Too American?

“Perhaps that was inevitable. Many of us here were surprised last year when the French government banned hijabs, head scarves, and other religious emblems from public schools. Yes, in America there is more of a history of immigration. America is constituted by ethnic communities, and though they may compete with one another, America is still America. Even if there were no Americans living in the United States, there would still be America. France is just a country; America is a concept.”

Are you saying that America represents the ideal of democracy?

“No, the simulation of power.”
— Jean Baudrillard, in a 20 November 2005 interview with The New York Times(also found on Cyrano Blog)

Is it possible that I, who was born and raised in the Philippines all my life, am too Western? Or, (biting my lip) too American?

I’ve been asking myself this question after a friend of mine (a guy who majored in Philippine Studies in college and is named after an American president) accused me of being “too Western”. It was his little rebuke against me because I laughed at him for being too slow to get a David Letterman joke in front of our friends: The Number One comment overheard at the screening of The Passion of Christ, “Stop! Don’t tell me the ending!”

I know he didn’t mean anything by it, but why, after months have passed, does his comment still rattle and worry me? So, I began listing my own habits that my friends often could not relate to, deeming them too Western (see too American). I said to myself that a self-analysis is needed for me to be able to see what they saw. Maybe, I thought, there’s a way out of this dilemma.

I cannot speak fluent Filipino in a conversation spoken with Filipino friends.
There’s always An English word that creeps into my vocabulary. As in, “Reagan, don’t tell me, ‘di mo ma-gets yung joke?!” That is just not one English word; it’s four against three, with one bastardized English term (“ma-gets”). Reagan, my antagonist and good friend, is a straight, fast talker in Filipino. Sometimes, to my great shame, I cannot understand some Filipino words he uses in our normal conversations.

I feel guilty about my dependence on the English language despite the fact that some of my professors argue that we have made the language our own. To some extent, this is true. It is only natural for a language to change and adapt to the needs of a community. But the prevalence of the English language in Filipino life raises troubling questions. Is the English language ours to begin with? Are we just trying to mask the fact that the language was used to claim us by saying that we made the language our own? And can I own and accept something that was imposed on me in the first place?

I very rarely watch Filipino television shows.
There’s a reason for this: Watching Filipino television is torture. The supposedly funny shows don’t make me laugh and always contain physical comedy where the female character is the butt of the joke, gets hit with the nearest object to emphasize the punch line, or both. The primetime dramas on the other hand, are predictable exercises in excess. The protagonist, almost always an actress with a virginal face and alabaster skin, is treated like dirt by the evil stepmother and / or stepsister, while the kind father / grandfather / sassy housemaid looks on helplessly. The virgin is in love with the sensitive alpha male whom the evil stepmother / stepsister covets. Our hero couple survives car bombs, kidnapping, arson, food poisoning and assorted threatening plots orchestrated by the evil stepmother / stepsister as the sensitive alpha male saves the virgin from certain death. Although the virgin survives the various attacks, she will be stricken with amnesia, and the whole thing will go on and on and on. I get migraines just telling the plot. Imagine what would happen to me if I watched these teleserye every night, one after another.

These days, I occupy my nights and days watching US shows and British sitcoms simply because of the better production values and storylines. No more melodrama and hysterical fits from the bitch-villains! More real acting! I grew up glued to The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the first few seasons of ER. Right now, I’m addicted to Monk, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Veronica Mars and CSI (somehow, the Miami and New York versions did not endear themselves to me.) The UK-imported The Robinsons and reruns of sitcoms like The Office, Nighty, Night, and Human Remains are also staples. On Monday nights, I hurry home to watch the English-subtitled Detective series on the French channel which I call the Eloise Rome Show, because I don’t understand, and can’t pronounce its original title, Les Enquentes d’Eloise Rome.

