Qwertyman for Monday, March 27, 2023
“AMERICA THE Paradox” was the title of an undergraduate paper I wrote on Carlos Bulosan for my class in Philippine literature, in which I observed—as many had done before me—that Bulosan felt deeply conflicted by the two faces that he kept seeing in America. On the one hand, it was the mother with open arms, calling out to the world’s orphans, and accepting of all brave and enterprising spirits. On the other hand, it was the hard fist of racism, viciously averse to all complexions other than white.
Bulosan arrived in Seattle in 1930, a time of great economic turmoil, and he soon found himself fighting for the exploited poor, becoming a labor organizer and writing radical poetry. He would remain poor for the rest of his short life, despite achieving some degree of literary celebrity following the success of his semi-autobiographical 1946 novel America Is in the Heart. He died of tuberculosis in Seattle in 1956, never having been able to come home. I was so moved by Bulosan’s travails that I gifted our daughter with a signed first edition of his novel as her wedding present, and paid my respects at his grave when I visited Seattle some years ago.
Last Thursday, March 23rd, I joined several hundred other guests for dinner at the Sofitel to celebrate a joyful event: the 75th anniversary of the Fulbright program in the Philippines. Over that period, the Fulbright program, which selects and sends scholars from all over the world to study in the US, has sponsored over 3,000 Filipino scholars and 1,000 American scholars coming to the Philippines. The Philippines—through the Philippine-American Educational Foundation (PAEF)—has the longest-running Fulbright program in the world, dating back to March 23, 1948, hence last week’s big commemoration.
It isn’t hard to see why Sen. J. William Fulbright believed that such a scholarship program was a good idea then, with the Cold War brewing and America projecting itself as the champion of the Free World. For the Philippines, it was a continuation of the prewar practice of sending pensionados to the US, thereby ensuring a cohort of Filipino intellectuals and administrators sympathetic to the American cause.
I myself went out on a Fulbright twice—in 1986, for my MFA at Michigan and then my PhD at Wisconsin, and then in 2014 as a senior scholar at George Washington University. It would be an understatement to say that the Fulbright—especially that first five-year stint—was life-changing for me. The learning was exhilarating, but the living—away from home and family—was fraught with pain.
Still, we Fulbrighters had it much better than Bulosan. Most of our expenses were borne by the American taxpayer (although, because of a budget crunch, I had to teach and also to work part-time as a cook, cashier, and busboy at a Chinese takeout). Our return home was guaranteed (indeed, legally mandated). Most of us enjoyed the hospitality and support of new Fil-Am and American friends.
Although here and there we had the inevitable brush with racism, we saw America in the best possible light, as a source of knowledge and of the democratic spirit. Arriving in Michigan just after EDSA 1986, I too was seen as living proof of the long and beneficial reach of America’s cultural influence: I could speak English like they did, and (mild boast coming) could write at least as well if not better than they did.
I recall how, in one Shakespeare class, I was the only one who could explain the difference between “parataxis” and “hypotaxis,” and how, in another class, our professor wrote up a long sentence from one of my stories on the board to demonstrate “Jose’s perfect command of punctuation.” But all that was presumably because of my Americanized education—not even in America, but in the Philippines, where we had seemingly prepared all our lives to come to America, only to find ourselves more indoctrinated than many Americans. (I had memorized all the state capitals in grade school in La Salle, confounding my American friends at Trivial Pursuit.)
Ironically, I also belonged to the First Quarter Storm generation that railed against “American imperialism,” that learned about our colonial exploitation and about the primacy of American self-interest in its transactions with the world. We rallied at the US Embassy against the war in Vietnam and against the US bases in the Philippines. We denounced Ferdinand Marcos as an American puppet, and saw Washington’s hand in every instance of political mayhem around the globe. Where did all that militancy go? Was a scholarship to Hollywood enough to negate these accusations?
Seated at that Fulbright dinner and listening to the speakers extolling our special relationship with America, I thought about Bulosan, the FQS, my Fulbright experience, our daughter in California, my teaching of American literature, and such recent issues as EDCA and the Chinese presence in our territorial waters to sort out my emotions.
The America that had been such a paradox for Bulosan remains, in many ways, a chimera for us today—speaking with moral authority against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and yet still enamored in many places of Trumpian demagoguery; espousing peace and human rights while allowing assault rifles on its streets; and promoting education and global literacy while hosting the world’s biggest engines of disinformation. We want to believe in the America that believed in us, although the cynical can argue that “believed” should be taken as “invested,” of whose efficacy this column offers ample proof.
In the end, I reminded myself of what I tell my students: (1) The American government and the American people are not necessarily the same; (2) The American people are many peoples; there is no single, monolithic America; (3) We study America and its literature not to become Americans, but to be better Filipinos; and (4) We often take the terms “America” and “American” in an ideal or idealized sense, a compound of expectations and aspirations shaped by Abraham Lincoln, Hollywood, cable TV, and Spotify.
We went to America not just to study there, but to study America, and that study continues.
(Image from pacforum.org)