Being a Filipino American in Malawi
I never had to look far to find a face like mine.
In the suburbs of San Jose there were a lot of immigrant families that made up the Catholic community I grew up in. There was always a healthy amount of diversity, but I was most comfortable being around people of Asian descent. Even when I went to a predominantly white high school, I still stayed closest with friends who understood my Filipino culture, and I continued that trend in University.
When I chose my preference for the region I wanted to go to for Peace Corps, I knew that I wanted to be somewhere where I would look different. I enjoy being out of my element, and I knew Africa was a continent where I would be forced to adapt and change. After two and a half years of service in Malawi, it is safe to say that I got my wish and so much more than I could ever have imagined.
There is one description that stood out to me that first time I looked up Malawi after receiving my invitation to serve. Amongst travelers and locals alike, Malawi is known as the “Warm Heart of Africa” because of how welcoming the people are. I was excited and encouraged by the prospect of serving people who have become renowned for their hospitality and warmth.
During the first few months of my service, I enjoyed a celebrity status as the solitary American in my village. Soon I realized I wasn’t just the solitary American, I was the only non-Malawian around for several miles. Many Malawians assume all Americans are white, because that is mostly what they see in the media. As an Asian serving in an African country, I’ve had my fair share of race and culture mix-ups.
Where I’m from, most people could just tell by looking at me that I am Filipino as oppose to another Asian nationality. In Malawi, however, kids shout “Ma-China!” at me, followed by a series of would-be Chinese garble that I can only interpret as a complete mockery of the language. It was frustrating at first, infuriating at times. Then I reflected on the incredible amount of diversity I was able to grow up around. These kids rely on movies and magazines for their perception of what a real American looks like. I didn’t.
If I’m not being mistaken for Chinese, I am called white. It has been an interesting experience because I have been so accustomed to being identified and known as Filipino in the United States. This realization hit me when I was eating lunch with one of my students at his home and he said to me, “Sir, this is only the second time I’ve eaten with a white man.” I asked, “When was the first time?” He replied, “It was during the Environment Club party last year…with you.”
After serving in my community for several months, interactions involving my race have become exceptions rather than norms. These days I can walk through the market and be greeted with “Mr. Datu!” by my students, or a familiar wave from my tomato lady. Now, I’m not white or Asian or Filipino, I’m just another community member. It is a part of the natural transition that occurs through service. The more relationships I build, the more people I interact with, the less of a foreigner I become, and the more of me people see.
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