“Am I an AFAM?” J, the blonde, blue-eyed guy I was dating laughed as the realization dawned on him. He was reading through my weekly column at his office and live texting me his reactions.
“This is horrible,” I said, as he brought up things I’d forgotten I’d wrote.
“This is great!” he countered, clearly enjoying himself.
A foreigner around Manila (AFAM for short) is a slang term locals use to refer to tourists and expats in the area. It has also come to label a dating demographic for Filipinos — so much so that even when we’re abroad and meeting them in other parts of the world, we still call them AFAM — no longer in relation to Manila, but in relation to ourselves.
Later that week, J and I met up for dinner and a Korean zombie movie, after which he patiently walked me through the statistics of what made it difficult for him to find dates on the small island he was based in for most of the year.
“I find it hard to date here, too,” I said, fully aware that I was referring to a big, bustling and densely populated city. He turned to me then, clearly needing an explanation. “Most Filipino men are too conservative to understand me.”
“I don’t know,” J countered. “The Filipino men I’ve met seemed pretty DTF.”
I rolled my eyes. Of course they were. “But sleep with them too early, and many will lose respect for you.”
“But that’s cognitive dissonance. You can’t ask a girl to sleep with you on the first date and then shame her for it.”“Yeah, but,” I put my hand firmly on his shoulder, “they do that.”
Growing up, I never thought I would someday feel like an outsider in my own country. In my childhood, conservative Filipino values and traditions were my second nature. But adulthood changed me. I became an atheist. I learned to hold progressive views on issues like class, LGBT rights, sex and morality, among many other things. I realized marriage and having a family were low (if existent at all) on my list of priorities. There was an entire world out there, and I wanted to see it unencumbered.
In short, I changed drastically. The environment around me, however, seemed to stay exactly the same.
The local prospects
“Do you guys have childhood friends you were close to, but later on you found out they were gay? Nakakainis no?” a Filipino guy I had just met blurted out of the blue, shuddering at the memory of past sleepovers.
We were seated by the beach. The stars shone bright in the provincial sky. The sound of the low tide lapping onto the shore had started to melt my bones. But one homophobic comment later and blood was suddenly rushing to my head.
The men seated at our table were all graduates of the country’s top universities, if not from institutions abroad. They were either big business owners with a sea of employees calling them “Sir,” or were gainfully employed. So, in a country where the majority of the population is unable to afford a proper education, this is what the bubble of the nation’s “best and brightest” looks like.
The other guys at our table were quick to ride on the slur, each one of them volunteering his own “I’m sure he wanted to suck my dick” anecdote. I looked at my companions and wondered how they could travel the world, be afforded the best experiences, spend their young adult years in college in the US or earning their MBA in Europe, and still come home without acquiring the knowledge that gay men have discriminating tastes (and don’t go cock-crazy over every man they meet).
By this time, I had already been dating AFAMs almost exclusively. Intrigued by my preference for foreigners, all the men at the table turned to me and asked why that was. I thought I saw a hint of judgment in some faces. (“Was she doing it for the money? To social climb? Did she hate her own race?”) Suddenly, I couldn’t formulate an eloquent response fast enough.
“Wala lang,” I replied. No reason.
To be clear…
Now, I’m not saying that all AFAMs are dating material. We all know that scary white Jesus freaks exist (and that Asian Jesus freaks at least know what pakikisama is). We also know that there are AFAM slut shamers, and people with yellow fever who think we’re easy just because we’re brown and live on a set of islands on the Pacific. (“But that’s how it’s done in Europe and the US,” a white guy who was trying to con me into sending photos reasoned. “Ooh, sorry,” I replied. “Let me get back to my rain dance.”)
I am also aware that the color of a man’s skin does not predict who he is. To be fair, I’ve met a few Filipino guys who at least pretend to be cool with my beliefs. (Then again, there was that one guy who literally tried to “save” my atheist self in the afternoon, and then hours later, when the sun had long gone down and it was just the two of us in his car, said there was absolutely nothing wrong with the way I thought. I guess that was the DTF part J was referring to.) I also know a pool of progressive, open-minded Filipino men. (Then again, it consists mostly of my whip-smart gay friends and the brilliant professors who made my cheeks flush in college. “Slim pickings,” my girl friends like to say.)
All I’m saying is that probability-wise, it’s easier to find what I’m looking for among AFAMs. Many of my dates (after a good amount of filtering) turn out to be atheists themselves, or agnostics, or Buddhists, or some version that is more or less on the same ideological plane. They’re also able to see past the common misconceptions many Filipinos have about people like me, and are more equipped to see me for who I really am. If in Manila, I’m “Atheist Girl,” with AFAMs, I’m a girl who happens to be atheist.
It’s not just religion, though.
Manila’s high social barriers and cliquish culture have simply made it hard to meet new people. “Nakakapagod pag Filipino,” a friend of mine who has also discovered AFAM-land tells me. “Kailangan good family, good ganyan. Ang dami agad!” This state of affairs is briefly referenced in Kevin Kwan’s novel Crazy Rich Asians, where American-born protagonist Rachel Chu swears off Asian men in general because they’re so quick to evaluate where she stands socially. In this respect, people who hail from more egalitarian backgrounds are so refreshing.
Manila is the kind of place where we can stay out all night and not encounter anyone new. In this city, it’s not normal to chat up strangers — unless you have common friends to bridge you. I wonder if this cultural difference makes western guys that much better at breaking the ice, since striking up conversations with new faces is normal to them. I also wonder if it makes them more eloquent and snappy, which as a writer, I can’t help but look for.
