A Brief Lesson On Melanin Diversity In The Philippines And China

So the other week, Lucy Liu was under fire for her comment on David Letterman’s show about how she looks “a little Filipino” when she tans. Although Lucy has already apologized, a number of people are unsurprisingly still offended by the comment. The funny thing is, it’s not so much of an issue of ignorance as it is about cultural exposure. In the northern Philippines and parts of the south, there are light-skinned people who look Northeast Asian; in southern China, there are dark-skinned people who look Southeast Asian (Malay like some of the people found in the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia), and to the west in Xinjiang, some have blue eyes and “white” skin.

I love Lucy and didn’t find anything wrong with her comment personally, and it’s not just because I’m Chinese-Filipino and have lived in both countries before America, it’s the context that she is working with. Put it simply, Asian America has a certain ethnic make-up that causes people to associate “Filipino” with “dark-skinned Asians” and China to be “light-skinned Asians”. There’s even a level where some fools mistakenly believe all Asian culture is just China and the Northeastern countries, completely disregarding South and Southeast Asia.

It all comes down to the question of diversity that many have a million answers to, but don’t ask enough questions about. Yes, it’s known that Asia is a continent and a region, with a myriad of cultures, languages, and ethnic groups. The ones who make up Asian America, however, are only a small sample of that diversity from each country. The groups who have immigrated to North America historically reveal that it’s not just the melanin level that defines their dark or light skin, but social classes too.

In short: when people in North America think of Filipinos, they think “dark skin” and when they think of Chinese, they think “light skin” to the point a Taiwanese friend said to me “I’ve realized Filipinos are really just dark-skinned Asians,” which puzzled me a bit as I took the time to process that. Why does it puzzle me? Because it assumes that “normal” Asians have light skin–which means that non-Aryan Indians (a large segment of India) and much of South Asia is not “normal” and this is a frighteningly common misunderstanding, especially within Asian America.

Listen to the language of many Chinese in America, and the common dialects you will hear are Mandarin and Cantonese, the occasional Toisan/Taishan, and even rarer, Fukien/Fujianhua. Amongst the Filipinos, you’ll hear many parents speaking Tagalog, but they also speak Visayan, Cebuano, and English (because English is the official language of the Philippines). The immigrants you usually see are light-skinned Chinese and dark-skinned Filipinos: that is what people think of when they think of Chinese, not the “white” Chinese from Xinjiang, the Southeast Asian-looking southern Chinese, or the light-skinned Filipinos from the north and parts of the south of the archipelago. Some of the lighter-skinned Filipinos are in the Visayas or some of the Igorot peoples (mountain tribes) up north, and those aren’t the usual groups immigrating to North America. Nor do we see many Xinjiang people in North America (many do not like to consider themselves Chinese either).

What does this mean for Lucy Liu and the comment about looking a little Filipino when she gets tanned? It might mean that she hasn’t traveled through much of the Philippines or China to know this. Reality check: most people have not done this either (yet). When Asian America decries ignorance to its diversity, the response from those with a little more travel experience is to point out that it’s only a small sample of the diversity, sometimes even from just one country alone.

Moral of this lesson: don’t hate on Lucy and call her ignorant for thinking the skin color of Filipinos is dark and Chinese is all light. There is more diversity in Asia than most people are aware of, especially those pointing fingers at her without realizing that they still don’t know as much as they think they do.

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About JohnnyC

Johnny C is a self-described Accidental Asian American: born in California and raised in Hong Kong and Manila, he spends his days traveling as a freelancer for various NGOs in development and human rights. An idealist and adventurer, his travels are both for work and fun, while sharing stories through his pictures, videos, and writing. When he's not dance-walking to indie rock songs on his iPod in cities around the world, he's usually got himself engrossed in a science fiction novel traversing the portals of reality.
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