detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Thursday, February 08, 2001

: . A Filipiniana Romance Part I (of II): I brought few possessions when I left the Philippines with my sister on Easter Sunday in 1988. My father, ever practical, insisted that we pack only what we can carry by hand. Apart from a few clothes, a small pink plastic toy piano, a Gary Valenciano cassette tape, and three crisp twenty dollar bills, I managed pack, past my father’s prying eyes, three of my newest books—a very small portion from my then growing collection. Since I was six, when my father decided that it was time for me to own a child’s illustrated bible (he and my mother bought me one while my sister and I were left behind in a movie theater playing Raiders of the Lost Ark), I was let loose every other month or so at the National Bookstore branch my father frequented to pick out a book I liked. I was 12 years old when I left the Philippines and by that time I had amassed enough children’s books (Choose Your Own Adventure books when I got older) to fill an entire wicker bookcase; I was sad to leave them behind.

When we arrived in New York I placed the three books prominently on my new nightstand to the amusement of my mother and my new, slightly neurotic, Jewish stepfather. The books, following standard Filipino practice, were all wrapped neatly in plastic and stenciled, using transfer paper, in bold black letters with my name (my new, slightly neurotic, Jewish stepfather wondered, ridiculously, whether I had written the books myself—I was no child genius). The books bore titles too adult for my age: Charles McDougal’s The Marcos File, Beth Day Romulo’s Inside the Palace, and Carmen Navarro Pedrosa’s The Untold Story of Imelda Marcos. The first People Power Revolution had just swept the Philippines two years before, and feeling slightly rebellious (my father was a fierce Marcos loyalist), I was proud of reading and owning those anti-Marcos books.

Perhaps it was seeing those titles that inspired my new stepfather to surprise me with two books about the Philippines (E. San Juan Jr.’s Toward a People’s Literature and John Bresnan’s Crisis in the Philippines). A month later he surprised me with two more, travel books this time (The Lonely Planet Guide to the Philippines and Insight Guides: Philippines). My new stepfather had never been married and had never had children of his own and so, in a typical move, he overcompensated by indulging what he thought were our whims. I had never seen much of the Philippines nor had I known much Philippine history. I had never even thought of myself as being Filipino (even when I auditioned, when I was nine, for a boy’s choir by singing “Ako ay Pilipino” a la Kuh Ledesma). I do remember being both enchanted and enraged by my sixth-grade social studies teacher’s account of the Filipino American War but nothing, no lasting sense of nationalism came out of it. The summer (in the Philippines) after I learned about the Filipino American War I had to leave the Philippines and so I could not have learned more to have fashioned out of those initial feelings of rage and enchantment something concrete, something sturdy enough to make me want to wave a flag for. But those new books and ones I had brought with me, at that time and in that place, stirred up new sensations.

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