One of my first interactions with foreigners was at a month-long course that I attended for early career scientists in Southeast Asia. The organizers ensured a wide representation among the region by picking one student per country. I was the only one from the Philippines. I felt slightly pressured to do well because I was sort of carrying the banner of the country. For most of us, it was our first time to leave our respective countries. In the same way that my roommate was the first Thai I met, I was probably the first Filipino she met. I thought then that my classmates in that course will think Filipinos are a certain way because I was a certain way.
Some years after, in grad school, I became very good friends with “J” who comes from a conservative Asian country, and “C” who comes from a country that’s small and quite far from Southeast Asia that it was not common to meet someone from there. J has no conservative bone in her body. As for C, I didn’t have any pre-conceived ideas of how people from his country should be like. We knew that we were all so “off” in terms of being typical, that we had this running joke of making sweeping generalizations about people from our respective countries. When I’m being grumpy, they’d tease me, saying “I bet other Filipinos are friendly.” And I’d hit back with, “You know what, I am not representative of the entire population.”
There is no such thing as a “typical Filipino.” I am not your typical Filipino. I am not an entire country reduced to one person. It took me a while to realize that, to free myself from the self-imposed pressure of assuming the role of official country representative in every situation where I am the only Filipino present.
One danger in writing about cross-cultural relationships is the presumption that all actions are culture-influenced, hence all differences are culture-related. Something as small as one person cutting the line becomes a conversation-starter for how the entire people group is like that, they cut lines, they don’t follow the rules, etc. This is something you see all the time on the comments section of any given post on the internet.
There are so many things that influence a person’s worldview – religion, social status, financial background, upbringing, family history, culture, the list goes on an on. A millennial from Manila will think differently from an grandmother in an impoverished province in the south. When you pick one as the representative of the country, you invalidate the experiences and existence of the other.
Now I when deal with other people, my partner for example, I try to ask myself whether his actions are because that’s just how he is as a person, or is it reflective of his cultural background. The response to the former is to understand the person without passing judgements on his countrymen. The response to the latter is to learn more about the culture.
What about you? Do you often find yourself in situations where you’re the OTHER one? Do you feel pressured to perform well in these situations? How do you perceive a foreigner’s words and actions – as personal, or as a reflection of his culture? In what instances do you perceive it as one and not the other?