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Fernie Tiflis Headshot

I Was Culture-Shocked...In My Own Country

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Sometimes I forget that I'm Asian. It's not like people point and stare at me when I walk into a restaurant with my American husband. It's not like American kids ask me why my skin color is different or why I pronounce some words funny (It took me a while to pronounce "New Orleans" the Midwestern way, for example). And I've never really been a victim of racist jokes either.

However, I realized recently that I am different -- that I am indeed in (gasp!) an inter-racial marriage. The ironic thing is that I realized all this during my recent trip to my homeland, the Philippines.

I found myself an oddball in a country I was born and raised in. I didn't know how to cross the streets anymore (apparently, the trick is to put your palm face out in front of the cars while you continue to walk sideways and pray to God you won't get hit); I suffered panic attacks in the midst of Manila traffic (I kept asking, "What do you mean there are no traffic lanes?"); and I suffered a mild allergic reaction to a type of dried fish I used to love eating as a child (but I ate them anyway).

But perhaps what bothered me the most was the fact that I stood out despite efforts not to.

I never really realized what marrying another "color" would mean to my culture. I was asked a few times, "Bakit hindi Pilipino?" ("Why not a Filipino?") And so I answered flat out: "I didn't wake up one day and decide to marry an American. I didn't choose who I fell in love with." I've gotten a couple of "Hmmph!" answers in return.

What bothered me the most about this was the Filipino mentality that you marry a different "color" to escape your own problems, to be well off or to be taken care of. Filipinos at home didn't have to tell me this to my face (they didn't have to because I overheard their loud WHISPERS) -- the stares alone told me all this.

A few times, my husband and I have been heckled at: "Damn you, you took her from our country" OR "She's so lucky, she's set for life." And to tell you the truth, hearing those words hurt. I worked so hard to be where I am today, built myself up pretty much with no help from anybody, and did a lot of things I'm really proud of. But none of these things matter to other Filipinos. They imagine that I'm a stay-at-home wife who sips martinis at 2 p.m. while my husband works his butt off to provide for me.

How they managed to make me feel inferior in my own country was done by simple acts: By blatantly ignoring me while they waited hand and foot on my husband ("Sir, let me refill your cup, sir." OR "Let me change your silverware, sir.") All that while I choked to death with no drink that I ordered 20 minutes ago and silverware so dirty the crust from the knife was forming its own entree. Doors were opened for my husband, only to find myself with my nose pressed to the glass. His hotel requests were met with a wide toothy smile, only to frown at me when they met my gaze.

I spent the time prior to our trip lecturing my husband about my country and its culture (don't turn down food, that's rude; don't answer without directly being asked a question; don't make eye contact with strangers; watch for pick-pockets at all times) that I forgot to prep myself. I was shocked a lot of times, but it was more hurtful to feel unwelcome.

I guess I didn't realize that I am different in other people's eyes. I do look Asian, but here in America, I don't feel discriminated against at all. I've always felt very accepted to the point that I sometimes forget that I am in fact different.

What's funny is that I never looked at myself as Filipino and my friend as black or that I celebrate Christmas and my friend practices Ramadan. I've never felt unsafe in a predominantly black neighborhood; I've never felt like I blend in in Chinatown either. Looking in the mirror, I don't say, "Hey, there, Filipina lady!" No, not at all. And I don't think this means I've turned my back on my culture -- I still eat Filipino food, enjoy an occasional Filipino movie, and I can speak my native language. I think it just means that America has been such a great adopted country that it never really made me feel like I'm any different than the white person next to me.

My color is different, sure, but the color of your skin shouldn't matter -- whether you're in your birth country or your adopted country.