I wrote the following article for online zine New Slang, published on Sunday, 11 April 2010.
I can still remember that one night back in college, at my part-time job calling alumni for donations, when the woman on the phone asked me the question I dreaded the most: “So, Erin, where are you from?”
I drew my breath, “I’m from the Philippines,”
“Oh, really? Where in the Philippines?”
“My family lives in Quezon City. It’s a part of the Greater Manila area, which is the capital.”
” . . . I see. Hold on while I get my husband.”
Thinking she had the phone muffled, she called for her husband, whom I was supposed to talked to.
“She says she’s calling from Grinnell College. And she says she’s from the Philippines, but she doesn’t have an accent. I don’t think she’s really from the Philippines.”
Answering a simple question like, “Where are you from?” means unloading all the baggage that comes with it. Many people may believe that there is a logical connection between where one is “from” and what he/she is supposed to sound like, but it is much more complicated than that. With the woman on the phone, I could almost see images of nurses, lumpia, and Imelda Marcos’s shoes flashing before her eyes as I carefully evaluated my choice of words, knowing that my answer would immediately shape her impression of me – what I looked like, what I liked to eat, what I believed in, and ultimately whether I could be trusted with her family’s hard-earned money.
While the conversation above took place in the United States, many people all over the world fall prey to the assumption that “where you are from” determines who you are. In the Philippine experience, I find it frustrating that the our cultural landscape places so much emphasis on standardizing the expression of Filipino identity. With these expectations in place, it remains a fruitless exercise in monitoring one’s level of Filipino-ness and thus a challenge to advocate for diversity in Filipino cultural identities.
My story may represent a tiny fraction of our population; however, it is significant given the global nature of the Filipino community. As Filipinos continue to live and grow in different parts of the world, our cultural identity will evolve.
I’m not sure sometimes if I am in love with Anthony Bourdain or if I just want to be him. Aside from his dashing good looks, his acerbic wit, and even the way he makes eating look badass on his show, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, he is an example of someone who is “living the dream”. To me, he has found a way to combine all of the best parts of life — food, travel, and writing — and even make some cash out of it. The best part is that he does all of it with honesty and respect for the cultures of the many places that he visits. If that doesn’t make for good TV, then I don’t know what does.
To summarize, No Reservations is a travel show hosted by and featuring Anthony Bourdain, who travels all over the world to sample different cuisines, learn about local cultures, and provide a little bit of his insight and humor on his trips. In addition to eating, we also see Bourdain drink alcohol, visit a few happening nightspots, do a little karaoke, and go to religious functions, among others. To me, what makes Bourdain and No Reservations stand out from his peers, most notably Andrew Zimmern and his show, Bizarre Foods, is the way he really engages himself in the local setting and comes in with a very open mind. Perhaps this is what makes the title No Reservations so clever and so encompassing of the host’s attitudes towards new experiences and life in general.
After watching hours of No Reservations re-runs, I realized that, despite his travels throughout Asia, Anthony Bourdain has not yet featured the Philippines. I am of the mind that this must be rectified, post haste. Here are my top 5 reasons why Anthony Bourdain must feature the Philippines in his show, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.
- Filipino food is delish, obviously. So I’m biased. Still, this may come as a surprise to people who may not have ever heard of or tasted Philippine cuisine. Admittedly, Filipino food doesn’t exactly inspire the global imagination in the same way that Chinese, Japanese, Indian, or Thai cuisines do. Furthermore, there is still a hint of insecurity about a perceived lack of exoticness or authenticity in Philippine cuisine, seeing how it is deeply influenced by Malay, Chinese, Spanish, and U.S. cuisines. Nonetheless, I am curious to hear what Anthony Bourdain has to say about Filipino food and see what brilliant piece of insight he can give us after tasting his first sinigang.
- More importantly, Filipinos love to eat. I think there is something to be said about a prevailing social expectation to invite others to eat with you, even if you do not have enough, because it is considered rude to eat alone or in front of others without inviting them to join you. This is one thing that Filipinos have in common with Anthony Bourdain, and I am sure it is something he will appreciate.
- Anthony Bourdain keeps it real, but in a good way. That’s right, I’m talking to you, Andrew Zimmern. While generally enjoyable, one of my problems with the show Bizarre Foods is the way Andrew Zimmern comes in with the assumption that, just because something is prepared “differently”, that is must be considered “weird” or “bizarre”. Take his response to the ice cream sandwich, one of many common street foods (start at 5:03):
I understand that it is new to him, but I don’t understand why he has to go up to someone who clearly appreciates it and tell him just how “unusual” and “different” it is. No, honey, you’re the one who is different here.
