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A Culture Chameleon | IPS Asia-Pacific

IPS Asia-Pacific


A Culture Chameleon

Johanna Son

Johanna Son, a journalist for two decades, is director of Inter Press Service (IPS) Asia-Pacific (www.ipsnewsasia.net), the regional foundation that is part of the IPS International news agency (www.ips.org). A Philippine national, Son was previously correspondent and editor for IPS Asia-Pacific, as well as staffer of the Manila Chronicle. She has led reporting teams for international conferences and newspapers and does training work for Mekong journalists.

BANGKOK - As I hopped into a cab here one evening years ago to get to a friend’s wedding reception, the driver took one glance at me in the rear-view mirror and seeing me wearing an ‘ao dai’ (the flowing Vietnamese dress), said: “Oh, khon Vietnam, chai mai?” (Oh, you’re Vietnamese, right?)

   That phrase was just one of the many versions of what has become a routine remark that I encounter in this city I now call my second home after more than eight years. Almost routinely — and in the following order — I am assumed to be from Japan, from Singapore, from Malaysia, from Korea, from Thailand. Only sometimes — and only when some cab drivers hear me chattering away with a fellow Pinoy (that’s the slang Filipino word for ‘Filipino’) — am I correctly tagged as being from the Philippines.

   At one event we had here at Inter Press Service (IPS) Asia-Pacific news agency, a Filipino guest remarked: “Johanna, I think you’ve stopped being Filipino. I think you’re (just) Asian.”

   I don’t really know, but I think I am fine moving in and out in the different cultural spaces I occupy, spaces that have gone far beyond that I grew up in back in the Philippines.

   My world, mainly around the Chinese Filipino circles that I grew up in, began to expand within the sprawling grounds of the state-run University of the Philippines, from my first political rally (unknown to the folks at home, of course) to a decision to leave a pre-medicine course to take up journalism (a ‘complication’ because Chinese tend to avoid things political), to later on taking down reporters’ dictated stories, to editing, closing and laying out pages, and reporting on the Senate and on foreign affairs for the now-defunct ‘Manila Chronicle’ newspaper.

   In many ways, I always felt  part of different worlds at the same time: one that was familiar ground, the Chinese Filipino environment, and one that was the ‘real world’, living the journalist’s life, analysing politics and pursuing stories, chasing politicians and ministers for interviews, traveling to different parts of the Philippines, getting excited by new story angles and potential scoops, and getting sued for libel by thin-skinned politicos. Indeed, too, I could be wearing red for a relative’s birthday one dinner, and laughing at (and cracking) green jokes beside the layout artist who was closing my newspaper page the following day.

   Life threw me different opportunities after I moved from local media to a foreign news agency geared toward development and alternative news from and on the global South, in 1994. As its regional correspondent for Asia, I soon internalised what my boss then told me: that while I was physically the Philippines, my world view had to be far wider than my country because I had to look at issues with a regional lens.

FROM WHERE ARE YOU?

   Being Chinese Filipino helped me make this adjustment more smoothly, because of our ‘dual’, but not necessarily conflicting, selves. To this day, I hesitate a bit before replying to queries about who I am, or where I am from, knowing that the conversation is unlikely to be simple or straightforward.

“From where are you?” the question often starts.

“I’m from the Philippines.”

“But you don’t look Filipino.”

Or the discussion may go another way, starting with the observation: “You’re Chinese…?

“Yes, from the Philippines.”

“So you’re Filipino?”

“Yes.”

“But wait, you said you’re Chinese?”

“Yes, I’m both.”

After 14 years with IPS Asia-Pacific, and learning from having been correspondent, regional editor for Asia-Pacific, and now director, this duality of identity has expanded even more due to working in a very multi-cultural environment.

It is no longer strange or exotic to be working, whether in reality or virtually, with Indians, Bangladeshis, Bulgarians, Belgians, Chileans, Cambodians, Vietnamese, Burmese, Uruguayans, Zimbabweans or Nigerians. Because IPS focuses on news from the developing world, with a view to correcting information imbalances heavily skewed toward Northern, western and mainstream media, one becomes familiar with material about places such as Ouagaduogou and Ulan Bator. I’ve also learned to tell from the way people speak English if they are Cambodians or Burmese, and can tell Hindi from Nepali script (even if I can’t read them).

Work has brought me to UN summits and publications that IPS produced in Istanbul, Copenhagen, Mumbai, Karachi, Beijing and Rome, and training workshops we organise for journalists in places like Luang Prabang or Phnom Penh.

In many ways, perhaps I’ve become a ‘third culture’ creature, to borrow from the phrase ‘third culture kids’ (children of mixed parentage living in a third country). Or perhaps a cultural chameleon of sorts?

CODES AND CONFUSION

It’s quite fun to confuse people when one’s ‘physical code’ does not exactly match one’s ‘cultural code’. In other words, being Chinese Filipino, while being too restrictive for me in many ways, does have built-in benefits outside the 7,100 islands that make up the Philippines.