Because of my Filipino-free television viewing, I can be really out of touch with mainstream Philippine pop culture. I’m practically an outsider in water cooler conversations. While my co-workers will regurgitate the same episode of Darna they watched last night, I’ll usually stand there with a silly grin on my face, nodding as if I know who Itim na Darna (Black Darna) is. I have nothing to contribute to the discussion because nobody watches The Daily Show or The Office reruns. And since I am discussing the long shadow cast by America in our pop culture, I would like to point out that Darna is a show based on a ’60s comic book story about an ordinary girl who turns into a superhero every time she swallows an enchanted stone. Mars Ravelo, her creator, offered her as an answer to DC Comics’ Wonder Woman and Superman. And like Wonder Woman, Darna (also known as Narda when she’s in her Clark Kent mode) wears a red two-piece outfit.

I don’t own any CDs by Filipino musicians or bands.
The one homegrown CD I had was a collection of lullabies I got for free when I attended a press junket, and which I immediately passed on to a cousin.

My primary complaint about OPM (original Pilipino music) is that the artists are often trying too hard. Right now, the radio is filled with bands that have too much emo-screamo in their veins. There’s an ocean of difference between ripping off and being influenced by your favorite artists. One of the oft-played songs on the radio is a blatant rip off of the song “Chandeliers” by the ’80s group Care. Ironically, the song is entitled “Pinoy Ako” (“I’m Pinoy”; In English. Pinoy is slang for Filipino).

On the other end of the pop music spectrum, artists are doing ballads and covers of sappy love songs because they’re easy to do. It doesn’t require much imagination, and the listening public doesn’t give a crap whether the artist was able to make the song his or her own. As long as it is familiar, hummable, with easy-to-remember lyrics, the song will sell.

Because of my indie-pop inclinations and my general aversion to radio pop, I gained a reputation as an artsy-fartsy snob at the office. This is difficult for me. It’s not that I care much for what people say; it’s just that I don’t want to have enemies. Besides, being an outsider is no fun.

Sometimes I get a sudden urge to flee the country, a desire to be anywhere but here. Like right now.
For many Filipinos who dream of going abroad, America is still the number one destination, followed by Canada and Australia. I have a handful of relatives who made their way to America by stealth. One jumped ship, another ran away from her touring choir group to become a nursing assistant. She had been a full nurse in a posh private hospital in Manila, but was willing to take a lesser job just to be able to get a green card. The unstoppable exodus of Filipinos overseas is driven not so much by the workers’ belief that green pastures only grow abroad, but by their the exasperation at the way things are going in their homeland, (with the usual complaints centering on corruption, inept government, unemployment, etc.)

I have always been frustrated with our government, which is made up mostly by men from elite, wealthy families. Since I became a reporter, my frustration level has blown through the roof. I have witnessed how incompetent the congressmen, the military, the cabinet officials and the President are, and how they dupe us everyday. Public service is the farthest thing from their minds. I have vowed not to participate in the next elections in 2007. They’re all the same, anyway.

After making this partial list, I stepped back and asked myself a question an independent observer or a shrink would ask: K, do you hate your own?

The accusation that I am too comprised of the West and less from the elements of my own country is baffling and annoying because it compels me to put up a defense that would expose the truth and falsity that hides inside the heart of the accusation. It forces me to traverse the murky and treacherous waters of identity politics, which always gives me a headache. Oh, to think of such paradoxes, ambivalences, and contradictions that plague the modern youth in her global context.

I know most of my influences and heroes come from Western culture and I don’t find anything wrong with that. Most of the names I drop during discussions on music, literature, and films come from America. If not American in origin, the product would certainly be influenced by American culture. I know there are plenty of cases where a non-American cultural product makes a lasting impact on America and still retains its original intent and identity. But these cases rarely present themselves here in the Philippines, and I blame history.

