Who Are You Eating?
What Cares For You?
In Response to Anthony Bourdain's Question, "Why do Filipinos care so much?"
For most of my childhood, my parents refused to shell out for cable television and paid extra only for access to The Filipino Channel which my mother kept on at all hours in the kitchen where she spent her time cooking, cleaning, paying the bills, and making long distance calls to her siblings scattered across the globe. When the cable subscription was updated so that we could only get TFC with the purchase of a complete cable package, my access to American media changed irrevocably and exponentially. Aside from the MTV and Nickelodeon shows my friends were constantly talking about, I could now also watch the Food Network and Travel Channel, which, by the time I was a teenager, were delving into the early iterations of food and tourism reality television. No Reservations premiered when I was 15, and from the moment I watched him strut down an ancient cobblestone street in Paris, clad in a leather jacket and low-rise jeans, I have loved Anthony Bourdain with a foreboding sense that perhaps I should not. The same cool, self-assured, seen-it-all-before-but-still-hungry-for-more demeanor that drew me into his journeys also made me suspicious of him and my own attraction to him.
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Accompanying the Parts Unknown episode on Manila that aired in 2016, American chef and travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain wrote an article for CNN in which he clarified his intentions for traveling to the Philippines to see what and how the people eat: “This episode is an attempt to address the question of why so many Filipinos are so damn caring. Why they care so much—for each other—for strangers.” Making an awestruck connection between food and care, Bourdain wanted not only to see how Filipinos eat, but what and how and why we feed. That is, how do we receive another body and make it strong, and how do we give what we have and of ourselves to others, to the extent that we do? I have no recourse to deny his claim or his insinuation—Filipinos take great pride in our food, and we love to feed people. In fact, we view it as the utmost insult that a person would not eat what has been offered.
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Like many teenagers before me, I wanted desperately to appear as flippant and unaffected as possible. The truth was that I cared a lot about all the trivial things I should have cared about, from my clothes to how my classmates saw me to how little of the world I had seen in my young life, and how badly I wanted to see and experience more of it. While my brother and I had to sneak trips into neighborhoods in San Francisco like the Sunset or Exelsior to eat at the Indian, Thai, Japanese, and Vietnamese restaurants we loved, lying to our parents about where we’d been and the money we’d spent, Bourdain traipsed across the globe and was literally served cultures on a platter, maintaining an air of confidence and nonchalance that simultaneously made me want to emulate him and punch him in the face. Unlike me, a young Filipino American girl from the suburbs who was constantly crawling in her own skin and longing for worlds outside my grasp and palate, he was at ease everywhere he went, any dinner table he was given a plate. Of his original pitch for his series (the first iteration before No Reservations was called A Cook’s Tour), Bourdain once recalled, “I travel around the world, eat a lot of shit, and basically do whatever the fuck I want.”
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As I got older and Bourdain moved on to Parts Unknown with CNN, I watched him less religiously, tuning in only when I was home from college and could once again relish in my parents’ cable TV subscription. In my classes, I was reading postcolonial literature and sociological texts that demonstrated the ways in which the effects of imperialism live on today in policy, culture, and global hierarchies. When I was home, channel surfing, and landed on Bourdain in some developing country, I would pause. Despite what I was learning about the neocolonialism and Orientalism of the tourism industry and the color privilege that persists in non-white postcolonial countries, I couldn’t stop myself from tuning in to Bourdain’s travels. Gray coif and rock’n’roll insouciance intact, he would cram his long, denim-covered limbs into a food stall or hole in the wall, chow down, and chat with a local his crew hired to escort him around town. During their conversation, the local would generally explain their country’s history and politics, and Bourdain would offer some commentary and reiterate in voiceover what the local had said. Despite the bravado he used to describe the function of his show, how it enabled him to do whatever the fuck he wanted, in his explanation of the stories he was told he maintained if not deference then a certain moral outrage at historical atrocity that is expected from a liberal Westerner in a developing or war-torn country. He was a desirable alternative to hosts like Bizarre Foods’ Andrew Zimmern, whose show’s entire premise was shocking and grossing out American TV viewers with exotic food in non-Western countries. Bourdain ate many of the same items that Zimmern did, but made an attempt to display the cultural, historical, and geographical contexts from which the food came. His combination of arrogance and sensitivity made Bourdain the star that he was—TV networks, producers, chefs, and millions of viewers around the world trusted his authority to provide accurate depictions of countries ranging from France to Chile to Namibia to the Philippines through his engagement with the people and the cuisine.
