I made my way to my aisle seat in a row of three and groaned inwardly. The center seat, which had been empty when I checked online the night before, was now occupied by a tall young man, stocky enough to necessitate raising the armrest that separated my space from his. I reassured myself that this wasn’t going to be a problem—this was the short leg of my trip, from DC to Minneapolis, from which there would be a long haul to Tokyo before the final push to Manila. I could handle a few crowded hours.
Like Macon Leary in The Accidental Tourist, I’d armed myself with a book to fend off the advances of chatty Americans, and became quickly absorbed in it. My seatmate had turned to the man on his right, and they indulged in the sort of casual conversation that soon fades away after the settling-in period at the start of a trip. I caught that my seatmate was also going all the way to Manila, and I allowed myself one last helpless twinge of anxiety about seating arrangements before I let the matter go.
Midflight, I decided to fill out my exit form and brought out my passport. My seatmate recognized it and took the opportunity to breach my defenses by asking how one acquires a Philippine passport. I explained that, being a Filipino citizen, it was no problem for me, and that I was ignorant of the procedures and requirements for a foreigner applying for one. Since the fort had fallen, I yielded to human interaction.
I explained a bit about the study tour I’d been on, and he offered up his own take on disaster and recovery in American cities. I learned that he lived in Maryland (like Macon Leary), and we talked a bit about my recent visit to Baltimore, The Wire, and the dicier parts of the city. It turned out he was of Puerto Rican descent, a second-generation immigrant, and I was reminded of a theory I’d heard of recently that immigrants could help repopulate and revive the parts of Baltimore that had been abandoned by residents moving to the suburbs.
He was on his way to Manila, and was trying to confirm some of the information he had gathered—where to go and not to go, places to eat, things to do, if his hotel was a good one. He was worried that he would stick out in the Philippines because of his appearance, his curly hair. I reassured him he would blend in fine, laying my forearm next to his to show how little difference there was in our skin tones. He pointed out that I was unusually tall and hirsute for a Filipino, and I explained about my Spanish heritage, which led to a discussion of Philippine history.
I learned he had majored in anthropology, and I suspect it was this training that led him to research as thoroughly as he could to prepare for this trip, his first overseas, five years in the planning. I appreciated the effort. We didn’t go into the intersection of our cultural histories—in the 1898 Treaty of Paris, Spain ceded (read: sold) the Philippines to the United States for the bargain price of twenty million dollars, along with Puerto Rico and Guam.
We did go into his reason for traveling: a young Filipina he had met over the Internet. They’d been carrying on a webcam-enabled romance for five years; she had been in her last year of high school when they met. Over that time, he had sent her and her family numerous gifts, in cash and kind, even putting her through nursing school, hoping she could then come to the U.S. to work. Now she had graduated, but was refusing to take the board exams for murky reasons. In the meantime, her father, who had treated the American friend with paternal hostility, had died, making the migration plan even more farfetched. Now this young man—let’s say, Rodrigo—was traveling to meet her—Jennilyn—for the first time, to see once and for all if there was anything at all to this complicated relationship.
It was a familiar enough story, except that Rodrigo, at thirty, was at least twenty years younger than the usual suitor. Rather than ordering a bride through a web site (still an option, apparently), hundreds of men from America, Europe, and Australia, divorced and retired, have instead found other ways to strike up long-distance friendships with countless Filipinas, hope fueling the correspondence on both sides. The desire to find a young, submissive, hardworking, exotic wife is matched with the need for a better life, one far away from the dead-end swelter of a developing country. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s easy to color such a transaction sad and desperate, but if both parties get what they want or need, what room is left for sadness, tradeoffs notwithstanding?
Rodrigo didn’t seem at all sad or desperate, just excited, and maybe a little scared of embarking on this adventure. He had kept his options open, refusing the offer to stay in Jennilyn’s home, and having a back-up plan to see Cebu and Bohol on his own if things didn’t work out. I learned that he had made other friends in the Philippines, at least as far south as Davao. There seemed to be a pattern of him meeting on the Internet, and then sending money to, young Filipinas to fund some kind of essential project—in one case a small pig farm (in rural areas, the equivalent of a savings account). He had tried to offer some practical advice about starting such a venture (“Do you know anything about raising pigs?”) but the girl had gone ahead with the plan, with his financial help. The business failed, predictably, but Rodrigo seemed unperturbed. He had wired the money knowing that he would never see it again.
Rodrigo isn’t rich, by American standards. He works as an engineer and building superintendent, and lives modestly by himself in a rented apartment—solid blue-collar middle class. But in the Philippines, his dollars go a long way, he knows. He gives to his Filipina friends freely, ingenuously, and doesn’t seem to expect anything in return. I almost want to give him a good shake and try to talk some sense into him.
