It was two months till my departure for the Philippines and I was biding my time in Brooklyn while writing my first novel, doing the artso-boho scene, learning Tagalog and living off the savings of three years’ worth of teaching college writing. New York had just turned southern-summer humid, an effect that made the center of the urban universe feel only that much more real–intensified the feel of taxicab smog, the stink of subway urine–and I loved it.
I spent the morning redesigning my website, a from-scratch job, every line of code mine, intended to proclaim minimalism inside and out–blistering fast load speeds, readability-optimized page layout. During the previous three years, my life had settled into a daily orbit around my new virtual sun. Facebook chatting had supplanted face-to-face talk. Lesson planning now required Google and Wikipedia. The local cineplex had lost my patronage to Netflix.
But in two months my plugged-in lifestyle would end. Abruptly and completely. And that’s why I’d decided to devote the rest of that day to schooling myself for my upcoming Peace Corps service.
I closed my laptop.
I took the L train into Manhattan.
I walked the ten blocks to NYU’s Bobst Library, looking over the call numbers of the books I’d found in the online catalog: Burning Heart: A Portrait of the Philippines, All You Need is Love: The Peace Corps and the Spirit of the 1960s, and a collection of plays by Nick Joaquin who, I’d gathered, is a pretty seminal figure in the Philippine literary canon.
Bobst Library’s main floor is covered in a tetris-like tessellation that looks three-dimensional when you’re walking across it and absolutely vertiginous when you’re sitting on the 6th floor looking down. After a bit of good old-fashioned bookstack hunting I found my quarry. But I also found that I was not in the mood for literature: I decided to pass over Nick Joaquin in favor of the academic scholarship.
I took Burning Heart off the shelf along with a book titled Philippines into the 21st Century. It seemed appropriate. All You Need Is Love was missing, but there was a whole section on volunteerism with a nice subsection on the Peace Corps, including some of the seminal documents like speeches by Sargent Shriver, the program’s first director. I finally settled on Making Them Like Us: Peace Corps Volunteers in the 1960s, primarily for the hinted at problematics in the title. Then I made my way to a study carrel where I could gaze down dizzily upon the entry floor.
I opened Burning Heart. To my surprise, it was a photography collection. I’d intended to do my learning the snobby scholarly way, no picture-book fun for me. But now the book was open and there was nothing do to but ogle. All the photos were done in glossy black & white with just enough sepia to make you realize it would be disgustingly easy to hopelessly romanticize that place, the Philippines. It also had a rustle of poems on facing pages, like this one:
The drag queen
bums a cigarette
and strikes a pose
all sass and attitude
a cross dangles prominently
from a chain
around his neck
along with anting-anting
to ward off
eye of God
hand of Fatima
(just in case)
There was a picture of a teenage boy wearing a Marlboro shirt and holding an Uzi, two scrawny old men with old Chinese wiseman wrinkled faces officiating a cockfight, a crowd with fists raised singing the national anthem, hands exchanging money on a beach while three fish lay below on the sand, a little boy smoking a cigarette begging at a taxi window, a stone monument to Ferdinand Marcos overgrown with palms and birdshit, a topless prostitute at the brothel door, a driving range that opened into the ocean just like that Seinfeld episode with Kramer and the whale, senators praying in their chambers, crosses, Jesus statues, Virgin Mary votives, flaming political effigies, a weary classroom poster that read
Am I ready for school?
Did I take a bath?
Did I wash my face?
Did I brush my teeth?
Did I comb my hair?
Did I change my clothes?
Did I wash my hands?
Did I eat my breakfast?
Did I clean my fingernails?
Did I wash my feet?
The photographer had titled this one “School Commandments.” My Peace Corps assignment was education, so for obvious reasons this stuck with me. Was this the kind of schoolmarm mindset that would greet me in Manila? Was the poster really as primitively moral-indoctrinatory as it felt? Or had I forgotten that posters not so dissimilar hung in my own kindergarten classroom? Why, when I looked at this photo, did I think of the National Geographic and of high school AP History vocab like the ‘noble savage’ and ’selective borrowing’ and of those commercials about feeding starving children with just a dollar a day? Why had I wasted the morning doing nonessential website design? More to the point, was I looking at the school commandments differently because it was in a beautiful sepia photobook, and because in two months I would be there, tasked with making them like us?
In that moment, suddenly, something seemed so significant. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I knew it had to do with cultural relativism, about how we form stereotypes about people and places, cognitive shorthand that is both necessary and dangerous.
The photo book hadn’t helped me understand Filipinos any better. At least not in any definite way. Sure, if I’d wanted to I could’ve teased narratives out of the images, posited explications of the nation’s inner contradictions the photographer may or may not have been trying to elicit, to foreground, to put in relief. But I didn’t want to.
There was something else going on and it had less to do with what I had seen in those photographs and more to do with what those people in those photographs saw in me.