Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Obligatory Christmas Post

Christmas in the Philippines: the biggest holiday and most festive time of the year. I suppose I have two opinions about it, the first being - what about Muslims and other non-Christians? Aren’t we alienating them and thus sowing the seeds of discontent? And then the other is, in the States, we pretend to have this big separation between Church and State, when in fact my elementary school holidays were spent making Christmas decorations in the classroom and having Christmas programs and so forth, members of other religions be hanged. So really, the Philippines is just being less hypocritical about celebrating the holidays of their most predominant religious group. Let’s face it: in a country of 90 million, almost 100% of the population is Catholic; why not be upfront about celebrating?

Being non-Christian but nonetheless celebrating Christmas in the tradition of my no-longer-practicing Catholic family are two opposing things to most Filipinos. It is, however, common in the United States. I feel like, for many families but certainly not all, marking the Christian holidays has become a sort of cellular habit, ingrained not in faith but in traditions that no longer hold gravity. For many, Christmas is not about the birth of Jesus, but being with family and loved ones and being able to give gifts that at other times of the year would be somehow inappropriate. I don’t believe this is bad or hypocritical in and of itself, but it’s just not a religious observance. The Christmas season also inspires a feeling of charity, forgiveness and good will that should actually be in place throughout the year, indeed, throughout one’s life regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof, and to me, the fact that it largely isn’t and such sentiments are only “Christmas spirit” gives the atmosphere of the season an air of falsehood in the United States that I find distasteful.

I am not missing home today more than on any other day. My family has their Christmas, exchange of gifts, turkey, arguments, accusations, liquor, with little fanfare or feigned Christian feeling, which suits me. The fact is that the ones we celebrate with all live within 1-20 miles of each other, and we see each other quite regularly. Christmas is just like all other family gatherings, except it happens with a lot of wrapping paper and uncomfortable “nice” clothes. I won’t be there, and that’s okay the same way it’s okay that I haven’t been there for the last four and a half months, and won’t be there for the next twenty three. Sort of a distant missing, but nothing seasonally disproportionate.

I don’t really know how today and tomorrow will be going. I will just do as I’m told and see how my host family celebrates. I expect that it’s with a lot of food, like all things Filipino. What I do know, at the very least, is that the Filipino sense of Christmas is a sincere one, and that Filipinos are, no matter what else, always trying to be the best Christians that they can be, with a welcome on their lips and, best of all, without agenda.

A Note on Serving in the Peace Corps as a Volunteer of Color

The volunteer of color faces a unique set of challenges in the Peace Corps. He or she faces stereotypes and misconceptions both virulent and baffling; he or she must constantly defend his or her credibility as an American, or, indeed, the very fact that he or she is an American; he or she might not receive much in the way of support or understanding from his or her fellow PCVs who are white. I knew all of this at the outset of my application process; frankly, I knew this not about just the Peace Corps but about life in general. Those aforementioned challenges are not and were not new to me, but I knew they would take on a new context when I chose to serve, and I knew it would become part of my job to try to dispel stereotypes and misconceptions of people of color from the US at my post.

I believe my experience in the Philippines has been fairly light in terms of how my racial identity is perceived, especially in comparison to other minorities or people of color serving in other Peace Corps countries. As a mixed person whose ethnicity is ambiguous, I have been able to blend in insofar as people don’t stare at me much; if they do, they’re figuring out something about my face, something they can’t place. Many have mistaken me for mestiza – half Filipino, half white – which is pretty much as close as anyone has ever guessed for my ethnicity. Marketplace anonymity is, of course, shattered when I speak English, or, more accurately, when I can’t speak or understand Cebuano. I lead a life without being hassled overmuch, which I appreciate. When I am walking with Connie or Cassie or Sean, I can say I am decidedly more uncomfortable. People stare, people say things that we consider rude, people generally think they have a right to your person that they do not, and that’s just to the white people. When I am with them, I feel like I am being judged harshly for keeping their company, much like the Filipinas who take up with fat old white men are judged in Dumaguete. And then, in the context of being introduced or being involved in a social gathering, the white volunteers are much more celebrated, while I am given only a cursory nod or sometimes ignored altogether, despite the fact that I am here in the exact same capacity as they are. This has made my companions possibly more uncomfortable than me, for which I give them sensitivity credits. But ultimately, I don’t spend much time with them at all, and the things I face without white accompaniment are more prevalent and more sigh-inducing.

Those things: being asked where I’m from, despite saying “The United States” already. Being told I look Indian or that I must be Indian or from India. In one particular case, one woman telling me that I was actually not what I said I was, but Latina. Being told I am not a pure American especially rankles.

Here’s the secret though: I have been told all these things since I was a very, very small child. Ignorant people in the United States had made growing up brown in whiteland a very difficult thing for a long time. If I am inwardly irritated by such comments or penetrating questions about my ethnicity, it’s not because Filipinos are saying them to me. It’s because I’ve been fielding such comments for over twenty years, and, indeed, in the States I navigated much more negative comments, comments designed specifically to hurt me or stated by those oblivious to how such comments punched me in the chest. I have been called every racial slur you can think of (ambiguous ethnicity not conducive to finding the proper insult), I have been the subject of racial bullying, I have been the victim of racial discrimination. But these are obvious forms of racism. Much worse, I think, are people who don’t think what they do is racist, or how institutions and practices and much of all Western society are permeated with racism. It’s easy to say “don’t you dare call me the N-word.” It’s much more difficult to explain to someone why you don’t appreciate being called “the perfect Asian student” or that people of color have the right to be called what they choose, and not what white people ascribe to them.

I believe that in coming to the Philippines, I got off light. Though it is sometimes wearying, having to tell people that I am indeed American and not Indian, not even Indian American (or American Indian, in fact), is not a terrible burden to bear. And when faced with the bald statement that I’m not pure American, I try to keep my irritation on the inside and explain that anyone born in the United States is a pure American, that people can become naturalized citizens and are also pure Americans, and that white people more than anyone else in the United States were long ago (or sometimes not so long ago) immigrants themselves, from Europe. There are, in fact, groups Filipino Americans in Louisiana who came before the turn of the 19th century, thereby making them 10th or 11th generation Americans, which is more than many of the white Americans that currently populate the US can boast, since many of them came a hundred years later. I know that some people think my “Americanness” is legitimized by my having a white father, but that is tempered by having a Thai mother; she makes me “not American.” I do not like that my white side gives me credibility, and I do not like that my Thai side is dismissed as being unacceptably not American. I want to be taken and appreciated (or reviled, if that’s how it’s going to be) for my own merits. I suppose this is the ongoing project of any person of color having to navigate the labyrinth of white privilege and racism.

I don’t know how volunteers of color in other places, namely Eastern Europe and Central Asia, do it. I was very close to being sent there, and I like to think that I could have persevered through difficult times, but it seems like it would be so difficult as to be almost unbearable. Syd tells me some of her companions in Armenia left early because of how difficult it was to be volunteers of color there. Here, I am not called names. I am not in danger. I lead a comfortable life of some anonymity. Could be worse things for a brown girl in the Peace Corps.