Intermittent Transmissions from the Diaspora

I am a Filipina writer living in The Netherlands. If you wish to know more about me, please feel free to visit my website.

An anecdote

Not so long ago, I was walking through the supermarket when a familiar tune sounded through the loudspeakers. I stopped and listened and sure enough, the song they were playing was Anak by Freddie Aguilar**.  For a moment, I felt as if I were back home again, and I had a sudden urge to grab someone by the elbow and say: “Listen, that’s Anak. You know that singer, he’s a Filipino like me.”

To my disappointment, the aisle was empty. The morning rush of mothers doing a quick grocery trip was long over, and except for the people at the cashier’s counter, I was the only one around. Inspite of that, I felt a glow inside me.  For a brief moment, Anak had brought me home.


During my first years in The Netherlands, I secretly stared at everyone who looked Asian (okay, I still do). Were they Filipinos?  Were they looking at me and wondering too?  I worried that my stares would make people think I was crazy, but that didn’t keep me from stopping random Asians and asking them if they were from The Philippines. During those first months, I met no Filipinos, only Indonesians who embraced me and welcomed me in Indonesian, to which I would have to say that I only spoke English and Filipino and a smattering of Dutch. ( I wonder if the old lady who embraced me with so much gusto felt the same regret that I did when we both found out we weren’t from the same country. How hungry were we for a familiar face? How much did we long to hear our native tongue? )

For quite a while I had no one to speak Tagalog with, and when I found someone who could speak English, I latched onto them and thought, we are surely going to be fast friends.

I was determined to learn Dutch, and yet the more my mastery of it increased,  the more I worried that I would someday lose the Filipino language,  that I would gradually forget all my English, and that I would no longer be able to write in English or in Filipino. I had heard of Filipinos who had migrated to the US and who came back to The Philippines unable to speak Filipino because they claimed America had changed their tongue so much that they could only speak American. I did not want to become a Filipino who had to be treated like a tourist in her home country.

At the same time, I understood how mastery of the Dutch language would allow me to overcome the prejudice directed towards foreigners like me. ( Some shopkeepers would treat us condescendingly–like children, because we could not communicate as efficiently as they did.) I became expert at dividing my language use into three parts. English or Dutch for when I was out shopping (somehow English speakers are treated with more respect), Filipino for when I was among my compatriots, and Dutch for when I was among the Dutch.

It felt odd to be called a foreigner because in my mind I associated the word foreign with someone who was white and who did not come from the Philippines. But in this country, I am the foreign one–that sense of strangeness still lingers with me today.

I wonder how long it takes before a foreigner becomes a native. Ten years? Twenty years? Fifty years?  I am still a foreigner, and I don’t know if I will ever be anything other than that.  After ten years, I have yet to decipher the secret codes that belong to the native-born inhabitants of this country.  I often find myself looking for clues. What things are done? What things are not? What subjects can be talked about? What not?

When Cultures Meet and how this relates to story

I think of how easy it is to forge our impressions of another culture through research, and through what media tells us about that culture. Stories, films, artwork, documentaries and even the news all contribute to our impressions of a culture.

I had my own misconceptions about Dutch society and the Dutch before I came here. One of the impressions that I found hard to erase came from having read Hans Brinker as a child, and holding this idea in my mind that Dutch people lived in windmills, wore wooden shoes, and in winter the entire landscape was frozen over, so much that you could skate from one end of the country to the other end. I also had this impression that unless they were businessmen or born to a certain class of society, Dutch people were incredibly poor and had dirt floors in their houses. That I liked Van Gogh, and preferred reading books to watching television contributed to my inability to make the leap from Hans Brinker’s life to modern day Holland.  (Those were the days when I lived to play the piano, write poetry, and read).

When my parents came over to visit, one of our Dutch friends volunteered to take us out for a day, and in the course of that day, we answered questions about the kind of house we lived in. Did we sleep in beds? Did we have dirt floors? Did we conform in any way to the media images?

I answered these questions patiently, and told my friend that my father was a Doctor and this meant that we were well-provided for.  We did not have dirt floors, but our floor was made from marble. And yes, we slept in beds, although I did have friends whose homes were made of bamboo and who slept on the floor on spread-out mats. I had to laugh when I discovered how puzzled my neighbours were to find out that I was a pianist and that I came from the Philippines. In their minds, the image of a third-world poverty-stricken country did not match with a person who could play Bach, Chopin and Mozart. Indeed, one of the questions I find myself confronted with when people come to visit is this: “Does your husband play the piano?”

