Aesthetically, The Philippines and the USA don’t share much in common.
The beautiful U S of A holds its fair share of nature’s gems, but nothing quite like the gorgeous, dignified, lush green mountains that spurt out of The Philippines’ shallow aquamarine waters (barring Hawaii, which I’ve never been to and can’t comment on). That’s the landscape just about everywhere you look in much of this archipelago made of 7,000-plus islands, jagged rock formations, and beachy cays.
After 12 days on these lands, many commonalities between the two countries – perhaps more interesting than geographical properties – have bubbled up to the forefront of my attention, sort of like a scuba diver’s CO2 release hitting the surface of a local dive site.
Hoop Dreams – a slang term describing a youth’s longing to become a pro basketball player (usually in American inner cities) – are as ubiquitous in this place as they are in Rucker Park or the West 4th Street Courts in New York City. Young Pinoy Ballers are shaking and baking in every crevice that a basketball hoop can be erected in The Philippines.
Empty parking lot? Filipino finger rolls. Cement court at a community center? Barefoot bank shots. Just landed your kayak on a seemingly deserted stretch of island beach? You’ll find a patch of packed-in sand, a palm tree trunk with a backboard made of a weathered, wooden shipping pallet, and a skillfully bent, circular piece of construction iron for a rim. Who needs a net when you already know you’ll be dropping buckets like a Southern Pacific typhoon? Kobe!
Tales of Steph Curry’s deep 3-pointer mastery have spread from the Bay Area to the Area of Bays like flies on un-monitored rice. Golden State gear is everywhere and LeBron is old news. When K asked a youngster “What do you want to be when you grow up?” he provided a most common retort, “Basketball player!” What else, man?
So, if the sport has already taken the country by storm, what’s the final frontier, if there is any? Only one answer – the mythic slam-dunk. It’s a skill that only living legends possess here. With an average male height of five and a half feet or so, only those with the realest hops can dunk. But basketball’s mecca of maneuvers remains the final frontier for the rest of the players because of their awesome modesty and determination. None that I’ve met are willing to drop the height of the rim below 10 feet just to dunk the ball. They’re chasing the NBA dream and won’t compromise; they’ll figure out a more efficient way to score. Hoop Dreams in The Philippines are alive, well, and here to stay.
Aside from the native natural sounds, which dominate the airwaves of this island country, much of the audio in The Philippines comes blaring out of bars, public parks, cover bands, and cars. Whenever I hear these reverberations, the emotions of an American teenager coming of age in the 1980s overcome my soul. Power ballads, power ballads everywhere! Aerosmith, Def Leopard, Van Halen, and a dash of Hall & Oates fill the ears of 98 million inhabitants.
We’re not certain why this particular genre has continued to pump through the speakers over the past three decades, but we can make an inference. We think the phenomenon is directly correlated to the huge amount of warmth and compassion that Filipinos emit. These are people with big hearts. They’re willing to provide anything from a simple direction to an invitation into their home for a drink… and they Don’t Want [you] To Miss a Thing about their homeland.
After sharing dinner, a few card games, and a sixer of San Miguels with an erudite Filipino man named Red (he’s a grad of The U. of the Philippines, former professor there, chemical engineer by trade, and currently building the most beautiful Ecological Resort in the country), we were taken aback to hear how he and his peers esteemed some aspects of United States influence on their country, surprisingly though, the story of the American occupation of his nation was completely left out of his stories.
In 1898, after ~400 years of brutal colonization, Spain ceded The Philippines to the US through the Treaty of Paris, the deal that ended the Spanish-American War. About two years earlier, The Philippines had declared independence from the Spanish empire and began a revolution. The US was essentially handed a colony in the midst of revolt (obviously for good reasons on the Filipinos’ part) and unfortunately made a successful effort to retain control of the territory after a bloody three-year struggle, which included unfortunate American atrocities such as water torcher and ‘scorched earth’ campaigns. The sad reality is that about 30,000 Filipinos died in combat and even more unfortunate is that between 200,000-250,000 Filipino civilians perished from disease stemming from the conflict. This ugly sequence of events was not the finest in US History. But, about 30 years later in 1934, after fighting side-by-side in a successful effort in WW1, Filipinos and Americans were on good terms (not exactly a quick turnaround). The United States instilled a 10-year plan to peacefully pass on independence to The Philippines and by 1946, the country was a sovereign state (after a minor occupation by Japan in WW2 which ended with the war).
Despite all the bad behavior during the occupation, the US did set up a formal, and free education system for the Filipino population’s youth, and bestowed upon it (amongst many other positive things including Democracy, Religious Freedom, and High Heels) – wait for it – sidewalks for the old Spanish streets. Sidewalks are a simple something that Red really seemed to appreciate as they pertain to his personal life (you would too if you walked around Manila without them!). These sidewalks are now commonplace and offer a safe place for students to walk to and from school. In urban areas, sidewalks also share the streets with the rulers of the roads, Jeepneys.
Jeepneys are the tricked out, chrome-grilled, Diesel-eating, monster machines that serve as local busses, shuttling community members down pre-determined routes that are colorfully painted on the sides of the vehicles, adjacent to another familiar text — “How’s my Driving? Call/Viber [insert phone # here] With Feedback”.
After US occupation ended in 1946 and most American troops left the islands, hundreds of army Jeeps were left behind. The trucks were gutted, elongated, and individually stylized with cool names like 3sixty, shows of religious devotion such as Impossible for God to Lie, or with the names of loved family members, Kath&Kris. The result evolved into the preferred transportation method of the masses, so much so that even when the original Jeepneys bit the dust, their successors were modeled after the originals. Did the design live on because it was liked so much? Or is it because nobody wanted to fix a system that wasn’t broken? Either way, I’m sure the American army commanders didn’t see this coming as a bi-product of the troop withdrawal.
This is just a broad overview of US influences on The Philippines, from a quick 12-day experience here; it’s not a full history of relations. The two places’ looks don’t generally match up. But, with a deeper look, one can see that cultural similarities are more evident than what meets the eye. Through these customs, one can better understand the history between the two nations.
Featured Photo: Community basketball court in Sinandigan, Sabang Beach. A 20 year-old baller named Jameson’s house watches over the court. He is the alpha in a game of 5-on-5 (Sinandigan, Sabang Beach, Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro, Philippines).