Let’s face it: stereotypes will always exist. It’s human. And, while often carrying a negative connotation, most stereotypes do reflect a degree of truth – and if we’re honest with ourselves, we all rely on them sometimes. It’s our nature to have the need to simplify things – this isn’t always borne from ignorance or hostility, it can be just a matter of convenience in terms of how we interact with each other efficiently.
Stereotypes become dangerous when we accept them as universal truths, or as an interpretation of how things are “most” of the time – and even more so, when it impacts how we treat or interact with people we’re unfamiliar with. Do we judge them by their race? Color? Place of origin? Socioeconomic status? Accent? Hairstyle? Clothing? I could go on and on.
So, if I apply stereotypical thinking to everything I can observe about a person without ever speaking to them or getting to know them, how accurate would my assumptions be? How well am I describing who this person really is? Creating a person from a collection of stereotypes is fine for comedies, or comedians. But relying on stereotypes as your main way of understanding someone that you don’t know is simply ignorant.
Let’s get to the heart of this: Western/American guy. Asian woman from abroad.
Maybe she is a mail-order bride. Maybe he picked her out of a catalogue, or plucked her from the rice paddies.
Maybe she’s escaping a life if poverty. Maybe she’s after the green card and naturalization – and plans to import her rice paddy family too!
Maybe she’s an opportunist; a gold digger.
Maybe he is being used. There’s a long list of family members back home getting sick!
Maybe he’s a misogynist. The Western Women are too independent-minded for him, and he needs a submissive woman who will attend to his needs, desires, and follow his orders. (Anyone who knows Cecille is surely laughing at this point!)
Maybe, he’s a loser. There must be something wrong with him if he can’t even find a woman in his own country. It feels good to be getting all of these out of the way! Can anyone think of any more? If so, have at it in the comments!
So it’s with these aforementioned stereotypes that we come to the inspiration for my post. This past Monday morning at work, I was at a meeting which is held monthly for all of the Managers at the Non-Profit Agency I’m employed at. At the start of these meetings, the facilitator (an Administrator who is also my boss) encourages the Managers to take a few brief minutes to speak in turn about anything they’d like: this is actually on the meeting agenda as “What I feel like saying…”
Typically, people will share either big life events, or simply anecdotes about their weekend activities. It had been a couple of months since I’ve been able to attend one of these meetings, so when it was my turn, I announced that since the last meeting, I’d become engaged.
Everyone in the room clapped. It was…well, cute. One of the other Managers asked me if I’ll be visiting my fiancée again soon, and I replied that yes, I will be traveling back to Thailand in May. To which she replied: “So does she speak English?”
I wasn’t especially surprised, but a bit annoyed to be asked in such a blatant way in that forum. But instead of switching to full-on defensive mode, I took it in stride and approached it as a “teachable” moment to explain that Cecille was fluent in English… She works in Thailand but is originally from the Philippines, and that English is the predominant language in the country. Everyone learned it in grade school. (In fact, Cecille learned it even earlier, as her mother is an English teacher.). Anyway, it would have been more tactful of her to ask me this question without the company of all of the other Managers in our meeting, but whatever…
I’d like to think that she was well-intentioned overall, or that maybe she assumed my fiancée is Thai and thus less likely to know English than a Filipina. While there are many Thais who speak perfect English too, it’s not ingrained in their culture like it is in the Philippines. I can’t help but to wonder if she would have asked me the same question had I said I’d be traveling to the Philippines.
If I’m especially cynical, I can also infer other meanings from this question:
First, that I would be able to marry someone that I couldn’t even communicate with. I could not. This may be an OK arrangement for some people, but not for me. Second, her question could be a reflection of the stereotype of Western Man/Asian Woman from abroad. (note – I add the phrase “from abroad” here because there are many American Asian women to which this stereotype doesn’t seem to apply). Knowing my fiancée is from Asia and further assuming the possibility that she can’t speak English seems to type-cast me as a potential bride-shopper, swooping in to rescue the hot but helpless rice paddy girl regardless of the fact that we don’t know how to talk to each other. That’s ok, because I’m the type of man who likes my women clueless and quiet… Obviously not.
Am I reaching here? Have I lost the ability to be objective and thus am overly sensitive to what people may assume?
All in all, does it even matter what people think? Yes and no.
No, it doesn’t matter because Cecille is my match regardless of what people may assume. Before I met Cecille (in person) I was attracted to her for her personality, her intelligence, her wit, and her charm. In fact, that’s what kept me talking to her so often in those first few weeks. The things that drew me to her then (and much more now) have little to do with her race, nationality, or where she is from. Yes, I knew she was Filipina, but more importantly, we later came to realize that we share similar values and dreams. Ultimately, during the two weeks I spent traveling with her, I fell in love.
