What is the knocking at the door in the night?
— D. H. Lawrence
When I was twenty-nine, I flew to the island of Cebu in the Philippines to watch a fight. I arrived on a sweltering morning with nothing but books and some clothes in an overnight bag, which I threw into the trunk of the first taxi that stopped for me. It was a white clunker with the words Love Doll Coach painted in red cursive on the passenger door just above a phone number and a smaller inscription that read Ride Nice In Paradise. The driver’s name was Bobby. For the next two mornings, Bobby greeted me with “Morning, Sir Alex.”
“No need to call me ‘sir,’” I’d say.
“Yes, sir, Sir Alex,” he’d assure me.
He was not being funny. Bobby went about his work with robotic swiftness and a prefab smile that appeared on cue. He was eager but detached at the same time, with no interest in making real contact. I never felt at ease around him. I wanted to be friends; he wanted to be my servant. I would learn that his was the prescribed demeanor for all service workers in the Philippines. Saying “sir” two or three times in a single sentence was not considered excessive. Chronic obsequiousness had seeped into the national character during four centuries of colonial rule. Bobby also chain-smoked, which no doubt contributed to turning the whites of his eyes crayon red. He had greasy misshapen hair and grimy fingernails as long as guitar picks. He was not a pretty sight in the morning. But I knew no one else, and there were so many other things to rest my eyes upon.
Cebu is one of the Philippines’ larger islands, a long skinny outcrop of sand and forest in the central region known as the Visayas. From the air, the island resembles the profile of a high diver in mid-dive: from the tip of the toes in the north to the fingertips in the south is 120 miles. The thickest part, around the trunk, is twenty-five miles across. If the plunging diver were facing east, the capital — Cebu City — would be right near the belly button, which was where Bobby drove me on that first day. It was an hour’s drive in heavy traffic from the airport.
To get to my hotel, the Love Doll Coach wound through a labyrinthine maze of crowded neighborhoods, the masa made up of brown bodies in scant attire pressed closely together and yet somehow also moving like a river. Up we chugged on climbing narrow streets lined with rickety storefronts, their corrugated steel awnings bent and rusting out. Freshly butchered goats hung from hooks, blood still dripping from open mouths. Women in shorts and flip-flops with baskets of fruit on their heads walked past with small children running in orbits around sinewy legs. I rolled down my window and was instantly smothered in air thick with exhaust and something else, what was it — sweat? The smell of toil. Occasionally an ocean breeze cut through, and a hint of wet sand and palm trees. The scent of mangoes from somewhere.
It was all new to my Americanized senses. I was awash in newness, as if I had landed on a never-discovered continent. And yet it was not my first time here. I was born on one of these islands. My blood, with its tinctures of Malay and Spanish and Chinese, came from the same pool as those of the masses we passed on the road. At age four I was brought by my parents to America, a land where people did not look too kindly on a groveler, for instance, anybody who said “sir” three times in a single sentence. I recognized Bobby because I had a little bit of Bobby inside me, and I didn’t like it much. Becoming an American meant I had to hate the groveler and exorcise him from my soul. It was hard work, becoming an American, and I felt I’d succeeded for the most part.
Yet I was not “all-American.” I could never be that. Most of us, when imagining an all-American, wouldn’t picture a man who looked like me. Not even I would. You would have to take my word for it that more than a few times in my life I looked in a mirror and was startled by the person looking back. I could go a long time feeling blithely at home, until a single glance at my reflection would be like a slap on the back of the head. Hey! You are not of this land. Certainly during my growing-up years in America, many people, friends and strangers, intentionally and not, helped to embed in me like a hidden razor blade the awareness of being an outsider.
I remember an encounter with a fellow student at JHS 79 in the Bronx, where my family lived in the 1970s. I was about thirteen. My school was just off the Grand Concourse on 181st, a five-story brick building with bars over all the windows and dark clanging stairwells that might as well have been back alleys. Some stairwells you did not dare travel alone, but I was new and didn’t know better. One afternoon in one of these stairwells, an open hand with five impossibly long fingers fell hard against my chest and stopped me in my tracks.
“What you supposed to be, motherfukka?” the owner of the hand said.
“Wha — ?” I stammered.
“Are you deaf, boy? I said, What you supposed to be?” The owner of the hand was a tall black guy, Joe Webb, who turned out to be the oldest and biggest member of my seventh-grade class, a man among boys. He was one of those guys whose muscles bulged like rocks sewn under skin, whose glare conveyed the promise of apocalyptic violence. “Are you a Chink, a Mehi-kan? What?”
Blacks, Puerto Ricans, and other Latinos made up the majority of students at the school. There were some whites and a handful of Chinese and Taiwanese. I was the only Filipino in the school, and a lot of students like Joe had never met one and knew nothing about the Philippines. I told him what I thought I was.
“You don’t look American, bitch,” he said. He eventually let me pass after I gave him the change from my pocket, which I would learn was really what he was after. Moving around the school meant paying certain tolls. Sweet scary Joe Webb. We ended up sitting next to each other in English, and he would copy off my test answers with my implicit consent. After he had found me acceptable six months into the school year, he became my friend and protector for the rest of my time at JHS 79. Sometime later that year, when another kid tried to shake me down in the very same stairwell, Joe loomed over him with those murderous eyes and long fingers rolled up into fists and the other kid melted into the darkness whence he came, never to bother me again.
Joe’s original query was a question I’ve been asked in various, usually more tactful ways ever since I could remember. What you supposed to be? From where on this planet did you come? What are you? The person in the mirror was the color of coffee with two tablespoons of cream. The face was wide with hair so black it sometimes appeared blue. The eyes were brown and oval, the nose broad, the lips full. A face that would have blended naturally with those I saw on the street that morning from the back seat of the Love Doll Coach.