A History of Nomadism

bridge    Chinese     Muslim     arrive     colonize     writing     assimilate     state     teachers     invade     independence     March 3, 1970     assassinate     arrest     return     revolution     $     volcano     act

Pre-history. Settlers cross land bridge from Asian mainland to Philippine islands 20-30,000 years ago.

May 8, 1985. Crossing a bridge of air and time, we arrived in Los Angeles, 11,796 kilometers from a self I did not yet realize I had already lost.

–Welcome to America, the Black immigration officer said

Our first meal in America was Chinese take-out – chow mein, egg rolls, and orange soda. (I learned that they called soft drinks soda in California – and that my English was a foreign language here.)

243 South Lone Hill. My older brother and I shared a small room whose only furniture was two new beds with mattresses still wrapped in plastic and a beat-up radio my brother found next to a dumpster. Because the radio’s dials were missing, we used a screwdriver to change the station. I was overjoyed when I discovered 102.7 KIIS FM – it played the exact same music as my favorite station in Manila.

10th-12th century. Chinese trading posts established along the coast of the Philippines.

A thousand years ago China added its yellow melody to my blood’s red fugue. (When I go to a Chinese restaurant, the waiters will sometimes address me in Chinese, though I don’t speak a word of it.)

15th century. Muslim missionaries reach the Philippines from Indonesia and Malaya.

My ancestors were Muslim before they were Christian, but they were motley heathens for thousands of years before they were either. Now I’m a pagan again. And tomorrow?

March 16, 1521. Magellan arrives in the Philippines, claims region for Spain.
April 27, 1521. Magellan killed by Lapu-Lapu on Mactan Island.

Because Magellan stumbled into Samar (he christened the island Archipelago San Lazaro after the man Jesus raised from the dead) on March 16, 1521, I arrived in LA (El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula) on May 8, 1985. Because Magellan’s ships (sans Magellan) circumnavigated the globe, I am writing these words in English instead of Tagalog.

1565. King Philip II commissions Miguel Lopez de Legazpi to colonize the Philippines. Augustinian missionaries arrive with him, later followed by Franciscans, Dominicans and Recollects.

How can I forgive Catholicism for colonizing my penis?

Obsessed with inquisition, recollection, and confession, will my writing ever stop being religious?

1884. José Rizal starts writing Noli Me Tangere at the age of 23. His nationalist novel, smuggled into Manila in 1887, creates sensation.

I have loved to read ever since I discovered the library when I was seven years old, but I didn’t become a reader till I came to America, where my life suddenly stopped being a story. Was it the unnarratable shock of dislocation that inflamed my hunger for novels with their comforting beginnings, middles, and ends?

Thrown outside myself by my transcontinental displacement, I was abruptly shifted from first to third person, from speaking subject to silent object. He still hasn’t recovered from the trauma of this translation. (His masks multiplied.)

Splitting me, doubling me, exile made me a many-headed monster – a Cerberus, a Scylla, a Hydra; a Typhon hissing riddles with a hundred paradoxical tongues.

–To talk like an American, speak loudly, my father taught us.

Giving up Tagalog for English irrevocably forked my tongue. Now I only speak in ambiguities. (I will never speak English without a foreign accent.)

A writer is an impersonator who falsifies his memories to make them more real.

What wounds shall I reopen with my pencil this time?

May 1, 1898. Dewey’s fleet sinks antiquated Spanish Armada in Manila Bay.
December 10, 1898. The United States and Spain sign treaty of Paris, granting the United States sovereignty over the islands. McKinley calls U.S. policy in the Philippines “benevolent assimilation.”

They say they want you to assimilate, but they wish you wouldn’t.

December 1900. Conservative Filipinos establish Federalista party, advocating statehood for the Philippines.

I was born in the illegal fifty-first state. Every Filipino is born illegal – some more than others.

August 23, 1901. American teachers arrive aboard the U.S. transport Thomas.

The first thing America taught me – I’m not white. I didn’t really become Filipino until I left the Philippines. (Because I’m not white, everyone feels entitled to ask me – Where are you from?)

