Culture,  Identity

Racial Collision: Being Filipino in East Asia

Note: This is a re-post of an essay that was written in 2018 for a Fil-Am studies class. It is one of my most vulnerable pieces. An old friend told me she was reminded that “culture is not binary” after reading my piece. It inspired me to write more.

“Hei gui!”

“Glad to have you serving the Filipino community in San Diego.”

The evident polarity of the two phrases manifests the two immigrant experiences that have galvanized my life with rich purpose and compassion; twelve years in the wondrous island of Taiwan, and three years in the esteemed melting pot of the world – the United States.

If my immigrant experience had to be encapsulated up in one sentence, I am an American-educated Filipino born in Pasay City, who grew up in the trouble-free, southern port city of Kaohsiung, Taiwan. After six years of experiencing the ever-loving moments with my Lolos, Lolas, Titos and Titas, my family moved two hours north on a plane to a place formerly known as Formosa, the “beautiful island.”

It was there when as a Filipino, I was exposed to the darker angels of our nature; racial and social hierarchy. When I was eighteen years old, it was time for another move. This time, fourteen hours across the Pacific on a journey on my own, to the United States. While the two experiences have taught me lessons of persistence, cultural acceptance, and adaptability, both have culminated into one overlying theme: what it means to be a Filipino immigrant in East Asia and the United States.

My first immigration experience bears remarkable memories of a happy childhood and high school career, but the first word that comes to mind in my Filipino immigration experience in Taiwan is “hei gui.”The translated English equivalent carries hundreds of years of American history, including a civil war.

It start with an N.

I was called that name numerous times throughout my middle-school years, especially on the local basketball courts. Countless times, I did not want to play under the sun, in fear of getting darker and being subject to racial jokes. To provide context, approximately 137,000 Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) live in Taiwan, and the overwhelming majority work as caretakers, home servants, and manufacturing operators[1].

The skewed demographic in East Asia unfortunately has led to skewed stereotypes, as Filipinos are viewed as dark-skinned laborers, rarely as respected doctors, lawyers, or engineers. In fact, the Philippines was recently ranked the second most hated country in Taiwan – second only to North Korea.[2]

Among the 137,000 Filipino migrants in Taiwan, I was one of the fortunate few to grow up in a well-to-do family, with my father being a managing engineer at a semiconductor company and my mother, a music teacher. We had moved to Taiwan when I was six years old because my father accepted a job in Kaohsiung. To this day, he is the lone Filipino in his office.

I studied in a private international school during my twelve years in Taiwan and received an American education – learning U.S. history, contemporary American literature, taking the SAT, and going to prom like most American kids did. My best friends were all Taiwanese-Americans, and I felt accepted and gained brothers for a lifetime.

While I gained my high school diploma in an American school, I had my first lessons in race relations in the streets of Taiwan – being called ‘hei gui’, seeing images of my country’s flag set on fire by locals, and being scared to walk the streets after intensified Philippine-Taiwan relations between the two countries’ maritime territories filled news cycles.

It was a simple difference of nationality, race, and power.

During January of 2015. I was with my high school varsity basketball team traveling to Beijing, China for the final basketball tournament of my career. Our coach had told us to dress appropriately in the airport, so we wore button-down shirts, ties, and jackets as we landed in Beijing. We went through customs and headed to the exit door, looking to go through the falling white snow and onto the buses. I was dressed in a grey dress shirt and cardigan, but was pulled over to the side by security and forcefully asked to put my bag on an extra scanner.

Puzzled, I looked ahead and saw that it was only me left behind, so I turned around. It was a line of brown faces, mostly fatigued women in worn-out t-shirts, jeans, and flip-flops, mainly domestic helpers returning from the Philippines. I looked ahead and saw the mix of my Taiwanese teammates and Caucasian coaches looking back at me with looks of confusion.

I felt humiliated.

Why was I subject to another scan? Did I look low-class in my attire, like the rest in line? Was it my skin tone?

I regret having felt embarrassed being in line in an airport with the only people I shared my heritage and nationality with, among a sea of nations and colors.

Five months later, I departed another terminal on a plane crossing the Pacific, carrying an indubitable excitement for a peek into the country many in Asia clamor over, and one I had never witnessed with my own eyes – the United States. My first year in the U.S. was difficult. FaceTime was the only means of seeing my parents and brother, I initially had no friends, knew no one, and often questioned which community I truly belonged to.

Was I Taiwanese? Filipino?

I had learned Mandarin and had fallen in love with the people and quality of life Taiwan had given me, while slowly distancing myself from my Filipino roots. I was afraid to join Filipino clubs in San Diego because my upbringing was so unalike many students.

I was still learning what it meant to be a Filipino in America.

What struck me was how my brown skin did not inspire questionable looks, stereotypical prejudice, or judgement from locals. After changing my major and gaining work experience as an intern for several government agencies in San Diego, my immigrant experience took a great turn for the better.

After two and a half years at San Diego State, I had grown accustomed to the cultural pulse that moved the city off its feet.

As time went on, I harbored doubts and questions about my cultural identity and immigrant experience. I needed to know how I would be accepted as a Filipino, and I was yearning to give back to my own country. I got my chance when I was hired to work for the Filipino community in San Diego. Upon my first month of work, I grew fonder and fonder of my native language, speaking it in my limited imperfection, but with great zeal and pride. “Glad to have you serving the Filipino community in San Diego,” my boss said.

For the first time, I felt that I had a purpose in the community that I had for so long tried to distance myself from.

One I had never felt truly a part of for much of my life.

While I still hold the pen to which I am writing my immigrant experience in America, my experience in Taiwan draws parallels and dissimilarities. Being a Filipino in Taiwan is difficult. Because Asian countries are mostly racially homogenous, there is a lesser necessity and desire for cross-cultural understanding and dialogue. Like any continent, there is a racial hierarchy that factors in wealth, skin tone, and nationality.

I found myself at the bottom as a Filipino in Asia.

The United States on the other hand, is a nation of nations, where ethnic groups, foods, and music around the world can be found in a myriad of enclaves and cities. I find that Filipinos in America are generally seen as successful doctors, nurses, military members, and even lawyers and engineers.

Here, we are known for our family values, our hospitality, kindness, and work ethic – as opposed to hungry, desperate workers fleeing the homeland to taste the sweeter fruits of neighboring developed nations.

Upon my two divergent immigrant experiences, there is on indisputable fact about our people: we are a people of limitless potential, when given an opportunity. I have been so fortunate to have sailed on shores millions before me have anchored and navigated, and who have tasted the bitterness the world sometimes brings to our people.

I can choose to forget our struggles and happily march on my new, fortunate life – or I can carry it with me, and shine a light on how half the world sees our color.

I choose the latter.

[1] Lito Banayo, Our OFWs in Taiwan, (Manila Standard, 2018)

[2] PH 2nd most hated country in Taiwan, (ABS-CBN, 2018)


Marjon is the Creator of Third-Culture Thoughts. A political nerd and basketball enthusiast at heart, he writes about everything related to culture and the international experience.