Penman No. 119: Bulosan in the Heart

Penman for Monday, October 20, 2014

 

TAKING A short break from my fellowship in Washington, DC, Beng and I flew off to the West Coast a couple of weeks ago for a weekend with our daughter Demi and her husband Jerry. Demi was celebrating her 40th birthday (can you believe it?) and had sent us tickets to join them in Seattle; they live in San Diego, but they’d loved Seattle from a previous visit and wanted to share that discovery with us.

Over three days, we did the Seattle thing, and had loads of fun: the Pike Place Market, the Space Needle, a glimpse of the Chihuly glass garden, antiquing in Snohomish, and a boys’ tour of the Boeing plant in Everett. But it was an unexpected turn in the program that made it all the more worthwhile.

On the drive into the city from the airport, I had mentioned to Jerry (who had been born in Rhode Island to parents from Bicol) that two Asian-American icons—Carlos Bulosan and Bruce Lee—were buried in Seattle. Jerry’s an engineer in the aviation industry, but like Demi, he has a keen interest in culture and in his roots.

Bulosan’s name holds a special significance for our family. In high school, with some help from Beng, Demi had put together a book report on America Is in the Heart—Bulosan’s sprawling semi-autobiographical novel about the Filipino immigrant experience in America, first published by Harcourt Brace in 1946. I myself had written my undergraduate thesis at the University of the Philippines on Bulosan, fascinated by his often paradoxical appreciation of America, which he described as being at once “so kind and yet so cruel.”

Born in Pangasinan, he shipped out to Seattle in 1930, and never returned until his death from bronchopneumonia, also in Seattle, on September 11 (yes, 9/11) in 1956. (There’s some debate over the year of his birth, which has been variously listed as 1911, 1913, and 1914.) In the US, without the benefit of college, he became a voracious reader and taught himself to write, and became known both as a writer and a labor activist. Since the 1970s, many critics such as Epifanio San Juan Jr. have championed a reappreciation of Bulosan and his work; in 1973, the University of Washington Press republished America Is in the Heart, which was translated into Filipino as Nasa Puso ang Amerika by Carolina S. Malay and Paula Carolina S. Malay and published by Anvil in 2000.

When Demi and Jerry made plans to marry in 2007, I knew what I was going to give them as a wedding gift. After a long and eventful search culminating in a meeting with the seller in a Jollibee in Diliman, I had just acquired a first edition of America Is in the Heart, and carried it with me to San Diego. This copy had been inscribed by Bulosan to his friend Fred Ruiz Castro: “This story of my life will, I hope, bring me closer to you and our native land through our good friend J. C. Dionisio, with my best wishes, Carlos Bulosan, Los Angeles, 3-6-1946.”

Upon receiving the book in Manila almost a month later, Castro—who became Chief Justice in 1976—also signed it on April 4, 1946. I signed the book on a following page on April 2, 2007, and Beng and I presented it to Demi and Jerry on April 15. The book now rests proudly on their bookshelf in San Diego. (When I first wrote about this in my column—about finding that “holy grail” of a signed first edition and giving it to our only child on her wedding in America—I got a pleasant surprise upon my return: the gift of another copy of an early edition, acquired by another Filipino writer when he was in college, Greg Brillantes. That book, signed by Greg, now sits on my topmost shelf in Diliman.)

Now back to Seattle. On our last full day there, after touring the Boeing plant in the morning while our wives did their own thing downtown, Jerry and I were hit by the same brain wave in the car: why not look for Carlos Bulosan’s grave and pay our respects to our literary hero? A little Googling quickly revealed his gravesite, at the Mt. Pleasant Cemetery on Queen Anne Hill. We picked up Beng and Demi at the hotel, and located the cemetery not too far away.

GPS helped bring us there, but it couldn’t pinpoint the exact grave among the many hundreds on the site; thankfully, Google also yielded a picture of the grave itself, and the four of us spread out across the cemetery, looking for visual markers—particularly a white obelisk in the distance; it took about 20 minutes until Demi yelled “I found it!”