January 2, 1942. Japanese forces invade Manila.

America invaded me. I didn’t know how to defend myself.

July 4, 1946. The United States grants the Philippines independence.

Nostalgia is the wanderer’s shadow.

When my past was outlawed, I built a hideout in the future. (Who will grant my outlawed memories amnesty?)

The nomad’s declaration of independence – this passing moment is my only home.

March 3, 1970. Riot police in Manila stop thousands from marching on U.S. Embassy following “people’s protest march.”

There are 7,107 islands in the Philippines. There are ten million Filipinos in exile.

March 3, 1970. Born from the sea, another wandering rock drifts into the diasporic archipelago.

November 27, 1970. Assassination attempt on Pope John Paul VI upon his arrival in Manila for three-day visit.

I used to pretend I was sick on sweltering Sunday afternoons when the heat made it torture to wear hot itchy church clothes. Lying in my parents’ big bed with the electric fan on full blast, I listened for the sound of the car driving away before I turned the TV on to watch Star Trek. While the others broiled in church, I was Spock, flying through cool starry space, boldly going where no man had gone before.

I became an atheist in the summer of 1992. (With Spinoza, I flew through cool starry space.) I didn’t assassinate God – I just walked away. I didn’t look back.

September 22, 1972. Marcos declares martial law, imposes curfew, bans public demonstrations, closes newspapers and radio and television stations and arrests opposition politicians.

Marcos was elected president five years before I was born. He was still president twenty years later when we escaped from the Philippines – a sinking ship. I was only two when Marcos declared martial law. Unbeknownst to me, my still unborn political consciousness was arrested that day. I didn’t become aware of this abortion till thirty years later.

August 21, 1983. Aquino, cautioned by Imelda and Enrile against assassination plots, discounts warnings, returns to Manila and is shot to death at Manila airport. Alleged assassin immediately shot dead.

Until I return to Manila, how will I know how many deaths I’ve died since I came to America?

I used to eat rice three times a day. Now weeks can go by without a single grain of rice passing between my lips. Who knows how this has changed my soul?

I’m not the only one who suspects that American tap water is drawn from Lethe.

The first thing I’ll do when I become American is leave America.

February 22-25, 1986. People Power revolution overthrows the Marcos regime.

Exiled in an oblivious Southern California suburb, I miss the revolution in Manila. Years later I am stricken by a furious regret – history had been stolen from me.

February 26, 1986. Marcos and his family are flown to Hawaii aboard U.S. aircraft. Aquino government resolves to recover over $6 billion in assets Marcos gained illegally.

My family fled to California in 1985. $uddenly we were poor. I was utterly unprepared for the humiliations of poverty. (We were so poor my brothers and I qualified for free lunches at school. I was too ashamed to use my vouchers, so I bought a powdered donut for lunch everyday. I ate my donut quickly, the powdery sugar frosting my lips, dusting my fingers, snowing on my shirt.)

June 12, 1991. After being dormant for five hundred years, Mount Pinatubo erupts on Independence Day, spewing tons of magma, ash, gas, and pumice. The volcano’s eruption forces the evacuation and closing of the U.S. military base at Subic bay.

And the Philippines erupted, spewing ten million Filipinos all over the earth. I found myself an ocean away – 7,000 miles from my tropic memories, lifetimes from the sounds and smells of my exploded childhood. Now I’m writing my way back to the volcano’s mouth so I can shout my unanswerable red questions into its blazing belly.

January 20, 2001. President Joseph Estrada, who has acted in over one hundred films, resigns after impeachment trial.

Is America a dream or a movie? Sometimes I’m seized by the strange feeling that I’m just acting – but I’ve forgotten my lines! Do I have any lines?

Is history a nightmare (it haunts those who struggle to escape it) or a lost dream home? How can I resist the twin seductions of utopia and nostalgia? Wake up! Rise to your homeless life. History is in the making. Act.

Quotations (italicized sections) are from the In Our Image by Stanley Karnow.

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