Henry Cho: What is the difference between a Caucasian and an Asian? The Cock.
I was 12 years old when I first heard this joke performed on PBS.
Midnight, it is another muggy night audit shift at The Faculty Club at UC Berkeley. I am watching the storm track of Typhoon Parma curl around the northern coast of Luzon. It’s going to be apocalyptic in the Illokano provinces. Rice riots are sure to follow. The U.S. Army has stepped up its humanitarian missions, rafting Manila’s flooded streets. Failed governance leads to American intervention. Tagalog will remain a strategic language. Sign me up and send me home. I can translate the cultural nuances, the proliferation of passive aggressiveness, indirection of body posture, and gradations of gratuity and gratitude. The homecoming game against USC is many hours away. I am not looking forward to the sports pundits spouting war metaphors to describe the PAC-10 rivalry. On my desk I have yet to open the package sent from the Department of Veterans Affairs Records Management Center (St. Louis, Missouri), received earlier this week. Returning to the shopping mall recruiter the physical and mental health records narrating the nature of my discharge is the next step forward. I have nothing to lose. Such is the Hail Mary pass.
Earlier this evening, I had left the Fillmore and another superb Gillian Welch concert. She’s expected to play the Saturday 4pm set at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park. Whiskey and Women, the lounge act, a fiddler-accordion-guitar threesome, was just as riveting. I could not help but stare at the fiddler’s shoulder-to-shoulder length tattoo: The Great Lakes. Five black pools, unlike the ice I remember—like birthmarks. Each time she dove with the bow, turning her back towards me, I can plot the Recruit Training Center on the left bank of Lake Michigan, north of Chicago, and outside Waukegan. I can see my barracks and the perimeter where I shoveled snow. I can see the parade grounds and the fire drills in the early morning. “There,” I wanted to tell her, “is Great Lakes, Great Mistakes” where civilians become seamen. Where lumberjacks learned to iron skivvies. Where something fearsome as dry land drowning can be staved off by self-inflicted Atropine is taught. Where high school athletes went when scholarships were not available. Where Fort Worth ganger bangers meet Compton gang bangers. Yes, where I was indoctrinated, rather, inseminated during the record blizzard of 1993—because I was curious.
The fiddler sang about wanting to marry a soldier despite paternal objections. I was sold. Was this soldier a poet? Was this soldier out of choices? Was this soldier leaving a son behind? I wanted to know her name. I wanted to know if she would be my pen pal. I had one the first time in. She played the piano. Why would she want to marry a soldier? Why would she want to marry someone who is in constant going and never returning? Was she a believer in Liebestod? Alas Senta, your Flying Dutchman leaves a legacy.
When you are prior service, recruiters will not actively support your reenlistment. Your enthusiasm to join the fight against terror is your own. They are in no hurry to put you in uniform. You do not count towards their quota and whatever bonuses owed to them. This is the one aspect of their job that makes men like myself feel neglected and unwanted. It’s like my former marriage. Why is the Army choosing that scrawny young man without a MFA degree over me? I mean aren’t poets even good enough for cannon fodder? The Troop Surge needs every volunteer to do his part—or did they forget there’s a war going on? Obama does not want to weaken his administration by increasing the boots on the ground. To save face, he should ask poets to volunteer, a Brigade Combat Team made of troubadour warriors. Words can kill as kill words can. I’m sure he can get the numbers to secure the badlands of Afghanistan’s southern border.
As such, finding and organizing every document that proves fitness is on your time. How many poets do you know who are fit for duty? The six months of wait is now over and I am surprised by my trepidation. I had tore open the package just to see the thick testimonies admonishing youthful bad behavior—I’m sure the Captain’s Mast can be overlooked now that I am fifteen years wiser. Was I responsible for an attitude problem if the Third Class superior had sent me on wild goose chases for left handed screwdriver? So that his superior thought he was doing a good job? I knew the drill—don’t ask questions, look busy and get lost. Nonetheless, the character of my service was “honorable” despite my three days, bread and water, in Pensacola. I like to be busy. I don’t like to be put to poor use. The Army requires sacrifices. Is that poor use of manpower?
It is not the fear of being cannon fodder or an IED victim that worries me the most. It is the fear of being an absent father. Not seeing my son grow. How will my son remember me? Will he be allowed to remember me? I think of the lone picture of us together on the bottom shelf of his bedroom bookcase in what used to be my apartment too, though no longer. It was taken at my brother-in-law’s wedding. Taeo is about two years old and wearing a tux. We are on a couch. He is the length of my torso, sleeping off the duties of ringer bearer. It is the sleep of innocence.
My answer to this dilemma is leaving a footlocker or two of everything ethnic: books of the Philippines, books about the Philippines, books written by Pilipinos, and books with Pilipino characters.
