Manila Vanilla

What it's like to be a U.S. Fulbright scholar, basketball player, journalist, and the whitest man in Metro Manila.

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Location: Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines

New Yorker by birth, shipped across the globe to the world of malls, shanty-towns, patronage, corruption, basketball and a curious burnt-toast smell that wafts around at dusk

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Bronx Hard Massage

When the Big Apple Spa put up a cardboard cut-out of one of its employees inside the LRT Line 3 station at Araneta Center/Cubao to advertise its menu of beauty treatments and massages, it caught my attention.

I'm a New Yorker, and I always get a kick out of the ways businesses in Manila try to capitalize on New York's glamorous reputation. From a new condominium development in Cubao called "Manhattan Garden City" to Yellow Cab Pizza's roster of decidedly un-New York pies (shrimp and garlic?) to more subtle efforts like Gateway mall's lifting of a melody extremely similar to the Sex and the City theme song for their commercials, I notice these things. The marketing is so blatant, yet if capturing the essence of New York is the goal, these attempts almost always miss the target by miles. It brings to mind all sorts of snide, patronizing adjectives : quaint, naive, jejeune.

The city that always sells.

And no place exemplifies this trend in as grand and absurd a manner as Gateway's Big Apple Spa, which proudly offers little slices of heaven like the "Manhattan Express," the "Wall Street Express," and the undisputed champion of the bunch, the "Bronx Hard Massage." I'm not a big massage guy. I make my dad rub my feet, but paying for massage therapy was always in a league with tanning salons, eyebrow threading, mani/pedicures and other services way too Metrosexual for me.

But, for the sake of cultural exploration, I could make an exception. Someone needs to find out what Filipinos think an experience called the "Bronx Hard Massage" or "Wall Street Express" would include and write about it. The names certainly conjured up vivid images in my head. Would the Wall Street massage consist of seven bankers snorting coke off my bare back? Maybe being slapped and tenderized with thick wads of cash and feeling the divine contrast between the worn grain of the greenbacks and the the cool sting of the metal money clips? And what on Earth could the Bronx Hard Massage be?

We're here to massage you.

My father warned me about a variant of the BHM when I was six years old. An elementary school classmate was taking me to my first Yankees game, and before I left, pops told me to avoid the public bathrooms at Yankee Stadium at all costs. Gangs of Puerto Ricans in there would gang rape me, cut my throat and leave me for dead, he said. When I saw the sign advertising the massage, my first thought was laying down on a table, only to have Fat Joe and the Terror Squad swarm the room and pummel me with 2-foot MagLites and padock-laced fists.

I wasn't totally surprised to find out that the Bronx Hard Massage was neither of these. In fact, I'm hard pressed to identify anything Bronx-like about the experience. The amount of time the masseuse spent kneading my buttocks surprised me, and perhaps led credence to my dad's mildly prejudiced paranoia 18 years ago. Since it was my first massage of any kind, it's difficult for me to compare this hard massage to a soft one, or this Bronx rubdown to a DuPage County, Illinois one.

If you read the line about Albanian thugs and thought I was joking, check out this picture perfect bad boy.

Here's what happened. I asked for a Bronx Hard Massage, and was a little disappointed that I had to ask a cute, fashionable Filipina instead of a guy wearing a 6XL white tee and a Yankee hat at least twice as big as his actual head. At least give me an Albanian hard rock with a chin-strap beard. So the Big Apple lost authenticity points from the start. The girl led me into a potpurri-smelling room with dark lighting and told me to change into the boxer shorts laying on the massage table. Their shorts were more like shiny polyester hot pants than boxers, so I elected to rock my own boxers and stave off another case of crabs. A tiny woman came into the room, asked what kind of pressure I wanted (It's called the "hard" massage, right?) and then got to working on my ass. It was nice. She stretched me out, leaned all 93 pounds of herself on various pressure points, and rubbed some kind of oil all over me. I don't know what any of those things have to do with the Bronx. The only women there who weigh 93 pounds are 9 years old.

