A day at the museum

On Thursday I suggested the family get some culture instead of patronizing another mall. So we visited the Ayala Museum.

Ayala is not the biggest museum, but it has a wide sweep. The first floor contained a retrospective of Elmer Borlongan, who died in 2012. His subject was often Manila’s poor, depicted with bald heads, deformed faces and grotesque limbs. It was a far cry from the art on the third floor, with its idyllic, 20th century depictions of Filipino farmland. The first floor was closer to the Manila I’ve seen.

The second floor contained a series of dioramas depicting the history of the Philippines. I was struck by how often foreigners occupied the country: the Spanish in 1571, the United States in 1898, the Japanese in 1943, and the United States again until 1946. And independence brought a series of homegrown tyrannical and corrupt rulers.

As I gazed down at the slums on the train ride home, I thought about all the wealth and prosperity that must have been stolen or squandered. Much of the Philippines’ prosperity now comes from people working abroad, and more recently, from the call centers, housed in gleaming new office towers, dedicated to aiding Americans confused about their new toys. But these things won’t balance the checkbook.

Market economies are built on trust. People won’t work if they think they won’t be rewarded. An exchange can’t happen unless the partners believe they won’t get screwed. And the Philippines has been getting screwed for centuries. It’s not a solid bedrock for capitalism. Perhaps all that’s left for Filipinos to do is leave, like my parents.

Lolo’s grave

We visited Lolo’s grave Friday morning. A year has passed since his death. When we arrived at the cemetery mom said we should pay our respects but I didn’t know what to do. I don’t know if I believe in an afterlife. But I stood at his grave and thought about him for a few minutes: How he picked nails and rubber bands off the street when he walked me home from school, how he always sang old songs to himself, how he would drift off as he and Lola recited their evening prayers. I remember his sense of humor, his mumbling way of speaking English, his square smile. I thought about that as I stood at his grave.

Morning Routine

I have been negative about the Philippines but there are some things I love: Waking up just as dawn breaks in the massive library assembled by my aunts to the sound of cocks crowing, coming down the stairs as Lola lays a bag of hot—no, warm pan de sal on the table, pouring myself a freshly brewed coffee, sitting beside my dad, watching the butter melt in the torn-open rolls and starting the day before the golden morning sun curdles oppressive and orange and the cacophony of Manila—the roar of motorcycles, the chorus of mangy dogs, the slap of tsinelas against the dirty street—rises to a crescendo.