I don’t have much previous experience with Asian culture or people – I’ve never had a close Asian friend before, let alone a girlfriend. That being said, the process of intermingling our two cultures and the resulting variety is one that I’m looking forward to.
Yet in a more general, and less personal way: Yes. It does matter what people think insomuch as it’s always a positive thing to challenge ignorance, to prove negative stereotypes wrong.
Cecille grew up on a farm. In fact, both sides of her family owned rice paddies. She would tell me stories of her life growing up in the countryside. She would often tease me that I did indeed pick a girl out of a rice paddy. But Cecille was also Editor in Chief of her college newspaper while concurrently the Vice President of the parliamentary debate club (which used English as the medium). She went to graduate school after her RN. For my future wife to have a solid resume is impressive – but more importantly, I would settle for nothing less than for my wife and I to truly connect and clearly communicate with each other – essential for any successful marriage.
In the end, I don’t look down on men who do the “mail-order bride” thing, or the women who marry them. To each their own, but it isn’t for me. The only reason for me to marry is when I have found someone that I truly love and cherish. But then again, this article isn’t meant to criticize other people’s preferences in choosing life partners. Rather, this is about the reliance on stereotypes to form opinions about people. And voicing such opinions publicly, especially in an inappropriate venue, rather than realizing you don’t really know anything and just keeping your misinformed judgment to yourself. Be careful with that, everyone.
16th February 2013, Saturday, 11:30am. Ian and I returned to our Baiyoke Tower suite 30 minutes before check-out time. We had just gotten engaged on the top of Thailand’s Tallest Tower and what we really wanted to do was to turn off our phones, no internet and stay cooped up in our room until who knows when, if you know what I mean. But hotels here in Bangkok are particularly strict about check-out time because of the tourist traffic. Besides, we had obligations to fulfill such as Ian’s courtesy call to my family upon arrival and some more errands to do such as changing hotel rooms, getting ready for our engagement dinner on the following day, etc. So we scrambled to gather all of our things, pack our luggage and head to the hotel lobby for check-out…
It took some time for us to get settled into our new hotel room. Also, we had to travel to the suburbs where our previously chosen accommodation is located. My family lives in the area so in the interest of accessibility and convenience, we chose both this hotel and the restaurant for our engagement dinner to be in that vicinity.
We had plans to meet my mom and my brother in the afternoon to help Ian and I find clothes and accessories for our engagement dinner and pre-wedding photo-shoot. I had done my personal shopping with my stylist-cousins beforehand so technically this shopping trip was for Ian. I really appreciate my mom for agreeing to do this with us. I would say I am fashion-savvy; When it comes to men’s clothes, I may be able tell if it looks nice but I’m not an expert. My mom has three men/boys in the family and over the years she has gotten really good at shopping for males. So I intended to rely on her expertise. Besides, I thought it would be a good bonding opportunity for her and Ian (including my brother of course) because they had the chance to talk/get to know each other on only a few occasions before.
Admittedly, in the beginning of my relationship with Ian, it might have seemed difficult for my mother to process what was happening. To her, Ian could be just another “farang” (Thai term for foreigners particularly Westerners) with “yellow fever”. My mom was brought up a conservative and is very prudent in romantic relationships. She advocates a long courtship more than anything else and prefers two families of the couple to also know each other well before venturing into a “merger”. As you know, it’s not very easy in our situation because our families are separated by miles, mountains and seas. As my mother, it’s understandable for her to have some qualms and hesitations about my impending marriage to a Cano (Filipino slang term for American man as in AmeriCANO) I have known for 7 months.
It doesn’t help that she hears horror stories from friends and colleagues about Filipina/Asian women who were into terrible circumstances while being involved with a white guy. I couldn’t blame her. Unlike me, she didn’t have the chance to interact with Ian on a regular basis. But I know that when she gets the opportunity, Ian’s charm, innate kindness, intelligence and obvious sincerity has the power to possibly win her over – as he did with me – and make her an instant convert.
My mother has been the primary constant in my life, good times or bad. I always treasure my fondest memories of my mother and I, such as her combing my hair and doing my hairstyle (I think she does the best braids and pontytails), putting night creams on my face and lotion on my skin while I’m sleeping because I’m too lazy to do it myself and I hate the sticky feeling. I seek her advice about even the simplest of things such as clothing and food options. To this day, she still calls me when she sees a lovely dress in the mall and thinks it would look nice on me. She would ask me if I’d like for her to get it for me. My mom is my valiant protector; when I am hurt, she hurts more. When I had my heart broken in the past, it seemed to pain her more so than it did me.
I know that she wants the best for me.