Arguably, the places he visited were secondary to his persona. Viewers wanted to go where he went, wherever it was, because they trusted him—a white American man who was kind of a dick but deemed relatively culturally sensitive. He followed the lead of the locals as opposed to simply stopping at the tourist traps. He ate whatever food was in front of him without the intent of demeaning it or the culture from which it came. To the extent that he introduced millions of Americans to places they’d never been and provided them with a rudimentary education of each country, Bourdain was good at, even admirable for what he did. Still, after his death and the heaps of praise that basically every single ethnic food community has given to his memory, I can’t help but reserve a healthy serving of distrust for him, as I, too, mourn his untimely passing.
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After the Manila episode of Parts Unknown, and especially after Bourdain’s death, Filipino chefs hailed him a champion of Filipino cuisine, thanking him for spotlighting their food as a complicated and delicious part of our culture and history, reflecting the range of influences that have passed through the archipelago. This gratefulness comes out of a scarcity of representation—despite Filipinos’ status as the third largest Asian ethnic group in the United States, the complexity of our food is only just beginning to become familiar, let alone celebrated by mainstream American diners. Other travel- and food-centric TV shows have portrayed Filipino cuisine as bizarre, an assortment of unsavory organs on barbeque skewers and boiled whole duck fetuses speckled with feathers. Tito Tony, on the other hand, enjoyed homemade adobo in Manila, mused at the “wacky,” “deranged,” yet “slightly alluring” fast-food options at Jollibee, and hailed sisig a perfect drunk food and lechon “the best pork ever.” His stamp of approval has meant the apparent validation of Filipino food and Filipino culture for Filipino chefs and viewers alike, who have been waiting to see some image of ourselves and our food in the representational wasteland of American media.
To question other Filipinos’ admiration and trust for Anthony Bourdain and what he contributed to the popularization of Filipino cuisine feels slightly treasonous. I, too, never knew how much I longed to see brown faces like mine, people speaking my parents’ language, or the food that I grew up with in the American media I voraciously consume, until I saw and heard them for the first time on Bourdain’s show. I also couldn’t help but feel vindicated as I watched Bourdain mix a fried egg onto a bed of rice and sizzling chopped pork cheek, and I recalled the times in elementary school when kids would plug their noses at the smell of the lunches my mother packed for me. But his question, “Why do Filipinos care so much,” immediately makes me defensive—what are the insinuations that undergird his question, and what kind of answer was he perhaps already expecting by defining a country in terms of an usual degree of care? Did he realize that his question is not a rhetorical one that only he would answer with his own analysis, research, and reiteration of local knowledge? That, he was in fact addressing Filipino and non-Filipino audiences alike, who must reach into their own experiences of Filipino people and culture, in addition to their own care, and attempt an answer? And, did he realize that despite how welcome he was made to feel at each Filipino dinner table he sat at where he was lavished and well fed, that perhaps the question of Filipino care was not his to ask, explain, film, display, consume, or regurgitate?
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As I try to answer the question of Filipino care now from my Filipino American perspective (a hyphenated identity which I negotiate constantly when I critique the possible Orientalism I am critiquing or possibly replicating when I interpret media or art), I consider my own care, and how it has evolved since my angst-ridden teenage years. As an adult, I care unabashedly and intensely, in all the forms I can—for family, friends, community, work, ideas, the future, past and current lovers. To show that I care for any of these tells the rest of the world that they are important to me, but also that I might believe they are important on a macro scale—i.e., I care because everyone should care. But of my individual, micro care, my parents taught me to give more than I receive, fight for the bill, bring a dish to the potluck, offer food and drink to any visitor, provide them with slippers to change into before they enter our house. The concept of a house in which the inhabitants kept their shoes on was something I had only seen on American sitcoms. How could anyone care so little about their personal space or that of their friends and family, to drag the debris of the outside world into the house? Once while home from college, I threw a party at my parents’ house while they were vacationing in the Philippines. I invited my friends from our majority Asian American high school, along with a new group that one of my oldest friends had only just introduced me to. The doorbell rang and I opened the door to my friend’s friends, who had in turn brought some of their friends, all of whom became the few white people to ever enter my parents’ home. Before I could motion to the basket of slippers my mother keeps by the door, I watched in horror as they went straight for the staircase, leading up to the living room where the party was going on. Watching Bourdain enter various Filipino households, I remembered the intense anxiety I’d felt, witnessing strangers enter my house, leaving a trail on the hardwood, smudges and particles in their wake. I’d stood at the open front door for a few seconds before closing it, following behind, asking what my guests wanted to drink, and guiding them to eat the food I had prepared. I wondered if Bourdain’s hosts had asked him and his crew to oblige this courtesy. But their feet are not visible in these scenes.