On the other hand, check out this clip of Anthony Bourdain trying out what Filipinos call balut for the first time:
While clearly not his cup of tea, he doesn’t go out of his way to offend people, especially locals, with his thoughts about how different he thinks it is. He briefly and graciously tells us his opinion, stopping short of enlightening the viewer with a value judgment, and moves on. I would prefer to see someone who can present his reactions in a chill and dignified manner, instead of exaggerating its difference. Anthony Bourdain is the man for the job.
- Anthony Bourdain is cooler than Rachael Ray. Enough said. Don’t get me wrong; Rachael Ray does have her moments. I just don’t understand why she is as popular as she is and why I can’t flip past the Lifestyle Network without seeing her talk show. We need a little bit of cynicism to hit our shores. We need Anthony Bourdain!
- Anthony Bourdain would totally eat balut. See the second video in #3. This is the gold standard for foreigners upon visiting the Philippines. If you can eat balut, you become one of us. Anthony Bourdain has already joined the family, and he hasn’t even met the cousins yet. Anthony Bourdain needs to get his ass over here!
I encourage all foodie or travel fans to get this brilliant man to the Philippines, whether by writing him or by cooking up a storm so large the smell reaches New York. I think Anthony Bourdain would do an excellent job of presenting the Philippines, and we can expect nothing less than an honest, respectful, and humorous account of his visit.
Here in the Philippines, All Saints Day and All Souls Day have been declared working holidays. Many Filipinos are taking the time to visit cemeteries all over the country, where they can reunite with loved ones, honor the dearly departed, and find another excuse to eat good food together. I am sure it can be fun, but I never grew up with it, mostly because we were abroad.
At work, many of my colleagues had been preparing for the holiday for weeks, anticipating the time when they get to go home and see their families again. Some had asked me where I was going for the holiday, and, among these conversations, the question “What province are you from?” popped up.
For readers who aren’t familiar with the question, colloquially, the “province” basically refers to any region in the Philippines that isn’t Metro Manila. Technically, Metro Manila, or the National Capital Region, is also its own province. However, I have found that many do not consider this when using the term “province”. According to Wikipedia, the same meaning is also applied to the term “province” in France, Peru, and Romania.
Much like the question “Where are you from?”, the question “What province are you from?” seeks to gauge who you are culturally, amidst the vast diversity that exists throughout the 7,107 islands. What province you are from apparently tells others what language you speak, what kind of food you like to eat, what religion you follow, and so on.
Like the question “Where are you from?”, I generally do not have any personal problem with other people asking, “What province are you from?” I know that, generally, there is a genuine social need to answer this question. However, my problem does lie in how to answer it.
First, even without the third culture kid aspect of my life, I have a problem answering the question, simply because I never lived anywhere in the country outside of Metro Manila. When I say this to people like my co-workers, many are genuinely surprised, as they themselves grew up outside of the city and only came here for school and work. The province is still considered “home”. To assuage their surprise and curiosity (and possibly any thoughts of my being a “city brat”), I just tell them I grew up abroad, and somehow that makes it more understandable.
Second, I often find myself answering the question by telling other people where my parents are from. However, I still don’t think this says anything about me. I have visited my dad’s hometown in Bicol and my mom’s family in Quezon many times. The most time I had ever spent outside of the metro and its connected suburbs (where my high school is located) was about three weeks or a month in Bicol. However, I don’t really feel like any of these places have influenced or define me. I don’t speak Bikolano, and even my mom’s Tagalog is different when she is with her family. I am also not knowledgeable about the way of life in both places. So, I feel like I’m just telling a half-truth when I answer the question “What province are you from?” in this manner.
Nonetheless, it still appears to be very useful when I tell other people what provinces my parents are from. Last week, I took a cab home with a particularly chatty driver. He told me he was from Bicol, and I ended up telling him that my dad was, too. Even though I told him that I didn’t speak any Bikolano, he was still very excited and proceeded to tell me about all the other Bikolano people he met here in the city. He told me that the cab he drove was operated by a fellow Bikolano, who basically gave him a lot of flexibility with the cab, even telling him that he could own a cab of his own one day. He told me about another passenger he once had, whose father was also from Bicol, and she said that, even though she also didn’t speak any Bikolano, she knew she was a true Bikolana because she really liked spicy food. We then had a good laugh and started a conversation about spicy food, including the famous Bicol Express. Provincial affinity is clearly still very important to many people here.