So, in the cab on the way to the shopping center, I was crossing my fingers for good luck. Ian asked if I’m okay and I knew he could tell I’m a bit anxious. I relied heavily on this shopping date for Ian and my mom to establish better ties. Needless to say, my mom’s acceptance of my future husband matters to me. More so, I thought it would be great if the two people I love the most actually get along. At that point, I prayed to Mother Mary to intercede for me. Maybe she can warm my own mother’s heart.
So we arrived at the mall and my mom was just finishing her grocery shopping. As I approached her, she asked me if Ian would like some pasta. My brother has perfected his version of spaghetti since we demand for his cooking every weekend. Apparently, she has been bugging Karl to cook so we’ll have something on the table when entertaining Ian. I smiled secretly. Not a bad start.
To keep the friendly mood, I asked if anybody would like to eat. Everyone agreed that they were hungry so we headed over to one of the Thai restaurants for merienda (afternoon snack time) which was actually a late lunch for Ian and I. Over Pad Thai (stir-fried Pho noodles), spring rolls, chicken wings, Khao Pad Moo (pork fried rice), etc., my mother asked about Ian’s flight, his parents and sister which launched them to the eventual conversation about Ian’s family tree. Ian’s missionary aunt who was in Asia (particularly in the Philippines and China) for several years was mentioned and this captured my mom’s attention. My mother, who was raised a Catholic by her devoted aunts and was sent to Catholic schools from kindergarten to college pleasantly welcomed stories about Ian’s relatives who went into priesthood and nunhood. Ian’s maternal grandmother is Scottish Catholic. Many of his grandmother’s siblings lived as nuns, priests, missionaries and monks…. I interjected in the middle of their exciting convent-sation that my mother always wanted one of her sons and daughters to “respond to the calling” which ultimately lead to the mention of my brother Karl, who was enjoying the last piece of chicken wing, being a seminarian back in college. He finished Philosophy and just like Ian, he loves the big talks relating to theology, existentialism, physics and the purpose of life. Besides that, my brother plays the guitar and is into metal. Additionally, he very well liked Ian’s present during his last visit: a New York Yankees baseball cap. That being said, I don’t have any worries about my brother and his future brother-in-law getting along. And the way the conservation between my mom and husband-to-be was going, it seemed I would have one less worry too…very soon. I prayed for my mother’s saints to watch over my cause. I could only hope they weren’t sleeping.
Two brothers and a mom
My Men. Enjoying Häagen-Dazs chocolate truffle ice cream for dessert
Someone mentioned that it was getting late, so we picked up the bill and started heading down to the department stores. Did I mention we were in Thailand? So that meant endless choices at ridiculously cheap prices for good quality garments. Evidently, my mother and my brother had already started scouring the mall for shops on sale before we got here so as to save time once we finally arrived. So in a systematic fashion – carefully supervised by my shopping expert mother – Ian started his “ordeal” of trying on shirts, blazers, suits, etc., beginning with the brand Pierre Cardin which thankfully was at 50-70% off! (Oh Ian, aren’t you glad you’re marrying me?!) Halfway through the marathon, sweat began trickling down Ian’s forehead and my mother promptly motioned to me to wipe my darling fiancé’s forehead. At the fourth long-sleeved shirt, I couldn’t hide my frustration for the lack of available sizes for Ian. In Thailand, when you say large, it means American small or something. No kidding! I am convinced it’s another one of the government’s grand schemes of regulating this aesthetically-motivated and figure-conscious country’s citizen’s weight. As soon as I started with my tsk-tsks, my mother started with her disapproving stares: “Don’t be like that. Be patient”. Those were her words of wisdom followed by orders of “Wait for him outside the dressing room”,“Don’t leave him” and more. My mother was barking like the How- to- be –a- Good -Wife -101 professor. After 25 years of marriage, I guess my mother has earned for herself a master’s degree in Wifehood.
We finally agreed on a light blue striped long-sleeved shirt for Anderson Lake (The Wind-up Girl), a gray suit with matching skinny tie for Paul Varjak (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and a black suit and white long sleeved shirt for our engagement dinner. Phew! Done at last! Male shopping is definitely not my favorite sport. After a tiring three hours or so, we called it a day. My mom thought Ian looked really tired so she ordered us back to our hotel to get some rest in preparation for the dinner the following day. Riding the cab on the way back, I was in lost in my silent reverie. Generally, I was happy with the outcome of that day: My mom was gracious and I knew she was making her best effort to show that she is reaching out. Although with my mom, it is not very difficult for her to appear welcoming because she is naturally a thoughtful person-she genuinely cares about and is very mindful of people’s needs. I was really hoping that Ian felt welcomed because I knew in my heart that if I were in his situation, my mother would also like me to be welcomed by my in-laws to be. This memory brought me back to our non-traditional Skype “pamamanhikan” two months back:
Our families were scheduled to teleconference at 8 o’clock breakfast time in Bangkok. Meanwhile, in Katonah, New York, Bob and Ellena – Ian’s parents – had just finished their dinner at home. At one point in the conversation, my mother expressed her apprehensions about my move to America: She was telling Ian’s parents that she is very worried because I don’t have aunts or uncles or any close relatives in the US and so she wouldn’t know where to refer me to in case something happens to me. In response, Ellena recounted her own experience back in 1974 when she was only 20 years old. (Ian has told me that she came to the States with nothing but the clothes on her back). Coming to America for the first time, Ian’s mom said the only person she knew in all 50 states was her husband, Bob. But Regina, Bob’s mother (and the original owner of my engagement ring) welcomed her with open arms and let her into their family and hearts like a true daughter.
