27 May 2012

Closing the Jessica saga Manila-style

I was debating with myself whether to post this in my pop culture analysis blog since it will be full of that kind of media commentary or if I should post this in my inner-chever travel blog since it actually details travel stuff. But no, it's a bit personal, so hence, here we are. And sorry, this one's gonna be a bit longish.

Before the week ends, I just want to close the chapter on the AI-saga-Jessica-Sanchez-edition that has the country up and at 'em since the time this little birit girl showed her fighting chops to the yoo-es-op-ey and wherever it was beamed. As we all know, her mother hails from the Philippines and her father is of Mexican descent. Two huge, huge "minority" populations in America these recent years, one more visible in media (them) than the other (us). And yes, I said us, because whether Jessica likes it or not, part of her heritage will be claimed by those of us here where half of her blood flows. Never mind her official allegiance to the stars and stripes or if she hasn't set foot here yet. Most of us who still need postcolonial validation (or are looking for post-postcolonial armor, just in case, for whatever...) will always chalk one up the scoreboard for the home team, despite the non-home court advantage. I mean hey, haller, Tia Carrere, Lou Diamond Phillips, Apl De Ap, that guy from Glee, The Azkals? Too many to mention. Basta may dugong Pinoy, Pinoy pa rin. O siya, sige na nga, sabi ko. Tango na lang. May tama naman teh.

I don't know about you but I followed this rather melodramatic saga perpetrated by American Idol and bought it hook, line and sinker (or just parts, depending on what you want to admit) as it was broadcast to our part of the archipelago week in and week out. I was never a fan of AI and never stayed on to watch a whole season, half a season or even a quarter, but somehow, I found myself watching at least half of this season, when I saw this little girl from a town in San Diego, California sing her heart out like her talent just came directly from the heavens. Boses na tinubuan ng bata is what I could say. Wagas ang baga, teh, wagas! 

I don't know what's with this Fil-American that I stayed to watch. There were previous Fil-Ams naman who made it to the cut before, all equally great. But maybe this is what's called that unquantifiable "x-factor" I've been hearing all my showbiz life, that special ooomph that one person has that you can't quite pinpoint where it's coming from, why it's there, or how it actually emanates from her person. Basta meron 'yun, 'yun na 'yun. Ganun.

But with this one, I think it's more personal, as I said. This is because before, while watching AI, I never experienced America for myself -- until two years ago. 

And that was when it became personal for me, this AI saga, this "battle of the sexes" and then "battle of the races" and then "battle of the genre musicians" or whatever. People have differing opinions about this, but I can't help but think that it has something to do with race. Yes, at least a little bit. No, not necessarily POC-ish versus the great white male-ish type of discourse, no. Well of course there's also that, but everybody knows that already as it's very obvious anyway. My concern is more of inner POC-ish: people of color discourse to mean just being a Filipino or of Filipino descent in the land of the white people. Well, majority are white anyway, but hey, they say it's multicultural, a melting pot. Well, it depends on where you heat that damn pot anyway, as I saw. Molten? Or clotted? Hm.

 It doesn't take an Einstein to figure America out sometimes. 
Di ba Albert? (April 2010 Griffith Observatory LA)

I stayed for about a month and a half-ish with my sister, herself a certified Fil-Am already, in 2010. She lived in Central California then, which, to my observation, could also qualify as "middle America," that term we kept on hearing when it came to Jessica's ultimate contender, white-guy-with-guitar Phillip Phillips. And how does middle America look like? Well, to put it simply, it looks as white as the clouds in the sky. In central Cali, there were a lot of white folks (at that time I was there, they comprised 80 percent-ish), second are brown-skinned Hispanic folks in the 13 percent-ish mark, maybe majority are Mexicans I presume. (And how do I know? I hear it in their English accent, being familiar with it thanks to US pop culture, and also because they speak Spanish when their backs are turned to me, or even when they're facing me.) And then, there are the other folks, Filipinos included (lumped as Asians in the 5 percent-ish peg). I never saw much Pinoys there except when there were birthday parties where my sister got invited to, and these Pinoys are/were part of the health care workforce where she now belongs as well. And come to think of it, I didn't see much African-American folks there as well, at least in her part of town (sadly, the census lists them in the 1 percent-ish peg). Hm. Welcome to middle America, California style. Akala ko dati, 'pag sinabing California, melting pot din like New York. Damn wrong.