America was lucky because it wasn’t Spain. And I think this is the reason for America’s enduring appeal in my country. The American government’s strategy to impose a new mode of colonization differed significantly from the God-and-gold master plan of the Old World colonizers like Spain and Portugal. The Spaniards, in their 350 years of rule in the Philippines, brought Catholicism and spread the fear of eternal damnation to rein in the restless natives. They were violent, shock-and-awe players. They torched towns and killed thousands. Those who survived were used as slaves to build bridges and the magnificent cathedrals and churches that dot the country. As expected, the Spaniards’ conduct did not endear them to the natives.

America, on the other hand, deviated so much from the Old World formula (less God, more subtle cultural programming, etc.) that it looked as if it was being democratic and less stuffy than the friars (who were almost always the villains in Philippine literature in Spanish). By complementing their military might with the public school system, the Americans made it clear that they were more flexible and altruistic than their predecessors. Compared to the fire-and-brimstone friars, it seemed that they were more fun. P.J. O’Rourke’s mordant analysis sums it up best: We spent “300 years in the convent and the next 50 years in Hollywood.”

The Americans also had time on their side. It was the turn of the century and the modern world was coming into its own. As a nod to modernity, the Americans introduced the public school system which was free and open to all. If they could send a strong message to the Filipino public that they came in peace and were unlike the Spanish conquistadores who limited education to the upper class, the public school system was it. Who could resist freebies, anyway?

The American public school system was a sly and clever move. It was a form of conquest. The violence circumscribed in it was hidden by the spin on altruism and equality. It was an imperial and ideological project that allowed the US government to teach and “tame” the natives. The free lessons were filled with references to American history and culture to entice and keep the natives in the fold, while at the same time, demonized the guerillas in the countryside that were fighting for independence.

The American teachers who followed the soldiers were very good at their jobs. My grandfather belongs to the first generation taught by the imported American teachers (called Thomasites, after the ship that brought them here) and parts of him are more American than Filipino. His English, for instance, is impeccable. He also cannot speak nor understand Filipino; (He speaks Hiligaynon, a provincial dialect that I cannot speak fluently). When we talk to each other, it’s a clash of his old fashioned, grammatically formal English versus the slang-laden English I learned from sitcoms, complete with “yeah” and “sorta” (I draw the line at “wanna” and “gonna” and “ain’t” – words that are too trendy for Manila.)

Thanks to the American cultural programming project, English is one of the two official languages of the Philippines (the other is Filipino), while Spanish is now a forgotten language, even though the Spaniards were here for three centuries. Although many Filipino terms and invectives are Spanish (pero, basta, siempre, mesa, leche, puta and my personal favorite invective, susmaryosep, the shortened version of Jesus, Maria, Jose), nobody speaks Spanish anymore, except the old rich families who trace their wealth from Spain’s colonial times. English, on the other hand, is spoken by almost everyone. Even my two-year-old niece can speak English.

Frantz Fanon, famed anti-colonial author and speaker, said the colonial subject is a split subject. He wants to abhor and take revenge at the Master, while at the same, he desires the Master’s place. It’s a love-hate relationship. Thanks to critical theory and this exercise in self-criticism, at least I realize and understand better the perils of this relationship… even if I can’t escape it.

I think this is the reason why I was irritated when Reagan made his call: it’s a reminder of my helplessness. Some of my so-called ‘too American’ traits were legacies; violently imposed, yes, but legacies, nonetheless. I cannot just reject them. These legacies are also a nod to the asymmetrical power relations between America and the Philippines. That the US is not called “US”, but “America”, speaks a lot about the country’s position in our history and its present-day influence. US is too bland a term. America sounds like an event, a legacy. How can one reject a concept, a presence as intimidating and overwhelming as America? My grandfather and my parents did not question it; I wasn’t expected to.

I never strove to be Western or American, and my love for the West is not unconditional. I admire and respect certain aspects of America, but I believe others were caused by the violence and cultural programming that started 100 years ago. This will always lead me to difficult questions. I say goodbye to Bliss and Ignorance: at the back of my mind lurks the truth that every product from the American soil that I enjoy will lead me back to my country’s violent and damaged history. The split is complete.