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How I’ve become Pinoy (almost) in thought, word and deed

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Jun 12, 2021 4:00 am

Did you catch Last Week Tonight with John Oliver the other night? If you did, you saw that Jollibee got a shout-out during a segment on Asian-Americans, when the host aired a YouTube clip in which a Pinoy guy dressed in a bee suit twerked in front of a kids’ party (“I don’t know what I Iove more, Jollibee tastefully shaking that stinger like it’s a bottle of his signature banana ketchup, or the coy flutter of those naughty humanoid eyes”), and I found myself — along with my wife — cheering wildly.

How Pinoy does that make me?

Being here in the Philippines a long time has taught me to pick up on Pinoy references around me and respond enthusiastically — like the way those Jollibee antennae perk up at a party. In some ways, it’s taught me to think like a Filipino.

So what have I learned, as a sometime Filipino?

  • There’s a joke buried in any circumstance, no matter how dire or even tragic, if you search long and hard enough.
  • If there’s only one piece of lechon or kutsinta covered in grated coconut left on the plate, I won’t be the one to take it.
  • No matter what the international news, I will seek some sort of Pinoy angle/ salacious, gossipy spin on it.
  • If there is a physical possibility of squeezing my car as close to the left-turning lane as possible while actually intending to go straight through the traffic light, I will do so.
  • If then pulled over by traffic police, I will use every possible argument, rendered as genially as possible, to talk my way out of it.
  • When someone finishes belting out a karaoke song, I will cheer them on as politely as I can, no matter how wretched or tuneless they sound, in the understanding that they would render me the same small mercy.
  • I will extend invitations to events (at least I did before, and will after the Great Universal Excuse of COVID ends) knowing full well that any positive response — from a thumbs-up emoji to “Game!” — actually means “Maybe,” and “Will try” means “Definitely no.” I’ve learned to read between the lines.

I may think and act like a Filipino at times — courtesy and etiquette dictate as much. But I definitely don’t speak like one. Decades of learning, forgetting, relearning some Tagalog have taught me only to insert myself when I know the exact nuance of the conversation.

Otherwise I might be donating a needed internal organ or purchasing a bunch of dodgy bitcoin. If I can say I’ve learned enough to get the general flavor of a Tagalog conversation, to stitch together a few translations in my head in real time — then that’s progress.

Before, it was just the jeepneys, buses and crazy drivers. Now it’s jeepneys, buses, crazy drivers — plus motorcycles, pedicabs, bicyclists, motorized scooters, herds of joggers, fruit vendors, golf carts — you name it.

Driving continues to force me into becoming more Filipino, every day I’m on the road. When I first came here, getting behind the wheel was my main obstacle — or obstacle course, I should say.

Guess what? Decades later? Same! Or worse, really. My tolerance for long stretches of Metro Manila driving is abysmally low. Look around you. Things have got out of hand. Before, it was just the jeepneys, buses and crazy drivers. Now it’s jeepneys, buses, crazy drivers — plus motorcycles, pedicabs, bicyclists, motorized scooters, herds of joggers, fruit vendors, golf carts — you name it.

Every Mad Max hybrid of motorized transport one can cobble together, all out there, jockeying for space and crossing lanes like gazelles scampering across a veldt. You need a million eyes, not in back of your head, but surrounding your head like those bullet-time cameras in The Matrix. In fact, 360 degrees isn’t enough to scout out all the split-second kamikaze attacks you might face while simply trying to drive home from the office.

Yet over the years, something in me has absorbed local driving techniques. It’s under the skin. I have acquired Pinoy Driver’s Muscle Memory. Mad Max got nothing on me.

Deep down, there’s this ingenuity among Filipinos — this canniness, this intention to always come up with some kind of work-around — that I admire.

Deep down, there’s this ingenuity among Filipinos — this canniness, this intention to always come up with some kind of work-around — that I admire.

I’ve seen this video of a guy online who designed a camera that’s attached to his forehead, feeding images of the street in front of him to his phone, so he can continuously scroll without bothering to look up. Stupid, yes. Dangerous, yes. But ingenious at the same time. And ingenuity has to be part of the reason Filipinos have managed to survive 500 years of tortuous history.

 Proof of life: You need ID photos, Joe? We got all kinds...

They say America’s the place of innovation, but Filipinos always find a way to make products more flexible, to meet the local market. Like, I was getting some ID photos taken at one of those curbside photo set-ups the other day. The sign offered the usual wares — “10 PCS, PASSPORT ID SIZE, P40,” “5 PCS, CIVIL SERVICE, P60” — then there was this one to scratch my head over: “2 PCS, PROOF OF LIFE, P40.”

Huhhh? Is this for enterprising kidnappers, wanting to send out quality shots, who maybe want to keep a spare one for the wallet? The sample photo showed two images of the same cheesy-grinning guy, holding up a daily newspaper in front of the camera. You know, “Proof of life.” At least he remembered to smile.

That I can still spot things like this, just randomly walking the streets — even after being here so long, and long forgetting that I’m just a stranger, a visitor in these parts — and still laugh at them, is what confirms my belief that I’ve become partly Filipino at heart.