In some ways, driving every day to De La Salle University doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, though in other ways it does. An hour’s commute from my condo in the morning, using shortcuts and side roads to avoid the traffic, my little office within the grounds of the university is a haven − I love my family, but the condo is small and my study is also Shoshie’s bedroom. She bursts in at least six times a morning looking for a toy, and if I lock the door, she just pounds on it, yelling, “Daddy, I’ll be quiet!” And then there’s one-and-a-half year old Naomi screaming a mixed Tagalog/English/Gibberish version of “You Raise Me Up” at the top of her lungs on the other side of the door, and Margie in the living room playing music and well, what’s an hour’s commute in the grand scheme of things? When my friend, the writer Dinah Sianturi, who runs the Bienvenido Santos Center at DLS, offered me a little writing office at the center, I did everything but fall prostrate at her feet to kiss her.
I’ve come to enjoy the commute. Along the way, I people watch and building watch and practice my Tagalog on Rey as we drive across the Pasig River, its polluted waters clogged with vegetation, a sign bedecking a bridge reading, “Save the River of our Dreams”; or ast the façade of a once-grand railway station, in limbo between destruction and neglect, or the race track in Santa Ana that is no longer used. Or the ramshackle ancient houses nearly caving in, with their Capiz shell windows.
I play a game as I travel. What did Manila look like a hundred years ago? Or seventy, back when it was known (along with about every other Asian city, it seems) as “The Pearl of the Orient”? But this game is a melancholic one, and when I tire of it, I ask my driver (which sounds so grand, though what he drives is a little green Isuzu Fuego pickup truck on loan from my brother-in-law, not a Mercedes, though it has a laughably important little sign attached to the front that reads, “Doctor on Board. Do Not Delay!” as if with Joe’s wife Juviline − truly a doctor − on board there would be any choice for the car in front of us BUT to delay. As Margie says to horns honking behind us when we’re stuck in traffic, “Sige! You go ahead and fly.”) to buy a newspaper from a hawker at the next light or jam so I can catch up on the latest bit of scandal. Gossip and Scandal here almost always trump history.
One day, as we’re headed home I’m struck by something I almost never see in Manila, a shiny historical marker in the middle of a small bridge. The bridge is in disrepair, shanties lining the river beside it, part of its cement wall breached as though a car drove through. Although the marker is in a spot that makes it difficult to read, I ask Rey to pull over.
“Where are we, Rey?”
“This is the San Juan Bridge.”
Oh, I’ve stumbled on some history. This is where popular legend has it that the Philippine-American War started in 1899 when a soldier from the Nebraska Volunteers fired on a Filipino sentry. Actually, the shots were fired elsewhere in Santa Mesa, but I’d like to see what the historical marker says. Alas, it’s in Tagalog and I’m afraid that my Tagalog isn’t good enough to decipher it all. About all I can make out are the words “Nebraska Volunteers.”
Until I first arrived in the Philippines in 1999, I, like most Americans, had only the foggiest notion that there had ever been such a thing as a war between the Philippines and the U.S. It barely even registered that the Philippines had once been a colony of ours after we defeated them in their bid for freedom that our history books referred to (if at all) as the Philippine Insurgency. I occasionally run into otherwise intelligent Americans who, to this day, ask me if we still own the Philippines. Although the question never fails to shock me, I know there are some Filipinos who would answer a sardonic “yes.”
I ask Rey if he will please read the sign for me and tell me what it says.
“I think it’s about the Japanese,” he says, peering at the sign through the windshield.
“I kind of doubt that,” I say. “This isn’t a World War II site.”
He’s silent for a bit. “There was fighting here, sir,” he says. And then a moment later he practically jumps out of his seat. “Oh! The Filipinos and the Americans were fighting?!” He turns to me, his face registering both concern and surprise.
“Yes,” I tell him, “but it was a long time ago.” And I give him a quick history of the conflict as we proceed home. Of course, I feel awkward and uncomfortable telling a Filipino about his own history, and I don’t want to seem at all condescending towards him. But I’ve studied Filipino history extensively over the years, starting with my research for a book on the Philippines I published in 2003. In any case, it’s not that unusual for a working class Filipino to be oblivious to much of his country’s history. Many Americans are ignorant of America’s history. Why should it be different here?
Rey is silent, mulling it over. I’m looking at the shanties and trying to imagine what this place looked like during the Fil-Am War. I imagine there was little but this bridge here. This was the countryside. Now it’s a jam-packed detour beside a murky river.
“But I thought the Americans and the Filipinos fought the Japanese together,” he says finally.
“They did,” I say. “That was later, in World War II.”
He tells me he thinks there’s a tunnel nearby where the Japanese had hid. It’s called Pinaglabanan, which means “Fighting.” So we make a short detour to see the place. It’s now some kind of park. A sign reads: MUSEO KATIPUNAN.
The Katipunan were the group of Filipino patriots who plotted the ouster of the Spanish who had been their colonial masters for over 300 years. This is the site, I learn later, of the first battle of the Philippine Revolution − a battle in 1896 in which the Filipinos, outgunned by the Spanish, were fairly slaughtered. But I mistakenly tell Rey that I think the site has to do with more fighting between the Filipinos and Americans. Not the Japanese, though for all I know there might well be a tunnel there where the Japanese once hid.
“Why did the Japanese want the Philippines?” Rey asks.
“First, the Spanish came,” I tell him. “They wanted to conquer the world.”
“Like Hitler?” he asks.
“No, not Hitler,” I say. “You know, they ruled the Philippines for almost four-hundred years, and then the Filipinos had them cornered in Intramuros . . .”
“Magellan?” he asks.
“No, not Magellan.”
During the Spanish-American War, I tell him, the Filipinos and Americans were allies. The Filipinos thought they were going to get independence, but America decided to buy the Philippines from the Spanish, even though Filipinos didn’t want to be bought. “The Filipinos knew they couldn’t beat the Americans but they fought anyway because they were willing to die for their independence,” I say. It’s silly, I know, but at the word, “independence,” I tear up a little bit. There’s hardly a word in the American lexicon more sacred than that − it’s the irony that get me, I guess. But I quickly recover. “The Philippines lost and was a colony of the U.S, for fifty years. Until the Japanese came and fought . . .”
Here, Rey interrupts me. “And it was called ‘The Longest Day.’”
“No, that was in Europe,” I say. “That was ‘D-Day.’”
“And many Americans died here on ‘The Longest Day.’”
I give up. “Yes, that’s right,” I say. What does it matter anyway? My condo building is in sight.
“The best movie I watch, sir,” says, Rey, warming up to our history lesson, “is between America and Vietnam, sir. Full Metal Jacket. I love watching war, sir.”
I sit back in my seat as Rey segues seamlessly into a litany of the grossest foods he’s ever eaten, the friendship between our two countries restored, the world’s equilibrium intact.