More of Manila’s confines
One time, J thought it a good idea for us to sit at the bar so he could teach me about different kinds of liquor. “I’ll finish anything you don’t like,” he assured me as he ordered several shots for me to try. He made sure my glass of water was refreshed every time I said I was getting tipsy.
At one point, I excused myself to go to the bar’s single-stall shared-sex restroom. The lock was broken, so the establishment’s security guard promised to watch it for me. “Oo, pag babae delikado,” the Filipino guy lined up next to me expressed audibly, with righteous, macho pride in his voice. And while I certainly appreciated how no one was violating my privacy, I thought, Am I really that fragile? If someone walked in by accident and saw me, would that be the end for me? Would I somehow be less of a person? Because it happened to a friend of mine. She was piss drunk and forgot to lock the door. A guy walked in as she was standing, underwear down and dress hiked up. She was mortified (so was the guy, who quickly exited the scene) — but she was also completely fine afterwards. She laughed as she told me about it weeks later.
I slept with J on our second date, because that’s the direction in which the spirit moved me. I took full pride in the fact that I had maneuvered it. I picked a German beer place that was near (but not too near) his place. He had also told me that he loved to mix drinks and was building a mini bar back at his apartment.
“Can you teach me?” I asked, in between sips of my mojito.
“You really want to learn?”
And that was that.
I was heady with pride and accomplishment. I was 27 years old and had lived my entire life believing I had zero game and was at the mercy of those who did. But the one time I took it upon myself to try and get laid, it actually worked — and it wasn’t hard.
I put my clothes back on and gathered all my belongings. “Text me?” J asked as he kissed me on my way out. I smiled and said I would. And just as it was with my things, I took my entire self home with me as well. I didn’t have my “virtue” or other parts of myself lying around on J’s couch or on his duvet. I was with him while I was in his arms. And now I was by myself again, whole and collected, pressing elevator buttons and texting my Uber driver that I’d be down in five.
I didn’t need to explain any of this to J — that I was an individual with my own agency, and that sex — safe sex — was an equal transaction. And that a woman’s vagina wasn’t the be-all end-all of her being. Similarly, I didn’t keep seeing J because I had slept with him. The way some men brag about getting inside a woman’s pants, akala mo sila lang kaya gumawa. I kept seeing him because he treated me really well; because he was just as smart, if not smarter than I was, and I enjoyed his company.
J continued to make it a point to dine and talk to me. He really loved talking to me, he said. And on days when he wasn’t in a hurry, he happily made me breakfast and stopped by Watsons to pick up my makeup remover, leaving it on the sink for me to find.
Meanwhile, on a topbilling evening teleserye, a Filipina character was crying on the morning after the fact. “Iiwan mo na ba ako kasi nakuha mo na ‘ko?” And in another teleserye, “Wala po kaming ginagawa na labag sa loob ng Panginoon.”
Some of my Filipino guy friends whine to me endlessly about how their girlfriends’ sexual pasts haunt them (these men are the furthest thing from virginal, mind you). With AFAMs, it’s automatically assumed that you both have pasts — which is the reasonable thing to guess about someone who’s been alive and desirable for a while. They also didn’t seem to judge me for all the experience I didn’t yet have. My dates simply acknowledged wherever I was and moved on with me from there.
“Have you ever sent nudes?” J asked softly as he spooned me. He had been filling me in on the world of hacking and the flaws in privacy when it came to digital devices like smartphones.
“Aww, and you didn’t send me?”
“Well, it’s too late. You’ve already warned me about the hyphothetical hacker guy in Maryland looking at all our naked pictures from his basement.”
“It’s okay,” I continued after a few moments. “I’m hotter now.”
“I bet you were pretty hot then, too,” he said boyishly, drifting off to sleep.
He left early for work the next morning, pelting my sleepy face with kisses before he walked out the door. I woke up a few hours later feeling warm and taken care of, in the apartment of a guy who grew up halfway around the world — and whom I had met in the often unkind world of Tinder.
Belonging is not black and white
I have wondered if I’m afflicted with some kind of colonial mentality. To be honest, it was extremely hard for me to write this piece; I asked myself, “How do I not come off as racist against my own race? But also, what if I actually am?”
I don’t believe I’m being racist. There is still Filipino in my blood in veins, and I feel it jump whenever I blurt Tagalog to an AFAM, and I find myself suddenly thwarted, finding no effective way to translate. The feeling is like having an excited bolt of energy launch itself from my brain, only to thump hard against the inside wall of my head. There are parts of me and my experience that they may never understand.
“Ayoko ng foreigner,” another friend once commented as we discussed our preferences. “Gusto ko kahit anong sabihin ko, maiintindihan niya ako.” I agreed. It was a real issue. But understanding also goes beyond language. Even my most proudly Pinoy, self-confessed “jologs” friend who watches all the new artista movies nodded her head. “Oo nga. Hindi ka nila magegets,” she said of the typical Filipino male.
All I’m really gunning for is human connection. Someone with whom, as French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it, I can look “outward in the same direction.” There are different kinds, levels, and nuances to belonging, I guess. It’s just as complex as we are, and life is an intricate dance of shuffling feet; of looking for the right people to join us at the right time.
I do hope that each and every time the real deal stares me in the face, I am able to recognize it, regardless of what package it comes in.
Like that one time it showed up in a Malaysian-born, Australian-raised, eagerly-learning-Filipino man. “You’re not an outlier,” he insisted sincerely as we stood in the middle of a crowded train in Bangkok, his words softening the hardened rebel shell I had grown in Manila.
May I always recognize it.
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Illustration by Patrick Dale Carrillo