 Middle California on a Farmer's Market day. 
(April 2010 San Luis Obispo, CA)

We were lucky because we got treated well by these Pinoys. I keep on hearing tales of Pinoy vs. Pinoy plots in the US from my relatives, friends and colleagues before, and I guess that also happens to other people, right? But just the same, it saddens me that I see Pinoys out there who painstakingly conceal their heritage in order to assimilate. I don't blame them if they opt for that strategy, as it is part of their own personal journeys. It just saddens me to realize it, that's all -- and to hear it and see it for myself.

Yes, it is quite a valid strategy especially if fellow Pinoys and/or their friends/guests would label you some slightly racist thing, like being an FOB. Before, I used to hear the "fresh off the boat" term as a derogatory remark for someone who just landed in the US regardless of race, but it mostly pertains to people of color who had to ride a boat in order to get into their land. In one of those Pinoy birthday parties, somebody asked me that, as an attempt to make conversation and also an attempt to be funny-witty. "So," he said, "Are you also newly transplanted here, like an FOB..." When he saw my face wince, he backtracked a bit and said "You... know... fresh... off... the boat?"  Needless to say, both attempts failed, and in order to stop talking with him, I turned to the family dog and played with it. And helped myself to more barbecued ribs and lumpiang shanghai on the table. I'd rather eat than talk to that fool. My thought bubble: kuya, hindi ka cute so shut up.

This I hear from a fellow Pinoy. But another approach I hear from this white girl who gave me a Justin Bieber-ish do at Supercuts:
"So, where are you from originally?"
"From Manila. The Philippines. I'm visiting my sister."
"Oh, nice. Does she live here already?"
"Yes, she does."
"And are you also thinking of moving here, too?"
"Well, maybe, eventually."
"Oh, it's nice here. You should think about it. Also nice to be with family."
"Yeah, actually..."

Well, maybe I have to think that she had to be nice to me because I was a customer and hence a potential tipper but regardless, her niceness hit home more than that FOB dude. Di ba?

 Pinoys about (down)town. I see white people. They're nice naman. 
(March 2010 Paso Robles CA)

My Superfriend D in LA, already staying there in Cali for about 7 years now, also had a lot of stories like these, as she told me stories of newly-transplanted Pinoys who spoke as if their American twangs had no tomorrow or whatever, and painstakingly covered up their proximity to the Philippines. One of my favorite stories of hers involved this Pinay that she met in a line at the bank or somewhere like that, and they struck up a conversation which went like this:

"So you studied college in the Philippines or here?" my friend asked.
"Oh, naw, naw, I feeneeshed college there, ya know, like, uh, een Ley-truhn, ya know?"
And my friend was like, Leytruhn? Leytruhn? San 'yun? Aaaahhhh putangina, LETRAN! Leche. So she continued asking, "So how long have you been here in the US?"

"Two years."
And my friend was like, putangina two years pa lang, ganyan na magsalita??? 
And my reply, "May tawag d'yan ngayon sa Pinas teh: tumbling!" 

Hahaha I love my superfriends! Daotera maxima! 

Pinoys in the US, at least those I encountered on a random basis, always gave mixed signals as to whether they will reveal their Filipino-ness or not to fellow Pinoys even if they are already sure that the others are Pinoy na nga. And this always baffled me. Well, maybe we all have our reasons, but still... Whereas when it came to Mexicans, at least the ones I saw, they were always ready to connect with them as fellow Mexicans (or anyone of Hispanic descent perhaps) and the way they do that is with the language reveal: they converse in Spanish. 

