyadh bank for eight years. He is the author of several books, and his first nonfiction work published in 2015, on Arsenio Lacson of Manila, was adjudged best nonfiction prose in English in the 35th National Book Awards.
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