Saturday, January 28, 2006


Pamilya Manila

January 22

The airport baggage area is a throng, a word I will use again. Rob tells me that the Philippines has 76 million people crammed into a country with the land mass of Arizona.

One problem at the airport is the many, many large boxes lumbering onto the luggage carousel. These are American goods coming to the Philippines. They usually come by ship, in huge freighter containers. Like the over many billion dollars being shipped here from the millions of Pilipino workers abroad, stuff comes on every plane as well.

I stand back while Rob squirms his way toward the carousel. A couple of huffs and puffs, and we've loaded the cart. Coming through customs is not the serious ritual it is in the States. The guy takes one look at us and waves us through the exit door.

And there, the man walking tentatively towards us, a trim, light-browned skin man dressed in a traditional white Pilipino shirt akin to the barong Tagalog, is Pedro. We shake hands. I break all the rules I read about in the guidebooks and give him a hug, American style. He is gracious, if embarrassed. His English, as I knew it would be, is impeccable. The car is coming around, he says, as he guides us to the curb. It is hot, even at midnight. It's like being under an overpass in Brooklyn or the Bronx. It's a smell of a fuel, rain, and grit.

A shiny black SUV pulls up, and out comes Pedro's wife, Lydia. She is a small woman with short black hair, sweeping bangs, and a wide smile. She puts her two hands on my face and says slowly and sweetly, 'Welcome to the Philippines.' She knows, of course, how long I have been planning this trip. Her welcome seems deliberate, and I am immediately touched.

There is Quinio (sp?), Pedro's son-in-law, quickly and deftly hoisting our luggage into the back. And in the front seat, his wife, Janelle, a doctor. Like her parents, she is warm and welcoming. Pedro climbs in the back with Rob and I and we're off.

I'm very excited, practically beside myself with gratitude that they have picked us up. Because--a huge crowd of people who apparently parked their vehicles (loosely translated), are stuffed behind a low gate waiting for their relatives too.

Right off, I see a Jeepney, or two, or twelve. These creatively decorated long, covered jeeps are crammed with passengers. The Baraoidans point them out as we thread our way through the dense traffic toward the hotel. I am doing double work: talking, catching up (they want to know about Janet, Bill, Jamie, and Ruth), and I"m peering into the dark, humid night, absorbing as much as I can.

In five minutes we cover important ground: how Pedro introduced my aunt to her fourth husband, who was his rooomate at West Point, what Pedro did afterward. Right off we learn that he has a Ph.D. in Math from Berkely, that he left the country afer Marcos was toppled (or, he says, after the US arranged for his topplement.)

At a light (there are only few of them), Pedro remembers to tell me that, oh, a coup is on. Some escaped NPA officers are threatening another revolt within the military. The Baraoidans are laughing, and I am wide-eyed, since they say that the last time there was a coup, the rebels took over a well-known hotel. This is gentle teasing from the Baraoidans, fun stuff. I remember that suddenly from growing up. But there really are escaped NPAs within a mile of our hotel.

Before the light changes, I glance over my right shoulder toward the back seat window, past Pedro's face.

A girl, maybe ten, has pressed herself up against the window. She has stringy hair and hollow eyes. She just stares at me, with a look that is so penetrating I can recall it instantly, days later. It will be a stare I, and any other wealthy persons, receive from beggars.

No one says a word, even though they see her I'm sure. 'You always know there is a traffic back-up by the number of beggars who come around the car,' Pedro tells me two days later.

The girl staring at me both intently and woodenly in a way that would come back to me. Come Bauan, I would begin my own kind of staring. She wanted money. I, a naive traveler with no third-world-like experience, would want to remember images for my writing, like this blog. We were both purposeful starers, the girl and I.

But yet we're so very, very different. I don't need blogs for my next meal, and she surely need the little change we might pass to her from the car, but-- don't.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006



In less than a week, I will exit the customs area at Ninoy International Airport in Manila and begin looking through the crowd for a sign that reads 'Robert and Pat.' The man holding that sign will not be a hired driver, nor an employee of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. He will be Pedro Baraoidan.

Around 1960 Pedro was a Filipino cadet at West Point, continuing a long tradition of Filipino men trained in United States military academies, for export back to the Philippines. I have a very faint recollection of him, or perhaps only a picture of him: a young, handsome, slightly built man with an easy smile. In 1960 I was an awkward, gawking thirteen year-old living with my family in Michigan.

