Telescoping Empire and Diaspora: Revisiting U.S.-Philippine Dialectics

Nicole CuUnjieng

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Nicole CuUnjieng evaluates the colonial assumptions involved in keeping up with the Joneses, and questions how much the postcolonial perspective informs the realities of Philippine-American relations

​Under the current transnational shroud, in which the Filipino diaspora stretches far beyond American shores and a half century of American-dominated global capitalism has shaped the international cultural landscape such that NBA jerseys appear on the backs of rural Nigerian as well as Filipino schoolchildren, one may wonder if Filipinos should continue to privilege the United States in their intellectual and existential dialectics. The U.S.’s imperial history in the Philippines of course distinguishes the Philippines’ experience of postwar American-dominated global capitalism from that of Nigeria, despite the ultimate material similarities one may discern. This is reason enough to justify reserving a special place for the U.S. in Filipinos’ creative, intellectual, and cultural workings, but one nevertheless wonders if we should not strive to intellectually and culturally (if we cannot politically) surmount the postcolonial dilemma of ever identifying the Philippines with or against its former colonizers. Indeed, the heart laments to hear yet another story about how we, Filipinos, think about them, but they, Americans, do not think about us.

​For all its intellectual and political allure, however, to successfully deny the privileged space that the U.S. continues to occupy in the Filipino imaginary and reality, one must dismiss the insistent breathing, blinking, and beating that suffuse the pages of Flippin’: Filipinos on America. These human pangs make real the Philippine migration statistics and continued Philippine-American connection. In the World Bank’s last Migration and Remittances Factbook (2011), the stock of Philippine emigrants as a percentage of the total population was 4.6% in 2010,1 which placed the Philippines as ninth worldwide in the rankings of top emigration countries.2 Additionally and importantly, in 2010 the Philippine-U.S. migration corridor was the eleventh largest in the world. These statistics occasion a return to Flippin’, the premiere anthology of English-language Philippine-American prose and poetry, a collection that grew out of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York in 1996.

​Hardly the totalized “America” and “Philippines” of the type of overdetermined postcolonial dialectic that garners ready, easy criticism, one sees both America and the Philippines in Flippin’ through oblique and sideways glances. The deft editors Luis H. Francia and Eric Gamalinda have created canvases of the fluid Philippine-American worlds that in some ways resemble J.D. Salinger’s kaleidoscopic portrait of the Glass family. In his many short stories, Salinger almost always wrote about the Glass family, yet his readers never receive anything like a neat family still-shot to place above the mantelpiece. There are siblings we never meet and timelines we cannot fix, but through layered glimpses and sidelong scenes one becomes acquainted with the family. Zoe Glass reads a letter from brother Seymour. Boo Boo Glass offers Seymour’s old goggles to her son Lionel. A story that seems to be about no character we have ever met at its end reveals the protagonist to be a forgotten ex-girlfriend of Walt Glass. “Teddy,” a story that Salinger published in Nine Stories and that features no Glass family members, Buddy Glass later claims to have authored in Salinger’s “Seymour: An Introduction.” This intra-referential, spiraling perspective that stretches across Salinger’s short stories knit them together to reveal a shared core. Undeniable, if inconsistently clamant and coherent, the Glass family undergirds Salinger’s writing.

So too in Flippin’. Despite the variances in time and place and the insistent individuality of each included work, Flippin’ reveals a shared core that undergirds the works amid disparity. It is not easily definable; in fact, the works make elusive and impossible a stable, homogenized account of America or the Philippines. This is where Flippin’ departs from the Glass family. The Filipinos in Flippin’ are not necessarily part of a national “family,” though they may share certain experiences. Their relationship to the Philippines indeed questions the idea of a “national” family. Meanwhile, with regard to the relationship between America and the Philippines, the anthology shows the deep connection between the two, not through their treaties and transactions, but the human bodies and experiences that make up diaspora. Through sundry stories of loneliness, haunting, disconnectedness, and longing, the anthology provides a palpable, unifying humanness to the diaspora, while insisting upon the multivocality of the real and imagined Philippine-American community. In Gamalinda’s words: “There is something Borgesian about a time lapse in history,” and his collection here attests to it, making tangible through prose and poetry this ambiguous liminal zone between the Philippines and U.S.4 “More than the grim landscape of ideology, beyond the dry discourse of academe,” explains Francia, “this collection gives us flesh and blood in a communion of words, illustrates history not as lesson but experience.” 5

Seventeen years after its publication, the way in which Francia overblows the power of the U.S. may seem outdated and undue to the twenty-first-century, transnationally-attuned perspective. He writes: “I recall having heard someone say once that ‘America’ was essentially a catch-all term, a repository for ideas and races originating someplace else—positing a limitless There as background to a limitless Here.”6 However, the stories within frequently transcend national boundaries and imaginaries. M. Evelina Galang’s picture of adolescence in “Her Wild American Self” is widely recognizable to most former adolescents through its invocation of the teenage need to create one’s own space, a private world that breaks from the family nucleus:

One night, when Augustina was sixteen, she locked the door to her bedroom, hid away from everyone. Her room was a sanctuary where Gabriel’s photos plastered the walls, a row of votive candles lined her window ledge, and postcards of Lourdes and Fatima decorated her bedpost. She had built an altar of rocks from the beach up on Montrose, a tiny indoor grotto where she burned incense.7

Galang’s first-person narration as someone within Augustina’s family, a feature of many of the collected short stories, further invites the reader into the collection’s folds. Yet, the moving gaze of Jessica Hagedorn’s third-person narration in “Sideshow,” as that of other included stories, deconstructs such autonomous subjecthood to widen the diasporic perspective beyond that of discrete, individualized accounts. The pathos that courses through F. Sionil Jose’s “A Man’s Reward is in Heaven,” meanwhile, brings us closer to his Dr. John Robertson and, through him, the Americans who though they are not often intimately drawn in Philippine-American stories, are crucially intimate to the Philippine-American experience.

