Explaining ourselves
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - July 20, 2019 - 12:00am

One issue of Time Magazine years ago summed up the Filipino as “appearance-obsessed, tune-mad, witty to the depths of his Christian soul and besotted with the English language.” This is as good a starting point as any.

Our obsession with looks explains the success of midnight-madness sales. The arteries of EDSA are always clogged with the cholesterol of people and buses every time the malls from Makati to Quezon City decide to hold their sales – all at the same time. I’m not exempted from this, of course.

There was a Spring Sale in Scotland when I was studying during the last century, so my friend Tina and I decided to check it out. The prices of the shoes were slashed by 50 percent, so we bought a few pairs that would last us for years. I bought three pairs: a pair of purple suede shoes, brown loafers from Clarks, and leather shoes made in Italy. The purple shoes would miraculously vanish the moment I settled back in the Philippines, thrown away by my mother who was scandalized that her son would wear such color to class! Tina bought ten pairs of shoes. We were about to pay for our hoard when we overheard the cashier and her friend talking about the news that they just watched the night before.

The cheerful cashier told her friend: “My, oh my, did you see her on the telly last night? Wearing that blue dress with butterfly wings on a cold spring day in New York?” The cashier rolled her rrrrsss and relished the telling of her exquisite tale.

Then the female friend answered. “Felicity, do you remember how many pairs of shoes did Imelda Marcos have?”

But before Felicity could answer, she had already seen us, hunkering behind our boxes of shoes. She expressed delight at her generous customers. She was beginning to ring the cash register when she asked, “By the way, where are you from?”

I glared at Tina.

“Ahhhh,” she began. “we are from. . . Asia.”

“Of course you are, but where in Asia?” Felicity pressed on.

My eyes were already as big as my face, and I turned them on, in all their rotundity, at Tina. She answered, “Ahhhh, we live near Hong Kong.”

Since I have Chinese eyes and the Spanish mestiza Tina (properly, Cristina) could pass for a Portuguese herself, the woman just smiled and rang up the merchandise. After we paid, she said, “Oh, we do not have so many visitors from Macau. I hope you enjoy your stay in bonnie Scotland.”

Tina and I heaved a collective sigh, smiled at her, and walked away from her store – then we entered the next store, this time selling clothes at 50 percent off.

And now that my friends and I have clocked our mid-century years, we have begun to be more conscious of our looks as well. I gained 15 pounds since I arrived in Malaysia two years ago, mainly from the sweet teh tarik (pulled tea) and the Indian dishes afloat in curries and coconut milk. Streaks of white hair have also sprouted on my temples. I go to the gym in the condo when I can, and I go to Orange Blush Salon in Cubao when I am home, where its lovely owner Joby Moreno asks her staff to dye my hair, give me hair spa, and then cut my locks. After two hours, I marvel at the transformation: black hair tinged with just a bit of brown, soft locks snipped with just the correct shortness.

Music, too, has become a cliché, but go to any hotel in Asia, hop aboard a cruise ship, and you would find a Filipino singer or band crooning and playing tune-perfect songs – in different languages. One of my British friends told me he was in Bangkok and he went to a hotel where the night’s highlight was a Filipino band. The Pinoys sang American songs, serenaded Japanese tourists with a Nihonggo song, crooned a Chinese ditty to another group from Taiwan – and when they learnt this couple in the corner was German and it was the man’s birthday, why, they sang Happy Birthday to him in perfect Aleman! Go to YouTube and read the foreigners comments after listening to Regine Velasquez, or Lea Salonga, or KZ Tandingan or the TNT Boys: “What is it about the water in the Philippines that you produce such excellent singers?”

Well, we have floods now but we rarely have water in our taps but, yes, we will sing because we have karaoke bars and I am quite sure there would have been Filipinos singing aboard the Titanic were we a European, and not an American, colony.

I have seen wit in the company of the late National Artist for Literature and Theatre Rolando S. Tinio. One afternoon, I was visiting his house in Tandang Sora when I saw a dog by the doorway. I told him I am afraid of a dog bite. But Rolando calmed me down by saying, “Hay, that’s not really a dog. That’s just a statue pretending to be a dog.” My laughter must have roused the dog from its ancient stupor, and it managed a weak bark in the late afternoon. To prove to its master Rolando that it really was, and still is, a dog.

And the English language? Tina and I were attending a reception given by the Rotary Club of Stirling for foreign students when this warden from a Scottish jail and his wife chatted with us. They said, “Your English is excellent. Did you study in the US?”

“No,” we said.

“Ahhhh. Canada then?”

“No.”

The couple looked at each other. “Australia? New Zealand? England?”

“Nooooo.”

So finally, perhaps wearily, the couple asked: “So where did you learn your English?”

I blurted, “The Philippines!” the way Catriona Gray introduced herself, saying the name of a country that is like nothing else in the world.

* * *

Comments can be sent to danton.lodestar@gmail.com

DANTON REMOTO
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