It was, ironically, very close to the cemetery gates, on the left side. Beng picked some flowers nearby and offered them at the foot of the marker, which read: “CARLOS BULOSAN 1914-1956 Writer Poet Activist,” followed by an epitaph that Bulosan himself had written: “Here here the tomb of Bulosan is / Here here are his words dry as the grass is.” It was a pretty spot, truth to tell, and the grass was hardly dry. After the cemetery, we visited Seattle’s International District near the waterfront, to peek at the Bulosan exhibit through the windows of the historic Eastern Hotel, where Bulosan and other Filipino cannery workers lived.

Demi and Jerry don’t know it yet, but they have another Bulosan memento coming from me: a copy of the Saturday Review of Literature from March 9, 1946, on the cover of which the famous pen-and-ink portrait of Bulosan first appeared. One of these days, I’ll pay another homage, to the Bulosan memorabilia on exhibit at the University of Eastern Pangasinan in Binalonan, where they keep copies of his letters, commemorate September 11 as Carlos Bulosan Day, and teach a 3-unit course on his life and works. There’s a trove of material on him at the University of Washington library, and perhaps on another visit to Seattle, with more time, I might look into that, too. But as every Fil-Am and indeed every Filipino should know, a pioneering voice like Carlos Bulosan’s can ring everywhere and forever, in the heart.

Bulosan

Penman No. 19: Autumn in New York

Penman for Monday, November 5, 2012

I FIRST visited New York 32 years ago, as a young man on his first trip abroad, and I can still remember the convulsive thrill that I felt as I peered out the window of my plane from Detroit and saw Manhattan’s spires rising toward me, to the accompaniment of a Gershwin tune.

At the same time, I looked at New York with not a little dread, both because of its sheer immensity and also its fearsome reputation for harboring mobsters and hucksters. While I marveled at the Christmas lights of Rockefeller Center, I also saw Times Square and Bryant Park at their worst, long before Rudy Guiliani came in with a broom, and 9/11 lent the city the kind of composure that comes with tragedy.

I’ve been back many times since—with my mother, daughter, and sister, and Beng’s sister living in the US, we try to visit every year—and over the years, I’ve slowly learned to trust if not to love this mother and mentor of modern cities, holding my wariness in check just long enough to let New York’s many and unexpected charms seep through and permeate my senses.

It’s a tired cliché by now, but while I go to my sister’s place outside of Washington, DC for rest and recuperation, I go to New York for the energy and the excitement, for the buskers in the subways playing everything from Vivaldi to That’s Amore, for Paul’s Burgers in St. Mark’s Place, for the two lions guarding the library (Patience downtown, Fortitude on the uptown side), for the $6/lb. Chinese takeouts, for the Art Deco flourishes nearly everywhere you look, for the Housing Works resale shops, for the discounted Broadway tickets, for the Sabrett’s hotdogs on the sidewalks, for the muscular subway, for the parks that sprout up amidst brownstone and cinderblock, for the warren of words that’s the Strand, and, of course, for the translucent glass stairway leading down to the reverse-heaven of the Apple Store.

New York can have the newest of the new—think of the iPhone 5 and the iPad mini—but oddly enough, what Beng and I enjoy most on our New York visits is seeking out old treasures (or what might be junk to most other people) in the thrift shops of 23rd Street and the flea markets of the Upper West Side and Hell’s Kitchen. Sometimes these treasures even come free, shamelessly dragged in off the street on my sister-in-law’s block in Forest Hills, like that miniature wooden Christmas sleigh that I salvaged last week off the top of a pile of detritus (the polite Roman word, I think, for garbage).

Inevitably, despite our absent intentions, every visit brings something new. Two years ago it was the magic of dusk in Coney Island, at the very end of the F subway line and, it seemed, of New York itself, so serene was that velvet hour with the amusement park’s fun machines in off-season repose. This year it was a day trip we took by train to a small village called Cold Spring, up the Hudson River, after learning that it hosted a cluster of antique shops and was a good place to catch the fall colors, besides.

It did not disappoint on either count; autumn declared itself resplendently for most of the 90-minute ride along the ribbon of the Hudson, and exploded in brilliant yellows and reds on our arrival in Cold Spring. As Beng and Mimi scoured the shops for old buttons, bottles, and trinkets, I strayed into a shop with a small door that turned out to be a huge warehouse of vintage knickknacks—among them, a lovely black hard-rubber-and gold Conklin ladies’ pen from around 1920 and a marbled Parker Vacumatic desk pen from 1935. Having earlier picked up a Waterman silver-overlay pen and a contemporaneous brass inkwell from 1915 at the Greenflea Market on the Upper West Side, I pronounced this trip sufficiently penworthy, and contented myself for the rest of the day with photographing the Hudson’s color-washed banks.