Bienvenido Santos’s excerpted “The Man Who (Thought He) Looked Like Robert Taylor” prefigures some of the guiding themes of the recent work Empire’s Proxy by Meg Wesling, a literature professor at UC San Diego. Santos creates in his character Sol’s attachment to American literature a metaphor for the promises of American ideals and education, as well as the disappointment that the imperialism that carried those promises structured. Sol recounts to his night school class in the U.S.:

In the Philippines my American teachers taught me to love the works of American poets, but, alas, nobody knows them here. Some recall their names, Longfellow, Poe, Bryant, and the rest, but very few remember their works. I thought that as soon as I touched American soil, all I had to do was mention ‘Evangeline,’ ‘Hiawatha,’ ‘The Raven,’ ‘Annabel Lee,’ ‘The Death of the Flower,’ ‘Rhodora,’ and every door would open for me.8

Sol arrives in America “drunk with words, with the sweet, musical words of the American poets.” 9 Empire’s Proxy takes up this history, exploring the American colonial education system in the Philippines and the “civilizing mission” that justified American imperialism in part through the teaching of American literature and the English language. Indeed, refiguring the coercive origins of the Filipinos’ use of the “ennobling” English language (in a post-Pantayong Pananaw discourse) alongside one’s reading of Flippin’, helps illumine the depth of our historic heteroglossia—defined by Mikhail Bakhtin as “another’s speech in another’s language, serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way.” This heteroglossia is not merely linguistic, but intellectual. Sol understands fulfillment and beauty through foreign stanzas, but he instrumentalizes them such that they reflect his own ideas. This reflection is refracted, however, through its reference to American cultural imperialism.

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Empire’s Proxy explores American national-imperial identity, how it is inscribed, the impetus behind its evolution, and the political uses of its cultural production. Wesling argues that America’s colonial project and self-styled imperial identity shaped the contemporaneous canonization of American literature in the US. As the U.S. groped for its imperial identity upon assuming sovereignty over the Philippines, it needed to harden that identity, including the canon of American literature. This is the literature that would be taught to Filipinos to “civilize and uplift” them (though educated American children studied Latin and the Greek and Roman classics). Wesling’s novel attention to the American literary canon’s political ties is refreshing; it also provides new literary and imperial histories against which to position Flippin’ and the field of Philippine-American literature. It is not merely that we think about them and that they do not think about us. Philippine-American history was and is formative to both sides of the dialectic.

Wesling carefully argues that the force and suasion of U.S. rule was achieved through education, language and culture, without requiring a significant American presence in the Philippines. In usefully comparing American educational policies in the Philippines to contemporaneous policies in Puerto Rico and Hawaii and for Native Americans and African-Americans in the U.S., Wesling underscores the variously imperial natures of the late nineteenth- and twentieth-century U.S. while internationalizing Philippine history. Wesling respectfully notes her omission of the Philippine reception of U.S. educational policy (save for her analysis of Carlos Bulosan), which while unfortunate creates a gap where we may position Flippin’. If Flippin’ helps to illustrate the legacy of imperialism eighty years hence, then Empire’s Proxy helps to illustrate certain of the tools of that imperialism.

That imperialism, however, was neither unidirectional nor hegemonic; colonial state formations resulted from multi-directional historical processes that affected both colonizer and colonized.10 In this vein, Wesling insightfully illuminates the gender politics of empire by highlighting the gendered representational shift from male military colonizers to female colonial teachers. Wesling references Rosemary Marangoly George’s argument that participation in the Indian colonial project was one of the primary arenas in which British women “first achieved the kind of authoritative self associated with the modern female subject.”11 Wesling demonstrates how the racialized authority that white, unmarried female teachers achieved in the Philippines underscored their inequality at home, where a position of public authority would have “violated the boundaries of the domestic as woman’s righteous sphere of influence.”12 Empire’s Proxy then probingly reviews the application of a white, middle-class domestic setting to the Philippine colony, both in terms of the patriarchic role in which the U.S. cast itself and the narrative that the transplanted teachers created for themselves. Wesling draws needed attention to male teachers’ complicated position in playing this feminized role and their adaptation to Philippine society. This is particularly relevant because though the U.S. consciously portrayed and conceived of its teachers as female, women were the overwhelming minority amongst the colonial teachers.

This is why the beating, breathing, and blinking of Philippine-American history must enter our understanding of empire and diaspora. As Flippin’ notes, history consists of lived experience, though it inhabits and emerges from a structuring discourse and the realities of international power gradients. It is often from the bedrooms of sixteen-year-old girls and the classrooms of isolated foreign-language teachers that one appreciates the tensions, expectations, and inconsistencies of the superstructures that corral history and fire our senses of self.

footnotes

  1. The World Bank. Migration and Remittances Factbook 2011: Second Edition, 205.

  2. Ibid., 3.

  3. Ibid., 5.

  4. Francia and Gamalinda, Flippin’, 1.

  5. Ibid., 6.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Ibid., 128.

  8. Ibid., 18.

  9. Ibid., 19.

  10. See Alfred W. McCoy’s Policing America’s Empire.

  11. George, The Politics of Home: Postcolonial Relocations and Twentieth-Century Fiction, 36.

  12. Wesling, Empire’s Proxy, 117.