OK. I'm starting to feel guilty about all these Bronx stereotypes I'm tossing around. Of course, they never would have entered my mind in the first place, if some ad-wizard at the Big Apple Spa didn't try to cash in on some similarly inaccurate stereotype in his or her head.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Ethnic Cleansing, PBA Style

Who is a Filipino? Coming up with an operational definition for what makes someone Filipino is a thorny issue in the Philippine Basketball Association. But even outside of professional sports, developing a set of criteria someone must meet to be considered Pinoy is a classification nightmare. You're always going to omit someone who has a legitimate claim on identity.

Some readers of this blog have remarked that I'm becoming "Filipinized" the longer I live in the country. Should I ever be allowed to call myself Filipino, though? Perhaps if I renounce my American citizenship and emigrate permanently, but of the many ex-pats who make their lives here, hardly any are willing to kiss that blue passport goodbye.

To the PBA, a Filipino is a Philippine citizen with at least half Filipino blood. Filipino-Foreign players, however, are subject to a Byzantine set of eligibility requirements. It starts with team quotas. No team is allowed more than five Fil-Foreign players. Since these players are almost always Fil-American, I'm going to refer to them as Fil-Ams from now on, and the nitpicking fans of Australian Mick Pennisi and Tongan Asi Taulava will have to deal with it. Within a team's five Fil-Ams, only one can be half-Filipino. The other four must be foreign citizens whose parents were Filipino citizens living abroad at the time of their birth.

Fil-Tong Asi Taulava looking like Atilla from the Jean-Claude Van Damme film Lionheart.

Stick with me here. This means that to play in the PBA as a Fil-Am, not only does one or both of your parents have to be "pure" Filipino, but they can't be naturalized citizens of your birth country when you are born.

Those rules only concern foreign players' ethnic backgrounds. There are also playing requirements Fil-Ams must fulfill in local college or semi-professional leagues before they can put their name into the PBA draft. If a foreigner transfers to one of the schools in the top collegeiate leagues like the UAAP or NCAA, he must wait two years before becoming eligible to compete in games. If a Fil-Am finishes college or junior college in the States, he is required to play 30 games in the PBA's feeder league, the semi-professional PBL. Only one Fil-Am is allowed on each PBL team, however, so there is a glut of foreign talent trying to fulfill their eligibility requirement so they can play.

Golden boy Kelly Williams.

Many of these guys live in Manila for a couple years, mooching off their buddies from home who've already made it to the league and relying on their agents for transportation and food money. But the leagues have all reached their saturation points for Fil-Ams under the current rules. Unless a recent arrival is a sure bet to be a star -- often this means he is at least 6'6'' with some Division I experience in the States -- like former Oakland University guard Kelly Williams, he may flounder and never make it onto a team.

It wasn't always like this. Fil-Ams were once the toast of Philippine basketball. Joel Banal, who coached Ateneo in the UAAP and Talk N Text in the PBA, said he thought the influx of Fil-Ams -- brash, exciting players with flashy, athletic moves -- rejuvenated Philippine basketball in the early 1990s. They brought the American game to the Philippines and forced local players to improve to remain competitive. Players like Vince Hizon, Mark Cagouia, Nic Belasco and Danny Seigle were fan favorites in their primes, with Cagouia and Seigle still playing major star roles for Ginebra and San Miguel Beer, respectively.

Ten years ago there was hardly any red tape to keep Fil-Ams from playing. Back then, foreign players could send a highlight reel of their best high school games to a professional team and have a fat contract of $5,000-$10,000 a month. Now, teams ignore them until they've proven themselves to be potential stars.

When you say Fil-Am out here, this is the kind of image that comes to many people's minds.

There are several reasons for the 180-degree turnaround in attitudes towards Fil-Ams. First, they have a repuation for bad behavior. The word that gets tossed around in relation to them most often is mayabang, Tagalog for arrogant, but with a little more kick. Fil-Ams are reputed team killers, cocky Americans who disrespect their coaches, teammates and league officials. They dress like American basketball players -- long shorts, baggy clothes, chains, du-rags, etc. -- and they're seen as uncontrollable thugs, whether or not it's true. The Philippines, despite its renowned Western influences, remains very Asian in that individuals are expected to defer to groups. Getting along well is such a deep value that many people would rather lie than say something that might make someone else upset. So when a fresh Fil-Am hops off the jet from Los Angeles, makes his teammate fall with a crossover, laughs at him and asks, "Why you even trying to guard me, stupid?" he won't be ingratiating himself with the locals.