Another novelty on this trip was my first walk into and across the heart of Central Park, which I had somehow never done in three decades of visiting New York. All that time I had contented myself with reconnoitering the fringes of the park, forewarned by a score of movies and CSI New York episodes about the demons and dangers lurking within. On the Saturday that we crossed the park on our way to Greenflea, we met nothing more dangerous than sprightly squirrels and latter-day hippies channeling John Lennon in Strawberry Fields, the corner of the park across the Dakota Apartments, where Lennon lived and was shot dead (a few days after I left New York on my first visit there in 1980). And how can you walk across Central Park without (again) George Gershwin, Simon and Garfunkel, Barbra Streisand, and Liza Minnelli performing in concert in your dreaming head?

We had earlier visited the 9/11 Memorial downtown, where the Twin Towers used to stand; last year it had been under construction—and still was, to some degree, as the museum within has yet to open. But the two large reflecting pools were already in operation, acting like four-sided waterfalls whose constant flow—broken only, when we looked, by an almost unbearably theatrical rainbow—seemed to represent a perpetual dousing of the fires that burned the towers down, a cleansing of the evil and the ill will that came before and after the event. I had also been there in 2001, a few months before 9/11, and had seen the towers—had even gone up to the top of one of them on an earlier visit—but had no personal connection to the place. Still, I paused when I caught a name—one of almost 3,000 names etched deeply into the bronze railings around the pools—that was unmistakably Filipino: “Ronald Gamboa,” who turned out to be a 33-year-old Fil-Am, a manager at The Gap who died as a passenger on UA 175, one of the hijacked planes.

In yet another unintended irony, I’m writing this paean to New York from Lansing, Michigan, where I’m attending a conference and from where I’m supposed to fly back to JFK tomorrow and then back home to Manila on Thursday—but can’t, because New York and much of the American East Coast has been shut down by super storm Sandy, and I’m effectively stranded. If I can’t get back to JFK by Wednesday, I’ll have to rebook my Manila-bound flight, and stay in New York a little longer. That’ll be mildly annoying—but I can’t wait to spend a bonus weekend in Manhattan, poring over heaps of junk at the flea market, in quest of that golden glint that could be the clip of a 1936 Parker Vacumatic Oversize, one that George Gershwin himself might have scripted a tune or two with.

Penman No. 17: Another October, Another Michigan

Penman for Monday, October 22, 2012

LIKE I mentioned last week, I’m in the US to visit family and to participate at the International Conference on the Philippines (Icophil), which is taking place Oct. 28-30 at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan.

Dealing with all aspects of Philippine Studies, Icophil happens every four years, and it’s been held around the world—mainly in the US and the Philippines, but also in Australia and the Netherlands; the upcoming conference in Michigan will be the ninth. Icophil’s international reach reflects not only the global Filipino diaspora, but also the growing interest and engagement of non-Filipino scholars in Philippine affairs. While most participants still come from the Philippines, a significant number of speakers and panelists come from foreign universities.

Icophil also provides scholars an opportunity to assess the state of Philippine Studies around the world, in a roundtable organized by Prof. Belinda Aquino of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who is Icophil’s founding chair. Convenors for this year’s conference are the eminent scholars Dr. Roger Bresnahan of MSU and Dr. Bernardita Churchill of UP.

Aside from us Filipinos, this meeting will bring together Filipinists from the US, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Australia, France, Russia, Spain, and the Netherlands. By institutional affiliation, the confirmed Filipino participants will include Jose Buenconsejo, Marilyn Canta, and myself (UP Diliman)); Filomeno Aguilar, Jr., Czarina Saloma-Akpedonu, and Lisandro Claudio (Ateneo de Manila); Paul Dumol and Clement Camposano (University of Asia and the Pacific); Raymundo Rovillos (UP Baguio); Teresita Ang See (KAISA); Nick Deocampo (Center for New Cinema);  Genevieve L. Asenjo (DLSU); Hope Sabanpan-Yu (University of San Carlos), Kristian Cordero (Ateneo de Naga); and Prisciliano Bauzon (University of Southern Mindanao).

