Much of it is hazy now, a blur. But waking up to the sounds of honking that late afternoon so long ago, the constant sounds of traffic just outside our hotel window connects me today with waking up in a foreign land for the first time. With the jet lag, before there’s precise awareness of time and place, the slow waking up in a different time zone having lost a full day: little of this comes back to me tonight. I don’t remember much. There is, however, a lot of Manila still with me…traffic and more traffic without the rules we know in the states, from getting around in jeepnies to plowing through high water during the monsoons. I’m not sure now whether some of what I remember is accurate or not. And if I were to write a pure piece of fiction about Manila now, fiction or non-fiction, I would still have to go back there and try to remember the little details that are now lost.
The Manila of those first few days was crowded and fast moving. The shock of facing so many new things at once hit me right away. After I got over that, and the strangeness of the traffic, I was able to navigate the city as well as any native. From my point of view, Manila had become as much my city as theirs. I enjoyed it that much. It exhilarated me. But after living there two years, I eventually realized that Manila could never really become my home. I would always be a stranger there.
There was the language, Tagalong…officially Filipino…that I never really mastered. Not knowing it well separated me from my Philippine friends. I also have to acknowledge that we didn’t share a history, or the little bit of history we did share had been far from positive: it would’ve been impossible for me to change the color of my skin, or revolt against myself for long. To compensate I feel I would’ve had to become more Filipino than most of the Filipinos and Filipinas I knew, and on occasions I did just that.
Here’s one example. For a dramatic production, I turned the underground dungeon complex at Fort Santiago (a national shrine) into a “happening.” One night during the run a nun walked through the show and something happened to her that really upset a Filipino audience member. The nun stood nearby and wasn’t nearly as upset as he was. He was yelling out of control. The nun had been “touched” in the dark. She had been “violated” and the Filipino had taken it on himself to defend her honor. (Defending one’s honor in the Philippines has fueled feuds that have lasted for generations, the subject of my first novel.) At this point, none of the Filipino and Filipina crewmembers seemed to know what do. Meanwhile, this guy was escalating. We had a sizable audience that night. Everyone was standing around, and this guy was ready to pop somebody. So I had to do something. It was my production. So I went to this guy and took his hand, taking his hand was the key thing I did to calm him down. At that moment, though I was from another world, I acted as a Filipino, more Filipino than the Filipinos around me did and salvaged an incident that could’ve turned violent. My intervention worked; the nun thanked me.