In 2006 I was going through some identity issues. My upbringing was decidedly American, but my habits were infused with Filipino sensibilities. I had a lot of tension between by East/West selves. My solution was a summer in the Philippines to resolve the conflict.
When I mentioned the idea to my parents their immediate reaction was horror. They used their best tactics to talk me out of it. My father used terror: “You know they kidnap Americans over there? If you get kidnapped, I can’t come get you. ” My mother appealed to my fastidious nature: “Did you know not all the bathrooms have toilet paper? Some are pit toilets. It’s gross. You won’t like it.” Thing is, my folks walked away from their families to create a life for my siblings and me in the U.S. We weren’t the type of immigrants that returned for visits. Their split had been decisive. I wondered if they were afraid that I would rewrite the romantic narrative they authored. It didn’t have anything to do with that. I just needed to understand more about where I was born.
Because of my parents’ warnings, I was suitably paranoid and expected to be constipated for the duration of the visit. I lucked upon a great program, Tagalog-On-Site, that encompassed language, literature, history, and politics. It was geared towards students who wanted to understand the American influence in the Philippines. The classes covered topics from the American colonial period, the U.S. military presence from World War 2 and beyond, and the continued affects of globalization on the islands. I thought it a socially progressive program, my Dad called it leftist.
An added incentive to the Tagalog-On-Site program was its location near the University of Philippines, Los Banos campus. If Manila was equivalent to New York City than Los Banos was like Stamford, Connecticut, a low-key city with not a lot going on. It was the perfect, easygoing place to learn about Filipino me.
When I got to the Philippines, I saw that my classes were held in the middle of a suburban-style housing development that reminded me a bit of a neighborhood where I grew up in New Jersey, save for the tropical foliage. At the time, I had been very athletic and since there was no gym nearby, I decided I would wake up early and run in the mornings.
No one in the dorm was awake as I put on my sneakers and walked out. At home I ran or hiked in the woods of upstate New York and took the trails in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, so I thought the easiest thing to do was to run in the nearby Boy Scout preserve.
The plan sounded benign, boring even, except in the Philippines there are wild dogs that roam the streets. In the U.S. that wasn’t a hazard I thought about. I had done some hiking in Yosemite, so bears I feared. And in my head I played out that if any wild dogs were to chase me, I’d punch them in the nose like a bear. Or just figure it out.
Since this is my loopy longwinded story, now is the time I disabuse people of the notion that Filipinos eat dogs. We don’t. That’s a myth created at the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis, Missouri. At the time the fair organizers thought it a great idea to have a pavilion that showed the savages of the Pacific. They flew in a bunch of Igarot tribesmen in their traditional loincloths to populate the village. In a stroke of idiocy, xenophobic organizers killed and captured dogs to give the tribesmen to eat. Hence the legend persists.
It wasn’t lost on me that morning of my maiden run that I might be the food, rather than the dogs. Would the dogs avenge the memories of those St. Louis pups? I immediately dismissed the thought because the dogs barely looked up as I ran by them. Perhaps they realized my scrawny body wouldn’t be as tasty as the leftovers from the suburban homes. They couldn’t be bothered to chase me.
So to the Boy Scout preserve I made my way. The heat of the day hadn’t yet settled in but I could feel the warmth of the sun through the treetops.
I should have been startled by the gentleman wearing a diaper. He appeared about 10 minutes into my run. About sixty or older, he was also carrying a naked baby. Visually, there was something off.
From what I could tell, the diapered man came from a grouping of shacks within the park. It isn’t uncommon for the poor in the Philippines to do without shoes or a change of clothes. In the slums, the shanties are made of wood, cardboard or metal. And some of the homes have no roofs. Basic amenities like electricity, water, and sewage are not taken for granted. Without a doubt, the poverty is desperate.
In the moment, I didn’t feel unsafe but I wasn’t going to linger. I acknowledged him with my eyebrows to which he responded in kind. It’s a Filipino style of greeting that I only lapse into when I’m around other Pinoys. And then I was off.
On my trip back to the dorm, I ran the same pathways, through the woods, and up on the sidewalk. I showered and made my way to breakfast where I sat with classmates.
Immediately a rash appeared on my legs, my arms, my body. Ged, one of the coordinators of the program, looked at me and asked what had happened. We were only supposed to speak in the Filipino language, and mine was somewhat rudimentary, so in a terrible pantomime I explained.
Ged turned to the others. Their faces, once happy and animated, turned grave. I wasn’t quite sure what they were saying but I could tell it wasn’t good.
“You’ll need to show me the route. We need to go back and you need to apologize to the dwarves, the wood spirits,” she told me in English for emphasis. At this point in my Philippine experience I didn’t know Ged very well. Her official Tagalog-on-Site biography informed she was well educated and was involved in some indigenous music groups. My interactions with her at that point had been pleasant. I had no reason to be suspicious of the resolution she proposed.
The Philippines is a faith-based country. The main religion practiced is Catholicism. Other forms of Christianity pervade and there is a strong Muslim contingent in the south. Many of the religious customs combine animistic concepts that date back around 1565, the pre-Spanish colonial period.
Growing up, my parents only told me about certain Filipino superstitions like repeating the Hail Mary prayer when driving next to a cemetery. They never mentioned wood spirits. But could it hurt to make the apology? At the time I was participating in many healing modalities, experiencing many spiritual/new-age activities, so I thought – why not?
At various locations in the preserve, Ged and I stopped. We placed rice and money on the ground as an offering of appeasement and I’d apologize. She told me, in the future, to avoid any mishaps to say, “step aside little dwarf” because they protected the forests. If I saw a little dirt-pile, that’s where they were. I didn’t say it aloud but thought, isn’t that an anthill? Yet, Ged’s conviction made me take it seriously.
We finally came upon the spot where I ran into the gentleman with the diaper. I recounted events. “Oh, did he look at you?” she asked. A worried look came over her face. ” Yes,” I responded and repeated the eyebrow salutation.
Ged asked everyone in the vicinity about the guy. “If we find him, let me do the talking,” she said. I wasn’t quite sure of her concern. Turns out, Ged thought the guy put a love spell on me! And she needed to reverse the magic.
Filipinos have a lot romantic, dramatic and not especially realistic notions about love. Ill-fated lovers often reunite in heaven after stormy relationships in their lifetimes. It hadn’t occurred to me that the old man put a spell on me. Why? Was it because I was passing through his neighborhood? I didn’t look especially glamorous. And he was carrying a baby so somewhere there was a woman, the mother of the baby, in his life. I suppressed my inclination to laugh at Ged’s suggestion.
Then there he was. This time he wore shorts and a tee shirt. I didn’t see the baby. And I noticed he had bad teeth but a big grin as they talked. I think Ged said,” She’s a student from America. She doesn’t understand. She’s sorry. It won’t ever happen again.” The only word I understood was “po,” which adds formality to the Filipino language.
Confident that we had accounted for my running route, Ged and I headed back to the dorm and a day of classes. Although I was mentally calm, my body was on fire. The rash had spread all over. When was my repentance going to stick? Didn’t the money and food help? And it was clear, at least to me, I wasn’t under a love spell.
Despite all the effort, Ged took me to the university infirmary for an allergy shot. I couldn’t handle the itching. As much as I tried to embrace the superstitions in the moment, I just needed the medication. It was the Western antidote to my Eastern ills.