It first happened at a house party. “Are you Thai? No, ok. Malaysian? Indonesian?” Another time, someone asked me at a sushi restaurant why I was horrible at using chopsticks. “We don’t use chopsticks, we use cutlery or some like to use their hands,” I had to explain. Or, “Your English is so good. Where did you learn it?” they ask. “It’s my mother tongue, actually. It’s also one of our official languages,” I respond for the nth time.
After five years of living in England, I’ve realised that despite there being over 200,000 Filipinos residing in the United Kingdom, little is known about our culture or history.
“It’s like we’re invisible, right?” The question lingered in my mind long after the breakfast I had with Stacy Danika Alcantara-Garcia, the new Vice Consul and Public and Cultural Diplomacy Officer at the Philippine Embassy in London. She had just moved to the capital a few months prior and was telling me about her first impressions as a new transplant. She talks about making her rounds through local museums and galleries and her subsequent disappointment upon finding out that there was hardly anything on display about the Philippines.
Her experiences reflected many of my own. I remember walking into an independent bookstore with an extensive travel section. When I got to the Southeast Asian shelf, there was not a single book on the Philippines. Even little Bhutan (with a population of just over 800,000 compared to over 104m in the Philippines) had a few guide books to its name. I turned to my fiancé and said, “There are so many of us here working in and helping society and it’s as if no one cares about us!”
Alcantara-Garcia notes that the blame can initially be put on the distance between the two nations and the fact that Britain only occupied the Philippines for two years in the 1700s. Unlike many of its Southeast Asian neighbours that were colonised by the British, the Philippines was ruled by Spain for over 300 years, became an American colony for around 50 years, and was under Japanese occupation during World War II.
However, there has been a sharp increase in the number of Filipinos living in the UK in recent years, especially due to the popularity of Filipinos in the healthcare industry (Filipinos are the second most common foreign workers in the NHS, beaten only by the Indians). But still, the average Briton I speak to admits that they don’t know much about the little group of islands that many of us still call home.
From the ambitious women who came in the 60s to serve the likes of John F Kennedy at The Savoy to the new batch of university students who arrive with fresh ideas and open minds, every nook and cranny of the nation is filled with Filipino citizens aching to tell their stories. Most Britons assume all Filipinos in the UK are nurses (as Prince Philip once noted), and whilst a large number are, we have since broken into the technology, natural sciences, business and arts sectors (I work in fintech and financial services). Unbeknownst to many, Filipinos even make up the majority of Scotland’s foreign fishing fleet. You’re welcome for the fish and chips!
As is the case for many other ethnic cultures, food has been one of the most successful vehicles for bringing the Philippines into the limelight over the past couple of years. The UK Filipino Food Movement is made up of a group of chefs and restaurateurs who are sharing the stories of their homeland, one plate at a time. Omar Shah, owner of restaurants Bintang, Ramo Ramen, Guanabana, and the newly-opened Mamasons in Soho, is one of the movement’s most recognisable faces. Shah was born and raised in London to immigrant parents and describes growing up as a Filipino in London feeling like he belonged to two different worlds, desperate to fit in.
Shah has used his passion for cooking to showcase the eclectic flavours of Filipino cuisine and bring it to the masses. Photos of the bright purple ube sandwiches from his ice cream parlour Mamasons have been shared countless times on Instagram. Shah uses the popularity of his restaurants to engage with customers and answer their questions; especially when it comes to travel tips. He talks about the role that social media has played in the increased interest that the British have in travelling to the Philippines. Whilst growing up, the country was noticeably absent from his friends’ gap year plans through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Now, travel influencers and their photos of the global social media capital’s cascading waterfalls and white sand beaches have drawn crowds towards this “untouched” destination with 14 per cent year-on-year growth.
In my e-mail correspondence with Shah, he is quick to note that the rise in interest in the country and culture is not temporary: “This is definitely not a mere ‘trend’ or a passing phase. I have a lot of faith and confidence in our generation and the generations to follow to build upon what we’re doing, in the same way that we’re building upon what our parents have done before us. This is all just the tip of the iceberg.”
I moved to this country on a one-way ticket without a flat or a job, because I knew that despite the lack of security, I’d find the challenges and adventure that I had been searching for back home. I came to London hoping the city would teach me how to be more independent and ambitious in a cutthroat environment, but didn’t realise that I’d one day be passing on some learnings of my own. The friends I’ve made here tell me that before meeting me, the Philippines was barely a blip on their radars. It was always the afterthought, that unfamiliar place far, far away that they didn’t know much about. They listen in awe as I tell them about the turquoise waters, the incredibly fresh mango shakes, and they can hardly believe it when I mention the hundreds of thousands of us who walk amongst them on a daily basis.
We mend your wounds, catch your fish, code your websites, and put food on your plate. We’re beside you as you wait for your bus and we’re sitting in front of you on the tube. There is often a desire to look outwards and far away when it comes to our search for the exotic, the different, and the unknown. We must remember to make an effort to take notice, keep our eyes open, and see those who are otherwise invisible.
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