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Im not Chinese

by Abby Mercado

French had lost track of the times she had to correct the classic impression in a
day, in all of her 30 months in Mombasa trying to set up the KWETU Training
Center. She moved with acquired ease in her plain white top, tucked in equally
shapeless drawstring pants of Maasai red with fine strips of intense yellow, blue
and orange. She walked next to me in her shabby flip flops, oblivious of her
overdue visit to the salon. I examined her from my periphery, wondering if she is
indeed the former WHO Management Specialist who worked at a distinguished
office in Manila. I discreetly sided with her Kenyan colleagues as I caught sight of
her yellow toned skin (miraculously only slightly burned by the unforgiving African
sun), and her Chinese eyes. Her father swears her name has nothing to do with a
French woman, and that her laing and chili intake can legitimize her Bicolano
Dr. Jay, a seasoned doctor-to-the-barrio, had gone beyond the Philippine borders
to reach the tribal villages in the remotest areas of Malawi. He has a natural deep
brown color and none of his facial features resemble those of French. He talked
more about the proverbial anecdotes told by other Filipino volunteers who had
completed their assignments in African countries.
When Renniff, looking every bit a Filipina from Dumaguete, spoke in her Americanaccentuated English, of how her students addressed her as Mrs. Jackie Chan
during her teaching years in Ethiopia, I bid goodbye to Mabuhay and said hello
to Ni hao.
Voluntary Service Overseas has been responsible for their African assignments.
VSO belongs to a myriad of international NGOs aiming to fight global poverty and
disadvantage, and dreaming of a fairer world. What makes VSO unique in its
approach is it does not send money or relief aid. It sends people who are willing to
share their skills with local communitiesthe VSO volunteersto more than 30
developing countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. I used to
promote VSOs work in the Philippines having been a staff member for almost
three years. My script always started with the claim that the US Peace Corps was
merely copied from the UK programme, to take off from a more familiar concept
among Filipinos. But, after all the debriefings I had to do for the batches of VSO
returnees, I was captivated. After my thousandth spiel on Do you have what it
takes to be a VSO volunteer? I quit my VSO job and applied as a VSO volunteer.
Listening to the returned volunteers personal accounts on being regarded as
Chinese was fascinating, but not exactly helpful as I contemplated my
approaching departure for Namibia. I needed to hear more from the veterans on
surviving Africa, but more on the appealing side of VSO volunteering, if possible.
I do not have any problems with it. In fact, I find it handy whenever I finish work
late and end up going home in the dark. Dr. Jay sounded like he was about to add
something encouraging, I prodded him to go on. When I sense that a group of
men are conspiring to mug me, I say a few Chinese sounding lines to my

companion, and make it a point to add Karate. I mumbled Kung Fu louder

than intended. Dr. Jay heard me, Yeah, but only you know of the difference.
When I got mugged in Namibia on a bright Sunday afternoon, Dr. Jays words of
wisdom failed me. Neither Kung Fu nor Karate worked. I did not even have the
time to mouth Haiyaa! or mimic any Jet Li backbreakers before my wallet and
mobile phone had sped away with their new owners-- four muscular men armed
with a kitchen knife. When I reported the incident to our office, some thought I
had been mistaken as Chinese. I did not share their opinion. My Filipina friend and
I got held up in a hotel vicinity. Our muggers could have easily taken us for more
affluent travelers. Only tourists roam around the town center at that time of the
week. Most residents would be having braii in their own backyards, the smell of
burnt game meat and boerwoors on glowing coals mixing with the aroma from the
Springbok potjekos signaling the last non-working day.
We would not have gone out, either, had we not craved an apple crumble from a
German bakeshop. None of you brought any desserts? inquired our alarmed
host, another Filipino development worker in Namibia. My Filipino gang and I
always spent our Sundays at her flat. She did not have any foreign housemates
and we did not have to translate our Pinoy jokes to English, and spoil the
punchline altogether. We did our version of the African barbecue with the ever
present adobo, at times with the seasonal daing, and always with Thai rice in
place of the usual maize meal. The only time I fried tuyo at my place (shared with
two other VSO volunteers from Holland and Nairobi) I ended up bickering with my
Dutch housemate who complained that my fish smelled of dog. I retorted What
do you make of your cheese then? back at her.
My mugging experience had nothing to do with looking Chinese. And it could have
taken place in any touristy area, in or out of Africa. My Dutch housemate and I
eventually ended up living in separate houses. It had nothing to do with dried fish
or blue cheese.
The unfortunate mugging incident did not deter me from walking to work. Walking
in Windhoek in the chilly months of June, July and August was an effective costcutting measure. I needed less of the expensive thermal underwear, while saving
on the taxi fare. I only took the taxi, even for the shortest distances, in
summertime (during the coolest months in the Philippines) because the electric
stillness in the air reminded me of our good old deserted neighbors, Namib and
Taxi cabs are on a sharing basis in the capital, or anywhere else in Namibia, yet
still three times the cost of bus fare. The government-subsidized buses, the only
ones available apart from the much smaller Kombi (for long distances within
Namibia, and passengers without heart conditions) or the Intercape (doubledecked buses for travelling across the Southern African region), are a reminiscent
of our non-aircon buses en route to Monumento or Cubao. They are as slow and
old, but not as many. Understandable too, since the Manila population alone is
more than seven times that of the entire Namibia. I did not have two hours to go
around the Katutura Township before I got to #8 Mont Blanc Street every morning,
so I never took the bus.