“Juvy, that I will do for Cecille, too”.
Observing this genuine and poignant exchange between two mothers sent a shiver down my spine. I swear I saw my mother become teary-eyed. Thousands and thousands of miles away, Ellena was able to project through an LCD screen connected to various wires and microchips powered by technology, a sentiment as old as time—human empathy, loosely defined as “caring for other people and having a desire to help them, to experiencing emotions that match another person’s emotions, to knowing what the other person is thinking or feeling, to blurring the line between self and other”.
To me, it translates as “Juvy, I feel you. I am a mother too”.
Thousands and thousands of miles away, Ellena struck me in the heart and in that instant I believed that everything is going to be okay. I will be okay in a foreign land away from home because I will have a second family. Across all of these thousands of miles, I felt a sentiment so much older than me but so rarely experienced by many these day: Faith in humanity.
I know I was supposed to tell our story, mine and Ian’s. Yet it is said that a good story is one that tells another story within. This story is not solely mine but also that of my mother, Ian’s mother, and of all the mothers, parents and families who are taking a gamble at letting a “stranger” claim their children as being theirs too (“stranger”: referring to fiancés or fiancées). Isn’t this difficult for parents to do? They are supposed to welcome into their homes and into their hearts the person who is about to take their child away from them and claim to have responsibility over them from then on. As parents who cared for their children from the time they were fragile babies, to naughty children, to troubled teens, and finally to present day adults, it is almost impossible to believe that yet another person could possibly care for their respective little prince or princess better than they have. Again, faith in humanity – so mainstream, but also so scarce. It is a tragedy of life that these days it is a stretch for a person to bring himself to put his trust into the hands of another man. That is why it is unavoidable for parents to quiz the future new family member about his background, circumstance, upbringing, viewpoint and opinion on things that they think matter. They want to know whether their future son or daughter- in- law can protect their interest.
I am proud of my Ian. I think I couldn’t have chosen a better man. Had I been an FBI agent’s daughter, my father would be disappointed to see Ian’s dossier to be so clean that he doesn’t have a bone to pick with him. He would even be more disappointed to find that my Ian is a man about it: he looks forward to the interrogation with cool, respectful, confidence. He is not arrogant but he is also not intimidated.
The logical next step is then for my FBI agent father to take is to assume I am crazy, and that I do not know what I am doing getting married so soon. Surely, he knows me better than I know myself. Surprise, surprise!
It is very common to hear from parents the words: “No one else knows you better than us”. Maybe they do. But also, maybe they don’t anymore. With all due respect:
This is the sad truth for our dear Parents. Yes, once your children were little kids running around freely without any sense of direction other than what you had set for them. However, children grow to become adults just like you with jobs, responsibilities, and plans. Children, too, eventually mature to build a life and family of their own.
I do not mean for this to come across as being negative. Rather, I would like to bridge the gap there is between future in-laws from both sides (although this may not be applicable to everybody). Maybe, the marriage of your son and daughter must not be seen as another person taking your child away from you, but instead as one more person loving and caring for your child as much as you do. Maybe having a son or daughter in-law is not a burden, but instead a happy addition to your growing family, regardless of said son or daughter in-law’s color, race or creed. Maybe negative perceptions must be changed. Perhaps the strict concept of exclusivity must be loosened a little bit.
The family is the basic unit of society. And wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if in our society there is harmony amidst diversity? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all just get along, despite our differences? This should apply especially when different parties have a common stake: to secure the lifetime happiness of the one they claim to love. Case in point: Me.
That is my opinion. My parents, just like any other parents, also wanted to air a piece of their minds. Ian and I promised they will have a chance at the engagement dinner. That was only 12 hours later after we said our goodbyes in front of Central Chaengwattana mall.
As we bade each other farewell, my mother gave my darling Ian a “beso-beso”. I prayed to God it wasn’t a Judas kiss. Maybe this time God listened.