How do I know this? Because while in downtown LA, my Superfriend D excitedly took me to a busy intersection where some Hispanic people were selling fresh fruits in a food cart thingie. And when the elder female seller saw us looking at the fruits and deciding which to mix-up and buy, she started speaking to us in Spanish, maybe mistaking our Asian brown skin as alike with hers, and asked us what we wanted and how many. And I understood this because my working knowledge of Spanish covered those questions, so I was able to answer her in Spanish as well. But when Superfriend D's girlfriend, a non-Filipino speaking Fil-Am, said "But I don't speak Spanish..." that was when the seller started speaking in English and smiled her sorry at her.  Still, my point is that the seller, of Spanish-speaking Hispanic descent, never gave it a second thought whether to reveal her non-white-speaking identity to strangers. But Pinoys are a different story.

 Las frutas son deliciosas. Como mi? Ahihihi. 
(April 2010 Downtown LA)

When I was about to go home, I was trying to look for chocolate souvenirs at a candy store inside the San Francisco International Airport. The huge store only had one other customer lurking around, and only two female workers were inside the store. Obviously, they were Filipino because they were talking in Tagalog. So when I approached them, I kindly asked something in Tagalog as well, smiling upon the recognition of kababayans there. But when they faced me, they gave me an icy stare and started addressing me in business English with an American twang. When I inquired again in Tagalog, the cashier again answered me in business English with a twang, this time with a matching simangot sa fez. So obviously, she can understand me but can't speak to me in our language? Or my bad, maybe there is an airport worker rule where you can't speak to anyone other than English? I don't know; maybe that's it, and I shrugged it off. 

But no, wait. When I first landed, the lola I talked to about my luggage suddenly started speaking to me in Tagalog when she saw that I was from the flight from Manila. (Me: Excuse me, where do I claim my luggage? Lola: Ay andito na, itinabi ko na nung nakita ko. Kunin mo na lang. Ito 'yung sa iyo di ba?) And then the other lolos there working at the airport also talked to me in Tagalog. (Lolo: Kailangan mo ng cart, hija? Me: Di na po lolo, salamat. Lolo: Okay sige.) So hmm, I dunno about those two candy store peeps.

 Buti pa si Dora, chikadora. 
(April 2010 Universal Studios LA)

Or maybe it depends on the situation my friends and I encounter with fellow Pinoys. But the tendency is to be quiet in a big crowd and then decide later if they will reveal they are Pinoy or not, when the "need" arises. And it's funny that one "need" arose when my sister and I were in Universal Studios.

I had this brilliant idea of trying on that scary horror place walk thingie feature there at the theme park since, I thought, being a film person, I can shrug it off to just people being in prosthetic make-up in a set with fabulous working props. But no. In the middle of that damn scarefest, we found ourselves stuck in the middle because there was this small group -- like two young kids, two guys our age, and a hubby-wife couple -- huddled closely there in between some mummy thing and some vampire thing or something, scared-funny shitless and trying to push each other to walk by the monsters first hehe. At first, they were speaking in low voices, but my sister and I picked up the language: mga Pinoy. So we walked past them and tried our darnedest to be brave and ran through the monsters, speaking in Filipino like tara na aaaay punyeta takbo na bahala na si batman waaah tao ka lang na naka-costume leche panget moh eeeek! And when the small group heard me and my sister yakking, they also started yakking loudly this time, and yes, in Tagalog. So when we ran, they ran after us. Ayan, instant Pinoy bonding inside that damn scary place! We even cajoled with them as we joked later on that they should be the ones to go first and all. Takutan na baga, or bayanihan na sa pagiging brave kahit takot hahaha. So ang ending, sabay-sabay kaming tumakbo palabas at yehey, success! Lecheng scary walk.

