detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Monday, June 24, 2002


: . Mistaken Identity:

An old (Christmas '99), goofy photograph of myself, "looking happily gay" says my friend E. (or did I say that?). Why?

1. Like many members of my family, I rarely have my pictures taken. I do not have thick photo albums stacked on my coffee table offering a visual chronicle of my life. I've never even owned a camera. Not even the disposable kind. And on the rare occasions that a lens of any sort captures my image, I always end up looking goofy, bloated, or constipated. The smiles are always off, the eyes always uneasy. The envelope in which I store my pictures are full of unflattering likenesses. Being a night person, maybe there's something vampiric about this aversion towards photographs--at least the ones in which I am one of the subjects. The movie Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, starring William Holden as an American newspaper reporter and Jennifer Jones as a Eurasian doctor, comes to mind. The part in which Chinese street peddlers refuse to be photographed for fear that the camera might steal their souls. I am not morbid enough to link the stillness of photographic images with deathly rigor. But by abstracting elements of the everyday, each and every photograph is a record of a kind death and an intimation of immortality, a dying towards everlasting life. Oddly enough, I am also my family's unofficial archivist. From the day I was born up until now, I recall moving from one house to another fifteen times and on each of those moves one precious possession after another has gotten lost. Like the family photo albums. Any photograph I come across, showing any member of my family, I guard with my life.

2. On the phone, I am often mistaken for a woman. Telemarketers, upon hearing my voice, invariably refer to me as Ma'am. When I had to call a Filipino bookseller after a glitch in an online ordering process, the person on the other line told me, with a slightly bemused tone: 'Ay, babae pala kayo. Akala ko lalaki.' I did not correct her. (When I told my friend S. about this, she was surprised that I just played along. 'And you pretended that you were really a woman because..." she asked, waiting for a punchline. "Uh…because gender is socially constructed?" I replied.) A few years ago, a representative from Citibank scolded me when I called to check on the status of a student loan. Whatever appeared on her computer screen indicated that I was male but she thought that my voice was far from masculine. She kept on asking me if I were really Ari Ngaseo and I said yes, I was Ari Ngaseo. 'But Ma'am,' she interrupted and, as I habitually do, I answered back, 'Yes?' She was probably congratulating herself with her clever method of entrapment. She told me that my call was illegal, an invasion of someone's privacy. That was not the last time I would be accused of impersonating myself. Now, I do not have a particularly feminine (or effeminate) voice. I went through puberty, my voice broke, and I suppose I could sound manly enough if I made the effort. But I always speak softly with complete strangers. Inherently shy, I thought that by speaking softly I would be able to make my presence known but unobtrusively, imperceptibly. When I was in elementary school, I spoke with my left hand cupped over my mouth, the way a Hollywood geisha would whenever she giggled. Filipino schoolchildren, gifted with the keenest of gaydars and wiser in the ways of the world and its small cruelties, noticed this, promptly spread rumors, and then called me that word that even now I could never say and never bear to hear. They knew even before I did. If I were a Vulgar Freudian, I would explain my shyness by unpacking one my earliest memories: my mother and father screaming at each other at the top of their lungs within earshot of most of the inhabitants of the Samar logging town in which we lived. But I am not a Vulgar Freudian. (To be continued...)

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