“I know your kind …” spat out a middle-aged Hispanic man at me, many years ago inside a Walmart superstore deep in the heart of South Texas. My head snapped back with a ready retort, “Oh yeah, and what kind is that?” I regretted engaging as soon as I realized that he is so not worth my time. I walked away fuming at him and at myself. He obviously had no idea what or who I am as my own kind – Filipinos who immigrated to the United States – always marveled that I can actually speak Tagalog, “Akala ko Instik ka (I thought you’re Chinese).”
I mentally berated myself for taking the bait instead of just ignoring him since this is not the first time I came across someone who is obviously biased against people of another kind.
Where I live, the minority – mainly Mexican Americans – is the majority. Living in a border city called Brownsville, the southmost part of Texas, people just take it for granted that you are bilingual (in English and Spanish).
In the last few years, I’ve actually heard more Spanish than English in groceries and retail stores. Friends of mine who can speak only English have a harder time landing a job. They call it reverse discrimination.
Growing up as part of the Tsinoy minority in the Philippines, I experienced being discriminated against (who has never been subjected to the insulting trifecta of ching-chong-chang) but truth be told, I think we all carry a smidgen of bias against other races as well. The racial stereotypes we harbor help explain the world at times. Admit it or not, we are all guilty of racial profiling at some point.
Years ago, a white middle-aged man walked into an emergency room and told my husband, who was then doing his medical residency in a Massachusetts hospital, to “give me someone who speaks English.” Without skipping a beat, my husband replied, “My English is better than yours.”
Another time, a group of Mexican-American teenagers snickered “hey Yao Ming” as soon as my husband sauntered past them at a football game. He promptly walked back, stood in front of them and coolly asked “Are you talking to me?” They scrambled for an apology.
To help combat incidents of racism, I told my kids to fortify themselves especially when engaged in sports, because of the amount of trash talking they will hear from their opponents and their supporters, whose sole intention is to rattle them. Moreover, I remind my kids that they can’t only be one-language wunderkinds. I expect them to be at the very least bilingual with English and Spanish or preferably trilingual (English, Spanish and Hokkien, a Chinese dialect). We speak Hokkien at home sprinkled liberally with Tagalog phrases or English idioms.
I feel a twinge of irony seeing Metro Manila-based relatives speak English only when growing up as a polyglot is so easy in the Philippine setting. Struggling in Filipino? Watch Filipino movies or teleseryes or talk to regular folks like your househelp in Tagalog, please. Can’t manage a Chinese phrase? Chat with your Chinese elders and listen to the Hokkien cadence.
Speaking in Filipino makes learning Spanish so much faster too because of our colonial heritage under Spain. The US had already turned quite brown in the last few years because of the burgeoning Hispanic population, a human tide that the belligerent current US president Donald Trump is trying to staunch.
At various times in my children’s lives, they had Spanish, Mandarin, and Tagalog lessons with varying degrees of success. Learning another language, especially of the community one finds oneself in, is a sure-fire way of engaging effectively. At its basest goal, at least, you will know if people are hurling invectives at you.
On numerous occasions, I found myself as the only Asian woman in a gaggle of Spanish-speaking señoras who are fluent in English but are more comfortable conversing in Spanish. I know it’s not their intention to exclude since we do the same and revert to our native Tagalog tongues when we see a fellow Filipino in a foreign setting. They know I understand them quite well though there are still a lot of idioms and turns of phrases I am still trying to learn. My kids are also used to being the “onlys” in their peer group.
I think it would be quite delusional to assume that race issues will find any resolution now or in the future. Not with Mr. Trump constantly fomenting the “us vs. them” kind of mentality. Already, we see many instances of foreign nationals derisively being told to “go home” because of their skin color or religious beliefs. The best we can do is to make sure that we don’t buy into that racial divide. Some wise man (or maybe it was a woman) once said: “We all belong to one race – the human race.” This is a lesson we would be smart to learn.
Just sharing with you a poem written by my younger son (14 years old) that was sent by his English teacher to some poetry body that wants to publish it in a book.
Of course, he’s the only Tsinoy in his school of about 500 kids, mainly Hispanic. This is the one who wants to be the first Asian-American president after Trump.
I guess anything is possible.
A Speck of Yellow in a Brown City
By Sean Teo Ong
They arrived full of hope, not knowing what to do
In a new land far from the last, and very different too.
The first one came and then the next, both bringing endless joy.
For how could anyone be unsatisfied with two precious baby boys?
As the second grew up he realized, not everyone acted the same.
Some are docile as sheep, others more flammable than propane.
The world itself seemed to whisper, “Not one person has a clone.”
But still the child had a sad feeling, a feeling of being alone:
A daisy in a sunflower field
A sword surrounded by shields
A man in the wrong committee
A speck of yellow in a brown city
But, that daisy was given happiness, kindness and love,
The sword was gifted with friends, sent from God above,
The man received respect, much to his surprise,
For the yellow speck in the brown city was a blessing in disguise.