when you’re told point blank by a foreigner, and with all honesty instead of malice, that they don’t know anything about Manila, that when he told his friends he wanted to go there they asked “Why?”, that in fact Manila is at the bottom of his list of cities to see, how do you even respond? it gets worse, too. you’re asked do you enjoy Manila? is it a safe city? the answer to the first question is easy of course.
sometimes my honesty does get the better of me. especially since i know they’d see i’m lying through my teeth otherwise.
the happy giddy context of wine in our bodies and the Merlion all covered up by a red box shall save the day: we talk about art in Manila given the art that’s here, Louie Cordero’s paean to the urban legend of videoke singing of My Way, Mark Salvatus’ interest in empty walls and capturing what’s untraceable in people. we talk about the absurdity of what they’ve seen in Manila: a Virgin Mary portrait that is actually made up of words of the Old Testament that you can only read through a magnifying glass (i want to know where that exactly is), the Socialist Bar in Manila where a naive foreigner could only walk into (no it’s not really socialist eh?).
we talk about their horror stories: of walking through the city itself of Manila, across the stretch of CCP and realizing that lamp posts slowly but surely ceased to be lit. of being told by their family and friends to keep safe by hiding their cellphones and ipods, by not wearing any jewelry at all. both of them were men who’ve gone to Manila on almost adventures. and despite the horrible hotel service at Clark Pampanga both (because now they know me, we say) are thinking of going back there and doing things differently, give it another chance.
and then faced with a man who knows nothing about the Philippines, he says. and who, in the middle of talking about Jollibee and Manny Pacquiao, Apl D Ap and carjacking (yes you fall back on all that), says excitedly: oh the au pairs! that is your contribution to the world. he then goes on to talk about his au pair who played favorites, of friends who had au pair trouble. and i could only but mention nurses and teachers, and thank the heavens for the New Yorker from Japan who had a grade three Filipino homeroom teacher, Ms. Caoili (god bless her), who was just wonderful she says.
but there is no escaping Manila and its stereotypes, especially because i could not for the life of me say they weren’t true. i couldn’t lie and say that walking through the streets of and around CCP was safe, given that still stark media memory of the bus hostage taking. i couldn’t say that if they looked at a map, they could go through the galleries and museums across Makati City, and they’d be fine: the lack of a map is contingent on the lack of order that would otherwise protect pedestrians, local and foreign after all. i couldn’t say just come — COME to Manila! it’s totally different from what you imagine.
because what if it’s exactly the same as, or worse than, what they imagine.
that they imagine the worst of Manila is just sad, but also it is not unexplainable. you only walk the streets of one of the safest cities like Singapore and you know that there must be something we can do about our own city. you think of Bangkok or Hanoi or Phnom Penh or New Delhi, and while it might be easy to imagine the dangers of these spaces as well, it still seems a lot safer.
or maybe its vibrant cultural images are just more concrete, more real. it seems that the dangers of a third world city (country) are balance out by a sense of its cultural vibrancy, its ability to speak of itself strongly and concretely to be about something, that something making it worthy of a visit, that something as its best cultural product and production, its best tourist attraction.
you want Manila (and the Philippines) to be a tourist destination? let’s begin by agreeing on how we’re selling it and what we’re going to say about its cultural productions. stop making it seem like the cheapest country in the world: because we know how cheap means two things.
and realize that really, being hospitable doesn’t cut it anymore. nor do our notion(s) of diversity and being free-for-all.