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Are you from the Philippines?

/ 04:00 AM November 17, 2019

“Yeah, I am,” I responded as I flashed a big smile at the lady sitting across me in a table full of Australians of Anglo-Saxon origin.

It was my first meeting on my first day at my first corporate job straight out of university. I had just finished my two-year master’s program at Australia’s top business school with first class honors, while committing to a 20-hour per week digital marketing job, actively participating in a student organization and building up my networking muscle through Melbourne brunches and sunset drinks. After a month of maneuvering the intricate, competitive local job market, I got offered a product management role at a bank. I have heard of Filipinos working in the industry sitting in finance or operations, but I have yet to hear of and meet someone on the business side like me in this part of the world.

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The lady said she was there for her friend’s wedding, and that my accent reminded her of her friend whom she adores. I asked her what she thought of the Philippines. “Did you visit any beaches? What did you think of the food?” These are my standard questions whenever anyone tells me they have visited the Philippines. I am proud of the many beautiful islands we have and the complex Indo-Chinese-Spanish-American cuisine we offer.

This friendly premeeting small talk soon triggered an internal monologue that left me questioning what it means to be Filipino in one of the world’s most multiculturally diverse and most livable cities: “What else gave me away? Was it my face? It couldn’t have been my name, could it? What else do they think of the Philippines and Filipinos?”

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Suddenly, anecdotes from family and friends across the globe came back. A few months ago, I was on a second date with a guy and I told him how my desire to do further studies abroad brought me from Manila to Melbourne. He was on a working holiday to take a break from years of battling it out in corporate London. He asked me what I was studying: “Nursing?” He said it like it was expected of anyone from the Philippines to be a nurse or to want to be one. “Business,” I responded.

A few weeks ago, while waiting at the Melbourne International Airport for my flight back to Manila, I started chatting with an elderly Filipino lady lining up behind me; I learned she was on a month-long holiday to visit her Australian-born daughter. I told her I had just finished my studies, and once again that question: “Nursing?”—as if it’s the only profession our fellow Filipinos can ever do or would want to do.

Last year, I was sitting on a tram with my Filipino-Chinese friend when a blonde Australian tween girl approached us and out of nowhere blurted, “Are you two related? You look alike!” She excitedly turned to me and asked, “Why is your nose so small?” Having undergone years of unlearning to hate and instead embrace the unique beauty of my flat nose, I felt a rush of excitement in my face. I was surprised by the confidence and directness of her question. “Because I don’t need a big one,” I said, shrugging my shoulders.

I was even more surprised by the firmness of my answer. A question like that in the past would hurt me, but it had now been replaced by sheer pride, an acknowledgment that my body was built for a purpose, that beauty takes various forms and thus cannot be reduced to the size of a nose.

“Why does everyone in the Philippines love fried chicken?” asked a guy from France while we sipped mimosas at a friend’s birthday. He was recalling his recent scuba-diving trip in Camiguin, and he seemed to have eaten only to survive while on holiday there—an abomination in a country where every meal is treated like a feast. I told him if I had to choose one meal to eat for the rest of my life, it would be fried chicken. In our country of 7,100-plus islands where fish is mightily abundant, chicken seems to be our next go-to protein of choice. Jollibee, our lone flag carrier in the global fast-food space, thrives on everyone’s favorite Chickenjoy.

We had brunch at a local café the next morning where we ordered fried chicken sandwich. “You must be really happy now,” he teased before taking a second bite. “I actually am!” I said, chuckling. I still do not have an answer why Filipinos love fried chicken, but who does not like it, anyway?

In between university classes and parties, a couple of friends from different countries would ask me if the current administration’s drug war is real. “Perhaps there is some truth to it. If there’s smoke, there’s fire.” That used to be my typical response when international media outlets began reporting on the tens of thousands of street killings in the drug war, and the supposed violent reluctance of suspects to cooperate with the police. But deep inside was a brewing sense of shame for the country I was born and raised in. Then inflation rates started soaring like nothing before. Friends and family were also venting daily on social media and group chats about how much productivity is lost in daily traffic.

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There were months that I did not like hearing and knowing all about these things. I was like a child blocking out all the noise while I tried to preserve my optimism for the country I love. Perhaps this was my way to not feel the guilt that comes from having flown away from Manila, away from the many socioeconomic issues that plague my country, and living a much more comfortable life down under.

However, it is in this Australian comfort that I find myself facing entirely new and different challenges. It is no longer the daily physical, psychological and emotional toll one experiences in Manila traffic. It is not anymore the high prices, high taxes and low wages, or the systemic bureaucracy, machoism and short-sightedness that still plague Philippine politics. It is not anymore learning to love my brown skin, flat nose and 5’1” self, despite what the media try to foist as true Filipina beauty.

Now, it is creating my identity in a world that has yet to know the full beauty of the Philippines. To be able to show that I am different from the stereotype we Filipinos have been associated with carries a great deal of pressure for someone like me who has decided to take a different route. It is a challenge to refine and amplify my own voice, to build up my courage to occupy space in a world where I do not look like the majority and those in power, where they do not know what to make of me, where at times people can pass judgment so easily. It is the challenge of defining what it is to be Filipino in 2019, owning the narrative, and leading this for years to come.

With our country’s long history of colonization, corruption, human rights violations and mail-order brides, sometimes I feel like this is an uphill battle. But today is not the day I stop. In adversity, we rise from the rubble and find our way back up with a smile. We go back ashore and wait until the storm passes. We sway with the wind and take comfort in the sound of raindrops. Because we know the sun will rise tomorrow—in the east, like today and yesterday. And it is up to me to wake up to see it rise.

“Are you from the Philippines?”

“I am! Have you been?”

Karla Caraan, 28, recently finished her master’s degree at Melbourne Business School and is back home in Manila for a while to rest.

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