I wish I could be Filipino for a day. I want to blend in on my walk to work. Be left undisturbed as I sip my morning coffee. Go unnoticed when I visit the market to buy fruit.
Why? because I am desperate to find out what life is really like here as a local. And not as a Westerner. I want the same experience as Sophia, who is - like me- adjusting and adapting to a new community but is - unlike me- being accepted. Unfortunately, I think it would take a lifetime for a westerner to fully integrate into just this one small Filipino community.
As I've mentioned before, Western culture holds a powerful influence in the Philippines. The Western World is pinned up like some perfect celebrity that everyone aspires to be like. It seems that Filipinos want to look western, talk western and 'walk' the western way of life. This is most obviously seen in the media which is dominated by the western ideal. Despite the wealth of home-grown television shows and movies, there are barely any Filipinos on the screen- all the actors and the presenters are white and western-looking. No dark-skins in sight.
As my first fortnight in Cabiao was such a rollercoaster ride of attention, photos and Facebook friends, I wasn't really able to properly process what was happening around me. I became an instant celebrity and not because I'm a volunteer or because I've been on a really cringey commercial in the UK - I am popular because I am white. My white skin signals western and is therefore intrinsically linked to the idiolilised stereotypes of the western world: notably money, power and beauty. So now when someone tells me I am beautiful I no longer feel flattered. This is because it is an investment in a false kind of beauty that has intoxicated an entire nation: it is not really about beauty at all, it is about wearing a symbol of superiority. Because people can't really notice my features or evaluate my personality when they shout "sexy sexy" from across the street. They see a white blob. And in a sense, I personify the western ideal for them.
But as the saying goes, the grass isn't always greener on the other side.
I am struggling to find a comparable paradigm the UK. Of course there is the whole 'size-zero' phenomenon and an obsessive gym culture where people strive for impossible 'Hollywood' perfection. But it is limited to a certain demographic, for instance the youth. There are also people standing up and speaking out against it. Take, for example, 'Dove's' real beauty campaign that encourages women to love their bodies. The brand uses 'real' women in its advertisements- as opposed to stick thin runway models- in order to promote a healthy body image.
Conversely, there is no "Fabulous Filipino" campaign out here. And not a single generation has managed to escape the western idealisation that has indoctrinated the country. However, I think it is fair to assume that western aspiration is rooted so deep into Filipino culture that often people are unaware of its influence. For example, Sophia sees herself as an independent and educated individual who recognises- but also removes herself from- "western worship". However, I picked her up on some unconscious behaviours that suggest the opposite: she still uses moisturiser with with a whitening agent; she hates getting tanned; crucially, she used to put my needs before her own. The first two points could easily dismissed as trivial vanity- and I do the exact opposite, often using a tanning moisturiser and bathing myself in sunshine. However, the latter point is what struck me the most. During our first week working together I noticed how Sophia- along with the other Filipino volunteers- would put the UK volunteers first. For example: Sophia would walk closest to the traffic; she would not let me carry the lunch bag; I was forced to take the bigger mattress. I immediately pulled her up on all these things as soon as I became aware of the pattern. Because we are here as equals.
It is one thing for the community to not see us Sophia and I as equals. Upon introduction, even our host-family assumed that Sophia was just here as my translator.
But Sophia also assumed a similar attitude when she put me first.
I think I find it most difficult when we are directly compared by the public. One instance of this was when Sophia couldn't eat much lunch and was asked by a man (who will remain anonymous) if she was eating less in order to be "sexy sexy like Katie." Which is a ridiculous comment considering that Sophia and I are the same size. What was worse was that Sophia didn't even mind and told me that she expects and accepts this kind of behaviour. So if I had been a Filipino volunteer would her reaction have been different? "Of course! Directly comparing people is just rude!" But once again, because I am a Westerner the standard is different. Now I am not suggesting that she should get mad or jealous every time I receive a compliment. I am just trying to express how angry I get about the unfair bias I receive. I may have the upper-hand in this situation, but it doesn't feel good. Not when my friend is seen as inferior to me.
When we discussed this at length, we tried to figure out if the media or the Filipino population are to blame for Western admiration. But I don't think there's a clear-cut answer because it is not only a culturally embedded paradigm but one that is fixed by hundreds of years of colonial history.
I guess for now, I have to be grateful for the fact that I have formed a friendship that transcends all these complex cultural barriers. And in fact, Sophia owes me because I did her laundry last week.
'CHEESEY BUT TRUE' QUOTE OF THE DAY:
In a perfect world everyone would be able to recognise themselves as their own unique brand of beautiful.