For instance, it‘s quite amusing to try to train my foreign friends how to tell different kinds of Chinese (or other Asians) apart and to prove that no, not all Chinese look alike. I’ve stood at the taxi queue at the Kuala Lumpur airport, realising (half-unknowingly) that I was following the conversation going on behind me in Hokkien, albeit with a slightly different accent. Being able to bargain a bit with shopkeepers in Yaowarat, Thailand’s Chinatown, using Mandarin is a relief. And on flights, I can start a conversation with Filipino domestic workers who are pleasantly surprised when I start chatting in Filipino.

It’s also an extra bonus not to be groping about in total darkness when:
o    walking down the streets of Kunming, because I know I  will somehow  survive (except for the fact that we studied fantizi (traditional Chinese script) in school and now struggle with pinyin and simplified Chinese);
o    navigating through Tokyo’s maze-like train system, relieved to be able to read some Chinese characters that are part of Nihongo, and mean the same, although they are read differently and sound different in Japanese;
o    taking a stroll in Rome and feeling ‘safe’, because Italian is not totally alien from the Spanish I learned at home in university;
o    exploring Montevideo or Santiago, because our compulsory Spanish lessons come back somehow even if I had forgotten just how many Filipino words come from Spanish root words – and even if I understand much more of the language than I can quickly, confidently and correctly reply to.

It’s nice to run into Malaysian Chinese or other Chinese colleagues and friends and try to woo my Mandarin back from what I feared was long-forgotten depths. It’s fun to surprise Chinese journalists in our Mekong media programme, who are kind enough to praise my basic Putonghua as being much more than they expected (truth to tell, perhaps they are just genuinely relieved to have a channel of communication in an English-speaking workshop environment). I also admit to subconsciously doing things like avoiding getting flats numbered ‘4’, which Chinese avoid because it sounds similar to the Chinese character for ‘death’.  Surely, no harm in avoiding ‘4’ and it won’t cost me a thing, I tell myself.

It’s quite an eye-opener to sit through the night and compare with Indonesian journalists, over endless laughter, which words are common to Bahasa Indonesia and Filipino. (‘Sayang’ was the favourite common word, especially because it has no direct full translation into English or other languages.)

It was rib-tickling when, going up the elevator for a business lunch one day many years ago, a fellow passenger in the lift remarked to me: “Excuse me, but you speak really good Filipino for a foreigner!” It wasn’t funny though when arriving at the Manila airport, the immigration officer asked me: “Miss, how did you get your Philippine passport?”

PERMANENT PASSPORT

Still, being Chinese Filipino has been a permanent passport to the ins and outs of these two – and several other cultures. It allows me to slip in and out of one or the other at different moments, or even at the same time. With this too comes an ability to explore many other cultures and feel even just a wee bit of affinity with them. It is, I realise, a very unique gift, and one has served me in good stead through my years after moving out of the Philippines.

Sometimes, though, I forget my own game with cultural and physical codes.

Once, while having a post-gym dinner in Bangkok, I huffed to my friend Lea after the Thai waiter, after I spoke to him in Thai, discussed the bill with me in Mandarin: “Aba naku, at paano naman nalaman ng mamang yan na nakakaintindi ako ng Mandarin?!” (And how did that man know I could speak Mandarin?” Lea thinks for a while, tries to judge whether what she wants to say will offend me, and goes ahead anyway, trying to stifle a guffaw: “Sa tingin mo ba, sa itsura mong yan, na di halatang Chinese ka?”  (Do you really think that with the way you look, it’s not obvious you’re Chinese?”) We bent double over the table with laughter, tears in our eyes.
 



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Warning: INSERT command denied to user 'theasian_tae'@'localhost' for table 'watchdog' query: INSERT INTO watchdog (uid, type, message, severity, link, location, referer, hostname, timestamp) VALUES (0, 'php', '<em>DELETE command denied to user &amp;#039;theasian_tae&amp;#039;@&amp;#039;localhost&amp;#039; for table &amp;#039;panels_object_cache&amp;#039;\nquery: DELETE FROM panels_object_cache WHERE timestamp &amp;lt; 1492818734</em> in <em>/home/theasian/public_html/includes/database.mysql.inc</em> on line <em>172</em>.', 2, '', 'http://theasianeye.net/en/content/a-culture-chameleon', '', '54.92.136.230', 1493423534) in /home/theasian/public_html/includes/database.mysql.inc on line 172

Warning: INSERT command denied to user 'theasian_tae'@'localhost' for table 'watchdog' query: INSERT INTO watchdog (uid, type, message, severity, link, location, referer, hostname, timestamp) VALUES (0, 'php', '<em>INSERT command denied to user &amp;#039;theasian_tae&amp;#039;@&amp;#039;localhost&amp;#039; for table &amp;#039;watchdog&amp;#039;\nquery: INSERT INTO watchdog (uid, type, message, severity, link, location, referer, hostname, timestamp) VALUES (0, &amp;#039;cron&amp;#039;, &amp;#039;Cron run completed (via poormanscron).&amp;#039;, 0, &amp;#039;&amp;#039;, &amp;#039;http://theasianeye.net/en/content/a-culture-chameleon&amp;#039;, &amp;#039;&amp;#039;, &amp;#039;54.92.136.230&amp;#039;, 1493423534)</em> in <em>/home/theasian/public_html/includes/database.mysql.inc</em> on line <em>172</em>.', 2, '', 'http://theasianeye.net/en/content/a-c in /home/theasian/public_html/includes/database.mysql.inc on line 172