The bad behavior extends beyond the basketball court. Once again, Fil-Am players may not deserve this reputation, but they're said to party too much, start fights and act extremely sleazy with local women. It's true that a lot of foreign ballers have multiple girlfriends, mistresses and lovechildren. However, it wouldn't take long to find local players who are into similar dirt. In fact, extramarital philandering is so common here that in a recent poll cited in the August 14 issue of Newsbreak, a majority of teenagers said cheating on a boyfriend or girlfriend was "outright wrong" while 60 percent of them saw nothing wrong with cheating on a husband or wife. Former Senator Ramon Revilla, Sr., is reputed to have roughly 80 illegitimate children, and he's often complimented on the fact that he supports them financially.

Say what you will about Ramon Revilla, Sr., but the man certainly knows how to sire children.

The difference between Fil-Am philandering and pure Filipino womanizing is that locals know the "right" way to be sleazy. I'm sure I just lost all 4 of my female readers, but for better or for worse, certain kinds of infidelity are accepted in Filipino culture. Mistresses should be kept out of sight and away from the family, but it's accepted and sometimes expected to lavish them with gifts, apartments and affection. I wouldn't call all these relationships discreet, but neither are they crass. Everyone plays their role and does their best to save face. But Americans don't get down like that. We ain't about living a lie and saving face, we keep it real! So the foreign ballers who pick up girls at clubs like Embassy and Jaipur, take them home and send them on their way an hour later with their boots smoking are doing it all wrong. It's like there's an agreement between a mistress and her man -- she'll accept the unequal relationship if he treats her nice when they're together and gives her some goodies now and then. But Americans tend to be strictly hit-and-split, and that hurts their reputation with the fans, which is possibly worse for their careers than the bad rap they get with teams. The PBA is basketball as entertainment, modeled after the NBA, and if the masses are sick of Fil-Ams, then the league has no use for them.

But although the players are no angels, I still see problems with the PBA's racial guidelines. Compare two recent PBA draftees, Kelly Williams and Gabby Espinas. Both have Filipina mothers and African-American fathers. Espinas was raised in Olongapo City near the old U.S. naval base at Subic Bay. Williams was raised in Detroit, Michigan. According to the PBA, Espinas is a Filipino and Williams is a Filipino-American. Williams is fortunate. Because he's a 6'6'' wing player with Division I experience at Oakland University in Detroit, any PBA team would figure out a way to fit him into their roster, even if it meant cutting another Fil-Am. A less heralded U.S. recruit with Williams' ethnic makeup -- even one as good as Espinas, the fifth pick in the draft -- might be passed over by teams that don't want to deal with the trouble of juggling the Fil-Ams on their rosters.

The idea of safeguarding the Filipino bloodline is absurd at this point. "Pure" Filipinos had mixed with Malays and Chinese even before the Spanish arrived in the 16th Century. Those frisky Spaniards made their fair share of babies, and several prominent Spanish families still run big businesses in Manila. Americans supplanted the Spanish rulers in the 20th Century and brought English, Hollywood, basketball, public education, a form of government that resembles democracy and the U.S. armed forces to the island. Add all the foreign invasions and influences up and you get one extremely mixed ethnic heritage. If the PBA really wants pure Filipinos, they'll have to reach deep into the indigenous peoples of Mountain Province of Northern Luzon or the Muslim minorities in Mindanao to find the groups least touched by the colonialists.

The Kalinga Headhunters' starting point guard.

While I admit there's a certain charm to the idea of an Igorot versus Aeta hardcourt grudge match or a Moro versus Kalinga game 7, the quality of the basketball might leave something to be desired. Watching the tiny, hunter-gatherer Aetas hack away at the g-string clad Igorots, neither of them having any idea what to do with a basketball, might be humorous for a while but it's not something I'd want to watch for two hours. And the Kalinga, renowned headhunters, could present a serious court management problem for referees.

While I understand the PBA's desire to please local fans by featuring truly Filipino players, the league's attempt to codify Filipino ethnicity strikes me as arbitrary and misguided. I say let the teams decide what kind of players they want to suit up, whether it be Fil-Ams, Tsinoys (Chinese Filipinos), Visayans, Ateneans, indigenous peoples or whatever mix of basketball players wins games for them.