The Financial Times
November 11 2006
Cara Wilson Ferrari, whose mother is Filipino and father American, grew up in Manila. After studying at Harvard, she worked for multinational advertising and communications companies in Manila and New York. She received an MBA from SDA Bocconi in Milan in 1992 and is about to return to work at an Italian advertising agency where she will specialise in targeting ethnic communities.
I came to Milan in 1992 because I needed to develop quantitative skills. After an Asian experience – growing up in the Philippines – and an American experience – an American father, Harvard and two years at a large advertising company in New York – it was time to try Europe. I did SDA Bocconi’s English-language MBA. Now I am married to an Italian and have two children in a British elementary school here in Milan.
After Bocconi, I opened the Italian office of ABS-CBN Corporation,the Philippine media company. I stayed five years, importing television programmes and other services for the immigrant community. I’m less involved with the Philippine community in a structured way, though I volunteered at the consulate, teaching skills improvement and connecting students with other professionals. Though my family is a priority, I’m ready to work again.
In Italy the nuclear family is very close. Families work and are in business together. This is a support system but it can get complicated. In the Philippines, family ties are stronger and wider, extending out to cousins and distant relations. But I appreciate from my American side that at 18 you go away, find your independence and work for someone else. I think that’s a better way. I’ve taken the best of both.
Is Italy a Catholic country? It doesn’t feel like it. Good Friday is a regular work day. Christmas day is lunch and skiing. Only two days after the Pope’s funeral there were still only 10 old people at mass. Prayer and spirituality are part of Philippine life but not here. In the Philippines, with any difficulty or obstacle people immediately suggest you pray. Italian friends are surprised if I offer to pray for them. But then they’re touched. Maybe they’re just reluctant to discuss spiritual things.
We go to Liguria or the mountains at the weekend. Like most Milanese, my husband seems allergic to staying in town over a weekend or holiday. In a city where everyone leaves, no one has invested in making it appealing.
Although it has improved over the years, Milan is not easy for a mother. Parking and organising activities is difficult. But Milan is a safe place for children growing up.
My group of international women friends is a great resource. Their experience led us to the Sir James Henderson School, which my children attend. The big choice was between Italian or British/American systems. Each has distinct advantages and disadvantages. We wanted the children’s English to be at a high level. Living here, we can supplement and raise their Italian to the same level.
There is a lot of political incorrectness here but Italians are not really racists. It’s ignorance, lack of exposure. A well-meaning professor called me a mulatta (a person of mixed race) once. Many are not interested in things beyond their own world. In the beginning I could be at a party and people would not address a word to me. I don’t know why.
I am very proud of being Filipino,I feel very Filipino. I have never been treated badly. Usually people don’t believe I’m Filipino, maybe because I am half American. I am proud of Filipinos here. They are taken seriously and do their jobs well. They’re in Italy out of necessity. As domestic help, they earn 10 times what an office job in the Philippines pays. An English-language country that recognised their skills might be better.
Once, at the beach, I heard two Italian women talking for hours about “mia Filipina”.I finally interrupted and said: “They are not your Filipinas. They don’t belong to you, they work for you.” They just stared at me. Friends often come to me with their woes about Filipino domestic help because they think I have an insider view. I don’t mind because it allows me to clarify cultural miscommunications. Sometimes the Filipino reluctance to disappoint or their dislike of direct confrontation leads them to say things that to western ears sound like lies.
Exposure to multiple cultures makes you more tolerant. I have a duality – understanding the American direct, confrontational approach and the Asian one that doesn’t like to disappoint. Although the American approach is closer to the Italian one than the Asian one is, being familiar with different cultures in general is more helpful living here than either of the two.
Cultural identity is a main source of conversation in our house. Now my children say they are English because of school. But I am very clear: “You are half Italian, one quarter Filipino and one quarter American.” They have three passports. We go to the Philippines twice a year. Their cousins go to Chinese schools and they have Korean and Japanese friends. They’re very attached to their Italian side.
The Philippines will always be home for me. It is healthy to have a place that is home. But I think it’s a strength to be able to go forth in any part of the world. It’s not easy to be far from your family but I wouldn’t hesitate to take up a new experience. The world is so rich. There’s so much to learn.
In Italy I have learnt to dress better and eat better. We eat everything – American, Philippine, Italian, Thai, Japanese – but better.
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