Dispatches From Manila
Robin Hemley is the director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He’s spending the year on a Guggenheim Fellowship in the Philippines with his family. Why the Philippines? Read on and find out—he’ll be checking in regularly.
BY Robin Hemley
Margie and I have barely touched down in the Philippines when I learn that I’m to attend the “debut” of Daisy, the daughter of my wife’s first cousin Peach and Peach’s husband, the inimitable Bong Bong. After 19 hours of flying from the States—well, under any circumstances—Daisy’s debut wouldn’t make my personal Lonely Planet index of must-do’s in Manila. File this under family obligation. Peach and Margie are practically sisters.
John Cheever spent his Guggenheim year in Italy. I’ve chosen the Philippines, which seems fitting: for a somewhat more down-market writer to live in a somewhat more down-market country. I love Italy, too, but nothing’s quite like the Philippines. My wife is from here, and I’ve come here so often since 1998, when I started researching a book set in the Philippines, that I’ve come to feel at home in this bedraggled and ever-surprising archipelago of 7,107 islands (at low tide, as the joke goes).
The debut is to be held at Peach and Bong Bong’s restaurant, Titanic. Restaurant? Since when do Peach and Bong Bong have a restaurant, I want to know, as I’m peeling myself out of my sweaty travel clothes and indulging in a little pre-debut whining. What happened to their medical laboratory?
“Cerrado,” Margie tells me with a shrug and a schadenfreude smile. It failed. Over the eight years I’ve been a part of this family, Peach and Bong Bong have had at least three business ventures that I know of: the medical laboratory, another restaurant, and buying and reselling cars. The simple reason that they can afford to hop from one failed business to another is Bong Bong’s mother, who lives and works in the U.S. and sends them money. Bong Bong’s mother petitioned for him to join her in the States, but he couldn’t wait and went there about nine years ago using a fake passport, was caught, and deported. While he was there, he made pretty good money, working three jobs, but he wept every night on the phone talking to his kids. He probably wouldn’t have been caught if he hadn’t returned to the Philippines on a visit.
I love all of Margie’s relatives, even, or maybe especially, the nutty ones, being a little nutty myself. Titanic! Indeed. How did they ever come up with a name like that? “The kids suggested it,” Margie tells me. “They all loved the movie.” With that same smile, she gives me this: “Peach told Merle [Margie’s older sister], ‘I don’t know where I got my business sense.’” A gale of laughter overcomes us and my jet lag has been temporarily relieved.
Still, in the car on the way to Titanic, I wonder if perhaps Italy would have been the better choice. No one would force me to attend a debut, at least not this kind of debut, the Filipino version of a debutante’s coming out. An opera debut, maybe. Do they still write operas in Italy? Who’s the contemporary Puccini? If only I wrote about Westchester County! I’m lost in this Italian / John Cheever daydream as we crawl through Manila’s legendary traffic.
We’re the first guests to arrive at Titanic. The restaurant is tucked into a dreary corner on a busy but not interesting street. The restaurant has been open a year already, but no one seems to want to visit a restaurant named Titanic, for some reason. The sign doesn’t help. It depicts a singing chef on the deck of a sinking ocean liner. Nor has the frequent turnover in staff or the frequent turnover of the menu helped. What cuisine does a sinking ocean liner serve? Seven months ago, it was French. Three months ago, it was Italian. Now it’s Filipino.
The restaurant’s interior likewise reflects its owners’ indecision/desperation. Posters on the wall advertise “General Chicken,” “Lechon Kawali,” and “Bouillabaisse.” Tonight, the interior is also decorated to the nines with balloons and banners, a strobe light and a gay comedian. I say “decorated” with a gay comedian because gay comedians are a kind of decoration in this country. And when I say “gay” I mean “effeminate,” because that’s about the only acceptable gay persona in the Philippines. The TV shows are peppered liberally, or not so liberally (considering the dominance of the Catholic Church), with effeminate gay men, known here derisively as bakla. I’ve never quite known how to process the Philippines’ obsession with effeminate gay men. An ex-pat British poet I once met thought it had something to do with the macho norm of Filipino men, a kind of safety valve for the other extreme in male representation. I don’t know, but I find alternately fascinating and discomfiting the sheer uniformity of gay representation.
