Us and them

There were four Chinese men in the elevator when I entered. They weren't together, it seemed: one pair were talking, and the other pair weren't.

The elevator stopped and two more Chinese men entered. They had a conversation of their own.

The elevator stopped again, and a Filipina woman came in, with her daughter, perhaps five years old.

As the trip continued, I felt a bit uneasy. Turns out the woman was glaring at me. I was pretty sure she moved her daughter away from me. Was it because I was wearing house clothes? This is a condominium complex, after all. I came from my flat. Oh, no, was it because I stood by the elevator controls? It's always been my default position, for some reason.

Was it because my eyes are small? Oh, good heavens, does she think I'm Chinese? Is she also uneasy because she thinks she's the only Filipino, and she's surrounded by all these Chinese men? What will we do to her? What will we do to her daughter?

The elevator reached the ground floor, and I walked out first, and fast.

First off, yes, it feels awkward, to put it safely. One day they weren't here; the next, they're everywhere. In social gatherings and behind closed doors, your small talk ends up being an assessment of where the Chinese are showing up.

I've had that conversation at some point. "There are a lot in Mandaluyong," I said. "I think one of the new office buildings houses a POGO."

"Really?" my colleague asks me.

"I think so. I've seen mainlanders waiting outside."

There used to be just a handful, but then there would be a lot of them. Before ten in the morning, there would be lots of them at the elevators, leaving for work. Same at six in the evening; a shift change, perhaps. I always assumed they walked to work, to that nearby office building where other Chinese were waiting, but then I also see them walking to the nearest supermarket, and not necessarily to shop.

I'm just assuming they work in a POGO, one of those outsourced gambling companies that apparently exclusively cater to mainland Chinese, they who cannot play games of chance unless they visited Macau, where it's legally allowed. All I know is there's no dress code where they work. In the elevators, during the morning rush, I see them wearing shirts and jeans and sneakers, some of them decorated with designer labels that are just one letter off: think Supreem instead of Supreme. In several instances I've seen them hold seven mobile phones, all the same model. Is that for work?

If they're not going to work, they're going to the swimming pool. Chances are, when the elevator stops at the sixth floor, I'd see a Chinese person with a towel wrapped around him. At least they're making use of the amenities.

You start seeing them at the convenience stores and the restaurants. They struggle to order, because the menus have not been updated - they don't speak much English, after all. The Potato Corner downstairs has at least adjusted, providing an easy way to order their fries in Chinese, Japanese and Korean. But I see them more often at 7-Eleven, buying urgent supplies like we do, but struggling to get their point across, leaving both customer and cashier frustrated.

I guess that's why Chinese groceries are popping up lately, although I don't quite know where the nearest one to the flat is. I'd love to be able to buy the drinks I got in Hong Kong, for instance. I just know they're buying there because, I assume, it's familiar, and because every day at two in the afternoon empty bowls of instant noodles with unfamiliar labels would be placed outside the locked doors of our floor's refuse room.

The fear of the unknown is a human thing, but it can take on some pretty nasty shades depending on how used one is to seeing people that are not quite like him. It's safe to say we Filipinos fall in that category. I don't expect us to welcome these foreigners with open arms; they're not Americans or Europeans, after all. But the most tolerance I've seen is begrudging, with constant mental reminders, especially in public. These people are rude. These people are gross. Armed with those, we slink away from awkward situations.

On the other extreme, there's out and out racial profiling. My sister lives in Las PiƱas - it's where it all began, you might joke, and indeed she's seen the same scenario unfold; new Chinese neighbors, new Chinese restaurants (including the "Chinese-only" food park the government ordered closed) and new Chinese-language signs alongside the usual English ones at the nearest supermarket. An elderly neighbor of hers had a beef about yet another neighbor - noise, I think - and the first thing this woman asked when she knocked on the so-called offender's door is: "what nationality are you? Chinese? Japanese? Vietnamese?"

But that's in public. You go online and there's always someone complaining about how the Chinese should just go home, a sentiment cloaked in patriotism, supposedly, but it's really just the fear of the unknown talking. The hysteria around the novel coronavirus, Wuhan virus, whatever you call it, is just one example. These people are gross. They eat all these animals and then they send us their diseases? Go the fuck home!

