Eeeyyauugghhhhh! … Ah-Ah-Ahhhh! … Uh-Uh-Uh … No-no-no-nooo!!! Agh! Agh! Moans, imprecations and squeaks, emanate in jerky spurts from my North American business partner. He grimaces, rolls his eyes, arches his back. The knuckles of his clenched fists show so white I can see the bone. Sweat, initially only beading his brow, suddenly breaks free and rolls down to pool in his ears. His lips alternate between dropping open as if to vomit, and then abruptly clamping shut as if to hold his teeth in.
I don’t want to embarrass him, but truthfully I’m a bit anxious. We have a multi-million dollar contract riding on our mid-morning presentation. What if he accidentally bites a hole in his tongue?
No. We’re not in an emergency room, not held captive by terrorists, not cornered by wild buffalo. We’re in my car making our way through traffic in true Filipino style.
My driver, Mr. Penaroyo, is one of the best. He is master of the dodge, the bluff, the sideslip, the insert, the swerve. He can block, U-turn on a dime, do the squeeze, the nudge, the stop and go hustle. He has more moves than a politician. He knows everyone and is on speaking terms with a lot of officials. Mostly policemen.
He’s been my driver since high-school and once, newly back from summer vacation, impressed by foreign road manners, I tried to reform him.
“Mr. Penaroyo, do you know why there are lines painted on the streets?”
Looking at me in the rear view mirror his eyebrows arch their surprise.
“Of course, missy.”
“So tell me then.”
“Decorative effect, missy. Everyone knows that.”
I only mention this so that you understand, I tried. What more was there to be said? He was right. I mean look around. Everyone knows that.
Closing in on our destination, Mr. North America pulls himself together and taps Mr. Penaroyo on the shoulder. There is a touch of sarcasm in his tone.
“Hey bud, how close can you get to another car without scraping the paint off?”
I inwardly cringe at the “hey bud” address, but Mr. Penaroyo ever civil, thinks for a moment, lowers his extra-dark sunglasses a tad and turns his head to ask,
“Wet paint or dry, sir?”
As we alight, I am flushed with Filipino pride.
I empathize with Mr. North America and sometimes for brief moments, I even feel his pain. He’s a successful, no-nonsense businessman, a born leader who has power-marched his way up the ladder, in true North American style. He’s a hero, a man’s man. A fearless slayer of bulls and bears. Now, ten thousand miles away from home logic cripples him; he is handicapped by his need to understand.
“What?” and “Why?” These questions stand poised to launch like arrows in a drawn bow. The target? Any unfamiliar situation. He resists me when I point out what all Filipinos know to be true; not all questions are born with answers.
In the previous months we’ve had several meetings at his headquarters in the Midwest. This North American CEO runs six, multi-million dollar companies. He wears workman’s boots, blue jeans and a pullover every day and on every occasion. Sometimes he accessorizes with a knitted cap. It has earflaps.
I start by insisting he be measured for two bespoke suits from Anderson & Sheppard. Next, I order hand-made Italian Scarpe di Bianco shoes. Then, I contract with a designer to assemble luggage and various accouterments: shirts, neckties, handkerchiefs, toiletries, etc. Mr. North America, who has promised full cooperation in exchange for my help, treats it all like a huge joke until the bills arrive. He is flabbergasted. Spending money is not funny to millionaires, so all joking immediately ceases.
The day after arriving in Manila, instead of proceeding straight to our meeting as requested, we head to a top salon where I’ve booked the deluxe package.
“What? No! Why? I’m not doing this! What are we doing anyway? Whatever it is, I’m not doing it! I’ve never been in a poof palace and I’m not starting now!”
We are arguing on the sidewalk. I could move our disagreement into the mall and do battle in air-conditioned comfort, but this man is much bigger than I am, so I avail of the help the good Lord provides.
Standing in the noon day sun, we continue debating until I recognize the early signs of heat stroke. As he begins to stammer and his refusals take on a drifting quality, I gently pull him by the arm and guide him into the dimly lit, icy coolness of the spa.
