White is Right

On my second day in the Philippines, I traveled 45 minutes west to the city of Malate to meet up with my friend Katrina. Katrina and I lived together in the same højskole when I studied abroad in Denmark. She was leaving to return to Denmark the following day and I got to spend time with her before she left. Our destination: Mall of Asia.

Manila Bay (far left) and Boardwalk

Mall of Asia is not as big as it sounds…it’s bigger. We casually strolled past the food court, brand name stories, concert stage, and Olympic sized ice skating rink. Yes, ice skating rink. Hundreds of Asian families surged past us and I sat in awe as we ate our dim sum from a rolling vendor’s cart. From the top floor of the mall, you can walk along an overpass and down the stairs to the boardwalk adjacent to the water of Manila Bay. I could smell the salt as the brown waves crashed onto the rocky shore. It was unlike any mall I had ever been to before.

Katrina told me about her home village in the south of the Philippines, the traditional food and her education. I loved hearing about her life as a Filipino my age,  in love with the native food and national hospitality but frustrated with the country’s Catholic emphasis and conservative way of thinking. We switched to a discussion of beauty and the ideal woman as viewed by Filipino women. “White,” Katrina said, “is the best. It reflects Western beauty.” In the Philippines and southeast Asia, white skin represents beauty and power. Your skin tones tells society whether your family works outside in the sun or is wealthy enough to stay indoors. We past pharmacies, beauty stores and signs advertising skin whitening technology. Products included deodorants, dietary pills, creams, and body washes. I was shocked by its normalcy, the customers’ abundant desire to alter their skin tone. The models’ skin in the pictures seemed almost iridescent  in an unnatural way, life-size portraits strung up in store windows. What is that about wanting what you can’t have?

Varieties of Whitening Cream

How many jokes have I made to my friends in the States about how tan I would get this summer? The popularity of bronzers, spray-on tans, and tanning salons in America is not going away any time soon. After all, no one wants to put on her prom dress looking like a ghost. The image of beauty, of wealth, of success is relative across cultures and time zones.

Now I’m not going to start preaching but make sure you love the way you look. Love your skin in its natural color, be it: white, brown, black, or somewhere in between. If nothing else, you’ll save a lot of money on beauty products that you could be spending on a new pair of heels.

Katrina and I
Katrina and I

Day One: Manila

“Little America,” Heaven said as we sped through the streets, the driver effortlessly navigating the large black van through heavy Manila traffic. I passed  large condominiums, 7-11’s, and good ol’ McDonald’s on my way from the airport back to my new home. In many ways the Philippines appears to look like the country which occupied its soil following Spanish rule. Major brands for clothing and shoes are the same as in America and the newest generation of Filipino children speak English as their first language.

But there seems to be many ways in which this island nation is also quite different.. On my first day, a sudden downpour erupted from the skies and the rain came in torrents, beating against the metal roof. I was amazed with the sudden weather shift and ran outside. The children continued to play inside, largely unfazed by the wind and the noise. Heaven’s wife, Eileen, and I went downtown to Marikina City in the afternoon and on our way downtown we past the slums, colorful windows glued next to one another in makeshift apartments. Children played in the recently created puddles and splashed the cars driving along the road. They jeered at each other and ran together as a mass of colorful shorts and brown bodies. “When there are many days of heavy rain, the water escapes the river and floods the slums,” Eileen said and told me of 5 days of heavy rain that occurred two years ago in Manila. It seems that those in poverty suffer the most in more ways than one. The gap in wealth was there, right beyond my window and I wondered how long it would take for the shock of witnessing such poverty to become an accepted occurrence.

I spent the rest of my day at the gym, Fitness First, working out with Eileen and her personal trainer Alvin. As the fit 21-year-old I imagined myself to be, I have never sweat so much in my life. I was overweight by 15 pounds and had too much body fat, according to the scale in the training room. My host mom bounded up and down effortlessly as I trudged through the exercises, panting and wiping my face in-between squats, arm exercises and stomach curls. Alvin and I joked about my weak arm strength and I created my new Filipino name, Katrina Torres. Thankful I did not throw-up or otherwise pass out in front of other jogging stretching Filipinos, we took a shower and Eileen signed me up for a 1 month pass to Fitness First. We ate a delicious dinner at a Greek restaurant and when we returned home, I went upstairs for a quick nap at 8pm…and woke up 4 hours later dazed and confused. I had brushed off jet-lagged and it returned with a vengeance. Bed time, part two.

My host brother Jolly (right) and friends


I skyped with my Filipino family for the first time. In the Philippines, nicknames are huge. My Filipino mother is Eileen, my father is Heaven, and my younger brothers are Happy (age 10) and Jolly (age 7).

Yes, I going to live with Heaven. Life is good.

From my computer I could see all their smiling faces jammed together in the Skype box. Jolly, the youngest, sat in the middle and giggled the whole time. He and his brother like Lego’s and video games. And they have an iPad. I told the family that I was trying to learn the national language (Tagolog) but it was difficult for me.

Jolly: Sometimes it’s hard. Google translate works all the time.

I love my new family.

9 days and counting.

Back in Blog

So in case all of you were wondering, I did make it back to the United States. On my To-Do list of life, Study Abroad was checked off with a big red mark. Travel accomplished.

I’ll admit the first week back at school was tough. The intricate city of Copenhagen, allure of travel every other weekend, and long conversations with international friends had been replaced with sorority events and dance company rehearsals. It wasn’t bad but it was very much different, returning to a place that did not seem to notice I had been gone. I was a second semester junior with my head back in sophomore year and my heart back in Denmark. I worked my way back into school mode and waited patiently until the time I would be able to travel again. That time has come.

On May 23rd, I will leave the United States once again and fly 22 hours to Manila, Philippines. It is the home of my father’s close friend and the location of my internship with the Law of Nature Foundation. I will spend 6 weeks in the capital working in the main office before relocating to the field work station on the Bantayan Island off the northern coast of Cebu. It’s definitely the farthest I’ve ever been from America but I can’t wait to feel the humidity and say Hi Kamusta? for the first time. (The national language is Tagalog). Hence the reason that the blog is back and better than ever. More pictures, more friends and more memories of how awkward I am in a new culture, or my own for that matter. Follow me thousands of miles away to an island nation full of beaches, rice, and friendly faces.

Wish me luck.