There’s The Rub

Mirror, mirror

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The Department of Tourism is pissed off by a video that has gone viral. The video is made by an American about the things that piss him off about the Philippines. “20 reasons why I dislike the Philippines” is the title of the video made by Jimmy Sieczka who has lived and worked here, specifically in Cebu, over the last three and a half years.

The tourism department is not about to let the video dampen its efforts to prove it’s more fun in the Philippines, say tourism officials. “If he has 20 reasons why he is not fond of our country, we can get 20 million reasons more why it is more fun in the Philippines,” Tourism Assistant Secretary Benito Bengzon told Yahoo! Southeast Asia. “The bottom line is that there are a lot more positive factors. The important thing to remember here is that this is a one-man opinion against the millions of Filipinos who still love the Philippines.”

Well, Bengzon may have just supplied Sieczka with his 21st reason why he dislikes the Philippines. You can’t make that kind of video without getting into a fight with City Hall.

To be sure, Cebuanos are not likely to like Sieczka’s depiction of them, and their public officials may even be up in arms against him, though thankfully, that is something to like about this country. “Up in arms” tends to be more metaphorical than literal toward foreigners, and particularly toward Americans. I myself have watched the video, and what can I say? I like it.

It has polish, unlike the usual fare that winds its way to the Internet, in some parts thoughtful, in some parts witty. Though in some parts also arguably petulant. Its tone is nothing like Claire Danes’. Danes, you will recall, came here to do a movie and complained about the hellhole she found herself in. Manila, she said, was a “ghastly and weird city, (it) smelled of cockroaches, with rats all over, and there is no sewerage system, and the people do not have anything—no arms, no legs, no eyes.” Rather than finding it a weird and surrealistic, if not ghastly, description of Manila, which probably reflected more on Danes than on the city itself, Filipino officials took umbrage and surrealistic action against it. Erap, then president, proposed that Danes be declared persona non grata and banned forever from his ghastly and weird country.

Sieczka’s catalogue of ills we Filipinos ourselves have had occasion to point out and poke fun at. Which probably lies at the heart of the matter: It’s the same culture that says only African-Americans may call each other “nigger.” Coming from anybody else, that’s an invitation to mayhem. I myself have repeatedly complained, in tones ranging from satirical to peevish, depending on my mood and the immediacy of the oppression, about many of the things Sieczka does.

Some of those things though are funny when seen from a visitor’s eyes. One of them is “the favorite Filipino pastime” as Sieczka puts it, of peeing anywhere and everywhere. He himself does it by a wayside along with a local while talking about it, showing how he has gotten into the spirit of things, or taken to heart what to do when in Rome. He ends by giving a useful bit of advice probably to foreigners like himself: Just be sure to shake it before you slip it back in.

The part about toilets is pretty hilarious. Sieczka seizes on the unintentional self-parody of the local term for toilet being “comfort room.” (You’d be surprised how many of us actually ask for directions to the “comfort room” while abroad, imagining it to be a universal term.) The last thing “comfort rooms” in this country are, Sieczka says, is comfortable. Where you can actually find them—and this country seems thoroughly dedicated to not providing them—you come across something that looks like a vice den, the walls shouting obscenities and the elevated portion of a trough you’re supposed to stand on while relieving yourself is itself full of piss. And how the four-letter-expletive are you going to clean yourself up without toilet paper? Well, someone may want to educate him on the concept of the tabo….

The thoughtful part is when he gets to skin-whitening products, showing a shelf full of them in some grocery or drug store. Each item proclaiming itself to be more effective than the others in bleaching your skin. This country has an obsession with being white, Sieczka says. A completely valid point, as I myself have had occasion to press many times, and not always with a light hand. I’ve particularly minded their ads which propose not very subtly that dark is ugly. The products are insulting, along with medical interventions that propose to make Filipino women’s faces less round and their noses more pointed. And laughably ironic, given that many whites risk cancer from sunbathing to get darker-looking skins. But there’s nothing like looking at it from an outsider’s point of view.

Easy to dismiss Sieczka’s piece as an indulgent look at another country from the prism of middle-class America, with all its amenities. I don’t know, maybe that’s where he’s coming from. But you know too, if you’ve done the rounds of Southeast Asia that it’s not just in America where traffic rules are reasonably obeyed, where karaokes do not blare out from neighborhoods from dusk till dawn, where gaping holes in streets and sidewalks are not covered up with metal drums. I don’t know why we have to show that we love the country by bristling with indignation at everything that shows the other side of Manila Bay sunsets. I did warn while at this that a pitch like “It’s more fun in the Philippines” invited lines like “It’s more fun in Basilan,” or “It’s more fun in Ermita” (or wherever the red-light district has relocated to). Part of the beauty of this country is a people who are able to laugh at everything.

Including themselves.

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