Four staff members ease him into a recliner, place a cold towel over his eyes and get to work. Styling haircut with color, shave, and scalp conditioning massage. Deep cleansing facial. Nose hair trim. Ear hair trim. Shoulder massage. Manicure and pedicure.
When they pull his shoes off, he attempts to regain control.
“Why? Why?”—“No! Don’t take my shoes off! No!”—I put my hands on his chest and push him firmly back into the chair. Unflinching, I stare him down.
“Do you want to win? Can you win? PROVE you can win!”
Skewered by my eyes, he tries a placating tone.
“But why? Why do I have to do this?”
He goes limp and lowers his lids.
My Asian Tiger mom would have been proud.
The meeting is at a high point. Mr. North America has brought an additional multi-million dollar U.S federal grant: added incentive to his initial offer. Mr. Philippine CEO along with the two government officials present, have only to match it, in this joint effort to manage environmental pollution.
Both parties are excited over their common accord. Sticking points melt away and after months of long distance negotiation, signing looks imminent.
Suddenly Mr. P.C. yawns, stretches, and requests coffee. The government officials follow suit. Aides jump up, secretaries appear, beverages are ordered and a list of available snacks examined.
Mr. N.A. is deeply startled. His eyes dart uncomprehendingly from one face to another. Frozen in a seated, half-hunched position over the contracts, only his fingers continue to move spasmodically, as if guiding imaginary pen over imaginary paper. I can hear him thinking, “What? Why?”
Mr. P.C. stands up, rubs his neck and walks to the window. The officials follow. For several minutes they make commentary on the traffic thirty five stories below. Coffee and cakes arrive. Time is spent choosing, tasting, choosing again…. Compliments are addressed to the pretty waitress. The contracts lay flattened and forgotten beneath trays of pastry. Mr. N.A. tries to balance the cup of coffee forced on him.
“You have a good tailor,” comments Mr. P.C.
“What? Oh … yeah. Thanks,” responds Mr. N.A.
I see Mr. P.C.’s glance linger for a split second on the shoes, but of course he won’t ask. He looked. It’s enough.
“Have you been to Boracay?”
“It’s an island! Have you seen it?” presses Mr. P.C.
“What? An island? Aren’t we on an island? Why?”
Mr. P.C. professes astonishment.
“Boracay, is the best island in the world! We have to go! Let’s go!”
Aides are immediately on the phone ordering up Mr. P.C.’s private plane.
Mr. N.A. is drowning, tidal waters disintegrating the now coffee-stained papers that represent months of work. He tries to snatch at driftwood as the sea sucks him down, down, down into a whirlpool called Boracay.
“What? Right now? Why? An island? Another one? But … why … what…?”
He looks at me helplessly. Will I save him?
I understand and even sympathize because after all I’m half-white. The problem is my other half. The Filipino half. That half wants to go to Boracay in a private plane. So I give him my look. He sighs, rises despondently and we follow Mr. P.C. to the elevator.
Filipino culture is the epitome of relational art. Every interaction, if it is to lead to a more lasting one, must aspire to certain intimacies. It seemed we had now reached the stage that required the artful recitation of our connectedness: our bloodlines, our acquaintances, our schools, our neighborhoods, our marriages. This is the Asian method of establishing “self” in a social network so vast it is barely comprehensible to the Western mind. Metro Manila alone has some twelve million people living and working in it. Your links are your lifeblood, and how deep those veins run, determines your worth.
Sitting at the bar of the best hotel in Boracay having drinks in coconuts, waiting for our specially ordered dinner, I note that Mr. N.A. seems lethargic, morose even. Was he still upset about the plane? (He happened to see the weight and passengers limit stamped on a door frame and because we had people doubled up in seats, with others on the floor, he felt we were over it. I’d explained that it didn’t matter because Filipinos are small. He was unconvinced.)
