Whenever Filipino relatives and friends meet my husband Erwan* for the first time, I often get questioned about how and where we met. They would ask leading questions, short of asking, “How did you reel him in?” Those who are too shy to ask end up giving me the stare. While my story is different, it reminds me of the same looks I would see whenever Filipinos spot a white man with an “exotic” Pinay in his arms.
“Pangkabuyahan showcase!” my best friend would always joke when referring to those Pinays who hang out in red light districts or that café in Greenbelt where all the foreigners like to gather. I used to laugh at those jokes until the day I was on the receiving end. “Wow, you got a fo-ren-jer! You are exotic, ah!” people would say to me with the same condescending tone. It made my blood boil.
Not to sound too defensive, but it was never my main mission in life to land a foreign husband.
After graduating from one of the best universities in the Philippines, I built a career in education. I dated a string of Pinoys and had a daughter in my early 20s. After that I noticed it was harder to date. Being a single mom isn’t exactly a turn-on for Filipino men.
After a friend’s referral, I gave online dating a try. This was during the Friendster era, before Facebook was even invented. I was looking to move to the US to work, and thought it would be a good idea to meet Americans online. I realized that online chatting wasn’t as great as it seemed. Most guys I tried to converse with were simply interested in my cup size and me sending them nude photos. I was about to give up online chatting when I got a message from a French guy named Erwan*, who was eight years my senior.
Believe it or not, it was the first time someone from that chat site asked me, “How was your day?” Everyone else just asked me to flash them. Erwan seemed intelligent and respectful, so we ended up chatting for hours. As the weeks went by, we hit it off. He spoke fluent English and we talked about anything under the sun.
I was insecure about the weight I gained after giving birth, but Erwan said I was beautiful. He didn’t mind that I was a single mom.
I told Erwan that I had already booked a ticket to California, where my relatives would help me find a job. I said that I’d go on a side trip to The Big Apple. He joked that he would follow me to New York, and that we’d have a romcom love story, just like in the movies.
When I arrived in California and told my relatives of my plan to meet Erwan, they objected. They couldn’t believe that I would meet a random guy I met online. They forbade me from leaving unless they met him first. It was typical Maria Clara mentality. I tried to explain this aspect of our culture to Erwan, and to my surprise, he rebooked his ticket to California to meet my relatives. It was like watching a teenage boy asking for a girl’s parents’ permission to the prom. My relatives interrogated him, but he won them over with his respectful demeanor, and not to mention, loads of pasalubong (I taught him about our Filipino customs).
When they finally gave him their blessing and we were allowed to go out on a date, I was on cloud nine. We were equally attracted to each other, not just physically but emotionally.
“I love you,” he said when I finally had him to myself. It wasn’t hard to say I love you back.
Three months later, Erwan booked a ticket to visit the Philippines for the first time. It was also the first time he ever met my daughter, Emma*. I didn’t expect them to get along immediately, but the moment Erwan entered our house and Emma laid eyes on him, she ran towards Erwan with open arms and hugged him. It’s like they had been friends for years. There was an immediate bond, and from that moment on, I knew Erwan was the one.
Erwan would come to the Philippines every quarter to visit us. When he was back in France, we would make long distance calls (this was before iPhone and Skype) and sent old-fashioned snail mail.
I was embarrassed when Emma started calling Erwan, “Daddy.” I apologized and Erwan replied, “There’s nothing to apologize for. I like it.”
More than a year after Emma met Erwan, we went on a romantic trip to Boracay, where Erwan proposed. Of course I said yes! I had never met a man more loving, caring, and understanding than Erwan. I could be myself around him—quirks and all—and he treats me like an intellectual equal. I never had that with any of my Filipino boyfriends—and believe me, I had many.
When Emma and I moved to Europe to live with Erwan, it was easy for Emma. She immediately loved the snow and picked up the French language fast! As for me, it wasn’t as easy. I knew I was going to start over, and I weighed the pros and cons before deciding to move to Europe. I just didn’t realize it would be that hard.
Winter seemed exciting in the beginning, but after a while of not getting any sun, the gloom was getting to me. I had to get vitamin D shots to combat the lack of sunshine and happy endorphins.
Unlike Emma, it was such an effort for me to learn the language, in addition to the fact that not so many people in our area speak English. That made it harder for me to make friends. Whenever I’d join Erwan’s friends for a night of drinking or eating, I was often lost in translation. Once in a while they’d ask me, “How are you? Are you okay?” and then they’d go back to speaking in pure French, and I’d be left out on the side.
Whenever I took Emma to school, I could only muster small talk with the teachers and co-parents. I felt lonely. While learning to master the French language, I decided to work. I didn’t want to be just a wife relying on her husband’s money, so I started offering English tutoring on the side. Soon I had regular clients—from Asian migrants to spouses of French nationals. More than the income, it gave me a sense of self-worth.
Three years after I married Erwan and he legally adopted Emma, my French speaking and writing skills improved. I began embracing European ideals, such as being straightforward with your message instead of beating around the bush like we Filipinos tend to do.
I learned that there’s no need to sulk (tampo) when you can simply say what’s on your mind directly to a person.
My daughter and I have adapted to the French lifestyle so well that whenever I visit Manila, I would get overwhelmed by the extreme traffic, congested streets, overpopulation, and noise of malls. I am grateful for my laid-back and peaceful life in France, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
The biggest downside to living in Europe is that I miss having my family and friends—those who truly know me well. I turn to Viber for regular chats with them, and it’s refreshing to be able to make jokes and expressions that only fellow Filipinos would understand. I find it hard to explain certain Pinoy idiosyncrasies to Europeans, like the concept of tampo and why we need the tabo in the toilet.
And while I’m contented with my life in Europe, I still get irked whenever I come home to the Philippines or come across fellow Filipinos who give me that look whenever they find out I’m married to a French man. But then again, who could blame them? I’ve personally met Filipinas who marry for the VISA, even if they could hardly understand their partner. I’ve seen one too many faux relationships between foreigners and Pinays whose main goal is to have the guy take her entire family abroad.
I wish Filipinos would stop assuming that whenever a Pinay marries a foreigner, it’s immediately because she’s “exotic” or is in dire need of a financial provider. In many cases—just like mine—it’s simply because of love.
* This story was told to Kate Alvarez. Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.