I find myself endlessly amused by the expressions of surprise when they find out that I play the piano and that I attended a conservatory.

I don’t blame people for their puzzlement. What they know about my country comes from what media has told them about us. News about the Philippines when it makes it here is mostly about calamaties. Typhoons, earthquakes, floods, and the poverty that abounds in the city. This information, while partially true, is not true of all us. Just as the information about Dutch people living in windmills  and walking on wooden shoes is not true of all Dutch people.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s video talk (which I posted here some days ago) reminds me of how important it is for us to listen to different stories. It reminds me too of how important it is for us to keep on telling our stories. As the world narrows down, and access to all these different stories becomes easier, our view of each other, the way we see one another changes and we come to understand how culture is made up of many different facets and reading one story is not enough for us to say we know that culture.***

***I believe that this applies to individuals too. One person’s opinion of another person is just one person’s opinion. The best thing to do is to go meet that person yourself and find out your own truth.Thinking further,  this applies to many other things in life as well.

**Freddie Aguilar is a Filipino Musician, writer and composer. Anak was his first international hit and the song that established him as a national celebrity.

*Anak translates as Child.

6 comments on “Intermittent Transmissions from the Diaspora

  1. Mia says:

    I did not want to become a Filipino who had to be treated like a tourist in her home country.

    I see this happen very often and it keeps breaking my heart.

    I definitely would like to see more Filipino stories out there that speak of experiences different from what’s usually included in stereotype. To me it’s not about being different for the sake of difference, but of widening the scope of things from which people draw their conceptions of who we are. “Who we are”, of course, not being a single, solid thing, but ever-changing and impossibly complex and diverse. I think the idea of culture as a monolith is very limiting and often potentially harmful.

  2. Bobby says:

    I had an experience being a stranger in a strange land, similar to yours but different at the same time. I didn’t go through the kind of isolation you suffered when I moved to Los Angeles–where the largest population of Filipinos outside the Philippines gather. There was never a shortage of people to speak with in our native tongue. But it was when I tried to converse with English speakers that my problem started. I thought I was competent enough to do this simple task but when I opened my mouth, all the wrong words came out and everything sounded broken. This was especially mortifying to a shy and awkward 14-year old trying to belong and not appear like a FOB (fresh off the boat), which in my mind at the time was one of the worst things you can be!  I became sort of a shut-in. Ironically, this is not want you want to be to jump start the process of blending in with the natives. So it became a long and painful one for me.
    Fast forward many years, I still struggle with English and I’m still sort of a shut-in but I’m getting better :D

  3. Joyce Chng says:

    Good post, Rochita.

    Thank you for such an illuminating post.

  4. Rochita says:

    To me it’s not about being different for the sake of difference, but of widening the scope of things from which people draw their conceptions of who we are.

    Well said. And this is why I also feel the need to cultivate and encourage more writers and more storytellers and to allow critical examination of our work. I do think it is possible to write stories that will have a global appeal without compromising identity.

    Bobby: Thank you so much for sharing your own experience. I had imagined that migrating to the US or the UK must be less stressful and isolating because the language barrier isn’t there. Interestingly enough, I have friends who tried to bring their teenage kids to the UK (because Mom was working there), after a half year, the kids returned home to the Philippines. From what I heard, they found life in the UK to be quite miserable. No matter that they could speak the language, they just couldn’t find a place for themselves there. I think this is the same thing, because I remember calling them and the kids were always home. They never went out and I never heard them mention having made friends.

    What’s odd is: Dutch parents whose kids have grown up abroad. These kids will come back with their parents and before you can say 1-2-3, the kids have already made buddies and are talking about group gatherings and such. I don’t know if it has to do with that secret code. I’ve been told by a researcher who does this type of research that my theory about secret codes does exist. You have to crack the code in order to be acknowledged as being there.

    Oh,I want to recommend Ruth Nestvold’s Looking Through Lace which is an awesome science fiction story on language and codes and the meeting of two cultures. What makes it feel even more authentic is how Ruth is an expatriate like me, living in a culture different from her original culture, and speaking a language that isn’t the language she grew up with.

    Joyce: Thanks for dropping by. I’m glad you liked the post. :)

  5. Jessie Mac says:

    Having lived in the UK for most of my life, when I go back to Vietnam and China, it’s hard not to feel you don’t belong. I find it is not only the language barrier of different countries and cultures but that of parent and child. I think you can’t help but have this theme in your stories when it’s such a big part of your life.

    I also lived in Poland for some time – people always appreciate when you try and speak in their language if you’re in their country. Though you end up speaking English.

    Thanks for the post Rochita.

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