Warning: INSERT command denied to user 'theasian_tae'@'localhost' for table 'watchdog' query: INSERT INTO watchdog (uid, type, message, severity, link, location, referer, hostname, timestamp) VALUES (0, 'php', '<em>DELETE command denied to user &amp;#039;theasian_tae&amp;#039;@&amp;#039;localhost&amp;#039; for table &amp;#039;variable&amp;#039;\nquery: DELETE FROM variable WHERE name = &amp;#039;poormanscron_lastrun&amp;#039;</em> in <em>/home/theasian/public_html/includes/database.mysql.inc</em> on line <em>172</em>.', 2, '', 'http://theasianeye.net/en/content/a-culture-chameleon', '', '54.92.136.230', 1493423534) in /home/theasian/public_html/includes/database.mysql.inc on line 172

Warning: INSERT command denied to user 'theasian_tae'@'localhost' for table 'watchdog' query: INSERT INTO watchdog (uid, type, message, severity, link, location, referer, hostname, timestamp) VALUES (0, 'php', '<em>INSERT command denied to user &amp;#039;theasian_tae&amp;#039;@&amp;#039;localhost&amp;#039; for table &amp;#039;variable&amp;#039;\nquery: INSERT INTO variable (name, value) VALUES (&amp;#039;poormanscron_lastrun&amp;#039;, &amp;#039;i:1493423534;&amp;#039;)</em> in <em>/home/theasian/public_html/includes/database.mysql.inc</em> on line <em>172</em>.', 2, '', 'http://theasianeye.net/en/content/a-culture-chameleon', '', '54.92.136.230', 1493423534) in /home/theasian/public_html/includes/database.mysql.inc on line 172

Warning: INSERT command denied to user 'theasian_tae'@'localhost' for table 'watchdog' query: INSERT INTO watchdog (uid, type, message, severity, link, location, referer, hostname, timestamp) VALUES (0, 'php', '<em>DELETE command denied to user &amp;#039;theasian_tae&amp;#039;@&amp;#039;localhost&amp;#039; for table &amp;#039;cache&amp;#039;\nquery: DELETE FROM cache WHERE cid = &amp;#039;variables&amp;#039;</em> in <em>/home/theasian/public_html/includes/database.mysql.inc</em> on line <em>172</em>.', 2, '', 'http://theasianeye.net/en/content/a-culture-chameleon', '', '54.92.136.230', 1493423534) in /home/theasian/public_html/includes/database.mysql.inc on line 172

Warning: INSERT command denied to user 'theasian_tae'@'localhost' for table 'watchdog' query: INSERT INTO watchdog (uid, type, message, severity, link, location, referer, hostname, timestamp) VALUES (0, 'php', '<em>DELETE command denied to user &amp;#039;theasian_tae&amp;#039;@&amp;#039;localhost&amp;#039; for table &amp;#039;variable&amp;#039;\nquery: DELETE FROM variable WHERE name = &amp;#039;cron_last&amp;#039;</em> in <em>/home/theasian/public_html/includes/database.mysql.inc</em> on line <em>172</em>.', 2, '', 'http://theasianeye.net/en/content/a-culture-chameleon', '', '54.92.136.230', 1493423534) in /home/theasian/public_html/includes/database.mysql.inc on line 172

Warning: INSERT command denied to user 'theasian_tae'@'localhost' for table 'watchdog' query: INSERT INTO watchdog (uid, type, message, severity, link, location, referer, hostname, timestamp) VALUES (0, 'php', '<em>INSERT command denied to user &amp;#039;theasian_tae&amp;#039;@&amp;#039;localhost&amp;#039; for table &amp;#039;variable&amp;#039;\nquery: INSERT INTO variable (name, value) VALUES (&amp;#039;cron_last&amp;#039;, &amp;#039;i:1493423534;&amp;#039;)</em> in <em>/home/theasian/public_html/includes/database.mysql.inc</em> on line <em>172</em>.', 2, '', 'http://theasianeye.net/en/content/a-culture-chameleon', '', '54.92.136.230', 1493423534) in /home/theasian/public_html/includes/database.mysql.inc on line 172

Warning: INSERT command denied to user 'theasian_tae'@'localhost' for table 'watchdog' query: INSERT INTO watchdog (uid, type, message, severity, link, location, referer, hostname, timestamp) VALUES (0, 'php', '<em>DELETE command denied to user &amp;#039;theasian_tae&amp;#039;@&amp;#039;localhost&amp;#039; for table &amp;#039;cache&amp;#039;\nquery: DELETE FROM cache WHERE cid = &amp;#039;variables&amp;#039;</em> in <em>/home/theasian/public_html/includes/database.mysql.inc</em> on line <em>172</em>.', 2, '', 'http://theasianeye.net/en/content/a-culture-chameleon', '', '54.92.136.230', 1493423534) in /home/theasian/public_html/includes/database.mysql.inc on line 172