Tuesday, June 9, 2009

American Girl

I'm back to being the only white girl in town. Not literally... I have spied a white girl or two at the mall. But as far as my day-to-day life goes... just me. Mostly that's fine, I mean, I came to Thailand at least in part to experience what it would be like to be a minority (understanding of course that there is no one 'minority experience'), and to interact with people from a variety of different countries and cultures. I had expected to interact with Thais and expats from other English speaking nations, but something I did not expect was the number of Filipinos I would meet. English is one of the official languages of the Philippines and as a result of this (and the severe shortage of teachers from English speaking countries) a great many English teachers in Thailand are Filipino.

While I was prepared to experience some majority / minority dynamics; I hadn't really expected to experience minority / minority dynamics. It's interesting, and I'll be honest, it's not always pretty. It's hard not to become at least a little racist when living so long away from your own people & culture. All the teachers maintain a professional cordiality, but in general casual friendliness is divided along racial boundaries. White teachers joke and hang out with the other white teachers; Filipino teachers joke and hang out with the other Filipino teachers.

When I first arrived in Rayong I was welcomed very warmly by two Filipino sisters, Nicole and Rose. But my initial attempts at friendship never seemed to go anywhere. I went out to lunch or dinner a with Nicole a few times but the conversation was always stilted. And her sister prefered to stay at home watching movies to going out with people. I could never tell if it was a difference in personality or a difference in culture, but given the lack of English speakers in Rayong, I was highly motivated to make friends, at whatever level, where ever I could.

But although she's an English teacher, even calling Nicole an 'English speaker' is a bit of a stretch. Yes, she speaks English, but she speaks her own particular brand. She tends towards a rather unique sentence structure and often chooses a more formal word than is called for in a given situation. She'll say something like "I made an arrangement to consult with a doctor." Instead of "I have a doctor's appointment." Combined with her accent and a non-native rhythm, half the time I can't figure out what she's trying to say. And it's bizarre because I have a LOT of experience communicating with non-native speakers and usually I do just fine. The other Filipino teachers are much more fluent and casual, both in the style and substance of their speech.

But that didn't make it any easier for us to relate. I spent several lunches with them as they discussed low carb diets and Hip Hop Abs - the latest workout DVD. If the conversation ever went beyond these banalities, they did so in Tagalog**. It's a disconcerting experience to be sitting in the teachers lounge of an English school and not be able to understand what my fellow teachers are saying "Hi...wlkoiuch girl, lakdul a lkcolut allkdoau aag sex scandal alkdlfay adlfka eaiok adfy weekened adlkafy adlk dsfy Hip Hop Abs ewradfl yoeq no problem gyaoiueq qlpuvhou girl!"

Some conversations though, I was meant to understand. One day at lunch we were talking about being homesick and Daisy very pointedly commented "Yeah Thailand is okay. But I miss being around my own people, my own culture. I just want to speak my own language. I get so tired of speaking English all day." She looked right at me, and her tone left no room for interpretation. I'd never before had my ethnicity insulted to my face and had no clue how to react.

This was just a taste of the underlying tension between the Filipino teachers and teachers from other English speaking countries. I've also picked up on it in comments about the difference in salary for Filipino teachers. But nowhere is it clearer than in online forums for English teachers in Thailand. The Filipino teachers often complain about the unequal treatment of equally qualified teachers from the Philippines. Unfortunately their complaints are often so filled with typos and awkward syntax as to prove *why* there is a different pay scale for non-native speakers.

But I feel for them, I do. Most of the Filipino teachers are here out of necessity, not out of a sense of adventure. They work hard - often two jobs at a time in addition to private students and take their work seriously. Filipino teachers are more likely to stay with a school long term. And I've never seen or heard of a Filipino teacher rolling into work late on Monday hung over from a weekend of partying on Ko Samet.*** So I do think that if a particular teacher is fluent in English and has solid teaching skills then nationality shouldn't matter. Especially given how widely the quality of English, American and Australian teachers varies. But nevertheless, the tension is there... on both sides.

While Bunny and Bobby were here we kept an unconscious distance from the Filipino girls. Or maybe they were keeping their distance from us. I'm not sure. But now that Bunny and Bobby have gone, I've made a little more of an attempt to be friendly again. I still feel a bit isolated when they come into the teachers room and after a brief "Hi, how's it going?" launch into extensive conversations in Tagalog. But I'm trying.

