On my flight from Mindanao to Manila, I engaged in an armrest battle with my neighbor, a burly man in his late twenties or early thirties. Such battles are almost always unspoken, and half the time, my neighbor will occupy the bottom portion of the arm rest with his elbow and I’ll occupy the top half, or some variation of this most difficult of airplane détentes, while at other times, there will be a clear victor, usually the other guy, and I will stew and hate him intensely for the couple of hours our lives intersect. But this time, the burly guy gave in almost immediately, crossed his arms, and began to chat amiably with his girlfriend in the seat beside him. I’m not so keen on winning; I just hate to lose, so I immediately felt bad for my aggression and offered him my newspaper, which he gratefully took and split with his girlfriend.
I immediately regretted giving it to him because the paper had something I wanted to read more about, the latest installment in the Chip Tsao scandal. Chip Tsao had written a piece for Hong Kong Magazine calling the Philippines “a nation of servants.”
The weird thing about the Chip Tsao incident was that it had been intended by the Hong Kong writer as satire, not so much against Filipinos as against the imperious attitudes of China in its dispute with the Philippines over the Spratly Islands as well as the Hong Kong Chinese attitude of superiority towards Filipinos. I have often seen the wonderful spectacle of thousands of Filipino OFW’s, (Overseas Foreign Workers) mostly women domestic helpers, having picnics every Sunday, their day off, in Hong Kong’s Central District. Hong Kong had not exactly allowed this to happen. It simply happened, and I, an unabashed, wannabe Filipino, loved walking among them, considering them my kababayan (countrymen and women) listening to their various Philippine languages—without the OFW’s in Hong Kong, I wondered if that city would cease to function.
Chip Tsao’s remarks had been so over-the-top, that I couldn’t believe someone had said them when I read them in The Philippine Star. He had written of his own servant Louisa that if war broke out over the Spratly’s (which would be insane on the part of the Philippines, as the Philippine navy is nearly nonexistent) “I would have to end her employment and send her straight home because I would not risk the crime of treason for sponsoring the enemy of the state by paying her to wash my toilets and clean my windows 16 hours a day.” To me, there was an implied nudge and wink with that last remark—the true object of satire being the narrator who thinks that making someone clean toilets and windows for sixteen hours a day is a privilege. But the paper played it straight and so did the Philippine officials quoted by the paper who called Chip Tsao’s remarks “disgusting, derogatory, and vile.”
Within a day or so, Philippine officials were demanding an apology and Chip Tsao was put on a “watch list” by Immigration. Hong Kong Magazine pulled the article from its website and soon Tsao had apologized for his offense. For my part, I thought the government was simply seizing on an external enemy to whip up some good old nationalistic furor that would make Filipinos forget perhaps that their real enemies are, for the most part, those very same outraged government officials. As Samuel Johnson remarked, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”
I couldn’t very well ask for the paper back after I’d just given it to the guy, so I opened my lap top and started taking notes. After a time, it became apparent that my seatmate had lost interest in the paper and was looking over my shoulder, trying to read my notes, so I pressed the CAPS button and wrote: I REALLY DON’T LIKE IT WHEN PEOPLE READ OVER MY SHOULDER.
He took this as an invitation to introduce himself and ask me, the lone foreigner on the plane, what I had been doing in Mindanao. I told him my wife was from Mindanao and we’d been visiting family, but I was heading back to Manila in advance of her. His girlfriend was from Mindanao and he was from Angeles City. Both places have distinct connotations in the popular imagination—if you mention Mindanao to anyone in the Philippines who hasn’t been there, they think you’re going to be kidnapped by Muslim terrorists or that you are a Muslim terrorist. If you mention Angeles City, they think you’re going there for hookers or that you are a hooker. Part of Angeles is notorious as a haven for sex tourists from countries like mine, the center of town lined with go-go bars. I never thought I’d go to Angeles, but a couple of years earlier, my German ex-pat friend Wolf, and his girlfriend Conie, had traveled to Angeles because Wolf’s friend was a pilot and offered to fly us over Mt. Pinatubo. Happily, I joined them in a puddle jumper that flew over miles of lahar that had buried entire communities when the mountain exploded in ’91.
The guy beside me had arms not quite as thick as elephant legs, but nearly. He could have claimed all the armrests on the plane and no one would have been able to stop him. I figured he must be some kind of bouncer at an Angeles bar. It’s hard to vanquish stereotypes.
He said his name was Manny and he worked for EOD technology in Iraq. He’d been there for six years and he had Dept. of Defense clearance. While he wouldn’t say exactly what he did, it involved security in the Blackwater mode, bodyguards and/or munitions disposal. If you look at the EOD website, you’ll see a list of their “fallen heroes,” eight in all. Six years. He could have broken my arm as I struggled for arm rest supremacy. He wasn’t a bouncer. Maybe a super bouncer—a Transformer version of the girly bar bouncer.
“It’s all about the money,” he said. “Second, it’s a big adventure, a history for my life.” He wished that the Philippine government would lift the ban on OFW’s working in Iraq. His two brothers worked in Iraq, too.
A lot of his Filipino friends were stuck there now, afraid to return home for fear of not being allowed back. How he had worked it out, I don’t know. Maybe he figured the Philippines wouldn’t have the technology to enforce the ban, but whatever the case, new workers were not being sent to Iraq.
For me, his situation represented a paradox about the Philippine government. Since the Marcos era, the Philippines has been sending “guest workers” to every far-flung corner of the globe. The workers, some of them professionals in the Philippines, take menial jobs, suffer terrible abuse by their employers, and are separated from their families for years at a time in order to send “remittances” back to the Philippines and keep the country’s economy afloat. In real ways, they’re economic heroes. Nearly every family in the Philippines has at least one OFW working in Hong Kong, Saudi, America, Canada, Australia, Europe, or elsewhere, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and every other trouble spot in the world. Some are official OFW’s, some simply émigrés looking for a better life elsewhere. It’s even more a pity because before the OFW program started, the Philippines had the second strongest economy in Asia after Japan. What happened? Corruption happened and still does. Without the OFW’s, a bad situation would get worse and the Philippine economy would certainly collapse, along with it the lavish lifestyles of various Philippine government officials, from Malacanang Palace on down.
A ban on OFW’s going to Iraq might seem like a caring gesture, but in real terms, it simply caused more hardships and seemed hypocritical when, for many Filipinos who live in substandard housing prone to sliding down a hill or crumbling or tumbling into the river because of illegal logging or unobserved building codes, living and not working in their own country is more dangerous than working in Iraq.
Now I pointed out the Chip Tsao article to Manny, giving him plenty of arm room. He shook his head as he read it.
“They know we are a poor country " he said, “but that doesn’t mean we’re stupid. I can speak English, I can speak Arabic, I can speak Tagalog Pampangan, Visayan. I am very very defensive when it comes to that. I have Iraqis, Sri Lankans, Indians, Nepalese, South Africans, Bosnians working for me. I don’t like to admit it but I experience discrimination. Some Americans, Brits, South Africans, Bosnians. Especially the Arab countries.”
He gave me back the paper and started speaking to his girlfriend in rapid-fire Tagalog, and I couldn’t make out most of it. It wasn’t anything against me. It wasn’t anything against Chip Tsao. It was something about his family, something about his mom and dad in Angeles and what souvenirs they were bringing to give them. He leaned back then in his seat and reclined, his eyes closed, his weary expression slowly relaxing, his arms taking up all of both of the arm rests, and of course, I let him have it all without a fight.