There was a small nipa hut to the side, and rows of dangling rice stalks covering one wall with artificial nettings looking like a forest. And then the revolving colored lights making the rice and the house and everything else turn a sick purple or a pukey green. It felt like the set of a TV show for a Christmas program or yet another bizarre kiddie rendition of Philippine life for President Obama’s amusement. It was not amusing.
The backdrops and foreground of the State dinners for Barack in Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo were statelier: whitewashed walls in the back, chandeliers and sconces and discreet flower arrangements on tables, nothing else to distract from the guest of honor.
For the toast P-Noy would have a lighthearted opening about it being more “fun in the Philippines” (the punch line for the tourism department), before presenting Barack the Sikatuna Award, the highest bestowed by the country usually to other heads of states.
P-Noy mentioned that a previous American president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, got the award. How diplomatic. He didn’t mention that his predecessor, Gloria Arroyo, now whiling away under hospital arrest, gave the same award to Barack’s predecessor, the notorious George W. Bush. And to further dilute the value of the Sikatuna, previous Philippine presidents have given the same award to middling and reviled counterparts as well.
Gloria Arroyo didn’t seem to have received a pass to attend, but I saw others that shouldn’t have been there given the import of Obama’s speech. He must be one of the only American presidents to really mean it when he extolled our People Power revolution (Reagan, Nixon, Bush 1 and 2, must have gagged when they supported it) and praised Ninoy Aquino’s dying for our country and Cory Aquino and the people’s taking to the streets.
In the audience though were sprinkled about, in their native finery, those who carried out martial law, ordered the imprisonment and torture of thousands, or just rooted for and abetted 14 years of repression against everything we supposedly learned about democracy from our guest of honor’s country gagged since they didn't support it. Some in that audience may have even in on and assented to the killing of Ninoy.
There were three hundred guests for this state dinner, all dolled up and competing in fragrances. The menu, printed in a font used for emergency cards in airplanes, was lavish Filipino fusion with pompous gourmet descriptions when it actually just came down to our native barbecue and a stew with bananas.
I was revolted by how much the affair, catered by Shangri-la Hotel, must have cost. Reports five months later from the super typhoon ravaged areas in the south have tens of thousands of people still destitute, their lives still not up to snuff. Pictures of children show telltale first to second-degree malnutrition.
The schools we aid still have no roofs, no textbooks, no desks, no instruments, no nothing. And teachers themselves use their own personal money to provide the pencils and paper and anything basic to restart a semblance of school. If this dinner could have been whittled down to 50 guests at most, with less peasant wannabe pageantry and more grilled cooking, it would still have been fitting. But last night’s enormous affair—with the presence of questionable guests—made it all obscene.
A word about Filipino dress. The women’s ternos are absolutely becoming on slender figures as vintage photos show. The butterfly sleeves give that wonderful shoulder accent that gives that illusion of a lady in flight. Sadly, today, with a larger percentage of women rotund and overweight, the tight-fitting terno accentuates girth, and the puffy sleeves grossly compliment the blubbery shoulders. The chubby men in barongs have a distinct advantage, thanks to the shirt being worn untucked.
Barack noted that the men looked good but then made a flirtatious remark about the women looking even better in their “vibrant colors of the Philippines.” Later, he’d make a crack about our shared obsession with basketball and admiration for Manny Pacquiao. Manny must have been thinking how Barack’s remarks could get him off the hook from the 3.2-billion-peso tax bill around his neck, or how to insert that endorsement for a vice-presidential run in 2016.
Barack’s speech was light compared with the state dinner speeches he made elsewhere on this Asian tour. In Japan, he honored Japanese technological achievements and hoped for continued joint efforts in finding solutions to poverty and exploring space. In Kuala Lumpur he waxed nostalgic over his mother who collected batik and how that printed cloth was his window to the culture of Southeast Asia.
In the Philippines, probably being the last country on his tiring itinerary, there would be no nugget of insight or cross-cultural musings, save for the serious reference he made to “kalooban,” our inner feelings, which has sustained us through most of our ups and mostly downs. The impolite audience laughed at Barack’s attempt to speak Filipino, disregarding what was his only profound reflection for the evening.
The night eventually sank into a beer garden atmosphere rather than the subdued ballroom elegance expected of a state dinner. After dispensing with our national dance troupe and famed choral singers, three cabinet secretaries were called to the stage to sing Barack’s favorite songs. It was a medley of Motown hits, the only discernible one (the rest being atrociously off key probably due to inebriation) was “What’s Going On” with Marvin Gaye squirming in his grave.
The rest of Barack’s time in the country wasn’t efficiently used. There was a press conference, a look at an electric car, the visit to the American Military Cemetery and off he went.
In Kuala Lumpur there was a speech and town hall talks with University of Malaya students and a visit to the National Mosque. In Seoul, he returned two important artifacts once “taken” by an American marine during the Korean War. In Japan, he delivered remarks to science students at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation.
It’s a pity that Barack didn’t interact with our own youths who no longer possess the historical sensitivity to Philippine-American relations as previous generations do. They’re going to deal with a changed world, a more robust if not powerful China and an American presence, vague in size and scope, which was just codified into an agreement with no congressional and public consultation. If the younger generations are deprived of understanding this game change in the Pacific, they have only the radical left to take their cues from. Or the banality of a consumerist society to stew in.
Barack gave signals leaving us to take the lead with regards, to plod through international arbitration and gather other allies in the neighborhood to strengthen our collective claims. We can at least bid him a hearty goodbye for not coming in as a saber rattler like his predecessors who pushed us into wars not of our choosing.
The nasty aftertaste came from our own government’s welcome. It was the underside of that “fiesta” culture where propriety is thrown out the window, where a costly dinner that included as invited guests scoundrels that should have been jailed a long time ago, that was an insult to the still suffering and devastated south. What could have been a dignified love fest degenerated into a karaoke session. Any wonder why the Americans might think less of us than they do our Asian neighbors?
Even sadder were racist jokes that compared Barack’s complexion to that of Vice President Jejomar Binay (who greeted him at the airport), which proliferated in cyberspace and made the rounds at the state dinner. It’s another local penchant, making cruel and offensive jokes. If the NSA picked that up on their eavesdropping system and passed it on to Barack, this could be his first and only visit to “It’s more fun in the Philippines.”
John L. Silva (email@example.com) is an author and a contributing writer.