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Having perfect white skin in the Philippines appears to be a national obsession. Everywhere you turn there are advertisements for skin-whitening soaps and images of whiter-than-white Filipinos that are like no Filipinos that I’ve ever seen.
The local beauticians all offer skin bleaching treatments – I can’t imagine that the process and chemicals involved in bleaching your skin is a healthy thing to do; all claiming that you will have ‘perfect, pure white skin’. Even the term ‘treatment’ makes dark skin sound like something that you need to be cured of.
My mabusag (white skin) has been anything but pure here. Often oozing with sweat, clogged with pollution and dirt, and a bizarre patchwork tan due to my culturally sensitive swimming attire (gym tights and t-shirts) has created less than perfect skin.
Yet perfect strangers on the street (male and female) call me beautiful and sexy, which sounds flattering but I am finding the reverse. It’s a judgement call on my ‘whiteness’, a strange reverse racism that exists in the Philippines.
Several times I have been served first in a shop even if I am last to join the queue or greeted with more enthusiasm by a security guard when entering a mall. I can’t help thinking that the obsession with having white skin is not simply wanting what you don’t have, but is racially-loaded and a nasty hangover from colonial times.
Having people stare at me every day has made me feel quite self-conscious particularly if I have a breakout or if I clog the drain washing my hair (again) with my disturbing hair loss.
The other day at work the head of our Board of Trustees brought a street child with him that he is looking after. No more than 6 years old, she has several weeping scabs on her face and a horrific scar down the middle of her head. Sir Abon explains how her 11 year old sister attacked her with a bolo (a traditional long-blade knife) and how he’s taking care of her until he can ‘sort the situation out’.
Not only does this girl have to deal with the trauma of her abusive, violent home, she will always have disfiguring scars as a physical reminder.
It brings to mind my favourite line from The White Tiger “A rich man”s body is like a premium cotton pillow, white, soft and blank. The story of a poor man”s life is written on his body, in sharp pen.” The scars from my time in the Philippines can be patched up by a little concealer; giving me a humbling new perspective and appreciation of the skin I have.
I have recently adopted an intern at the Grameen Bank of Catarman and taken him under my wing.
He literally got of the plane from Sweden and I plunged him head first into life in a developing country. Rust-bucket ferries that leave 3 hours late, pedicabs with children hanging off the roof, torrential downpours and a bunch of drunken Aussie volunteers on a deserted island. Mabuhay to the Philippines Sir Mam Po.
Seeing Joel gasp with amazement at more than 4 people on a motorbike and the marvellously pimped-up jeepneys made me realised how indoctrinated I have become to life in the provs. Having a child/chicken/bag of dried fish in my lap, crammed into some form of uncomfortable type of public transport has become such a day-to-day occurrence for me it has become ‘normal’.
It’s been over 3 months since I arrived in Catarman, and if you told me when I arrived that I could live without a fridge, flushing toilet, real coffee and lovely shoes I would have thought you were insane. And that my home could be walang (without) power and water for either minutes or several days sounds like an impossible existence.
But the longer I am here, the more I realise how much I have. In Sydney in my uncle’s garage is a fabulous array of handbags*, treasured books and curios from around the world. And the voyages I’ve had to collect those trinkets are even more precious. Most of my colleagues have not seen as much of the Philippines as I have already, let alone the world.
Although my colleagues will never have the material wealth or the international adventures I’ve had, there are aspects of Pilipino rural life I am envious of. The tightness of the family unit, the understanding of needing a true life/work balance and an innocence.
Seeing that word on the screen sounds patronising, but my English vocabulary appears to be shrinking here and I can’t think of a better word so I will elaborate with a situation. Joel and I witnessed some spectacularly bad karaoke while having dinner. Rather than snide comments that you would expect in either of our home countries, there is a type of respect in the crowd. Everyone is entitled to their moment of glory.
Many business meetings I’ve had here have involved singing, games, dancing or giggling about ‘gwapo’ (attractive men). There is a lack of inhibition which is really beautiful.
I’ve had many frustrations and stressful situations lately but having a fresh perspective through different eyes has reminded me to truly value and embrace my time in the swamp.
* Of course I value my family and friends more than stuff, but you are not kept in my uncle’s garage and that would have broken the flow of that lovely mental picture. Miss you xx
Those of you who know me are aware that I am a ferociously independent person. I left home to study when I was 18, lived alone in a studio apartment for years and hate people touching me in my sleep. In short, “don’t touch my stuff!”
One of my hardest adjustments in the Philippines is the lack of personal space and privacy. Not surprising in a country where the average family size is six, with a birth rate much higher in poorer regions like Samar. Privacy is a luxury that doesn’t exist here.
This also seems to manifest in Pinoys treating your possessions as theirs: rearranging your shelves at home or files on your desk, borrowing your headphones, mouse-pad, Tupperware without asking and general stuff-touching activities.
There is also an alarming lack of personal space for my Western sensibilities. If you have ever travelled on a jeepney, tricycle or the MRT in peak-hour you know what I’m talking about.
One of my more comical personal space invasions was my first day of work. I walked to work denying all pedicab offers due to my fear of the deep fried banana and white rice diet catching up with me. I arrived at work with laptop, water bottle and text books in tow dripping with sweat. The treasure of the Board smiles at me sympathetically, touches my glistening brow, and then rubs my sweat between her fingers, “You’re not use to this climate yet.”
It only dawns on me later that a complete stranger has just rubbed and played with the sweat off my face!
Another Pinoy trait that I found exasperating at first was the eternal question, “Where are you going (paka in ka)?” “None of your God-damn business” is my in-built Sydneysider retort. After a while I realised that the phrase is like “How are you?” You don’t want a real update on a person’s mental or medical wellbeing; it’s simply a polite greeting. It’s a form of placing you in society, an extension of kinship which is particularly important in the provinces.
With my mabusag (white skin) and waray (nothing) Waray Waray language skills I will never belong here, nor do I intend to. When living in a foreign country you have a subconscious values audit, what do I appropriate and what do I stay true to?
I share my food, lend my things, hold hands with my workmates in town, accept comments about my body during workshops, eat with my hands (which is awesome) and generally go with the flow. But I draw the line at touching me in my sleep, walang ‘just friends’ spooning with the mabusag!
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