Little America, in Manila

Manila - This is the first city I’ve visited that has more Starbucks, McDonalds, 7-Elevens, TGI Fridays, and Pizza Huts per square foot than a strip mall in suburban Washington D.C. I’m actually writing this from a Starbucks on Adriatico Street. Shame on me.

My home here is in a college friend’s apartment in asomewhat seedy part of town. Storefronts below my place offer “Foot/Body and Reflexology Massages.” Outside the parlors, dozens of women wearing matching pink uniforms call out, “Hey Daddy” to business tourists passing through. Gnarled men hawk boxes of Viagra, saying, “Buy My Vitamins.” A young boy wears tattered boxers and a t-shirt that has “Fitch” emblazoned on it in red felt, under which the letters “N.Y.C.” are scrawled in what looks like ink from a black Sharpie pen.

Next to one parlor is a Tex-Mex and Steak joint calledBoston Charcoal Grill. Beside the word “Boston” there’s a big neon cowboy hat. In the four years I spent in Boston, I didn’t see much connection between Boston and Tex-Mex, but who knows? This is America reinvented.

Referring to all the U.S. chains here, journalist Glenda Gloria says, “That’s why Filipinos who go to the U.S. feel so comfortable there. They think: ‘Those Americans have taken so many of our chains!’”

When I landed here, I set out to find a good nonfiction narrative history of the Philippines to read. I couldn’t find anything other than dry academic accounts at any of the bookstores in the many gigantic malls spread out across the city. But I did see dozens of narrative nonfiction books about American politics, by authors like Bill O’Reilly, Joe Klein, Anne Coulter, Barack Obama, the Clintons, and Goldie Hawn.

I ended up buying a book by a Filipino-American academic Sharon Delmendo called The Star-Entangled Banner about U.S.-Philippines relations over the past century. In typical academic prose, its introduction reads:

"The Philippine-American engagement has never been one of simple conquest or resistance...but one of mutual ideological and cultural entanglement..."

I'll be exploring that entanglement for the coming weeks. In two days I'll head to to Mindanao to talk to separatist Muslim rebels there. Then fly north to Laoag City where I plan to look at Filipino labor migration to the U.S. and the impact on families back home. Then I'm thinking of driving south through the Cordilleras Mountains where American missionaries dwell in remote parts. I'll keep going from there on past old U.S. military bases in Olongapo, and then finish off back here in Manila.

The itinerary is, as always, very flexible. So let me know your thoughts. What questions should I ask? What topics or places are you curious about? Share your ideas over email or on the thread below.

Amar Bakshi