Empirical Evidence: An Abecedary
Air Max 2 CB 94
In fourth grade, after a round of basketball in P.E. class, we look under the tongue of a classmate’s new Nike Air Max sneaker, then debate which would be the more original pair – one “Made in Korea” or one “Made in Taiwan.”
When my Lolo’s younger brother visits from Honolulu, we are excited for his coming-home presents: floral “Hawaii” T-shirts and boxes of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. I can’t wait to impress my friends with the black souvenir hat embroidered with the logo of the Navy ship USS Missouri BB-63.
I borrow my classmates’ dog-eared copies of Archie Comics, which we swap surreptitiously like contraband. I daydream about attending high school with blond and redheaded classmates, then spending Friday nights hanging out at Pop’s Choc’lit Shoppe with Archie, Betty, Jughead and the gang, enjoying our burgers and shakes. I know more about Riverdale than Las Piñas, my own city.
The balikbayan box arrives around Christmas, and I get a whiff of what I imagine is an American aroma. I hold and sniff a shirt to take another hit, then wear it, as if to feel the sender’s embrace. I don’t know yet that it’s the dank, stale smell of a basement.
In class during English Week, we are fined one peso for each Filipino word we slip into conversation. Our usual chatter is reduced to clipped sentences. The class sergeant-at-arms in charge of listing noisy students has it easy, because we are unusually quiet – until the bell rings for recess.
Our high school English teacher reads a dialogue from our textbook, enunciating her words in an American accent. She asks us to repeat after her: My name is John Scott… Our new cadence amuses us.
We giggle upon hearing the name of the other character, Pui Pongprasit. We deliver his lines with a twang, too.
I don’t connect this with our social studies class, where we learn that 600 pioneer American teachers arrived aboard the military ship Thomas in 1901, and became known as the Thomasites. They built schools and taught agriculture, geography, and many other subjects, naturally using English as the language of instruction.
In the middle of Makati, the central business district, is the tony exclusive village preferred by diplomats and old money. Security guards are suspicious of people who look like them. Streets are lined with exotic acacia trees, while hidden behind the high walls are gardens tended by hired hardineros. Some of the privileged favor residing in the northern districts of White Plains and Blue Ridge. They are slices of affluent American suburbia, if you squint hard enough.
At noon, my family tunes in to the TV variety show featuring entertainers live before a studio audience. But the dancers, comedians, and personalities pass for celebrities mainly due to their fair skin, not their acting or singing talent. In a few months, the more melanated gradually turn a few shades lighter, after taking glutathione pills or injections.
The show premiered in 1979, and years later in a taped segment for the show’s anniversary episode, I learn of its “bodabil” (vaudeville) origins.
The first call center opens in 1992 in Manila, and they soon mushroom in other major cities. They generate jobs, keep fast food restaurants open 24/7, and wreck circadian rhythms. Phone lines open portals between Alabang and Alabama, Makati and Massachusetts. Tongues undergo elocution lessons to lose the local accent and mimic a chirpy Ohioan. Call center agents temper hot tempers grumbling about their overcharged Visa or MasterCard, or a computer screen that’s blank – easily resolved with the press of a power button. They don’t let out a loud sigh because they’re being recorded—for quality assurance purposes. “I’d be more than happy to help you with that.”
“Down with Imperialism!” cry the nationalists and activists on megaphones featured on prime time TV news. Each year, we celebrate our Independence Day on June 12. It used to be July 4.
After the war, leftover Jeeps are converted to public transport resembling low-slung minibuses.
I reach out my hand to pay the fare and my money is relayed from hand to hand to the driver, then my change makes the reverse trip. Invariably, the jeepney’s speakers are blaring a local ballad or Bon Jovi. We cling nervously to the bar on the ceiling as the jeep speeds forward.
My friends and I hang out at McDonald’s. To compete with the local favorite, Jollibee, they offer fried chicken with rice, fries, and spaghetti with tomato sauce flavored with ketchup.
During World War II, due to a tomato shortage, food scientist Maria Y. Orosa developed a ketchup made from bananas. She also fed Filipino and American prisoners of war.
She was killed by friendly fire when American soldiers shelled the hospital where she was recovering.
Decades later, Jollibee opens a branch in Times Square.
My university campus in the province of Laguna was founded in 1909 as the University of the Philippines College of Agriculture. The College’s first dean was Edwin Copeland, a Thomasite.
Outside Baker Hall where I attend P.E. class, a memorial plaque commemorates the US military and Filipino guerillas liberating over 2,000 POWs on February 23, 1945, when the building was used as a Japanese internment camp. The rescue is considered a significant military success.
Only years later will I learn that the Japanese killed 1,500 town locals to exact revenge.