Icophil 2012’s keynote speaker will be an international expert on climate change, Dr. Rodel Lasco, Senior Scientist and Philippine Program Coordinator of the World Agro-Forestry Centre (ICRAF) and Affiliate Professor, UPLB School of Environmental Science and Management. A recipient of the Outstanding Young Scientist Award in 1997, Dr. Lasco has been a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change since 1999. In 2009, he was elected to the National Academy of Science and Technology of the Philippines.

Trailers for two new and interesting documentaries will be shown: one by MSU Prof. Geri Alumit-Zeldes on the two Filipino nurses who were wrongly convicted for murdering their patients in Ann Arbor, Mich. in the mid-1970s, and another, by filmmaker Sonny Izon, about the “Manilaners”—Jewish refugees from the Nazi Holocaust who found refuge in Manila through the intercession of President Manuel Quezon. Filmmaker Nick Deocampo will also be showing a documentary on American influences on Philippine cinema.

The panel discussions cover a predictably broad range of topics, from indigenous peoples, the Pinoy diaspora, and peace-building to economic relations, modernization, and popular culture (one of my early favorites on the program: “Automats, Supper Clubs, Drive-ins, and Quarantined Carinderias: The Contradictions of Restaurant Culture in Post-War Manila” by Peter Keppy of the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation).

I expect to be ruffling a few academic feathers with my chosen topic, which just happens to be one of my recent areas of expertise: “The Commissioned Biography: Confessions of a Hired Gun.” I’ll be speaking less as an academic than a professional writer, and I’ll try to keep it light, but I’ll be dealing with some serious ethical and academic questions raised by the practice of biographical writing from a sympathetic point of view, as opposed to the independent and critical stance expected of the unpaid scholar. Aside from payment for the writer and PR for the subject, can there be anything to be gained from the commissioned biographies that have appeared in recent years on Philippine shelves? Can they be of any service to the academic historian, political scientist, and litterateur? My provisional answer is yes, but I’m going to have to prove my case.

I tacked on the official part of this trip to my annual vacation so it’s not costing UP anything, but I have another personal reason for going to Icophil. I’m a proud graduate of Michigan State’s archrival, the University of Michigan (MFA ’88), but it was MSU (the “other” Michigan) and East Lansing that hosted me for more than two months on my first visit to the US (and my first trip abroad) in 1980. I’d never been away from my home and family for so long, and it was here that my 30-year-plus relationship with America took off. I would even write about that first autumn—about a foray into the yellow forest in my backyard called Sanford Woods—in my first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place (1992):

“Sandbar, Sandfar, Sanford. Sanford Woods. In the shock of autumn, the first of my life, I took a walk in Sanford Woods with Estoy. Estoy himself had arrived in the United States just the previous year to take a Ph.D. in Development Economics on a fellowship, and I took the train up to Michigan the first chance I got to leave the conference in New York. I had never stepped into a forest of red and gold before, and for the first few minutes I trod carefully on the layered ground, as though disturbing it would hurtle me back in a swirl of pretty leaves to prison camp. We let ourselves be taken in and covered by that new season: we watched the squirrels shimmy up the trunks, and, coming into a patch of pure, delirious yellow, I persuaded Estoy to pose for a snapshot he could send home to his wife Marie. He stood stiffly against the color, hands in his jacket pockets, and he muttered an oath about the cold, but his grin was true. On the way back we observed how fat the squirrels were. In Manila, Estoy said, they’d be roasting on a spit, if they ever got that big. I said that there probably was a law preventing people from doing that in this country.”

That fellow “Estoy” was based on a real character, a friend who passed away a few years ago, whose life was marked by both blinding brilliance and consuming darkness. I barely told his story in the novel, and it will be a moving experience for me to retrace our steps into those woods, in another October more than three decades after.

More comic is the memory of my first kitchen disasters in that new country: of how I walked miles to the nearest Asian food store, craving food from home, and then eagerly frying a panful of dilis in my dorm room, only to have people hammering on my door, asking where that awful smell was coming from; and of stashing bottles of Coke in the freezer and forgetting about them, to be greeted by a ragged waterfall of black ice upon opening the fridge.