Just barely into adolescence, I had new 45 rpm records of Fabian and Elvis, but still liked to pretend 'boat' with my younger brother Peter in our recreation room. 'Boat' was an enactment of our family's former life on the southern shores of Long Island where we ferried to Fire Island on summer weekends. Long Island and Queens is where Pedro showed up, on weekend leave from West Point.

West Point is where Petra, my father's elegant, tempestous Filipino-American sister, and John, her third husband, along with Janet, his beautiful 16 year-old oldest daughter, showed up. They came up the Hudson because John, a full Filipino man who immigrated to the United States in the 1930's, was Pedro's uncle.

A big family drama happened next at West Point, with Pedro and Uncle John as innocent bystanders. There, my sister would meet her husband, Bill, and, there, my Aunt Petra would secretly court her next husband, a West Point cadet named Will, and eventually divorce our beloved Uncle John.

Uncle John carried an eye-popping wad of money at all times, and had equally eye-popping biceps. He dressed in fine suits and drove fancy cars, and treated me and my brother like we were his kids. John was a bartender and bookmaker for the Mob. But he cried when my aunt left him.

See, the trips to West Point not only strengthened a nephew-uncle connection; they enabled contact between the glamorous Carino women and handsome, uniformed West Point cadets. From our home in the midwest, my father heard the stories, and wrung his hands over his sister and daughter. These romances ignited in the fires of West Point dances, New York City nightclubs, and Sunday dinners hosted by my grandparents in their Queens row house.

I can see how it all happened. I smell the beer, taste the fish and roast beef and rice pudding, and hear the laughter, the piano, the barking dog, the sound of the front door opening to streams of people. Because as a child I sat there too. I can see Pedro, John, Petra, John, and other West Point Cadets sitting around a dining room table crammed shoulder to shoulder with relatives and friends, many of them Filipino-American, every one of them embraced as 'family' by my grandmother. She probably met my grandfather Pio that way, in Brooklyn, 30 years earlier. A uniform always turned her head, and so that legacy continued with her daughter and grand-daughter.

I saw John only four more times before he died in the 1990's. The last time was a day in Florida at his home. We sat in his overheated tropical garden talking quietly about his past, his family in the Philippines, and what had happened to each of our lives since 1961.

Pedro would fade from my consciousness. My sister kept some contact with him. At some point Pedro returned to the Philippines, served in the military there, married, and had a family. He lived for a signficant time in the United States. As I planned my trip to the Philippines, I thought of him, and called John's second wife and widow, Ruth, who gave me Pedro's address in the Philippines.

Here in the United States, given our vast mobility and high disregard for tradition, 'family'is a watered-down concept. In an email from the Obispo's, our host family in Bauan--strangers who are already referring to us as family--Tita Pat and Tito Rob, Aunt and Uncle--they seem very pleased to hear that I will be spending time with Pedro and his wife,Lydia. True to the Filipino definition of family which is very strong and inclusive, they call them 'my family.'

Indeed Pedro, my late, former uncle-in-law's nephew, is taking just that kind of interest and care. He and his wife, Lydia, will escort us for two days, and we will catch up. I will hear how Pedro's life went after West Point, learn more about our Uncle John, and Pedro will get to know me for the first time.

A seafood dinner is planned with them Sunday night. We will eat, drink, talk, laugh,and tell stories. We will pick up the end of a string dropped over 40 years ago by time, loss, and neglect, and complete an arc, from the Philippines to America and back. We will do pamilya.

Monday, January 16, 2006


Bahala na

In Tagalog, 'bahala na' is translated to mean 'happen what may.' It is a shrug of the shoulders, a call to accept uncertainty, and be confident in providence and yourself.

This is the attitude I am aiming for this week as I launch myself to the Philippines. Yes, there are more books to be read, more Tagalog to be practised, ,more maps to study, more Internet sites to find and print. I could do all this, again and again, in the interest of insuring that the trip will be meaningful and productive and anxiety-free.

Instead I want to adopt 'bahala na.'

After all, my goals are clear: to complete the circle Pio, and others in the family, began in the early 20th century in their wave of immigration; to search (but not necessarily find) relatives; to understand more about why and how this generation migrated through the US Navy, and how it impacted their families left behind; and to understand more about myself as a Hapa.