But, if that was it then shouldn’t he be happy we’d landed safely? Hmmm. Was it the outrigger canoe from Caticlan? I’d told him to stop worrying; the Italian shoes would surely dry out eventually. Anyway, thanks to me his bare feet were perfectly presentable. So what was it? I study him over my coconut. Ah. He thinks we’ve lost.
When he goes to the restroom, I take the opportunity to excuse myself, head for the ladies’ and then quickly duck into the men’s room right behind him.
Locking the door, I whisper fiercely that we are moving into an important part of the negotiations and he must pull himself together. I want him to present a strong, confident, invincible, cheerful front. Tell a joke or something. It is clear Mr. P.C. and his team, need relational reassurance. All we’re doing is taking a moment to check pulses and reaffirm ourselves in relation to who everyone else is. Got it?
“Diosdado Domingo Cristobal? Doods? From Santa Ana? The big house by the racetrack? He’s your Tito Doody? No! Ateneo grade school up to college, he and my Tito Manolet, uncle from my mother’s side, were soccer buddies! Tito Manolet introduced your Tito Doody to his sister, my Tita Pixy. They almost married! Kaso, he fell for her cousin my Tita Rosie, and two weeks before the wedding to Tita Pixy, Doody and Tita Rosie eloped. Tito Manolet, and Tita Rosie’s brother, Tito Pinggoy, had a terrible fight about it and Tito Manolet accidentally shot him in the leg. What can you do? Love!”
“You grew up in San Juan? So, you remember the MiniMaxiMart across from the Mobil gas station at the back of Wilson? Yes? Hahaha! Did your yaya let you ride the mechanical, Mobil flying pony? It cost five centavos and would go up and down for one minute? It had wings. You remember it? No kidding! You rode it too? Hahaha! I adored that plastic horse. Begged papa to buy it. He misunderstood and bought a real one. It bit me. Not as much fun at all.”
“Lolo Peping, had a cousin who came here from China in the 1940’s. One of Cong Fang’s brothers married a dark-skinned Spanish beauty, Filomena-Notario-Sy. They built a chain of pharmaceutical companies across the islands. Your mother’s second cousin was a Notario? Aha, then you’re related to those beauties, Peachy and Cherry! They opened a restaurant. It was very successful because every boy in Manila ate there at least once a week, just to look at them.”
It seems Mr. P.C. is related to everyone and everyone to him. How could he not be? As he proudly tells us, his parents had fourteen children, seventy grandchildren, forty five great-grandchildren and counting.
Conversation goes around and about in this vein, for an entire hour. When we feel satisfied that being together is not a mistake, attention turns to Mr. N.A. whose cheerful look is glazing over.
Mr. P.C. asks solicitously.
“And how many children do you have?”
“What? Oh. None. I’m divorced.”
“Ah.” Pause. “Remarried?”
Another pause. “Extended family?”
“What? Oh. No. Only child. Parents gone. Never knew my grandparents.”
“So … you … are … alone?”
“What? Oh. No. I have a Mexican woman. She comes in twice a week to clean.”
There is a long, uncomfortable moment as everyone feigns sudden interest either in the tiled floor, or the distant horizon. The dark sun of despair casts its shadow over me. I hear the bell. Game over. I tried, but there are things that not even I, can foresee.
Mr. N.A. senses the moment and to my amazement, rises to the occasion.
“Which is WHY, I’m able to focus ALL my time and energy on my WORK! NO distractions! Work with ME, get every BIT of me! Yes, sir! You BETCHA!”
I’m stunned. A lightning quick turnaround jump shot effected by none other than Mr. N.A. himself. Mr. P.C. initially taken aback begins to nod understandingly, a smile slowly lighting up his entire face. The others follow suit, nodding and smiling.
Mr. P.C. stands. Mr. N.A. rises to meet him. Together, they stroll side by side into the dining room. Mr. N.A. whispers a joke to Mr. P.C. who bursts out laughing.
Trailing behind them I smile at the back of Mr. N.A.’s well-groomed head. I shoot him a blessing.