It is not uncommon to walk around the small city. Not even in the undulating
sidewalks where clean, cemented pavements end, and squirrels and possums are
wandering the sandy bushes. I walked alongside the local workers in their navy
blue overalls (indicating they do manual labor and are available for day jobs). I
met a few Western expatriates on the road (trying to sweat out their accumulated
pounds from the customary fine steak meals). I tried to be helpful to European
and Japanese tourists (always in their Safari attire, always glued to their maps and
always looking lost). And I bumped into other volunteers (hoping to save on their
meager allowance, using walking as an excuse to familiarize themselves with their
new working environment).
Most Namibians I met on the streets were warm and courteous. They greeted me
in English and I returned their hellos in their dialects. My attempts at the
Oshiwambus Nawa? or the Hereros Goie More, often elicited a delighted,
more like, an amused giggle. I never did learn the Damara greeting. They click
their tongues in at least three different ways to say a line.
And then there were those who greeted me in Chinese, to which I found myself
automatically responding, Im not Chinese. Each time I explained where I come
from, I heared them say, Ah RAMATEX. I only found out much later what
RAMATEX had to do with being a Filipino.
During my second month in Namibia, my South African colleague, Paul, took me to
his friends birthday party. It was a grand celebration in a Club House of Victorian
interior, with a massive green lawn for soccer and rugby. I was not surprised to
see that most of the people hanging out in the place were either European
expatriates or Afrikaans speaking whites and coloreds. The attendants, however,
were all black Namibians and so was the invited stand-up comedian for the affair.
The comedians bestsellers brought down the house and revealed some of the
countrys political and social inclinations.
Robert Mugabe is sneaking some fine silverware in his jacket when Sam
Nujoma caught him in the act and asked,
What are you doing? The Great Freedom Fighter of the Republic of
Namibia was alarmed that their State Dinner host, Tony Blair, would think
the overstaying Zimbabwean leader is a thief. Mugabe was not the least
bothered when he said,
Come on Sam, help me. Put some of these silver forks and knives in your
Mugabe reasoned he is simply taking back what the English people have
taken from them.
(Laughter and applause from the crowd.)
The celebrated comedian was about to answer his own question, What if Adam
and Eve were Chinese? when he spotted me, arched his eyebrow toward me and
asked, Is anybody in the audience, Chinese? I signed him to go on after assuring

