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Black hair in Manila

March 23, 2010

I’m in Manila, Philippines. I came out here to go to a conference. Since it’s Spring Break, I thought I’d stay a bit longer. Sometimes when I travel I wonder who is more surprised, the natives or me? Why you ask? Being a young black woman traveling to blips on the map, I’m often stared out. Not because of my skin, because frankly the people out here are about as brown as I am. No, it’s my hair. My locs, my natty dreads!

While I’m walking down the street people are walking up behind me and pulling my hair. I asked one boy not to do that. I said, it would be better if you asked me first. He just replied with you are pretty. I don’t think he understood. Later that evening, a gang of young ragamuffins were following me out the store with their hands outstretched begging for money and then they swarmed around me, enclosing me in a circle that had my heart beating out of fear. Who are these children? Do they work for a gang of thieves? Is Manila like the movie Slum Dog Millionaire? Are children forced to beg for their livelihood for some criminal mastermind? What’s going to happen next? Is this how they pickpocket you? Well, luckily they were just begging for money. After I told them no, I tried to move out of this tight circle and then a few of them started pulling my hair. They were gentle tugs, but nonetheless I was afraid. I’m used to my hair being a topic of discussion from even “enlightened Americans”, but I am not used to being pulled, tugged, pinched and grabbed. It’s a bit unnerving.

Close Encounters
Today I traveled by local jeepney

A jeepney, as you can see, is a long truck with two benches inside. Passengers jump on and off and only pay about 7 pesos per ride.
Anyway, I’m sitting in the jeepney and I started speaking to this woman and all of a sudden she grabbed my hair and started rubbing it. Then the woman across from her, who I had not spoken to, grabbed my hair as well. Everyone was staring and you could see the looks of all the envious passengers.
This is a rundown of our conversation:
Grabber 1: Is this real?
Me: Yep, it’s all mine.
Grabber 1: How do you do it?
Me: Take it in your palms and roll it or twist it.
Grabber 1: What’s your nationality?
Me: I’m American. ( I know I should say U.S.A, but when you’re overseas, Canada doesn’t count.)
Grabber 1: But your hair is like this, “How are you American?”
Me: I’m black American.
Grabber 1: Ah…. (quizzical look)

This conversation opens a whole ‘nother bag aworms! Americans are identified as white and blond. The rest of us are immigrants!

Anyway, I can see how my visit to Manila is an educational experience for all of us, the natives and me. I guess we have a week to get to know each other. Wish us luck!

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike in Tokyo permalink
    March 23, 2010 4:03 PM

    sounds like quite an experience you’re having.

    I used to live in the Philippines and find it a bit strange that they seem incredulous that you’re American. They get ALL of American pop culture there, appreciate American music, etc. They even used to be an American colony and had large US military bases there until about 1990 (when they were basically wiped out in an act of God volcanic eruption!). My Chinese-American friend back in the US used to joke that they were the most soulful Asians – and the best dancers who made other Asians look positively square 🙂

    I can see how they might find you kind of exotic. They probably don’t get many live Africans/African Americans there that often. They still don’t get that many foreigners there in general either… at least when compared to, say, Thailand. If you can imagine, it’s even worse in the countryside! It’s probably like Japan was back in the 60’s.

    Anyway, I hope you enjoy the rest of your stay. If I knew you were going, I could have given you some tips and maybe even asked a friend to show you around (which might still be an option, depending on how much longer you’ll be there; shoot me a mail if you’d like me to try).

    If you haven’t visited Chinatown, you might find it interesting. Last I heard, the area in which it’s located is one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

    If you’re a basketball fan, it might be fun to take in a game, too. They used to have old Nba players playing in the Philippine pro basketball league (and they’re not bad players themselves). I think they’re the only Asian country in which basketball is the team sport of choice.

  2. roadlesswandering permalink*
    March 24, 2010 1:33 PM

    Thanks Mike, I have a conference on Thursday and then I’m going to try and head outside of the city on a few day trips. I’ll be okay. I did hit Chinatown, the crowds were overwhelming. I don’t think people even register one another, there are so many people on the street.

  3. roadlesswandering permalink*
    March 24, 2010 1:35 PM

    Oh, I met a beautician today and she asked me if my hair was real. I went out to Tagatay to check out the volcano and this woman asked me if I had on a wig. I’m getting used to it now.

  4. May 5, 2010 12:43 AM

    Dreads isn’t the only thing. With my hair au natural, I get a lot of that too. Can I touch your hair? When I was in Turkey I was bombarded. And my height doesn’t help me too when I travel as they’re like who is this giant with that crazy hair. But they don’t tend to mess with me (prob cause of my height) or always ask first to touch my hair.

    • roadlesswandering permalink*
      May 5, 2010 9:16 PM

      A friend of mine said the other day, “Break the taboos!” I think in a way, we are constantly breaking taboos around the world. I guess in Japan it happens, but it happens in a way that’s not as intimidating. In other parts of the world where people speak their mind. It is a bit shocking. People like to say that the proliferation of hip hop to all parts of the world has made people recognize black people. I think it’s help to recognize black men, but it has never encompassed the diversity of black women. To all of us who are breaking the taboos! Ganbattemas!

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