For ten years I have read about Batangas, the Phillipine-American war, Filipinos in the Navy, and Filipino-Americans. I have studied a little Tagalog, cooked a little adobo. In the past two years particularly I tried to know more Filipinos and hang out with them: Deling and Jason and Emily at the University of Michigan, Cora and Chris in Ann Arbor, Edwina and Allen and their crew in Norfolk, Ulpiano Santo in Chesapeake, Fe and the warm people at my local Filipino-American historical association in Southfield, Dean from Hawaii.

Within my family, I have interviewed a number of people about being Filipino-American, or being married to FilAms. This would be George Gomez, Nonny Adap, Ted and Jean Carino, Rita Riggs Steuer, Petra, Mike Salvador, Audrey Laeno.

Many hours late into the evening were spent on, locating Filipinos in my family's life, the extended kin from the East Coast whose pictures and stories I have: Jose Sallez, R. Marcelino, Servando Castor, the Pacanzas, the Palmares, the Santos's, the Baraoidans.

To prepare for the trip, I have arranged my first four days in the country, and taken the necessary security and health precautions. I have several host families awaiting me. They are the ties that will secure me in my quest: The Marasigian-Obispos in Bauan, Pedro Baraoidan in Manila, and the Dimayugas in Lipa.

Now, with all that in hand, I want to simply go there, to follow my nose, as Ulpiano Santo described doing in his interview with me about life as a mess attendant in the early 30's.

Pio surely had to adopt bahala na. When he walked through the Cavite gate onto the Naval Station, he had no way of anticipating what it would be like, and what would happen to him. He had a few ideas, like me, and had spoken with others, like I have. And there were some longings and dreams, no doubt.

Some would come true, others not. I will guess that he wanted someday to see his birthplace and his family again, a dream that did not come to pass in his lifetime.

I hope my trip will satisfy him. At least, I will try to carry out that dream for him, and in doing so, learn more about the parts of me that I have left behind: being Hapa, and writing down my life.

Monday, January 09, 2006


The beginning

In precisely two weeks, on January 22, 2006, I will enter my grandfather's town in the Philippines: Bauan, in the province of Batangas.

I am trying my very best not to imagine what this will be like, or how I will feel to be there, standing on earth he walked upon, or swimming in waters he fished as a boy.

Instead I want to be guided by my instincts, the way Pio had to do when he stepped through the gates at Cavite Naval Station in early 1910, walked up the gangplank to the USS Mohican and into the US Navy, then stepped onto American soil several weeks later.

Within him he carried the memories of his childhood and family from Bauan, as well as the seeds for a family of his own to come. Once he sailed from Philippine waters, Pio, nor any of his relatives, ever returned.

I am returning him.

And as I do, I believe he will be with me, as he was one evening in 1989 in a darkened movie house. There I was, watching "Field of Dreams, " having a sudden, intense feeling that Pio was speaking to me. There he was, conveying not just that I should find a way to tell his story, but that writing will be my contribution to life on earth.

This was unbelievable, and unexpected. I had dabbled in writing for years, once considered it as a profession, enjoyed it, had some modest talent for it. My grandfather had died in 1974. I went to his funeral, feeling no overwhelming sadness, except that he died in a grocery store parking lot, alone. I hadn't been particularly close to Pio, nor he to me. His strong presence in the movie theatre was not a case of suppressed grief.

For hours after the film, I couldn't speak, except to say to my husband that I was overcome, with something. I cried as soon as I was alone, overwrought not with missing Pio, but with a strange energy akin to a sense of destiny. It felt dark, almost foreboding, the way one might feel on the eve of a difficult climb up a high mountain, or a sail through uncharted waters.

A mission to tell Pio's story and to be a writer was passed to me that night. I sense Pio's story contains a great sorrow, since often I can be moved to tears when I see or hear or read things about my grandfather, his generation of ward attendants and navy stewards, and the atrocities and prejudices committed against Filipinos.

And I believe his story has lacked closure, because I have had difficulty being tidy and organized in this project, a hard time working steadily towards its completion. The resistance is palpable, as if someone or something is battling against me telling the story.

Whatever the forces for and against, for 17 years on and off, I have made it my mission to know my grandfather's story in the Philippines and the Navy, and to tell about it from the beginning. The beginning is Bauan.

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