No Happy Homecoming For This Brown Man

The Seattle Times
April 30, 1995
By Alex Tizon

Brown was on my mind. I was a brown man come home to a country of brown people, standing with a suitcase in hand under a blistering sun, listening to a lovely brown innkeeper tell me without a hint of shame that she did not rent to anyone my color or hers. Only to foreigners. On that particular island of the Philippines, foreigner invariably meant white. My wife was white, a fact duly noted by the lovely brown innkeeper.

“Your wife is a foreigner, so it’s okay, I can rent to you,” said the innkeeper, glowing with largesse. “Which room would you like?”

Minutes earlier, the innkeeper had shown us two rooms, one bigger than the other, both overlooking Sabang Beach with its white sand melting into clear blue water. The hotel was perched on a natural rock terrace and was among the highest-priced of the couple of dozen lodgings around Puerto Galera, a small port town surrounded by a cluster of rustic beach resorts.

“Well?” the innkeeper said.

We quietly decided to stay somewhere else. Later, in a characteristically delayed reaction, I became indignant, then somber. How could that innkeeper be so blind to her trespass? Our conversation seemed to confirm my worst suspicions of a kind of enduring colonial self-loathing among Filipinos. The Philippines is a young country, not yet 50 years old, and still struggling to come out from under the shadows of its colonizers: the Spaniards for 3 1/2 centuries, then the Americans for the first half of this century. I had wondered how the effects of these historical episodes trickled down to the present-day ordinary people.

In any event, the innkeeper’s words colored my entire week at Puerto Galera. I saw color conspiracies everywhere, not all of them imaginary. It also happened to be the week my brother almost drowned in a snorkeling accident. The entire country, serene blue waters included, seemed unwelcoming.

Our trip to Puerto Galera was the first of many excursions during a 8-month sojourn to the Philippines in 1992. It was my first extended trip to my native country since my family immigrated to America in 1963. I was 4 at the time. Nearly 30 years later, I dragged my wife and then 1-year-old daughter back so I could check out my heritage and also take a break from the American rat race. We went to live with my brother, Albert, and his family in Quezon City.

We had been in the country only a few weeks when Albert and I loaded up our families for the trip to Puerto Galera. The journey took half a day, ending with a boat ride across the Verde Island Passage to Mindoro, a lush island ringed by a pristine white coastline. In the northeast corner, snuggled in a natural harbor, was Puerto Galera.

The first hint that color would be a theme of the trip came on the boat ride. On board were about a dozen couples, nearly all made up of old white men with young brown girls. Old as in 40s, 50s and 60s; young as in teens and 20s. It was not a remarkable sight to most other Filipinos on board. They were accustomed to it. I was not. I stared.

They were everywhere in Puerto Galera, these couples and others like them. The town, it turned out, was a favorite vacation spot for Australians, New Zealanders, Germans and Americans, most of them men, many accompanied by “hospitality girls” picked up in Ermita, the red-light district of Manila. The men who arrived unaccompanied often procured girls right in Puerto Galera. The town, as did much of the country, seemed geared to keeping “foreigners” happy.

Keeping them happy meant catering to them, and in the case of the innkeeper, preferring them to the exclusion of native people.

The reasons for this, I think, have something to do with a colonial complex that bestows status and authority to white Western culture. Staked in the foundation of the brown man’s psyche, says Filipino writer Sylvia Mayuga, is the idea that “White is somehow better; not wiser, but stronger.”

It also has to do with money. Some would say it has everything to do with money. The Philippines is one of the poorest countries in Asia, a nation largely of subsistence farmers.

Foreigners who go there are, by native standards, wealthy, and like wealthy people everywhere, they are afforded special privileges. Even non-wealthy foreigners get special treatment because they are assumed to be wealthy. It is a stereotype that works in their favor. Doors are opened for them; bags are carried and meals prepared with more elan; taxis are quicker to stop.

It occurred to me months later that the innkeeper who so unabashedly preferred foreigners to natives was not preferring white over brown, but simply preferring the color of money — a lesser trespass somehow because we all know that pull. This was not a justification, nor a comfort.

For most of my week at Puerto Galera, I watched white people with equal parts suspicion and curiosity. There was a little jealousy in there, too. As a native son come home, I had secretly hoped I would, for the first time, have a home-court advantage. When I discovered I did not, something in me wanted to cry foul.

I was in the midst of this foul mood when my brother Albert decided to go out snorkeling on his own off Sabang Beach, just a few hundred yards from our bungalows. I had taken a day trip to another beach and returned later in the day to learn what happened. My brother had been a couple hundred yards from shore when a wave poured seawater into his snorkel. He breathed in water and panicked. He went under, hit bottom and kicked off to the surface, managing to yell and flail his arms before going back under.

His yell was loud enough to turn heads on the beach. Two men sitting in an open-air restaurant raced to the water, swam out to my brother and pulled him to shore. By the time they returned to the beach, a small crowd had gathered. The two men revived my brother, who was then taken back to his bungalow to recover. He was exhausted and embarrassed, but all right.

Sabang Beach was abuzz with the news when I returned from my day trip. People who mistook me for Albert — we look a lot alike — were surprised to see me up and about. They asked how I was. One of them was the innkeeper. She seemed sincerely concerned. When I realized what had happened, I ran, head spinning, to my brother’s bungalow, where both our families were gathered. We spent the rest of the evening stunned, piecing together the story, silently grateful. That night, all considerations unrelated to life and death shrank to nothing.

The next day I met the two men who pulled Albert out of the water. Their names were Ulf and Tim. We never got to last names. Ulf was a young man in his 20s from Germany, Tim a young man in his 20s from New Jersey. They were both white. Ulf was especially friendly. They both recounted their versions of what happened the day before. Ulf said something like, “I never thought I’d play lifeguard on this trip!” and we laughed. We shook hands. The tropical sun had turned their skin brown, not as dark as mine, but getting there.