There’s a kindness that masks a need to rescue, to assist, to intervene. I see it often in visitors to the Philippines, who are overwhelmed by the poverty and immediately reach out to help, by giving food or money to the nearest beggar. I’d like to tell them that this temporary solution only encourages mendicancy and can lash back at donors, as when the other beggars realize there’s a live source of dole-outs in the vicinity, but I risk sounding like an insensitive douchebag.
I admit to being desensitized to many kinds of suffering, perhaps because I need to function in an environment where it is a round-the-clock, in-your-face reality. On the other hand, I don’t sense the same kind of sympathy proffered freely to the poor and homeless in America, who seem expected to bootstrap themselves out of their circumstances, sooner rather than later. This kindness could be another expression of economic, even racial, superiority, or perhaps a benign sort of messianic tendency. But it does leave one wide open to exploitation, even Rodrigo with his limited means.
As we talk some more, I nudge the conversation towards what is to me an obvious question. Cautiously, I ask him if he’s sure she’s not just taking advantage of him.
From what he’s told me, Jennilyn seems extremely mercurial and jealous—prone to throwing tantrums, accusing him of having other online girlfriends (she has good instincts), but she is apparently quite adept at keeping him on a leash, if this has been going on for five years. She manages to convince him to keep sending money for various reasons, not all of which seem legit to him. He notes that in her photos she’s always the best-dressed among her friends. She rejects the offer of a useful laptop and demands a PSP instead. He’s found evidence of other relationships with other men, older Americans, in her e-mail and Facebook accounts (they had exchanged passwords after one of her jealous tantrums). They’d fight, and he’d end up apologizing, or she would act like nothing had happened. This is a familiar story too. Through Rodrigo, I catch Jennilyn at a half-truth, apparently making the area she lives in, a run-down slummy part of Metro Manila, sound a little swankier by claiming that it’s right next to the central business district.
I’m relieved when Rodrigo doesn’t take my prying the wrong way, and more so when he admits that the thought has crossed his mind. He finally decided to proceed with this trip to get a little closer at the truth.
In his research on the Philippines he came upon one of our more popular creation myths—that of Tungkung Langit and Alunsina, two divine beings, male and female, who live in the universe before anything else came into being. Tungkung Langit, proprietor of creation, is constantly traveling to do his job, while Alunsina stays home tending her hair and imagining jealous scenarios about what her lover might be up to. When he discovers that she sent the sea breeze to spy on him and report on his activities, a lovers’ quarrel ensues. Alunsina storms off in a huff. Tungkung Langit, repentant and lonely, seeks her out but can’t find her. Ages pass. He creates the world, makes it beautiful, to entice her to return. He hangs her mirror and comb in the sky and scatters her jewels across the firmament (creating sun, moon, and stars), hoping that she’ll see them and come back. She never does, and he continues wandering the universe in search of her, shedding his tears as rain over the earth.
There’s much to be said about a society that believes that the universe was born out of a failed love affair, but there are more immediate parallels, which Rodrigo recognizes. He laughs ruefully and shakes his head.
“There’s a high probability that this won’t end well,” I tell him. “So are you prepared to wander the universe in tears?”
“We’ll see,” he replies. He’d much rather have that than face a lingering “what-if” in his life, he explains. He glances at the book in my lap and smirks. It’s called The American Future.
As we disembark in Minneapolis, he asks me where the gate to the connecting flight is, and I realize that he really hasn’t traveled by plane much at all. I could take him under my wing for the rest of the trip, but Macon Leary kicks in. I point him to the flight information monitor at the exit and make a hasty departure.
We’re not seated together for the last two flights. I glimpse him in the waiting areas, at Immigration, but it seems like we’re both pretending not to see each other.
As I make my way to the taxi stand, I see him in the distance—a big burly dude dragging a plastic-encased suitcase in a floral pattern, struggling with a floppy duffel bag and a cellphone. He’s walking away from the airport taxis that I recommended, and I remember that Jennilyn promised to pick him up with her family, probably in a rented jeepney, as per Filipino custom. “Greeters” are sequestered in a special area away from the terminal exit, so Rodrigo has a little bit more to go on his journey.
Belatedly I wonder if I should have given him my contact information, just in case. The last thing my country needs is another tourist leaving with bad memories. I call out his name, but he doesn’t hear. His chin juts forward, leading the way, and he’s shuffling quickly, urgently, towards the greeters’ area, dodging passing shuttles and taxis.
That’s that, I think, and I climb into a cab.