Where were you when…

Kananga, Leyte earthquake July 2017

Some people play the game of “Where were you when…” by mentioning a cataclysmic event then going on to describe one’s reaction to it. Friends have asked where I was when JFK was killed, or when Chernobyl had its meltdown, or when New York’s Twin Towers fell. My most recent event was on July 9, while napping at home in Cebu with my cat at my feet. Feeling the bed swaying, I turned to see if she was the cause but she was lying still. Realizing it was a tremor, I went to open my laptop. Phivolcs reported the quake at magnitude 6.5 in Jaro, Leyte, and magnitude 5 in Cebu.

When I learned that the tremor was “seismic,” I looked up how that differs from “tectonic.” The region of the planet where these occur includes certain parts of both hemispheres. Seismic, which I understood to mean up-and-down motion, is explained as the earth’s crust boiling over, rather like rice overflowing on the stove; the sideways motion of a quake is tectonic when underground plates collide horizontally to release gases trapped underneath. I presumed that was what caused Mount Pinatubo to erupt.

Like typhoons, floods, attacks by criminal elements, and earthquakes jolt one into feeling totally helpless — which is how I imagine Mayor Rolando Espinosa felt early in November 2016 when 19 officers of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group broke into the Baybay, Leyte, subprovincial jail to rub him out. In a country where one needs much security to stay alive if one is involved in political shenanigans, life can be precarious.

Another occasion, which wasn’t too surprising (early signs of the impending event were obvious), was in May last year when Rodrigo Duterte won the presidential election. I was crestfallen as I’d hoped Miriam Santiago would survive her cancer and make it to Malacañang.

Later that year, on Nov. 18, I was in Cebu grinding my teeth so hard I must have worn off much dental enamel after learning about the hastily arranged hero’s burial of the long-refrigerated remains of Ferdinand Marcos.

The Inquirer, on Nov. 9 last year, ran the headline that said it all for me: “OMG! It’s Trump!” The news that that cretinous candidate won the US presidential election caused me more gnashing of teeth as well as tearing of hair.

Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997, was particularly painful for me as my back was killing me (I was working in the territory). A day later my orthopedic surgeon performed a laminectomy on my spine, allowing me to walk again four months later.

Stopping my English class in Hong Kong on June 14, 1989, we watched the crowds marching to protest the Tiananmen massacre, demanding real freedom for China and the territory.

I listened, full of rage in Hong Kong, to radio, watched TV and read about Ninoy Aquino’s assassination on Aug. 21, 1983, muttering Cebuano gaba (curses) on the Marcoses.

Time stood still for me in September 1981 when I was with my husband Antonio Escoda at Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York, where he succumbed to cancer. Tony was assigned to head the Associated Press bureau in Bangkok, where I was stunned to read about JFK’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.

The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba on Aug. 11, 1961, but I didn’t much care as I was busy delivering my second daughter Tina in Manila.

When Fidel Castro established his dictatorship in Cuba on Nov. 4, 1959, I was engrossed in delivering my first daughter Carla in Manila.

I read vaguely about the Hungarian Revolution, but I was too excited about my wedding to Tony Escoda in Manila on Oct. 16, 1956.

This backward timeline shows I’ve lived long enough to have witnessed cataclysmic historical events, which I hope won’t include too many earthquakes!

This piece originally appeared in the Philippine Inquirer on July 13 2017

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Imperialist Beauty Standards Rule in the Philippines

Rachel Peters crowned Miss Universe Philippines 2017

Once again Western standards of beauty are on display in Asia, with beauty contest officials inevitably picking a mestiza to be Miss Universe Philippines 2017. Rachel Peters’ father is British, her mother a Filipina.  Last year’s Miss Universe was Pia Wurtzbach, who had a German father. A former Miss Cebu, Raine Baljac, had a Croat father. Megan Lynne Young, a Filipino-American, was crowned Miss World in 2013. There have been precious few pure Filipina finalists in any recent beauty contests in the country.

Obviously Filipino women who gave birth to those contestants, to name a few among many, either traveled around the world where they met their partners, or foreign men were the ones who had gone to the Philippines. The fascination, even obsession, with Western standards of beauty dates back to the former western colonials which relegated the indigenous population to a lower social stratum.  Analysts of colonialism have pointed to the socio-cultural problems which arise from that.  But in developing countries like the Philippines, mestizos tend to be admired.

