by ninotchka rosca
It’s the most popular item on the HuffPost, with nearly 200,000 viewers and nearly 1,500 comments, most expressing astonishment at what George W. said to Gloria Mac-Arroyo, de facto president to de facto president. He said “First, I want to tell you how proud I am to be the President of a nation that — in which there’s a lot of Philippine-Americans. They love America and they love their heritage. And I reminded the President that I am reminded of the great talent of the — of our Philippine-Americans when I eat dinner at the White House.” And then added: “And the chef is a great person and a really good cook, by the way, Madam President. ”
I wish she’d replied, with a smile, “thanks and General Taguba was no pushover either” or “I hope she serves you dinuguan” or “have you checked on your dogs lately?” But she sat there like stone, muttering “thank you” as George W. Bush stereotyped her and her entire nation.
Oich! To discern ethnic stereotyping can be difficult, especially if one has had little experience with racism. In my early months in New York, a guest at a dinner given in my honor started telling me about her maid in Italy. This guest was Rome bureau head of a mega news magazine and she had a “Filipino maid” who was, as she put it, a “good person” but who had started pilfering small items. Embarrassed, I vacillated between allegiance to my compatriot (how much was this news great paying her?) and being polite, per Catholic nuns’ instruction. Fortunately, my host returned from the kitchen, asked what we were talking about, gave me a swift glance, and started shouting at her guest: “Why are you telling her this? She’s a journalist and a writer. What’s she got to do with maids? With your maid?”
The Rome bureau head stuttered, turned red and said, “I just thought…” My host snapped: “Well, you just stop that thought right now!”
Not having experienced insidious, constant and subtle ethnicstereotyping, I had to work out the subtext of that conversation in my sleep and woke up furious. A year later, as guest of honor at a one-woman show at a Washington D.C. art gallery, I was introduced to the artist’s mother, who promptly said: “Oh, you’re from the Philippines! My daughter’s nanny is from the Philippines.” By then, I could snap back: “What a coincidence! My secretary’s white!”
How ironic that one had to be prickly to fit into this society, especially when one wasn’t white. But one had to acquire armor against the subtle put-downs, usually given when one was occupying, in the eyes of the put-downer, a “privileged” position. When my first book was reviewed favorably by the Times and my excited landlady made practically everyone in our building read the article, one neighbor who had a toy terrier with a diamond collar asked, “is it true Filipinos eat dogs?” I said of course and called out to his dog, “here, Foxy, here; straight to the kitchen, I’ll make you a good dinner.”
Sometimes you just have to out gross “them.”
Many Filipinos do not get this kind of nuanced insult. Some would even be flattered that George W. remembered the Filipina chef in the White House kitchen, “a very good cook,” chrissakes. It’s akin to the pleasure we feel when a feudal warlord joins the town fiesta and dances with the hoi polloi; never mind that he’s just taken away half of the harvest. I’ve had Filipinos tell me to “please not insult our American friend” who’s just insulted me galore, as if they, despite citizenship, weren’t Americans. I would’ve dearly loved to have said “neither can your president” to this guy in my neighborhood – a guy who, upon catching sight of me walking on the sidewalk, said over his cell phone that the place was beginning to be full of aliens “who can’t even speak English.” As it was, I could only advise him to buy a Vlasik and sit on it.
Two things mystify me about this Gloria Mac-Arroyo visit. First, the “roll-in-the-dust” gratitude for the paltry sum of $700 million in aid, considering the public humiliation. If it’s just a matter of money, overseas Filipino workers send home up to $20 billion per year, without needing to insult anyone. Had Gloria Mac-Arroyo been attentive to their needs – ordered the government to negotiate for really decent wages and working conditions for domestic workers, instead of the monthly $200 they get at the United Arab Emirates, for instance, working 16 hours 24/7 – the bloody $700 million would’ve meant only a hundreddollar donation per OFW. Were the Philippine government just a shade more caring, OFW’s would’ve sent home an extra billion dollars, with pleasure and without subjecting even the most deserving public servant to public embarrassment.
More, that would’ve been cold, hard cash — unlike foreign aid, which is usually spent on goods made by American corporations and on salaries for American experts who tell Filipinos what to do and how to do it. Aid is not aid for the recipient country; it is aid for American big business who thus are spared the need to be grateful for U.S. taxpayer’s money. More, such goods invariably change the lifestyle of the recipient country so it becomes a vulnerable market for U.S. goods. It’s part of the national US budget for advertising. Consider that at one time, the weight-loss meal replacement Metrecal was sent to the Philippines as part of foreign aid.
After all these years of receiving foreign aid, one would expect Philippine government officials to conclude that foreign aid, foreign investments, etc., do not solve/resolve anything; that issues of poverty and inequity have to be resolved at ground level, by our bootstraps, as it were.
The second mystifying thing is why Gloria Mac-Arroyo started thanking U.S. congress people for the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill – which is not even approved yet. The bill is intended to provide pensions for the few surviving Filipinos who fought with USAFFE in WWII; they were denied equal benefits as U.S. soldiers by the Rescission Act of 1946 which declared that the services of some 250,000 Filipinos under the U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East “shall not be deemed to be or to have been service in the military or national forces of the United States or any component thereof or any law of the United States conferring rights, privileges or benefits.”
That clause meant no medical attention, no recognition, nothing whatsoever, all history of that service erased. I have occasionally exclaimed, “that’s what you get for fighting under a foreign flag” but this is such a palpable act of racism it cannot be overlooked.
Over the years, the veterans and a few allies have fought to eke out “rights, privileges or benefits,” starting with access to the Veterans Hospital. Now here comes Gloria Mac-Arroyo thanking US legislators for an unpassed bill, pretending that she had had a role in the struggle for veterans’ rights. And who weren’t thanked for this struggle for equal rights? Why the veterans themselves, the Fil-Am community of supporters, advocates who’d gotten old and hoarse trying to correct this discrimination. As 86-year-old veteran Faustino Baclig said, “sobra ang tsu-tsu” (too much of a suck-up).
Because the Philippine government refuses to recognize and rely on the indomitable character of the people it purportedly governs and represents, because the Philippine government continues to be led by suck-ups, all who are of Philippine ancestry become vulnerable to ethnic stereotyping, public humiliation and the disgrace of being perpetual beggars even as the Philippines gives away all of its resources — from human to natural. Sad, just too sad. — ##