While I cannot relate to it, I have always wondered what it would have been like to grow up in the province. My mom likes to tell me outrageous stories from her hometown that somehow always involve faeries, duendes, or creepy neighbors standing outside of your window waiting for you to die. Many of the old folks from that area still believe in many of these stories, and will talk about them matter-of-factly at family gatherings. My dad’s side of the family also had a family reunion a few years ago, and I didn’t know most people and lost track of how I was related to everyone. Despite my own very culturally rich upbringing throughout the world, in a way, I feel like I have missed out on something just as valuable and, in a way, that is a part of who I am.
I will never be comfortable with telling people about what province I am “from”. However, I may consider looking for some ghosts or stopping by the cemetery in my dad’s hometown someday to light a few candles and perhaps enjoy some barbecue.
This past weekend, I found my old personal diary from the 5th and 6th grade. 1994 was the year I moved back to the Philippines from Grenada, and I wrote my thoughts about it throughout the year. I will also write about other moves in future installments.
Check out the mid-90s pop culture references!
This morning my dad said we are going back to the Philippines . . . I don’t want to. Everything I love is in Grenada. I told [my friend] and she said maybe I could stay with her. I’m trying not to cry right now. I don’t want to leave . . . I hope my dad is telling a lie. Grenada is my country and no one can change that. Period.
September 29, 1994
. . . Well, [my friend] came again today. I told him we were going back to the Philippines for good. I don’t know how he feels, but I don’t LIKE WHAT IS GOING ON HERE. Oh well, my life is already ruined anyway.
October 5, 1994
My dad got reservations today. We’re leaving 7:30 A.M on BWIA next week. I think my life is ruined. I really try to look in the bright side. In the Philippines, I get to go to SM and go shopping. I’ll get new clothes. But they don’t sell cool stuff like what they wear here in Grenada. Oh well. Gotta tell everyone now.
October 8, 1994
I feel so sad about leaving soon. I love Grenada. We have to donate our children’s puppet show to the school. But my dad promised me we will get another one. I will get new clothes in the Philippines. I don’t want to wear a uniform [to school]. I look gross.
October 12, 1994
Well, I feel much better now about my trip. We went by [our family friends’] and they want me to go to Megamall and all sorts of places. I ♥ Megamall. Oh yeah, they also have German, French, Chinese, and Japanese schools.
October 13, 1994
Oh I’m going to cry! Today was definitely the best day of my life. [Our family friend] made my cake for class. It was beautiful and delicious. The secondary class ♥ it . . . My whole class gave me a card. It was so wonderful. I don’t wanna leave. I could just cry just now.
October 14, 1994
I’m in Miami now. In the Everglades Hotel. I miss Grenada already.
October 16, 1994
I’m in the Philippines and I’m crying. I wanna go back to Grenada . . . “Always” [by Erasure] is No. 1 in the Philippines, [my brother] said. The little Tagalog speaker.
October 17, 1994
Today I had my exam [at my new school]. It was pretty easy. I slept a lot during the afternoon. I finished Super Street Fighter 2 and Clay Fighter. It was pretty fun. I wanna go back to Grenada still. But I’m starting to get used to this place. I really like 94.7 radio station. It has a lot of the stuff I know. Well, nothing else to write.
October 20, 1994
Today was my first day at [my new school]. I made a lot of friends.
October 25, 1994
Today we had computer class again. I think typing is so hard. Anyway, nobody sat with me for lunch today. I think those girls hate me.
November 2, 1994
Today was OK. Dad and I went to Megamall and went around. I wanted to buy an Ace of Base video but they didn’t have it. Well, Goonies is on TV and I was sent to bed. I don’t want to. Well, I’m starting to think less about Grenada. (Oh my god.) Gotta go.
January 10, 1995
Today was another bad day too. I get a C+ for my health. I never felt so retarded in my life. If those people from Grenada heard that, they would call me retarded and all kinda thing. I learned some Chinese characters today and they make me see how unartistic I am. My life is breaking up again.
January 11, 1995
Today is the last day of school of the week. We are stuck with a whole bunch of homework for the weekend. I’m not really that excited about the science fair. I don’t feel like going to school anymore. It doesn’t seem worth it anymore. I don’t care if I end up retarded. What I really need is a break from myself and my life. I want to have a vacation. A long one. I don’t want to come back.
February 13, 1995
Today I got a letter from Grenada! It is from my class! They have not changed . . . [They say] nothing has been going on in Grenada. Oh I ♥ those letters so much.