So I have made a preliminary packing list:
1. Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters
2. Barbara Jane Reyes’ Poeta en San Francisco
3. Carlos Bulosan’s American is in the Heart
4. Jose Garcia Villa’s Anchored Angel
5. Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye
6. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
7. Buenevido Santos’ Scent of Apples
8. F. Sionil Jose’s Viajero
9. Ron Loewinsohn’s Meat Air
10. Every journal and anthology I am in.
What is it with Pilipino writers and pathos?
I am what is called an FBI, a Full Blooded Illokano. Illokano, or Ill-o-kano, or Sick American, a pun made possible by the Treaty of Paris, 1898. Yet, there is nothing pure blooded about me. My maternal great great grandmother is from Spain. My mother’s coastal Province was once a Fukienese “pirate” colony. The Spanish called them Pirates. I would think the Fukienese considered themselves colonists. Then of course the more indigenous Illoko, which translates into “people of the Bay.” But because they resisted the Spanish and their Tagalog collaborators for so long, they were called salvajes. I want him to remember his darker roots but not to the extent he’s infected.
My son is half Dutch and half Illokano. Suburban Santa Clara County strains the European side and mutes the Archipelago’s siren lure and attraction to pathos. He’s such the cheerful child. Let’s not go crashing into the palisades for cultural rehabilitation or rescue, and yet the packing list continues, a Jacob’s ladder to wreckage below.
I can stare in to my son’s hair for hours. He does not understand my Mendelian fascination; why I sing: “You are my Sunshine.” His hair is metallic. It is many shades of rust surfacing from slate. Of all the great grandsons, he has the only hair that connects him to his Dutch great grandfather. Go Iowa Hawkeyes! My son is serendipity made possible by war, a Chicken Hawk challenging every Leghorn in his way. His great grandfather is a Navy World War 2 veteran. He served aboard a transporter carrying troops in support of the Lingayen Gulf invasion. He is the only person in my ex-wife’s family to have seen my mother’s Province. I never got to ask his opinion of the Filipinos he met during the archipelago’s liberation. Was it ironic that he would have a Filipino great grandson?
He is my dream of Dutch Illokandia, and this is how I will celebrate October with him: the erasure of full bloods, the rise of Hapas. So pull out your champagne or sparkling apple juice, spin Kirk Hammet, Enrique Iglesias, apl.de.ap, or Nicole Scherzinger or play them simultaneously—tune the tube and cheer for Mark Dacascos and Natalie Coughlin dance wits with Cheryl Burke&mdashwhere else will you see this many Pilipinos on prime time since Power Rangers, or pull out a VHS tape of a favorite Phoebe Cates film (mine was Lace), or replay this year’s highlights of last year’s Cy Young winner, local favorite, Tim Lincecum. Top it off and salute Lou Diamond Phillips as Colonel Telford, the first Pilipino in space! Thank you Stargate: Universe for realizing the ubiquity of my people. Destiny, who needs a mess cook when you have a Pilipino on board! I pray for an episode serving chocolate meat and balut. Scary alien life forms—BEWARE—he will eat you.
But. But. Wait. I was dreaming of a future where no Pilipino has gone before. Stop the presses. It was too good to be true. No thank you Stargate: Universe. You killed off the only Pilipino to make it to space in the first episode.
So Lou, What do you call two Pilipino Pilots? Answer: A Pair of Pliers. You and your co-pilot were tools for the advancement of … Sounds familiar Kuya? Manongs good for their stoop. Let them survive on granola bars! They do not know what they’re missing. But then again, we did not see you die and perhaps let’s pray for your Ascension.
Processing is supposed to happen quickly. I think. As soon as the recruiter finds nothing disparaging within my record, then it is a full day of physical evaluation and career counseling at the San Jose MEP Station. I will unclothe with everyone else in line. I will spread my cheeks wide. My balls will shrink. The boys behind me will have trouble averting their stares. It is the San Francisco Bay Area; it is to be expected. My tattoo stretches from the base of my neck to ass-crack: “The egg is the world. Whoever wants to be born must destroy a world.” Hermann Hesse may have conceived Indra dreams to be born, but I have the inked spine. I will cock my head to the left and cough while the physician divines my testicles. The recruits to be will be fortunate. Not many people have seen my tattoo that unexpectedly foreshadowed my son. When all the gawking is done and I am dressed and qualified for duty, I will be offered a career path, something they need filled versus something I like. I can accept or decline. Here I will push for a security clearance, they can accept or decline. I will ask for Language, they can accept or decline. One thing is for sure; my contract will stipulate clothing the masked mermaid ascending my right ribcage. The recruiter will say, “Cover-up her nipples because they are obscene.”