Imagine that you’re reading a story and the author introduces a character with only one description for her – that she is “Asian.” What do you immediately assume to be her nationality? I’d be willing to bet that your first guess was that she might be Chinese. Or maybe Korean. Perhaps Japanese. But I bet you didn’t think of her as Filipino. Or Indian. Or Thai. And you’re probably not the only one.
I distinctly remember my nine-year-old sister arguing that we Filipinos are not Asian. When I asked her what she thought Asians looked like, she cited descriptors for East Asian people: with pale skin, pointy nose, almond-shaped, monolid eyes or “singkit” – a far cry from Filipinos’ tan skin, bulbous nose, and round eyes. When I explained to her that the Philippines are part of Asia, she strongly disagreed. The only Asians that she saw in foreign (mostly Western) movies and on the Internet do not look like us.
Yup! I’ve had the whole West Indian vs. East Indian conversation tons too. Not to mention multiple people who have told me I’m not Asian because they only consider East Asians, Asian even though South Asia is in Asia. They call me Indian even though I’m technically not. ?
— LaVidaLopa (@LaVidaLopa) February 23, 2018
I can’t really blame her; her observation was correct. When someone is said to be “Asian”, the immediate connotation is that they’re of East Asian descent. Why? Because that’s how the Western mainstream media commonly portrays Asians. “Brown Asians” or those from South, Southeast, Middle East, and Central Asia are often identified through their nationalities or countries. Simply put, Brown Asians are not often introduced or regarded as just Asians in the Western media industry – and let’s stop pretending that we have yet to realize just how influential the West is in the global narrative, especially in pop culture.
This is an issue of the underrepresentation of Brown Asians in the global narrative. For so long, the characters that I related to the most were in Indian movies. As far as I know, they’re the most represented among Brown Asians, but even they find this representation insufficient compared to what could be.
As much as I respect them, I just cannot personally relate to East Asians, their culture or lifestyle. It’s hard to see yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t really look or live like you. Tokyo and Beijing is so different from Manila and Laguna, but parts of India look like the Philippines. Some Indians even look like Filipinos.
I wish there was more characters to see myself in. The roles that Asians are given aren’t usually pivotal and this is not enough. I’ve always wanted to believe that Filipinos deserved more than to be fillers to a story just so shows can call their cast diverse. We deserve more than to be typecast portrayals of what the media thinks Filipinos are.
Filipinos are often criticized when they purposefully find some sense of “Filipino-ness” in popular culture abroad. When someone from Hollywood has even the slightest affiliation with the Philippines, no matter how trivial, Filipinos always find reason to celebrate this person. This “Pinoy pride” often gets questioned and even ridiculed. But can you really blame us? We just want to somehow be represented in an industry that either ignores us completely or portrays us through worn-out stereotypes.
How often do you get authentic, clear portrayal of Filipinos in Hollywood? How often do you see Filipino characters with strong, relevant roles in these TV shows and films? We have a wide reach of immigration in the Western hemisphere, it’s not unfair to ask for representation in the global narrative.
Being “Asian” seems to have become exclusively used as a collective identifier for persons of the East Asian diaspora. Could it be that this rooted from the unspoken idea that East Asians are more preferred and more respected than the other parts of Asia? They are the majority within Asia, and more or less, the assumption is that they are the top representatives of the entire ethnicity. But one region, no matter how influential, can never be wholly representative of hundreds of others.
Besides, whoever said that only the powerful is worthy of representation? Asia must be acknowledged not only as a single-faced community, but rather as a wide array of starkly diverse cultures. We all deserve to be recognized, not by stereotypes, but as what we authentically are – Asian.