Some countries view such minorities either with contempt or a tinge of admiration.  In colonial India, the offspring of Britons who married the natives were labelled “half caste,” “Anglo-Indian” or “Eurasian,” among others.  (In Africa there were the Creoles or Mulattoes.)  The mixed-race actress, Merle Oberon whose exoticism took her to the Hollywood zenith in the 1930s and 1940s, was born in India but claimed she was born in Tasmania, a secret she kept till her death.

It was former US President Barack Obama who spelled things out clearly when he described himself in an interview as a “mutt” soon after he was elected in 2008 as the media were digging into his antecedents. Curiously, he chose to call one of his biographical pre-election books “Dreams from My Father.” This may have been to highlight the racism that pervades much of American society towards what were first called “negroes,” then “colored folks” and finally “blacks.”  The era of miscegenation lasted centuries, when marriages between white and black couples were often ostracized.

Even though Obama had a white mother, which makes him only half black, that tended to be overlooked by racists whose attitudes are deeply entrenched in America’s social, cultural and political life.  Tales whipped up by the present President Donald Trump about Obama having been born in his father’s country, Kenya, festered in the minds of a segment of Americans who hated the thought of America having a black president. The Texan husband of a close relative of mine told me when Obama ran in his first presidential campaign: “I don’t want no nigger in the White House!”

Diluting the “pure”

The early waves of migration throughout the world from China, India and the Middle East served to “dilute” those races which wished to keep themselves “pure,” as it were.  Those considered beyond the pale were seen as mongrels.

Today’s ease of jet travel encourages the itinerant nature of different races moving from their birthplaces to various corners of the globe. The mixed marriages that take place have produced progeny that populates today’s multi-racial world.

Mestiza product

I’m the product of such a phenomenon. My grandfather hailed from Tennessee and joined the army during the time of America’s only colonial adventure. He was stationed in Cebu, the central region of the Philippines, where he met a local teenager who spoke only Cebuano and Spanish (learned from the Spanish colonials who occupied the Philippines for over 300 years). The Americans did not rule by the cross and the sword like Spain had when they took over as the new colonials although they ultimately prosecuted an ugly repression. But they also brought over the English language, education and technology, making native nationalists, later called their compatriots “little brown Americans,” who allowed the new rulers to exploit the country.

My Cebuana grandmother, who learned pidgin English from her foreign husband, produced 10 children who naturally became part of the mestizo class. My father, being the eldest, obtained an engineering degree from a top Manila university, which qualified him to run a cement plant in his mother’s birthplace, where I myself was born in the last century.

Growing up as the child of mestizo parents (my mother had a Spanish father) made me realize I was a bit different from some of my friends. My yaya (nanny) would sometimes tell me I was lucky because I had a straight nose, not a flat one like hers and most others’.  She made me feel glad of this fact, which I later realized was just a colonial hang-over.

Whiteners, colonial hangovers

For decades, pharmacies throughout the archipelago promote “whitening” creams and light-colored hair dyes that are snapped up by women (and men) wishing to emulate western celebrities. Those are also colonial hangovers epitomized by Hollywood, but many among the general mass of people continue to derive satisfaction from aping current trends.

There is a larger infusion of Chinese blood in Thailand than elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but fair skin is treasured by women in China, and especially Hong Kong where beauty salons advertise procedures that give women  wide Western-type eyes with double eyelids.

Cookies from the cutters

Much has changed around the world today, with nationalist pride flourishing in even the smallest nations.  A country like the Philippines, which attaches “world class” to even minor victories and glories in a prize-winning pugilist, has fielded the most Westernized-looking models in beauty contests so as to join the big league. The belief is that “kayumanggi” (brown-skinned) girls wouldn’t make the grade. Mestizas, of which there are countless numbers in the Philippines and Latin America, will go on being “cookie-cutter” Western types aspiring to reach the top of the beauty pile. Rachel Peters is the latest example. She won’t be the last.

This piece originally ran in the Asia Sentinel on May 9 2017.