Shalla and I flew to Hong Kong for what you'd call a vacation late on a Saturday night, which meant our first day out and about was Sunday. It was everybody else's day off.

We picked the Nan Lian Garden off a list of Instagrammable and relatively little-known tourist spots in the city. We took the train from our hotel in the middle of Nathan Road and got off at Diamond Hill station, which I'd say is between the city and the suburbs: the exit was under a mall, but we were surrounded by residential towers and an elevated highway, and just underneath that, the entrance to the park we were visiting.

It was a five-minute walk from the exit to the park, and in the sidewalks in between, there were people having a picnic. On the sidewalk. Mats spread, containers filled with food laid out. There was a lot of chatter, all of it not in Chinese. I heard some familiar words. Two Filipinas were right beside me, enjoying their break.

As we ticked off spots on our list for the day - the nearby Chi Lin Nunnery, an impromptu trip to the Kowloon Walled City Park, all the nicely colored buildings in between - we saw more picnic mats laid out on parks and sidewalks. There are designated places for these, and they all come to life on Sundays. On the bus ride back to our hotel, I'm very sure I saw this pocket of fenced-off grass at Mongkok that was filled with picnicking domestic workers. And this was all at the Kowloon side. We haven't crossed the harbor yet. Central, they say, is where most Filipinos working in the city congregate on their days off.

Throughout the trip Shalla would occasionally remind me to not speak too loudly, especially if I'm speaking in my native language. Something about the locals mistrusting me because I speak the same words as the people they hire as maids. I'm not so sure. That said, at the 7-Eleven across our hotel, I felt the cashier's disposition change when I spoke in Filipino before paying for our stock of Kit-Kats and Horlicks.

I don't really know. We were only there as tourists, and while I visited the city frequently, I was insulated by the fact that I spent most of my time in the business district, wearing a coat jacket and a necktie, walking to the HKCEC - I must be here for business. I haven't been away from my country for an extended period of time, making a living, or looking for one. I wouldn't really know. But perhaps I've had an inkling about being the unknown, being the subject of this fear of the unknown, at some point. They look at you and determine you're a sign that things are not going well for them, that things are stacked in your favor rather than them, that you are everything that's wrong with their lives, that you must be gotten rid of, or at the very least, given the worst time possible. That's why you keep your head down low, or so they say.

The Chinese renting out flats in the same building as mine are certainly keeping their heads down. For the most part they haven't engaged with anyone else. I only know this one time when a mainlander who's just moved in got into an argument with the security staff who was demanding he present an ID. His English was spotty and her patience was wearing thin, and I ended up waiting in line just to get my mail. Apart from that, they're talking to their roommates, or watching a video on their phones, with the volume maxed out.

I've always wondered about how they got here. Come to think of it, the questions I might have for Filipinos who decide to try their luck in other countries are the same questions I have for the mainlanders who decided to try their luck here. Where do you come from exactly? What is it like where you come from? Why did you decide to work in the Philippines? Is it difficult to find work there, or is the pay here much better? This person you're talking to, do you know him from back home? Do you all come from the same town, from the same province? Or are you all strangers to each other until you unlock the door to the flat you're renting out?

What do you do when you get home from work? What do you like to eat? Maybe you know the guy who I saw bring a push cart full of vegetables and seasonings up the elevator. How do you watch television here if there's nothing that you can understand? Ah, right, there's the Internet for that. How does it feel to be able to watch YouTube without restrictions? Or have you ever tried?

Do you usually hang out elsewhere after work? I don't think so, but there was one time when I saw some of you come out of a coffee shop at around eight in the evening. I distinctly remember a Chinese man holding the hand of a Chinese woman. I'm sure the one-child policy was still a thing when you were born. Have you fallen in love here? Have you started a relationship here? Or was she someone you knew back home, and took the same trip as you?

Right, it wasn't you. Sorry. A lot of these questions occur to me as I stare blankly at the elevator buttons, waiting for my stop. As the elevator reaches the 23rd floor, I walk out, and remember that one time when I saw an advertisement for what I think is a POGO in Cebu. The job qualifications were surprisingly straightforward: knowledge of Microsoft Office and the ability to speak Mandarin. But then I smell cigarette smoke near my flat. I'm no better than any of you. I also assumed it's one of the Chinese renters, particularly the ones who live in the flat right beside mine, flouting the rules, allegedly.

And your responses...

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