I’ll have a thing or two to say in East Lansing, but I’m really looking forward to more private conversations with the squirrels and sugar maples of Sanford Woods.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flashback No. 4: What Fil-Ams Can Do

This being the Fourth of July, and my daughter Demi having taken her oath as an American citizen a couple of weeks ago, I thought I’d repost this piece I wrote for the now-defunct San Francisco-based magazine Filipinas a few years ago.

Manileño for January 2007

I HAD a very pleasant and engaging semester as a visiting professor at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, last fall, a welcome break from my teaching duties at the University of the Philippines, where I should be back in harness by the time you read this. Not only did my stint at SNC allow me to introduce the Philippines to about 50 of my own students, only three of whom were Filipino-Americans; I was also able to speak before several groups of students and compatriots in other schools—the University of Michigan, the University of California at San Diego, and Marian College in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.

With UCSD having one of the biggest Asian-American student populations among US universities, my encounter with the students there after my formal talk proved the longest and most challenging. Here, a student raised a question that I would hear in other places: what was the best thing Filipino-Americans could do for Filipinos and the Philippines?

I’m sure that it’s a question that occupies Filipino-Americans all the time, and for which there are any number of answers, some easier and more obvious than others.

When a supertyphoon hits the Philippines and ravages the land, then relief goods are always welcome; when poor Filipino boys and girls can’t go to school despite their talents, their lives can be changed by scholarships from Fil-Ams who also worked their way up the educational and economic ladder. Many US-based doctors make regular pilgrimages home on medical missions to poor communities. Some Philippine schools receive loads of used books and computers from their alumni in America.

All of these efforts are noble and much appreciated, for sure. A few of them may have been undertaken more to burnish the image of the donor than to uplift the lot of the receiver, but in the end, it doesn’t matter: some public or private good has been done.

At the same time, such humanitarian projects are basically defined by a relationship of dependency, with America as the perennial giver and the Philippines as perpetual receiver. It’s a relationship that, like I told the students in San Diego, can sometimes grate on both sides, with Fil-Ams feeling like the only thing they’re useful for is another donation to another needy cause, and Filipinos feeling like they’re seen as little more than mendicants.

It gets worse when—dependency or not, and whether out of frustration, bossiness, or a genuine concern—some Filipino-Americans dispense quick and easy prescriptions for the cure of Philippine maladies as though nobody back home had the brains or the guts to come up with such ideas on their own.

One such bromide Pinoys often hear is, “Why don’t you just unite behind the President and stop bickering with one another?” Sounds good, but it makes me wonder why more than two million Filipino-Americans can’t get together under, say, just one dozen regional associations and one alumni association for each major university or college, and elect a congressman or US senator among themselves.

The fact is that the best and worst of our culture manifest themselves on both sides of the ocean. Our generosity, our sense of self-sacrifice for the good of the family, our commitment to education, and our industry and resourcefulness have helped us back home as much as they have gained our compatriots a firm footing in American society. On the other hand, the same sorry habits of inggitan, intrigahan, and siraan have fragmented Filipinos in Manila and Manhattan, in Cebu and Chicago, in Davao and Detroit (I’m using these cities metaphorically, but I’m sure you can supply the damning details). One of the worst examples I heard of recently had to do with the visit some years ago of a Philippine president to a Midwestern city—only to find two competing Fil-Am organizations holding two separate programs in two hotels facing each other across the street.

So what did I tell the bright and idealistic Fil-Am students who asked me what I thought they could best do for the Philippines?

Be good Americans, I said—whatever that may mean to each of them. Get engaged in America’s political processes, and make a difference in your own sphere of action. Vote not just for fellow Filipino-Americans—although a few more such voices in high places could help the community as a whole—but for political leaders who will make responsible decisions that will benefit peoples everywhere, including Filipinos.

As the world’s only remaining superpower, America needs all the critical intelligence (and I don’t mean military intelligence) it can muster, and Filipino-Americans can make themselves heard on both domestic and foreign-policy issues, instead of simply going with the flow and making themselves as inconspicuous as possible.

And what’s our claim to being in a unique position to tell Americans and American leaders something they don’t know? Well, we lived with America for half a century. As I often tell my American friends, we were their first Vietnam; and yet we also view America with much greater affection—some would say unreasonably so—than they can ever expect from Afghanistan or Iraq.

Overseas charity is good for the soul and is always welcome; but as they say, it begins at home, as does good global citizenship.