There is a play within a play in “Who the Fil-Am I? or Never Judge a Buk-buk by Its Cover-cover” by Troy Apostol. While it is not an easy read because of the various registers in the language of the play—or better still, languages within the language—you see here right at the start as a matter of psychological strategy the self-questioning and self-representation of the many characters. We do not get to like all of them at the same time. But we realize that there is a place for empathy, and its relevance in that collective act of recognizing the children of immigrants who try to live life the best way they know how in the land of exile. It is true that in the play they finally make the definitive journey—a calculated technique, but clearly a motif—from which spring the many realizations and self-examinations and self-discovery that will come about as a result. There is a return in the journey, a coming back to oneself, a kind of a homing after wandering and wondering and willfully asking that question “Who the Fil-Am I?”
But back to the playfulness of the play itself.
The main characters exhibit—do they wear their identity as some sort of a badge or an ID card here, with that characteristic picture to match the name and the man in the picture?—impossible names: Tomas Immakulate Consepsion for the “White American,” Malcolm Immansipacion Proklomacion for the “Black-American,” and Roland Conjuncion Juncion What is Your Puncion for the “Local Hawaiian.” What is in these long names we do not know, we cannot tell—and we can only come up with a guess. Do these long names account for that which is not fixed in the immigrant, that thought that does not have any clear ground but is always shifting, changing, mutating—that condition in the exile, in the Fil-Am, in the immigrant, in the second and third generation offspring of immigrants? Tomas knows something, remembers the sound of the language of his ancestors, while Malcolm is trying to know even if he does not know the lingua: "I can’t spit the lingua and I ain’t big on doing the church thang, but I do know some history, so let me ask you this: Have you ever stopped to think that maybe your God and your western mentality is the same kind of colonialist bullshit that fucked up the Philippines in the first place?"
Roland remains the ‘local boy’ with the local ways, even in speech and thought.
Tomas, as the more advanced of the three in terms of this sacred act of going back to where they came from—this rite of re-rooting, this ceremony of connecting back to the energy of the community they have lost—insists on the importance of returning to that indwelling which language provides. And not any language, but the language of the ancestors. Here we see Tomas with this conviction that borders on an absolute valorization of the windows and worlds opened up by the language of the ancestors: “A people’s language is the saving grace that binds them together through sex, age, and economic strata.” He goes sermonic, as if in that church pulpit, and proclaims: "In the turbulent socio-political climate of today’s America, and how they are viewed negatively by the global perception, Filipino-Americans must retain the knowledge of their language. In that basic respect, they retain what is truest and most honorable to their people and their culture, lest they fade into the nebulae that is America."
Tomas caps this priestly exercise by saying that “Filipinos must know their language in order for them to stay truly Filipino.”
As the three Fil-Ams search for that which makes sense to them, the country of their ancestors searches for that which makes sense to it as well. There is nurturing in the image of women struggling it out. There is despair and disappointment and death in the men who make sure that self-questioning and realization will not come about—or will come about after self-destruction has happened, as in the case of the useless husband.
Who the Fil-Ams are they, these characters? They are those who ask the right questions. Never mind that the answers come late in the day, as long as the questions are asked again and again. And phrased properly.
(This piece is part of a Viewer's Guide for the play, "Who the Fil-Am I? or Never Judge a Buk-buk by Its Cover-cover" by Troy Apostol. The play runs in October 2006 as part of the offering of the Kamu Kahua Theatre, Honolulu, HI)
A. Solver Agcaoili
U of Hawaii-Manoa
Oct 12, 2006