This particular performer wears a kind of mod cap and has blond hair extensions. As people start to trickle in and take the seats, he sets up the karaoke machine, tests the fog machine, and glances at me curiously. Of course, I’m going to be the only white person at the debut tonight, unless you count Peach, who regularly injects herself with whitening solution. (Filipinos are as enamored of whiteness as white Americans are enamored of tanning.)
The show gets started when Daisy and her parents show up—Bong Bong breezes by me with a cursory “Wazzup?,” though ghostly white Peach and I exchange pleasantries.
You’d never know by looking at Peach that she has seven children. In typical Filipina fashion, Peach looks about 15 rather than her actual age of 39.
I congratulate her on the success of her restaurant and the loveliness of her daughters. At least the latter comment isn’t insincere. Daisy, in her yellow gown, looks more elegant and sophisticated than most 18-year-olds. And Daisy’s older sister Cheska, well, she’s the family star. She was the runner-up for Miss Philippines this year, and that counts for a lot in this beauty-pageant-obsessed country.
The comedian is also a singer, starting with a rousing version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” while TV images that have no connection to the music flash on the screen behind him. Obese Polynesian dancers shake their grass-skirted booties while our host sings, “Mama, I just killed a man!”
The moment I’ve been dreading arrives when he stops singing and starts going through the crowd. I freeze. Maybe if I close my eyes I’ll become invisible. It worked when I was 2. The audience is made up largely of teens, who seem to find nothing about the comedian amusing or even worth paying attention to.
“What do you wish for Daisy on her birthday?” he asks them in turn. Several say the exact same thing: “Well, I just met Daisy tonight, so I don’t really know her. But I wish her all the best.”
As I’m critiquing their insincere wishes and trying desperately to concoct my own insincere wishes, the comic approaches me.
“Are you afraid of me?” he asks.
“Terribly,” I say.
“You don’t have to be afraid,” he says. “I’m good. What do you wish?”
Besides my wish to be in Italy right now, I can’t think of a thing.
“I wish her all the best,” I say.
Spurred on by my originality and warmth toward the birthday girl, no doubt, Margie wishes what’s-her-name “good luck in life and good health.” Here, here! Can we go home now? But then, in a surprise move that touches even my alabaster heart, young Daisy stops by the table and gives me a rose. “Thank you,” I say, though in an instant I discern this is not an ordinary rose.
“Why did she give me a rose?” I ask Margie.
“She gives roses to 18 boys,” Margie says, air-quoting heavily the word “boys.” “Each one takes a turn dancing with her.”
“Come on, Daisy,” the comic says, suddenly as impatient as me, it seems, to get this over with. “Form your line.”
Daisy looks over the lot of us, who are as eager as slave laborers, and bursts into tears. The comic stands behind her, his shoulders shaking, his face collapsing in mock sentiment. He dabs his eyes with a handkerchief and sticks it up his nose. On the stereo, Frank Sinatra sings “The Way You Look Tonight” to Daisy as though he’s never sung it to anyone else, and before I know it it’s my turn.
When I’m up there, you know, dancing with an 18-year-old as manufactured fog rolls thickly around me, having surrendered to the futility of it all—youth, dignity, presence of mind—I can almost fool myself into believing that I don’t look half bad, that I might be starting to enjoy myself, that this place might have something over Italy after all. But then my 5-year-old rushes the stage after my performance and says breathlessly, “Dad, promise me you’ll never do that again.”
“Why?” I ask, laughing.
“You know!” she says, and leaves it at that, but really I don’t. How could I know? I can’t even read my own mind. “Bahala na,” I tell her over the music, the Filipino version of “Que Será, Será.” Sincerely.
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