On being a Manileño

The author: ‘Filipinos never stop singing.’

By Austin Smith

It hit me the moment I got off the plane. This is not a vacation. Even though I only packed for five days and came with three different travel guides, I’m not just snapping some pictures and heading home. Manila is my home now.

Everything that I write after this must be prefaced with the knowledge that I am an American half-Filipino, which everyone seems to be able to tell just by looking at me, and that the last time I was here I was a kid. Everything feels familiar and yet now it’s my turn to try and sort it out for myself.

For all those who have not been to the Philippines before, it can feel rather bizarre coming from the U.S. There are Johnny Rockets and Applebees all over the place. I mean, I had pizza, wings, and beer my first night here. For the most part, people listen to American Top-40 radio which I don’t even listen to. Every sign is in English, and everyone can speak English to you (but only after testing your Tagalog first.)

At the same time, the roads are a free-for-all, you’re sweaty all the time, and there are Filipinos everywhere. Sometimes I think it’s almost like home, and then 10 minutes later I’m standing on the tail lights of a jeep going 40 mph and weaving.

Yes, it’s been a joyful reunion so far. I’ve met family I haven’t seen in years, shared quite a few beers with quite a few new people, and had my brain overloaded with old and new memories every time I go out.

There’s too much I want to say, so I’ll just list some of my favorite things about this place that I had either forgotten or under-appreciated:

We’ve eaten fish every day. Grilled yellowfin, fried tilapia, smoked milkfish. You can’t beat that.

Everyone smiles for the camera. I had a guy stop his motorbike in the middle of the road, take off his helmet, and pose.

Filipinos never stop singing. In the car, in the kitchen, on the train, you name it. I was walking around the mall yesterday and Maroon 5 started playing in the department store. I thought I was hearing things because there were so many other voices chiming in as people passed by me. Everything from humming to mouthing to actually opening up the throat and projecting. Then, when I went to the register to buy a shirt, the guy at the register was singing Katy Perry the whole time he swiped my card and checked me out. I could get used to this.

San Francisco-born Austin Smith is the co-founder of Filipino Street Art Project, a documentary that explores the rapidly changing political and social landscape of the Philippines through the lens of street artists. This essay originally appeared in the FSAP Newsletter and is being reprinted with permission.

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