The other day Amy, a part time teacher I've never said much more than "hello" to, was sitting there and we both had about an hour to kill between classes. We started chatting about work. She just started a new day-job, and she likes it a lot better than the old one. She explained that she just can't make the same kind of money back home, and she regularly sends money to her family. She talked about how the cost of living was so much higher there, and how that makes it even more difficult to be poor. If you don't have money you just can't eat. At least in Thailand you can get a full meal for 35 baht (about $1) and road side stands sell chicken drumsticks for 15 baht and little packets of rice for 5 baht.

She talked about all the other challenges she's had working here. Her old school refused to sponsor her work permit so she was working illegally. And without a work permit she was unable to get a non-b resident visa. This meant she had to leave the country and do a border crossing every two or three months. Each time she had to hope and pray that they wouldn't question her too thoroughly and just let her back in as a "tourist".

Now, fortunately, her new school is willing to sponsor her work permit and visa application, but it's going to take some time. It turns out that she's been in Thailand about as long as I have, but knows she can't go back to the Philippines until all the paper work gets sorted out. She's worried that they're going to look at all the border crossings in her Passport and call her out for working illegally. And if she goes home for a visit before everything is finalized, she risks losing her job and the relatively good situation she has here. We commiserated about homesickness and she told me how much she missed her family. "I just want to go home." she said with a smile, but in her voice I heard her 'homing beacon' go off and I got a very profound sense of exactly how far from home she was. It may not be as far away as I am when measured by miles, but in terms of situation... the distance is overwhelming.

TAG: Code Watermelon

* I can't remember what nicknames I gave them in the beginning and am too lazy to sort through all the old posts to figure it out. =P

** Or Filipino or any of about a hundred different dialects spoken in the Philippines - I have no way of identifying between them... half the time it almost sounds like Spanish. =/

*** I made it to class on time!


Megan said...

I wrote a bit of a lengthy reply but didn't want to come off as an asshole so I erased it.

I could have written a lot of this post about my workplace (I work with 5 Filipinos). The jealousy, gossiping and the cliques (among other less nice things I could mention) are things I won't miss when I move.

Bezzie said...

I dunno. There are a lot of Filipinos in Alaska and I worked with a lot of Filipino girls at my teenage joe-job. I actually found myself kind of picking up a few of the inflections of their English. I even kept in touch with a couple of them for a year after I left the job and went off to college.

Rebel said...

FTR my intention was not to hate on Filipinos, just to share what some of my experiences have been.

Megan - I can't tell how much is a culture clash, how much is a personality clash, and how much is just someone being rude... it's so much harder to figure out when it's someone from a different country/culture.

Bezzie - yeah, most of the girls have charming accents but Nicole...I've talked to other native english speares and we've all had trouble understanding her.... again, personal quirk? Maybe she speaks like that in her native language too? Hard to say.

Batty said...

Being a minority in one country is not necessarily like being part of the same minority in another country. Local emigree culture is just that -- shaped by the country they live in.
And then there's personality. In my own experience, culture clash becomes more pronounced when there is also personality clash. But... it's sometimes hard to tell.

Rebel said...

Batty - that's a really good point. Since Thailand has never been colonized they have a generally positive attitude towards westerners, and don't have any historical animosity towards Americans - which makes my life easier. I know this is not necessarily the case in other countries.

Jeannette said...

I met two Filipinos when I was training at the school I work for now. The two girls immediately bonded with each other, but I sort of squeezed my way into their clique, having lunch with them and hanging out work.

I didn't see it as any different then where I grew up in South Florida, where the Haitians gravitated to each other, the Cubans, the Mexicans, the Jewishians, etc. Maybe that's why I was comfortable around the Filipinos. When I was a kid a lot of my friends were 1st generation American.

I noticed a lot of the other trainees, especially the females, seemed put off by them. Maybe they found the Filipinos girls too loud, foreign, serious, whatever.

Rebel said...

Jeanette I had a similar childhood with friends from Israel, India, and yes the Philippines too. My exposure to people from different countries is part of why I wanted to go abroad myself. I guess it goes back to what Batty said - emigrant communities are different in each country...and you know, there's always the personality aspect.

mlle b said...

Reb, I can teach you the like 15 things I can say in Tagalog (I was born in Manila, you know!!)! Things like Merry Christmas and I love you will, I'm sure, be very useful!

I think it's interesting that you call the Filipino's 'non-native' speakers. But since English is one of its official languages, then they very well might be native speakers. But over all, this reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend who wants to teach French at the university level, about whether her job prospects were dim because she's fluent but not a native speaker. And we agreed that sometimes it's easier to learn from a non-native, because your teacher had to go through the same process of learning and can often explain things that for native speakers are simply intuitive.

jojo said...
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