One More Time, Who the Fil-Am We Are, Really?

(Talk prepared for the Kamu Kahua Theatre’s presentation of the play Who the Fil-Am I? or Never Judge the Buk-buk by Its Cover-cover, Chaminade University, November 21, 2006, Honolulu, HI.) ¬

I have to admit one thing here as I come into an encounter with this play, first in its stageable written form, and now its staged form. A play to be a play, for certain, needs to be translated into the magical and mysterious ways of the stage. There is where the tropic enchantment and symbolic seduction come about—there is where that sense of catharsis may come about and in this play, while we do not see clearly the resolution to the questions raised about the identity issues, we are contented and we can rest and sleep the sleep of the just. For in the land of exile, as in other lands where the children of immigrants come face to face with the past of their parentage and ancestors, the questions asked and formulated properly are far more potent than the pretensions to an answer to a question about Filipino-Americanness.

The Fil-Am, we must say, is a hybrid, the trope coming from the admixture of two identities, like two varieties of the same plant coming into a healthy fusion, presumably far better than the previous varieties. Because this hybridity which is twin to the facticity of coming into a land and searching for a life in that land is both a boon and a bane—a curse and a blessing, an opportunity and a loss. All these add complexity to the always-already complex life of children of immigrants, they who are always-already pulled by at least two extreme and bi-polar forces.

It is a boon because the children of immigrants get into a variety of worlds made possible by their access to both of these worlds, and their residency in a third one, the world of hybrids, of hapas, of aliens-but-not-really-so, of strangers-but-at-home-as-well. They are the People of the Hyphen—the people with the hypen, that hyphen signaling ethnic origins and yet at the same time suggesting a destination country for the immigrant looking for home, although not necessarily completely a homeland.

On the other hand, there is a bane in this neither here-nor-there condition of self-naming: there is here that constant to-and-fro, that uncertainty, that eternal ambivalence, that perpetual negotiation of sides, extremes, polarities, binaries, the negotiation on the lookout for the possibilities of oneing but the circumstances may not warrant the same result.

In the Filipino-American literatures of exile, we witness these same engagements of the expatriated consciousness, the expatriated culture, the expatriated sensibilities, the expatriated memory—and all these we see clearly in the Who the Fil-Am I? The reference to the buk-buk in the sub-title, for instance, evokes this sense of expatriation of the many things that has been lost in memory, a trip back in time when the Filipino was seen as a reliable farmhand, one of those hands the agricultural economy of the United States wanted so bad in those times, at the turn of the 20th century, when the ‘Philippine Islands’ were decreed by the gods of faith and fate that they were to be under the benevolent guidance of the Americans who were just freshly coming from their own stories of war and colonization and oppression from the mother country. The motif of the journey—and the witnessing of the ‘wretchedness’ of the home country through the sub-plots of stories of deprivation, misery, want, and oppression—makes us see the journeying back to the ancestral homeland as a necessity—and the trip back to the adoptive homeland is of urgency and expediency born of the need to reconnect with that which is part of the contradiction of the Fil-Am’s soul.

In the characters are powerful symbols using the wisest economy of expression, with each character revealing those things that are not easily said—sayable, yes, they all are, but they are difficult to say because we are not at home saying them, talking about them, much less making them as part of the aesthetic discourse.

I am personally struck by the discourse it opens up in terms of the exiles’ obligation to go back to the terra firma of the languages of the peoples in the ancestral homeland. There is an energy in this discourse as it indicts whole and entire the negligence and omission of those Fil-Ams in the revisiting of—and may I say, in the residing in—the language of the ancestors. In talk as in discourse—two components of the same liberating use of language—we do not deal here with language in general but language as understood by the ancestors, by our own people, by the everyday life of those who can call the ancestral homeland as their country as well.

This is where homing is possible, if one were to be honest with the sacred sacrifices of those who have come here to pave the way for all these benefits that the Filipino American immigrants receive at this time. I quote Tomas—the Tomas Immakulate Consepcion prefiguring the White American: “A people’s language is the saving grace that binds them together through sex, age, and economic strata.” This Tomas also says: “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.” The admonition is wise—and timely.

Then again, we need to remember that the Philippines as an imagined and a real territory of memory and experience is not a monolingual country unlike many parts of the Western world, but a country united—and divided as well—by its multilingualism and multiculturalism, which makes it to be richer, blessed in many ways, as these languages and cultures it has provide its people the many and variegated windows through which the people see and understand and interpret the world.

You do not get to like the characters initially, as they tend to be kilometric in their speeches, so talkative in many ways. But the fact they are familiar makes you comfortable with them, and this logic of comfort makes you see clearly the issues raised and the contradictions awaiting synthesis and resolution. To provide an answer to these questions is not an easy task, this I know.

To insist on the need to redeem the Fil-Am of this whole scale amnesia of who is a Fil-
Am and where does he come from takes a hundred years to heal perhaps. But we may need a lesser number of years to completely forget—and this is where the questioning of self and selves, of identity and identities, and of destiny and redemption becomes relevant. In short, it is far easier to forget than to remember—and the Fil-Am must be forwarned. And no exception.

The project to remember is always more difficult, as is the case, because in re-membering—of becoming a member again—we have to re-member the language of our people, the languages that talk about their dreams, desires, despairs.

We look at language this way—the language that is the abode of the Filipino American soul, the language that is the indwelling of the Fil-Am spirit trying to call out to his wayward spirit again, the language of his past as present, the language of his present as present, and the language of his present as future. In short, it is the language of the timelessness and endlessness of his quest, his wandering, his wondering—the language of the ancestor who came to seek this land and who did not wait for the land to seek him.

There is no reversing back the history of the Filipino American as the play reveals in a manner that is more apocalyptic than the Apocalypsis itself. The power of history is absolute and it can never be undone. But to make sense of the layered identity of the Filipino American is to make sense of both the past and future that are both unknown and unfamiliar to us, hence, the need for the productive and privileging perspective of the present.

To me, this is what this play, Who the Fil-Am I or Never Judge the Buk-buk by its Cover-cover, is offering to us: its gift to all those who see that condition of the Fil-Am, that condition of him making sense of the small empires within and outside his Filipino American self, the condition of the primal loss of the primal experience of the ancestral homeland, and that condition of invisibility however much he tries to create a space for his language, self, discourse, memory, identity. In this land of exile, the Fil-Am will always remain and exile, plus or minus.

He may no longer be the buk-buk of old, but he would have to outgrow that name by going through the rite of renaming himself.

November 21, 2006

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