Mali is a 21-year-old from the Philippines with ‘Chinese blood’. At first glance, most people living here in Zhejiang province in China assume that she’s local. As I sat across the table from Mali and her two friends, Biyu and Tainu, the three young people discussed their ethnicity with mathematical exactitude. Mali is 75% Chinese, Tainu is 80%, and Biyu is 100%. This didn’t mean anything to me (people in the United States have ancestries across the board!), but I could tell that it held important weight in the Philippines, where being Chinese meant something very different from being Filipino.
The distinction creates an interesting paradox when viewed from inside China. Some people here in Hangzhou, including the trio’s cab driver the other night, are openly racist toward people from the Philippines. When their driver learned where they were from, he began cursing and degrading Filipinos. The three reacted to the bigotry with incredible poise, simply explaining to me, When cab drivers ask us where we’re from, we just use our imagination—it’s easier that way.
The world Mali lived in at home seemed calculated and distanced. Everything was dealt with on her behalf. Everything was very secure and small for her in Manila. I asked if she had consider dating a local Filipino—had she ever met someone and been interested? Her response was polite yet immediate and matter of fact: No, not really. It’s just not something that’s done. My family really wants me to marry another Chinese Filipino. They wouldn’t allow me to date an ethnic Filipino.
When I met Mali, she had recently arrived to Zhejiang University in Hangzhou. It was her first time away from home and she seemed eager in a careful, meek way to make a life for herself. She kept alluding to some sort of freedom she hoped to gain in being here alone. It was obvious that she wasn’t quite sure what this new freedom would be, but she was curious. Within a week of her arrival, two of her friends from Manila decided to join her and study Chinese. She viewed this last-minute news with an ambivalent mix of disappointment and relief. Goodbye independence, hello comfort. Tainu’s family is close with my family in Manila, Mali explained. She told me that she suspected her family of sending Tainu here to spy on her and report back to them. When we went out for drinks, she admitted that she fibbed to Tainu, telling him, I’m just going to study and go to bed, when she was really heading out to socialize. I could sense her sincere fear of disappointing her family.
Although she’s finished her undergraduate degree and plans on being a teacher when she returns home, Mali has never had a job. She has never dated. Before last week she had never gone out to a bar or enjoyed a beer. She’s still never ridden a bike. Her English is immaculate. I complimented her on her language skills and asked her how she’d learned. She said that she was required to speak English in school. That, and western television—I watch a lot of American TV where her literal words.
During dinner one night I was able to see Mali in a whole new light, thanks to the arrival of her fellow Chinese Filipinos. There they sat, the three of them. They insisted on using pre-packaged chopsticks they’d bought themselves for every meal. They explained that they felt wary of the cleanliness of the cafeteria cutlery. My mom made me promise I’d never use the chopsticks anywhere in China, Mali explained. Never once had I seen a student, foreign or local, bring their own chopsticks to lunch. Suddenly there were three students in front of me convinced it was necessary.
Through a slightly muffled and embarrassed giggle, Mali admitted that her family has two maids. Two maids and 8 Pomeranians (it sounds like the makings of a reality tv show or a really bad Disney film). She also admitted that she’s never washed her own dishes or done her own laundry. When the subject was breached, we all had a good laugh at the expense of Tainu. Mali explained that she’d walked in on Tainu attempting to do laundry for the first time the other day. He’d done everything right, except that he’d used ¾ bottle of detergent for one load! I said I was shocked that the washer hadn’t overflowed with suds like it does in the cartoons.
Although Tainu may not be a whiz in the laundry department, he immediately adopted a special role for the girls in China. As soon as Tainu arrived in Hangzhou, Mali and Biyu happily deferred their financial responsibilities to him, explaining that it’s just easier to have him deal with the bills—he’s better at math! All I could manage to painfully offer in response was “Well, it’s probably not good for the life skills, but is sure does save you some hassle…”
This fall there will be weddings in both Mali’s and Tainu’s families. I asked them what these ceremonies would be like. Apparently there is a rather strict protocol for Chinese weddings in the Philippines. To put it simply, they’re very large and the man pays for almost everything except the household appliances, which the bride is responsible for as a result of the fact that she’ll be the one spending more time in the home using them. I asked the three of them if they would marry according to these mores themselves. The women seemed comfortable with the idea of buying their own appliances.
Mali and Biyu’s knowledge of western language and culture may seem extensive, but I’ve realized that in reality their lives couldn’t be farther removed from my world. I felt a sense of amazement at the sheer difference of our lives. Behind this curiosity I recognized my own deep-set, omnipresent worry for these women. They seemed to me to be dangling precariously on the edge of a life of complete co-dependence.
Although a part of me yearned to extend some of my western, Independent Woman values on Mali and Biyu, a part of me also realized that there was still so much more to learn from them. I may be able to understand and appreciate my own skills and independence, but I will probably never understand the place where they come from or the barriers they’ve faced and will face in the future. Where I was raised it was relatively easy to declare I don’t need men! and go about my way safely and openly. I’m not sure if the streets of Manila are as friendly toward such acts of solo-female rebellion.