Carlos Bulosan’s “America Is In The Heart” is the first American Asian classic I’ve ever read. This semi-autobiography details Bulosan’s impoverished childhood in rural Luzon in northern Philippines at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1930, like so many others – then and since – he leaves the land of his ancestors for the United States. Despite the horrors and persecution he finds there, he develops an unsinkable love for the promise of America.
The 75 year old classic has inspired today’s Filipino writers to “draw a clear line of descent from Bulosan’s testament.” The most recent example is Elaine Castillo’s debut novel “America Is Not The Heart” which was released in early 2018.
I’m not going to review Bulosan’s book here. Others have done that much better than I ever could.
I read “America Is In The Heart” because ever since I moved to the Philippines I’ve been fascinated with the lingering influence of half a century of American colonial rule. The love of basketball, the omnipresence of soft drinks at dinner tables, the American surplus stores, the political system, the school system, the press; the list goes on.
Despite the horrors and persecution he finds there, he develops an unsinkable love for the promise of America
At the same time, the United States is home to by far the largest number of Filipinos abroad. (In 2016, more than 1.9 million Filipinos lived in the United States.)
The interlinking of both countries is undeniable. I often experience this connection in personal encounters I have in Davao. Here are just a few examples.
A 24 year old call center agent told me he wants to move to the U.S. where some of his relatives live already. The visa application process is costly and tiresome, however. He’s not sure he’ll be able to go.
Many Filipinos still idolize America, its pop culture icons and the promise of the ‘American Dream.’
When my wife was in the hospital being treated for a broken elbow, I talked to one of the male nurses about his desire to move to America. He had been planning to go for a long time. It was the main reason he decided to study nursing in the first place.
A friend of mine and his wife had their first child in the United States where they stayed with the wife’s family. They considered the high quality medical care, but also the fact that their baby would automatically become a U.S. citizen played an important role in their decision.
Many Filipinos still idolize America, its pop culture icons and the promise of the ‘American Dream.’ But the adoration is waning. Perhaps because people feel that the adoration isn’t mutual. Perhaps also because the Philippines is finally discovering its place in the region.
Young Filipinas adore K-pop bands from South Korea. Singapore and Hong Kong have become hot spot destinations for those who can afford to visit. And as budget airlines add flights to these cities – driving down ticket prices – more and more people are able to go there. Politically, the country seems to be reaching out to new partners, most notably China.
Outside the identity box
Allos, the peasant boy from Binalonan in Luzon, arrived in the U.S. as Carlos and died in Seattle at age 42 as Carl. America found a way into his heart but never quite reached his soul.
I think it’s fair to say that distinction applies to modern day Philippines as well. Filipinos are shaped, yes, but not defined by their American colonial past and the decades of continued influence that followed.
America found a way into his heart but never quite reached his soul
So what have I learned after seven months in the Philippines? Don’t make the mistake of boxing in someone’s identity. It can be tempting, sure, to project your preconceived notion of the impact of Americanism on a people that, at first glance, has become so enmeshed in it. But identities evolve. And as an observer of that evolution, I should resist temptation.