I told you not to go, you go. Now look at. 
(April 2010 Universal Studios LA)

Another incident like this happened on that scary horror elevator ride somewhere in Disneyland naman. We were all gathered first in the lobby area of this elevator ride, and then there was this scripted horror host talking to us etc etc. And everyone was a bit quiet and listening to the spiel. Pero dahil sinapian na naman ni Vice Ganda ang lola mo, komentaryo galore ako dun in between the spiels hehe, also to calm my matatakutin self. Before we entered that lobby area, my sister and I were just yakking away in Filipino, and we just saw some people at the back stealing glances at us, for unknown reasons. I thought they just found us noisy, so we shut up na lang. But when the spiel in the lobby said "And now, you will enter this area where guests haven't been seen for 150 years now..." or something like that, I commented "Hmp kaya naman pala ang baho ng slight ditich!" And then I heard people snicker at the back. Pan left lola mo, zoom in to see that group staring at us outside, staring at us again. I just smiled at them and they smiled back. Alam na!

 Define motion sickness, beks. *guwaaark* 
(April 2010 California Disney Adventure Anaheim)

Of course these are small but maybe insignificant stories I experienced (and there are more examples but I think I'll leave some for another time), but it somehow characterizes the experience I felt when I was there, on how it is being a Pinoy in that land, regardless if you just stepped in, have been immersed for a while, or born and raised there already. Somehow, I think we Pinoys are shy to recognize each other on an ordinary day. But of course we raise our flags and wave them high on special days, like during a Manny Pacquiao fight, or this AI. 

And this is why I got attached this time to this particular season of AI. Jessica reminded me of those days, of those moments, and how I felt as a person in America, as a Pinoy in America, as a Pinoy encountering Pinoys in America. Ewan ko ba, medyo kakaiba lang talaga. And this is also why I haven't written much about that trip for so long; I'm still trying to figure out the whole experience, and perhaps where I belong in the greater scheme of things that this thing is somewhat implying. What that that is, well, I have yet to figure that out as well.

And this is why it also warmed my heart when I saw the footage of Pinoy voting parties in the US, where global Pinoys would gather and bring potluck food, watch AI and cheer on Jessica, and then text-vote to death.To a certain extent, I got it, and also felt it. I was like "Sana andiyan din sa mga party na 'yan si Leytruhn girl or sina Ate Airport Worker,  nakiki-text and cheer dahil magaling ang dugong Pinoy na singer na 'yun. At saka 'yung mga shy magsalita o magkomentaryo na Pinoy, sana nakikisigaw na rin sila na manalo si Jessica." Sana, 'no? Sana. 

But of course hindi ko rin nilalahat siyempre. There are those born and raised there who are into knowing their roots and all, coming here to the country on their own and trying to find their spot in the universe as Filipinos, mga ganun. But it is quite hard to peg just what a Pinoy is these days, di ba, or whether we are still proud of that thing called "being Pinoy" regardless of what happens to us and what we experience outside the Philippines. Of course, I know a lot of us are proud, but sometimes, it takes a while for that to surface.

Hanging out with my homies: temporary Pinoy Emil from Oz and 
Fil-Am Freddy who said people treated him more like Am here 
but back home he's seen more as Fil. Go figure. (June 2011 Baguio City)

Take it from the different reactions we gathered about this saga. There are those who shrugged AI this year, there are those who watched it like a hawk. There are those Pinoys there who laughed at Pinoys here for feeling sad that Jessica didn't make it. My Fil-Am tita commented that America, her homeland, isn't ready for a Filipino superstar yet daw. There are those who say that it is American Idol after all, so what is the real face of America ba talaga? Well, this is where the bigger race card discourse gets thrown in, but again, I don't think I wanna go there because it is quite obvious already. Yeah, maybe middle America won, but I am thankful that at least, for a season, some little girl with a big voice galvanized a lot of Pinoys/Pinoy-descended people like her and cheered altogether, at the same time, with pride.

Isang tagay para sa dugong Pinay. (May 2012 Marikina)

Yeah, okay na ako doon. So salamat, Jessica, at nagawa mo iyon. Now go out there and sing your heart out -  to the world pa rin. And with that, we close this chapter na.

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