In history class, our lecturer teaches us that history is written by the victors.
The answer I give an American intern when she asks the first thing that comes to mind whenever I think about her country.
“Which show?” she asks.
“Pimp My Ride,” I say without missing a beat.
On a packed bus, a conductor weaves through the crowd collecting fares, and tries to get the attention of an African passenger standing in the aisle by calling him the N-word. The conductor chuckles at his gesture, oblivious to the slur’s meaning, stripping it of its context.
After a long day, the bus conductor probably goes home and turns on the TV to watch the Philippine Basketball Association, cheering for his team, especially the towering import player who’s African-American.
My godmother’s husband, a US navy officer, invites my family to visit them as they prepare to leave for San Diego with the impending closure of the base.
The homes in their neighborhood have garages and central A/C. On the road, drivers suddenly know how to obey traffic rules, stopping at intersections and yielding to pedestrians.
Hundreds of fatherless half-brown Amerasians sired and abandoned by US servicemen roam the city.
Surplus shops outside the former US air base in Subic cater to those hunting for discounted, duty-free chocolate bars, soap bars, camouflage apparel, and toilet fixtures – all labeled “Made in America.”
I look out the bus window curious to see what’s causing the traffic backup. I pity the throngs of people waiting in line outside the US Embassy compound in Manila, rain or shine, hoping to get a much-coveted visa stamp.
To reach the US Embassy, go to 1201 Roxas Boulevard. Even decades after it was renamed, my Lola continues to call it Dewey Boulevard.
To reach Chinatown, near Lawton, go straight down Taft Avenue, then cross Jones Bridge.
To enjoy a night out in Bonifacio Global City – a development named after the Filipino revolutionary – turn onto McKinley through Forbes Park.
To get a respite from the heat and humidity, travel north to Baguio City via MacArthur Highway and Kennon Road. Enjoy the crisp air, the scent of pine trees, and a stroll through Burnham Park and Wright Park, before having dinner at Camp John Hay.
Santa Claus is Coming to Town
It is only September, but the tune is playing on the radio. Outside it is 80°F.
We mindlessly croon lyrics about kissing under the mistletoe, dreaming of a white Christmas, and riding a sleigh, as though longing for cold winters past. We break out our sweaters and jackets as the temperature dips to the mid-70s.
The three letters stand for “tago nang tago,” someone who’s always in hiding—from the immigration authorities—often uttered in a quiet tone away from prying ears. Like its explosive cousin, this TNT can cause its own kind of damage and destruction, ranging from discovery and deportation, to estrangement from family left behind, if there’s still one to return to.
Hundreds of thousands of people live undocumented in the US. My father was one of them for almost two decades.
On TV, I watch elderly Filipino men who fought under the American flag during the Second World War, but are still deprived of benefits due to the Rescission Act of 1946. Pins and medals are tacked to their faded berets as they protest outside the White House. Some are in wheelchairs wearing their pressed military uniforms. Their picket line grows shorter at each demonstration.
Averting eye contact from passersby, I look straight ahead while waiting in line.
Still far from the interview officer behind the glass window, I assume the outcome of each interview by the shock or smile registered on people’s faces as they walk away.
One by one we inch closer. Suddenly, it is my turn to apply for a visa.
I have one month to quit my languishing graduate studies, pack up, and leave Germany for the US, as I accept a job offer at an international development organization. I look up the office address and find out it is a ten-minute walk from the White House.
With precision, I carefully mark the boxes on USCIS forms, a DS-1648 for a G4. Earlier, I filled out a DS-160 for a B1/B2. Years later, I will secure an I-20 and SEVIS I-901 for an F1, then OPT, STEM OPT, and hopefully an H1-B.
While I’m asleep on the plane, the flight attendant quietly slips me a 6059B.
Even before I set foot in the country, it already looms large in my imagination, a grand rehearsal, or a destiny manifesting all along.
As I navigate Washington’s lettered streets, past acronymic agencies, I feel the weight of an entrenched past and present, as if I’ve walked this path long before I arrived.
In subsequent years I will travel between Manila and Washington, speaking America’s tongue, indignant yet indebted for the US dollars that now provide for me and my family. I whiplash between the two countries, careening between freedom and domination, dependence and emancipation.
In the Philippines, US military bases are assembled, dismantled, and reassembled. People fly out. Remittances flow in.
Andrew Zubiri is a Filipino writer whose work has appeared in or is forthcoming from AGNI, Consequence, Atticus Review, The Fourth River, World Literature Today, and The Threepenny Review. His writing explores identity and the tension between home and diaspora. A former global development professional, he now works in educational technology and lives in Boston. You can find his work on linktr.ee/andrewzubiri or follow him on Twitter @jadz.