Usually, when people move abroad, there are three emotional phases they go through:
- Enthusiastic and positive phase as they enjoy their new surroundings
- Frustration and anger phase adjusting to new ways of life and language
- Find balance: neither frustrated nor enthusiastic about their surroundings
After two months of living with my boyfriend (now husband) and his parents in the beautiful Oltrepò Pavese hills, I started to experience the second phase of adjustment because certain things were really getting on my nerves.
I accompanied my mother-in-law into town to help her with the groceries. When we were unloading the car in front of the house, a neighbour came out of her front door to greet us.
The first question she asked my mother-in-law was, “oh, how nice! Did you get some domestic help?”
My mother-in-law smiled and calmly said, “No, no, she’s my son’s girlfriend.”
I froze. I was in complete shock.
(If you don’t know what I look like, check out my about page and you’ll see that I have a Filipino background.)
I just got stereotyped as domestic help. Most Filipino women in Italy work as domestic help. So, it was natural for this curious neighbour to assume this based on my looks and me helping with the groceries.
I was shocked and confused because I was never judged like that before. Growing up in Vancouver, Canada, I never considered myself different from the Chinese, Indian, Croatian, Polish, Portuguese or Hispanic kids in my class. I grew up not knowing a difference. I didn’t think that if you had a certain background, that you would automatically end up in a specific role in society.
At the same time I wasn’t oblivious to the fact that stereotypes existed but my friends and I joked about them and never took them too seriously.
I realized that I took Canadian multiculturalism for granted and I was wishing that I could have it back. But I couldn’t, I was in small town Italy and had to deal with the looks and comments.
Not too long after that episode, I was alone in the house playing the piano when the doorbell rang. I went to the door to see who it was and there stood the mailwoman. I opened the door, smiled and said, “ciao!”
She asked me, “ Is nobody home?”
Me, “uhhhh, no?”
She gave me the mail anyway and then left. Half a second later, I turned red with anger and thought,
“Wait, what do you mean ‘is NOBODY home?’ Who the hell am I?”
Oh right. I’m the domestic help, that is why I wasn’t considered. ha! Damn it! Stereotyped again!
I felt guilty about getting angry because I knew there was no shame in working as domestic help. It is an honest job. But, it wasn’t who I was and I was getting tired of people making wrong assumptions.
HOW I HANDLED BEING STEREOTYPED
At that point, I knew I had to find a way to deal with this issue. I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to be seen differently, I had to look different. I couldn’t change my physical features but I could change the way I dressed. I was always in leggings and cotton tops from American Apparel with either converse shoes or flip flops on my feet.
That all had to go.
I had to dress like an Italian woman and wear 5 bracelets on one arm, flashy earrings and rings all the time. I also had to get a luxury hand bag.
It worked: The small town Italians didn’t know how to categorize me and instead of assuming who I was, they asked.
It worked but I was disappointed in myself. Deep down I knew that I had to deal with the stereotypes another way. Patience, tolerance and learning not to let it get to me was the right way. It is so much easier said than done though.
HOW I SHOULD’VE HANDLED BEING STEREOTYPED
Six years later, I can say that time heals all things. I’ve made friends and built networks through my day job, gyms, dance schools and English lessons. I am not a stranger anymore in this small town and I feel like my true identity has been established. I’ve also learned to be tolerant and understanding. The mailwoman, the neighbour and the other countless people that stereotyped me and made me feel uncomfortable never had the intention of confusing or angering me. They were just curious and with the information that they had, they made assumptions as anyone would.
I am not saying that I don’t get stereotyped anymore but rather, I just know how to deal with it better without having to dress up like a flashy Italian woman.
Only last year, I was walking to my car when a woman stopped me on the street and asked how much I charged for massages. I politely told her that I was not a masseuse and then asked her how much she charges. She said that she wasn’t one either. We wished each other a good day and we were on our way. The funny thing is, she wasn’t even Italian, she was from the Dominican Republic!
Have you been stereotyped? How did you handle it?