him that I am not. He continued, If Adam and Eve were Chinese, they would have
eaten the snake instead of the apple, and we would have all been saved from the
original sin. (More laughter and applause.)
People in Windhoek are talking about the new Statehouse. It was
constructed by the Chinese.
They say had it been built by the Namibians, the gold decorations on the
iron gates
would have been made of real gold. Not plastic. (The audience drummed
the tables in response.)
I was not in the least offended even when I always had to add where I truly come
from as part of my self-introductions. Nor did I have any qualms about being taken
for Chinese when I travelled abroad. My eyes got accustomed to subtitles because
of my Chinese film consumption, never mind my old Chow King diet when I was
still a Sampaguita dormer in the University of the Philippines. Yet with the
growing influence of China in the Namibian industries (and in the African
continent, in general), I instantly received a much warmer accommodation in the
communities the minute I confessed that the only Chinese words I know are
siopao and siomai, along with the other dishes in the Chinese menu.
In Windhoek, two billboards along Sam Nujoma Avenue (just across Nelson
Mandela) are actually big blackboards on wheels, with text in colored chalk. They
tell me how much I can save if I buy a kilo of potatoes at Fruits & Vegetables. I
was therefore astounded by the number, material and size of ad campaigns
promoting Smile condoms and how true love waits. The only adverts that can
compete with the telling signs of how gravely this pandemic is affecting one in
every five Namibians are those on alcohol and diamonds.
In Quezon City, I used to marvel at the gigantic tarpaulins along EDSA. They tell
me I would look better with botox and whiter skin, but only after a liposuction.
Despite my displeasure at the propagation of artificial beauty and signs of
consumerism at its worst in Manila, I missed the manic lifestyle in the
overpopulated and heavily-polluted city. I often complained about not having any
night life in the windy corner of Namibia. Windhoek with its 200,000 people and
three high-rise buildings, transforms into a ghost town by 6pm, or a little after a
sundowner. I eventually found solace in a musical group every Thursday evening.
The group is composed of a German flutist, another German cellist, a British
violinist and a Chinese cellist. The first time I attended, the two Germans referred
to Charles about me after their Bach set. They probably thought I would not be
able to understand them should they address me directly, or that I came with the
Chinese musician. I decided to rescue the middle-aged cellist by saying No, I am
not his new girlfriend, as Charles started fidgeting on his seat instead of his cello.
They all became my musically gifted friends from then on, but I remained their
listener; I never got to learn how to play the violin. I even joined in teasing Charles
that he should get some rest on Sundays and spend more holidays from his
construction business. London schooling very expensive, he replies, shaking his
head vigorously. His daughter was studying Interior Designing at The London
School of Arts.

Some of my Filipino friends were not as tolerant about our regular encounters of
mistaken identity. They angrily yelled back, Im not Chinese! at the locals,
whose untrained eyes obviously have not seen other Asian nationalities. I
reminded them of our similar Kababayans still calling every white man on the
street Hey, Joe! thinking they are Americans. (My British male colleague used to
get really offended by this and would yell back, Im a Brian, not a Joe!) I
reasoned that had we not been in Namibia, we would not have had problems with
our Chinese looks. I explained that it is all a matter of familiarity and colonial
The South Africans, particularly, had been acquainted with the Chinese gold mine
workers, before a formal system of apartheid had even existed in the early 1900s.
And the latters shade has certainly undergone several transformation, sans the
aid of bleaching soaps or tanning beds. As colored during the Afrikaner
government in the late 1940s, the Chinese had to live apart from whites, and their
access to education and business opportunities went down the drain along with
their right to vote. Since the establishment of economic ties between South Africa
and Taiwan in the 1970s, the Taiwanese immigrants were classified as honorary
whites and the other Chinese in the country began to receive the same white
treatment, even without the official status. They still cannot vote but they no
longer have to use separate facilities. And so, having been generally regarded as
whites until the end of the apartheid in the early 1990s, the Chinese were denied
the post-apartheid benefits given to other non-whites.
Today, with the Chinese being branded as the new black as a result of a recent
South African high court ruling, coupled with the hidden face of white poverty in
South Africa, this futile dispute on color treatment is not totally unfamiliar to this
brown origin, often mistaken as a yellow. Yet in a place where colored is another
color and white is heavily-laden with tints, it is much easier to fake color
The new South African policy mandates the Chinese must benefit from the
government affirmative action policies to make up for the effects of apartheid.
Many black Africans are getting worried than ever about their chances for
employment next to their skilful Chinese competitors.
Namibia was part of South Africa until the Old Man led the revolution that
gained Namibia its independence in 1990.
When I flew back to Namibia early last year, I no longer had volunteer status and I
began to receive a proper salary. It was my third return to the country. I was
beginning to believe my local colleagues who teased me about praying to their
African roots to get me back. They said I always brought rains from the tropics
whenever I came back.
Some things certainly changed when I moved into my own spacious flat on top of
the hills, with a 24-hour security guard and electric fences. I began to feel more at
home in my new place, but there were far less welcoming changes, as well. My
Zambian neighbor may well be the only black resident in the compound who did
not have to clean houses. I do not like the way they stare at me. Shempe often
complained of how our neighbors regarded him. The CEO of his own enterprise, he

