HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes Updated November 30, 2008 12:00 AM
A lot of positivity and negativity, irrationality and sentimentalism characterize my generation, the generation before mine, and even the present one’s feelings when the topic of America comes up.
In the Philippines, one grows up with a generous dose of American culture. In my time, our schoolbooks, the medium of instruction, the history that was taught us, were all American. Even when we studied Philippine history, so much of it had the US in it, most especially its political line that justified their continuing presence in the Philippines. America was everywhere and in everything in our daily life.
In the first 20 years of my life, America seemed to be such a wonderful place, with an almost mythical quality to it, where lots of wonderful, magical and creative things happened. There was Hollywood with its great movies and narratives that shaped my own dreams. At one time, I wanted to be Davy Crockett and fight a live bear, a cowboy who could lasso a wild horse and ride it from dawn till sunset, a Marine who could fight gloriously like the Americans did in The Longest Day, a spaceman, etc. America was a place where anyone could be anything he wanted to be.
In my teen years, Marilyn Monroe, Ali MacGraw, Natalie Wood, Katharine Ross, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and so many other American actresses, including sexy magazine centerfolds, sashayed into my libidinous fantasies. America’s sexual images delivered to us through the media shaped a lot of what we defined as sexy.
There was something about American women in the movies that was especially attractive to the Filipino male. Unlike Filipinas, they seemed aggressive, much more expressive and overtly affectionate, not to mention more abundantly endowed physically. They had an ephemeral “bitch-goddess” quality that defined what we adopted as our standards of beauty and lust.
America was also the source of good music. I memorized the original album of “West Side Story” from beginning to end. I thought it was one of the greatest musical works ever created. I still do. I remember my dad playing George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue on the piano. I adored pop music as well.
Pop and rock-and-roll have been constant influences and sources of joy and inspiration to me all these years. They were powerful forces in molding my musical taste. I thought Motown’s soul music was one of the greatest musical genres ever. Jazz was simply out of this world. My musical idols were mostly American—Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra, Frank Zappa, Billy Joel, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Ella Fitzgerald, Steely Dan, and so many others.
The greatness of America extended to other fields as well, such as sports, science, fashion and style, and the arts. Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Albert Einstein, Any Warhol were just a few of my personal idols. But to me, the greatest gifts that America exported to the world were the humanist concepts of equality, justice, opportunity, freedom and self-determination—values I held deep in my heart. Because of these, I held America in the highest esteem and affection.
America was the land of the possible where cutting-edge ideas were conceived and made flesh. I wanted to spend my life there. After I got married, my wife and I had planned to settle there. We even got green cards.
But as my love affair with the “land of the free” was going on, there were events taking place in the Philippines that demanded a wider, morerealistic view of my sentiments and relationship towards the US vis-à-vis my own country. The First Quarter Storm in the early ’70s opened my eyes to America’s imperialist motives in coming to the Philippines—something the Zaide history books we read in school never discussed honestly. Its support of the Marcos dictatorship was a shocking reality to me, who thought that the very existence of the dictatorship was a stark contrast to everything America professed to hold dear.
In fact, it was during the last days of Marcos when Ronald Reagan was still vacillating on whether the US was going to recognize the new Cory government that I first contemplated giving up my green card. I could not believe that Reagan, who was scheduled to visit the Philippines, had said that there was cheating on both sides! Luckily, Senator Lugar’s message to Marcos to cut and cut clean saved the day somewhat for the US, although many of us felt it had no other choice but to do what it did.
During the Cory years, I campaigned against the renewal of the US bases treaty. A song I wrote for APO called American Junk said it all as far as I was concerned. The euphoria of people power ringing in a new government was a political, cultural and a seminal coming-of-age for me. Senator Manglapus put it so well when he used the metaphor of “killing the great white father” to describe our process of weaning away from the security of having American bases in our country. I felt that we, as a people, were coming into our own.
America in my eyes was still a great nation, but I had now fallen in love with my own country. I promptly gave up my green card after the failed December coup led by Honasan where we almost lost our newfound freedom. I felt that I personally had to be present here to protect our freedoms by giving up my escape hatch.
The Clinton years were great as far as my sentiments about America were concerned; I thought that the US generally stood up for the right values as far as world affairs were concerned. Except for a few places, the world loved America. Clinton epitomized American charm at its best. In my eyes, the Lewinski affair did nothing to diminish Bill Clinton’s reputation. Politically speaking within the US context, I am a deep, left-of-center Democrat who is more forgiving of sexual pecadillos than war crimes.
When George W. Bush came to power, I was close to losing all my affection and respect for America. I was angry at this nation that professed the values of Lincoln and JFK but acted out the rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh and other Neo-cons. The sympathy generated by 9-11 quickly dissipated after Bush’s invasion of Iraq under false pretenses. I was awakened to the reality that with its invasion of Iraq, the suspension of some of the human rights of its own citizens, its policy of torture, Guantanamo and its arrogant treatment and disdain for the UN, America was, like Germany under Hitler, capable of becoming a fascist state.
America, she of the Statue of Liberty, the country of Jefferson and everything associated with an open and free society, was not a special idea after all. It, too was fallible and had its own fatal weakness like every other nation. Many times, I pondered with great distress on the fate of the world — with the only super power behaving so badly.
The Bush legacy with its hypocrisy and right-wing excess will hopefully be just be a blip, an aberration – though a costly one – in America’s history.
The spectacular rise and triumph of Barack Obama has made a lot of people, including myself, take a second sympathetic look at America. The US, with its image battered all over the world, its morale sunk so low, and its power and influence diminishing, could still spring a fabulous surprise on the world – and on itself.
I was ecstatic when Barack Obama won the presidency. To me it was a sign that America had come back to its senses, awakened to its greater self and touched base with what it preached. A black man with the middle name of Hussein, of mixed parentage and an alien past, has won. That makes me consider that perhaps the American dream is not yet a spent force.
This single event has turned the world around a considerable degree. Once again, I am in awe of the US and its capacity to correct itself. I have started to revisit American authors, artists, books and movies that I sometimes consciously bypassed in protest during the Bush years. I am liking America once again.
The world is on to a new beginning. The world’s most powerful person is black, the richest is an Indian, and the fastest-rising region is Asia. A still-powerful though more benign America playing its part in it will hopefully be of great benefit to the world.