It can be a little like looking in a mirror. Picking up David Haldane’s essay collection, A Tooth in My Popsicle, I can’t help recognizing the parallels—an American finds himself attracted to a Filipina, and this opens him up to a new life based in the Philippines. But superficial similarities aside, Haldane’s journey is unique, as is that of every foreigner or American who chooses to locate in this country.
Haldane was a reporter with the LA Times, until staff cuts made him reassess his life in America. His Filipino wife of several years, Ivy, suggested a move to her home country, and Haldane rolled the dice and pulled up stakes.
So far, this sounds like this American’s journey to the Philippines, writing a column called “The X-Pat Files” for this very newspaper, and trying to make sense of my new surroundings. But while this American focused (and sometimes still focuses) on the humorous and often bizarre phenomena he’s encountered (my column title practically hinted at my secret mission), Haldane liberally sprinkles his tale with genuine warmth and gradual understanding as he comes to appreciate his new home in Siargao.
Years ago, I recall my favorite American pastor here in the Philippines, Charlie Pridmore, telling me after I’d newly arrived, “If you don’t have patience when you arrive in the Philippines, you’ll quickly learn to develop some.” There’s a little of that in Haldane’s account, as he immediately learns to grapple with the difficulties of obtaining an ACR (alien certificate of registration) card as he settles into his new home with Ivy. Naturally, the red tape makes his head spin, as he’s instructed to bounce back and forth between Siargao and Cebu to complete the process. Add to that the spotty internet connection, one that’s “fallen and can’t get back up”(to quote an old US TV ad for medical alert bracelets), and it’s clear that Haldane will have to stock up on Zen patience quickly. Even learning to find a nearby clump of bushes to heed nature’s call seems like a challenge. Eventually, satori does reach him: “I had my great epiphany,” he says after beating his head against a wall again and again to obtain an ACR card. “The outcome was completely out of my hands.”
And so it goes in the Philippines. Sometimes the flow is remarkably blissful and surfable—and sometimes it is a typhoon causing your car and belongings to float away downstream.
While this writer has often chosen to milk every such situation—from traffic, to Filipino nicknames, to the fascination with photos and IDs, to the Filipino ability to sleep anywhere, anytime—for cheap laughs, Haldane presents his story in a thoughtful, embracing style. We learn much about the author, and his attachments here and back home, and what the transition feels like for an American relocating to the Philippines.
He may not get to mount a stage with a guitar and belt out a song, but the warm response from Filipinos feels like a rush nonetheless.
The short chapters are often poignant. Leaving America with his wife Ivy means tearful goodbyes to many people. It means navigating long-distance communication, with often limited internet connections in Siargao; we learn about the difficulty of communicating with his American son from a past marriage who has schizophrenia, and learn how Haldane looks forward to the good days, and good talks, with his son. This American can also relate to the difficulty of keeping strong attachments with those we’ve left behind in the States, and how communication can often feel fragmented, or digitally frustrating.
Mostly, Haldane presents a story, as any good journalist or storyteller would: a tale of landing here, settling in, adjusting, finding a footing that feels right. In my best moments, this experience, too, feels relatable.
He loves the idea that here, as an American writer, he is treated “like a rock star” when announced to give a reading in a Siliman University auditorium. He may not get to mount a stage with a guitar and belt out a song, but the warm response from Filipinos feels like a rush nonetheless. In the title essay, he encounters a Filipino dentist after sacrificing a molar to a stubbornly frozen popsicle. In another, he describes his “ichthyophobia,” or in his case, a physical revulsion at the taste of fish, despite a love of scuba diving and fish encounters in general.
Haldane is a deliberate writer, framing each short chapter in a lesson, a realization, an “aha” moment. Sometimes the results just amuse him and make life seem like a happy journey. In one chapter, he outlines how a café in Siargao seemed to have a gap on its menu: no salads. Haldane labored to explain what he sought, and the waiter dutifully wrote down the ingredients and, a while later, produced a bowl from the kitchen mounted with all he had asked for, and more. Naturally, he suggested that such an item deserved a permanent place on the menu; and so it was that “David’s Salad” became part of Andreani’s offerings in Siargao City.
Another chance to become a “rock star” on these shores.
* * *
David Haldane’s A Tooth in My Popsicle will be launched on March 7 at the Ortigas Foundation Library. Contact 09178948788 for more information.