is well equipped to stare back at the Afrikaners, Germans and other expats at The
I also began to feel more of the Namibians uncertainties about their Chinese
The Chinese President was here last week. My colleague Paul explained as I was
eyeing the photocopied pictures of President Hu Jintao dangling on the street
posts along Robert Mugabe Avenue. The State Visit got us some loan from them
for our government software. I expect to see more Chinese bosses around and
not just in Chinatown.
Next to their perpetual European donors, the Chinese are found to be less
demanding. They stick to matters that only concern business. There is no need to
discuss human rights policies, environmental implications or any other social
issues when the Chinese give their unconditional financial support to the African
governments. Neither can one see them socializing with their local counterparts
outside of work premises.
They dont pay right, Abby. Tommy, my trusted Oshiwambu taxi driver, often
complained of his Chinese passengers. They want to get off first and then they
dont give enough! A-ah, I will not take any more Chinese.
Two Chinese RAMATEX Workers Shot Dead read the headlines one morning.
Everyone thought they should have just handed over the money to the muggers,
just like everyone else does. RAMATEX is a multinational textile manufacturing
company owned and managed by Chinese. About 5,000 Filipinos used to work at
RAMATEX, together with higher-ranking Chinese employees, until the company
was forced by the government to hire Namibians. There were only around 200
Filipinos at RAMATEX by the time I got there. The few Filipinos in Windhoek (when
not mistaken as Chinese) were often regarded as factory workers.
I eventually grew accustomed to the bystanders on the road who greeted me in
Chinese; even to the few taxi drivers who offered me a lift to the factory site. But
nothing really prepared me for my telenovela character image while in Namibia.
Ina!... Ina!
Theyre referring to you, Abby. My co-facilitator and I were about to start our
afternoon sessions at a Katutura community center for underprivileged but highlytalented children, when the learners started shouting in chorus.
Pangako Sa Yo is now being shown on One Africa TV. She filled me in with the
details of the Namibians new favorite telenovela (a primetime hit in the
Philippines about eight years ago). With only three working channels (one being of
purely Evangelical nature), it was easy to chance upon The Promise. Kristine
Hermosa (Ina) and Jericho Rosales (Angelo) were exchanging cheesy dialogues in
Namlish, even the fate-changing lullaby of the story was being sung in Namibian

Lunchtime with my local colleagues soon became a chance to catch up on Bea

Biancas latest tactic to seduce Angelo. Will Amor ever find out that Ina is her
real daughter? Our agonizing receptionist pleaded me for the ending. So, who
do you think is prettier, Madame Claudia or Maam Amor? She asked instead
when I did not budge. Even the grocery attendants inquired about the episodes
they failed to watch upon recognizing my more-Pinay features.
With the Namibians getting more feverish over this ABS-CBN canned soap by the
day, I dropped the siopao and siomai from my opening spiels and found myself
starting with Anyone here watching The Promise? This proved to be more
difficult to divert discussions to my prepared capacity building exercises, but it
certainly had been the most effective participatory approach for my workshops.
Not only did Pangako Sa Yo make the Filipinos more visible (and recognizable)
in Namibia (or in Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia), but it also
made many Namibian women envious of how Filipino men regard their women
(Angelo only gets to kiss Ina on the cheek, and he always carries Inas stuff from
work or the market). Respect for the elders (Ina always listens to the advice of her
mother) and love for the family (Ina always has to work overtime to support her
parents and sister) are just a few of the many Filipino values my Namibian
colleagues realized we shared with them. They asked how Filipinas managed to
stay slim even when we seemed to be eating all the time, and I found myself
teaching them some Filipino phrases.
Slowly, my Namibian community began to see more images of the Philippines and
of the Filipino way of life. Tommy often told me that he has been saving money so
he can go and live in the Philippines someday. I never did tell him how reasonably
priced a taxi fare is in the Philippines, compared to Namibia.
One morning, on my way to work, I got another Ni hao. Instead of saying, Im
not Chinese, I simply replied, Im a Filipino. His taunting face suddenly relaxed,
and then slowly broke into a smile as he said, Ah Kumusta ka?


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