Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Search for the Swaggering American

When French anti-globalization activist Jose Bové bulldozed that McDonald’s restaurant in Paris a few years ago and got jailed for it, I thought McDonald’s was the cultural representation of the United States. Thus after getting off the Reagan National Airport in Washington DC on September 14, I immediately started to figure out whether or not McDonalds could be as ubiquitous as Jollibee, the Filipino chicken-and-burger restaurant that has beaten McDo to the draw. In the Philippines, one could find Jollibee at every street corner.

I have so many preconceived notions about America before I actually landed there as a participant of the US State Department’s International Visitors Program (Print Journalism). The McDonalds as-cultural-representation-theory is one of them. Five days into the prowl all over Washington DC and Virginia, however, I’ve seen only at least three or four McDo stores. They were small, unlike the McDo and the Jollibee shops in the Philippines where you could have the entire clan from the boondocks for a kiddie party.

If there’s one restaurant that could probably represent America, it’s probably Starbucks. It’s practically everywhere. I like the idea of America being represented by Starbucks. It represents a place where people can meet to discuss issues, argue about ideas, and exchange gossip over a cup of coffee. It seems to represent democracy. In Washington and New York I practically lived off Starbucks. I usually had salads consisting mixed fruits, vegetables, and cheese for just about $5 dollars while discussing about lots of things with friends, colleagues, and even strangers.

Or is Victoria’s Secrets? All the malls I’ve visited from the East to the West Coast have it. It’s always full of people, buying all sorts of intimate stuff—from thongs to bras and everything in between. Does this trend say something about the Americans’ sexuality? I furtively watched Two Moon Junction and American Pie when I was younger and got the impression that Americans are probably casual about sex. All those American porn movies we devoured in college reinforced that impression. I guess I was wrong.

I walked through several blocks in Manhattan to see if I could casually pick up copies of Playboy or Hustler. I didn’t find any. A friend told me later on that I should have asked for it because those materials are usually hidden from view. At the Barnes and Noble in Sta. Monica (California), I finally had the courage to ask for Playboy from one of the staff and I was told it’s hidden behind the counter. “Why are you guys hiding those things?” I asked. “You know why!” he countered.

Americans could actually be very prude. Try cracking green jokes around and you’ll immediately get a sexual harassment suit, one Filipino friend in New York told me.

Eight years ago, Stanley Karnow—who got a Pulitzer for his book on Vietnam—came up with a hard cover entitled “In our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines” where he described Filipinos as having the extravagant piety of the Spaniards and the swagger of the Americans, or something to that effect. So part of my personal quest therefore was to find the swaggering Americans. After three weeks, I lost interest. It seems like Americans walk just like the rest of us. At the end of the program in LA, one of the English Language Officers told me: “David, I believe you are not going to find your Swaggering American. Actually, there is one. He used to live in Texas, but he is in Washington DC now. I mean, the White House.”

But indeed, Americans are a bit different from us Filipinos. Like, they usually don’t blow their cars’ horns often, not even in the crowded streets of New York or Los Angeles. They feel it’s rude. Or maybe they really think pedestrian is king. In the Philippines, one of the most important parts of our vehicle next to the gas pedal is the horn. Filipino drivers use it all the time to send pedestrians scampering out of the way. (This probably has class basis. Maybe the first ones to drive cars were rich guys who never experienced being pedestrian. Their drivers simply took the attitude from them. But that’s another story).

However, that image of America as John Wayne with six shooters trying to bring “democracy” to the rest of the world does not seem to reflect the character of the “ordinary” American people. In fact, the average Joe does not seem to care much about the rest of world. Look at their TV or their newspapers. Save for the bombings in Iraq, their newspapers do not usually contain much foreign news. And why should they care? Since the mid-80s many observers say the American media has stopped being imperial about the world. Some Filipinos say it’s because Americans have a huge country and that they are overwhelmed by their own concerns like Katrina, rising petrol prices for their SUVs, difficulties in getting the latest Xbox 360, such that it’s hard for them to see beyond the borders, unless some bearded medieval crackpots from some forgotten desert send in planes crashing into their skyscrapers.

But even media colleagues like Esther Liu Fang Liang (Taiwan) and Ach Buaklee (Thailand) say the accusations that Americans are ignorant about foreign affairs are probably unfair. Esther for instance say if an American journalist would meet her mother, the same visitor would probably think the Taiwanese are ignorant about foreign affairs. “And why should my mother care about Tom DeLay or Scooter Libby or George Bush’s dog?,” she wondered.

For all its openness, however, America’s politics could be a bit puzzling for a Filipino. It seems like the there are only two types of people out there: one could either be a liberal (pro-government intervention, against invasion of Iraq, pro-choice) or a conservative (for “small government,” advocate of bringing “democracy” to the world, pro-life). There seems to be no neutral ground. It’s a bit intellectually stifling because in reality any person could usually have both liberal and conservative views. Retired Supreme Court judge Sandra Day O’Connor supposedly has conservative views on the economy and liberal ones on social issues.

In the Philippines being liberal means open-minded and conservative being traditional and old-fashioned. Thus, most intellectuals in the Philippines would rather see the Philippine government focusing its energies on areas where it can really do better. In history, “big government” in the Philippines has been associated with corruption, cronyism, and inefficiency. Thus, after the Edsa Revolution in 1986, reformists in governments—many of them leftist or left of center— immediately pushed for deregulation of the economy and privatization of many financially-ailing state-owned corporations. Besides, a smaller government is really a necessity. The continuing fiscal difficulties being experienced by the government means that we could never have a “big” government the way Americans define it.

Lastly, I almost had an identity crisis in America. The Latinos where talking to me in Spanish at the trains and subways. During the first day of the Visitors Program in Washington DC, journalists Rolando Barbanno (Argentina) and Martin Rodriguez (Guatemala) asked if I could speak Spanish. I said no, wondering why they asked. One day, I went to a Subway restaurant to buy sandwich. I was still at the door when the lady blurted out in Spanish. All she got was a blank stare so, exasperated, she asked: “Why can’t you speak Spanish?”

“Because I’m not a Spaniard, ma’am,” I answered.

“I mean, you look Mexican to me,” she said. “Or Guatemalan?

“Well, I’m sorry ma’am but neither am i a Mexican nor Guatemalan,” I said.

“So from where are you?”

“From the Philippines,” I said, handing her my money.

“Oh,” she said looking at my eyes while giving me my change.

I was on the way out when she called suddenly: “Hey mister! Where’s the Philippines?”

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