Travel: Manila – Not a Roots Story

Rusty, the metered taxi driver, takes me from Manila airport to Malate, the karaoke/club district. On the way he says something just so typical of taxi rides in Southeast Asia: “You want a girl? I teach you how to get one.” I respectfully decline, armed this time with the “I have a girlfriend” excuse. His humor holds as he passes off my carefully executed excuse with a laugh, as if it were a joke. “Every visitor have girlfriend. Doesn’t matter. You just get temporary girlfriend in Philippines, like other tourists. Your girlfriend is not here, is she? I know a good place for you.”

San Agustin Church, the oldest in the Philippines

I wonder why Anthony Bourdain never has to go through this. Or why he doesn’t at least show it.  When I was in Korea and taxi driver’s started offering me girls, I thought it was just a Korean thing. Then I thought it was just an “East Asian” thing when it happened in Japan and China. Then I thought it was an “Asian thing” when it happened on the cab ride from the Bangkok airport, and the countless approaches in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Then I thought it was just a “that side of the world” thing when it happened in Mumbai and New Delhi, as cab drivers and hotel managers started quoting prices at me with ruthless tenacity. I guess it’s just a thing that happens in taxis and hotels, and I should stop being surprised.

Rizal Monument

But the question haunting my mind as Rusty pulls into my $7 hostel, isn’t “am I going to succumb to that most ancient of temptations?” but how I, as a part-Filipino traveler, will react to visiting the country of my forefathers–will I take the path of many “othered” seedlings, and proclaim myself a member of my kinsmen, own the “Filipino” heritage by wearing the Philippine flag and learning to cook pancit? But I am determined that this trip not be a “roots” story. I already have the guilt of never living up to my Hawaiian and Irish cultural heritages, and there’s no room in my identity for another mutated seed.

Manila Seafarer's Booths

But things change as I walk through the crumbling streets of Manila. As I board the crowded jeepneys, laugh with the locals, and gape at the museums and statues portraying the ilustrados, suddenly this identity seems promising. My Ilocano blood starts fuming, and somewhere in that collective memory sparks the dispersal of my people, the vague memories of Spanish and American violence, of my grandfather on Hawaiian sugarcane fields, of the desire for some Cosmopolitan escape. Suddenly the Hawaiianess and Irishness I was familiar with melts away in the Manila heat, and I decide that my dyed hair is really a lie perpetrated by American television. This IS a roots story!

The historic Intramuros, also a golf course

The next day–it must have been–I decide to take a walking tour of Intramuros, to see where the hero of my people, Jose Rizal, was executed, and to see the walled-off city where the Spanish attempted to convert my people and use Catholicism to rule over them. However, Ivan, the walking tour guide, doesn’t give Intramuros tours on Mondays, so instead he leads me with a group of Cebuanos through Binondo, Manila’s historic Chinatown.  It’s a food tour, so I figure it couldn’t hurt to try out some Dim Sum.

Typical Fast Food Dish

But then, as Ivan describes the trials and tribulations of the Chinese who came to the Philippines, how they were all lower class peasants, how the Spanish really took more pains to control and convert them rather than the Illocanos, how they had lived incredibly rough lives in mountainous regions, oppressed on all sides by their own Kingdom, by the British, Spanish, and Filipinos, and that it was the Chinese who were responsible for the growth of many staple Filipino foods such as pancit and lumpia–after this gross historical lecture, suddenly the over-charged Filipino identity in me is consumed away with each bite of delicious Chinese eggroll, and I remember now that my Grandmother was in fact part Chinese, part Hokkien, and therefore this tour guide was not only talking about some oppressed peoples, but MY oppressed peoples! I am a descendant of the Hokkien Chinese, in the land of my roots! My blood boils, infused now with the Quipo massacre of 1650, the Indonesian massacres of Hokkien Chinese, the racial riots against my people in Singapore and Malaysia!

Chinatown (Binondo)

As the tour guide rambles on, I begin to wonder how I came from not just one, but two diasporic peoples (well, three, counting my Irishness). The gold stalls and markets in Binondo hardly sway my mind from this suspicion, and I find it incredibly hard to reconcile my Ilocanoness with my Chinese Hokloness. Both peoples are from barren, mountainous lands. Both became merchants and workers in a foreign land, and both peoples are known to be tough, thrifty survivors.  Both groups dispersed to so many different areas so rapidly that there are more living abroad than in the “homeland.” Can these mixed identities be so easily reconciled? Rizal too was part Chinese, as well as part Spanish and part Japanese. So how did he choose one nationality and stick to it? Why was he not, simply, confused?

Binondo Church

In the Filipinas Heritage Library in Makati, the financial district that looks alarmingly like an American city, I read Sionil Jose’s book The Pretenders, his most translated work. In the book, Tony Samson, an Illocano descendent in Manila, has lived his life wanting to search for his roots in Northern Luzon, but dies before he ever gets to go, having sided with the nepotistic upper class, who despise Ilocos people. The ending is moving and I wonder if I would pass on with similar regret.

Typical Hoklo Dish

Frustrated and perhaps fearful, I turn to one of Nick Joaquin‘s plays in a 1975 version of the magazine Goodman, called “Fathers and Sons.” Joaquin too struggled with mixed identity, famously portraying Connie Escobar as a girl with “two navels,” one representing Spanish colonization and the other, American imperialism. How did she fashion identity from the two? Is it different if my navels are of oppressed diasporas, rather than of oppressive regimes? Are these differences only circumstantial?

Ongpin Market in Chinatown

In the small library I try to take it easy. After all, this trip is many things: a research expedition, a vacation, an adventure and another debt-increasing mistake. Definitely not a roots story. So I pick up a journal published by ASEAN, the regional and economic block of Southeast Asia, and calmly read about the Filipino people. I am shocked, as the Chinese and Ilocano blood in me seems to fade into some ungraspable mist. According to ASEAN, my people are not Chinese, nor are they even Ilocano! The journal is pretty clear: it defines Filipino descendants as, in fact, Malays, who are actually part of an ancient regional network of migrated peoples from Malaysia and Singapore, and whose food, ancestors and cultural norms–like most of Southeast Asia–can all be traced back to the mainland. The punchline: everyone in Southeast Asia is a part of a large family, and we should start acting like one.

Did I mention I’m also going to Singapore and Malaysia on this trip?

The original Lumpia?