February 22, 1995
Today was just like a normal school day. But they gave me a new name and call me Granada Bomb because I told them about Grenada. That is really silly.
March 1, 1995
. . . Today [these girls] were fighting about me. “Oh Erin, sit with me!” I sat with [my friend] instead. It’s good that I did. I’m in a new club called Friends 4 Ever . . . I ♥ this week.
In honor of the coming Barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) elections this Monday, October 29, today I give you not just one, not even two, but three short videos I took last weekend, of campaign activities going on while I was doing field work in the metro. They aren’t fabulous quality or anything (two were taken with my digital camera, while one was taken with my cell phone), but they do the job.
This first video features just one minute out of a five minute parade of cars that passed in front of our site, all of whom sported posters and balloons, while supporters wore pink T-shirts to promote their favorite candidate.
This second video is a another, more flamboyant parade that happened some time after the first video, featuring loud sirens and high school students playing the drums to attract the attention of potential voters.
The third video (obviously the one taken with my cell phone) shows a candidate appropriating a Britney Spears song to tell voters why she is the right person for the job. Her first name is Baby, which may explain the song choice.
Scenes like these have been going on all over the city and the country, including my own neighborhood, in anticipation of Monday’s elections. In addition to the entourages and the loud music, there are also posters and banners lining the walls, phone lines, and, soon, the bins, gutters, and burning piles of trash in every street all over the Philippines.
While all of this fanfare was going on, I couldn’t help but wonder: What would make me choose any of these candidates? Each parade had several candidates trailing one another, all featuring the same pink balloons, the same pink T-shirts, and the same smiling, waving, hard-hat sporting candidate hoisted at the back of the same pick-up truck. You have to possess basic reading skills to be able to tell each candidate apart. As far as I could tell, there was nothing that made a candidate stand out. This is exacerbated by the fact that I have no recollection of any running candidate taking the time to talk to voters about the issues. I haven’t been employed that long, so I would have been around in case someone came by or announced a forum to discuss barangay issues. Even my mom, who is currently not employed and little more knowledgeable about what goes on around here, has no idea who any of the candidates are and does not intend to vote on Monday. It is a little disappointing and frustrating to be faced with the responsibility to vote for someone when you have no idea what they can do for you.
I also find it disingenuous how candidates seem to think that making noise, wasting paper, and covering pop songs somehow makes them worthier of my vote. That doesn’t really tell me anything, except maybe who you are friends with and how creative you can get by inserting your name into a Top 40 hit. It is also insulting to voters, who deserve to know what they are getting into, instead of being manipulated by people who are supposed to serve them.
Then again, what do I know. I have not had the chance to participate in Philippine politics since turning 18, due to the fact that I was away and living far from the nearest embassy. Perhaps I just don’t know enough to understand that this is how it works here, or that I’m still so out of the loop that I’m missing some of the different ways that voters are getting their information. In a way, I still feel like a foreigner here, still trying to learn even the most basic aspects of life in the Philippines. I am sincerely asking anyone out there to enlighten me on the mechanics of the upcoming elections, if you find my thoughts too uninformed or offending.
This is what I do know, though. I was also the foreigner when I was living in the U.S., but for someone who couldn’t vote, I was still fairly informed about U.S. political affairs. My social circles ran the full spectrum, from deeply involved activists and people employed by presidential campaigns, to the uninformed or otherwise apathetic. All of these people have at least heard of candidates running for office (local, state, or national), and even friends who would be considered members of the so-called Sex and the City demographic can give brief talking points or soundbites given by candidates after simply talking to friends or tuning in to the evening news for a few minutes. Basically, I thought that it was not hard to be informed about politics there, as the media does a decent job of reporting what is going on and sticking to the issues. On the other hand, I am hard-pressed to say anything truly insightful about Philippine politics, besides the occasional quip about how “corrupt” it is or maybe a comment on the usefulness of the phrase “legal gobbledygook”.
This is not meant to be biting political or social commentary, but just my reaction to some things I have seen and am truly baffled about. All I am saying is that, as a citizen and someone who does make an effort to stay informed, I don’t feel like I know enough, and I think that future and current politicians and the media in the Philippines aren’t doing a good job of informing all people about what is really going on and why they should care about it. All the rhetoric about being patriotic and doing things to uplift the fellow Filipino doesn’t mean a damn thing until people — who, by the way, are supposed to be part of this “democracy” — are properly informed and educated about the issues. Until things change, unfortunately, there is nothing all the Britney Spears songs in the world can do to help us become a more engaged and politically functional community.