I revert to my teenage self in response to Bourdain’s question. I don’t want to care, or show that I care, in the face of someone asking me why I care so much. Takeaways like his and other non-Filipinos who visit the Philippines or know a Filipino (be they a Filipino friend, Filipino friend of a friend, Filipino lover, Filipino nurse, neighbor’s Filipino nanny, all of whom I have been confused for) make it a challenge to admit to one’s own care. How does one respond—Why do you, a Filipino, care so much, to the degree that you do? The question alludes to an issue of excess or strain, and thus also asks, “Where does that care come from?” “How is that care sustainable?” The rebuttal is to actively not care, and refuse to acquiesce the expected behavior. But the expected behavior is that which I have been taught, and to refuse to perform it means to fill the hollow in my heart where my parents reside with so much shame. I am constantly negotiating when to care and when to not, what care I can live with and what care will make me like myself less.
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To an extent, Bourdain was aware of his question’s context. Between scenes of smiling children singing Christmas carols and a rock cover band performing Queen songs at company parties, he finds time to explain that Filipinos have suffered a long, violent colonial past, the shadow of which still looms over the archipelago. The lasting effects of Spanish and American imperialism include stark economic inequality, fragile to nonexistent political infrastructure, a lineup of despots who have declared martial law and waged massacres against political opponents, journalists, and drugs but really drug addicts and therefore poor people. Parts Unknown connects the Philippines’ colonial history with the enduring lack of work opportunities within the country that has led to the prevalence of Overseas Filipino Workers, who make up 10% of the country’s GDP. Bourdain explains that OFWs spend years away from the Philippines and their families to whom they send their earnings, often facing abysmal working and living conditions and exploitation by the hands of supervisors, agencies, and the families they work for. This diasporic suffering of Filipinos, a kind of national mourning, fear, and care for those far away, takes on a physical manifestation: a warehouse facility full of balikbayan boxes, filled to the brim with presents and snacks from back home and abroad, ready to be shipped all over the world to loved ones for Christmastime. As the camera pans over stacks and stacks of balikbayan boxes, Bourdain notes that this warehouse holds just a fraction of the almost 10 million that are shipped in and out of the Philippines every year—“a lot of love,” he says.
We follow one of these inbound balikbayan boxes to a home in Manila, where Bourdain and his crew visit Aurora, a former OFW who served as the nanny to a Parts Unknown producer for 20 years. Over a meal that Aurora has prepared and served on the rooftop patio of her building, she recounts her life to a group of strangers whose only tie to her is an absent American boy who she fed, sang to, and nurtured into a man, when her own children were an ocean away and reliant on the money his parents paid her. Food here fills that absence and bridges the gap between Filipino and stranger—Aurora’s traditional dish of kare kare, oxtail stew, gives everyone a reason to sit with purpose at the same table. The scene is joyous and tender, despite the sad stories of family separation and financial struggles. Bourdain tells her and her family, “Many, many Filipino women like you had to leave their families to go abroad.” One of Aurora’s adult daughters interjects that her own children now work in places like Hong Kong and Dubai. She has asked one of them to stop being an OFW and return to the Philippines, despite the money she stands to earn and send back. She repeats her plea to Bourdain: “Please come home. I need you.”
Manila’s monsoon rain forces the party off the roof and into Aurora’s living room, where Bourdain unfolds from his pocket a letter written by the absent American boy whom Aurora once nannied. But the letter is not exactly a letter, as it is not from the boy addressing Aurora. Rather, the boy writes of the orbit of his life and how Aurora served as a guiding star, naming and crediting her for the man he has become, but not speaking directly to her:
“I am 100% the man I am today because this woman literally raised me from when I was six months old, singing to me, dancing with me, wiping away my tears, making me laugh at every turn. Unfortunately like so many Filipinos, her story is not all smiles and love. She had to choose a life away from her daughter and thousands of miles from her family. There are literally thousands of people around the world, me included, who have been influenced by her endless kindness and love.”
As Bourdain reads the last sentence, he looks up expectantly at Aurora. The camera holds on her face, she smiles, and we can see what might be just a twinkle of a tear in her eye, not enough to fall down her cheek or brush away with her fingers. Perhaps her lack of a response here tells us of what it means to care for someone when you are employed to do so. A declaration of graciousness or devotion, something akin to “The pleasure was mine,” is not necessary or appropriate, because the money exchanged for care fills any pregnant, ambiguous silence. Instead of a monologue to corroborate the absent boy’s, a message from her perspective that might speak of her life at the service of others, Aurora sings “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music to Bourdain, his crew, the boy, the thousands of people influenced by her endless kindness and love. Bourdain, just one possible small and white “you” of the song’s refrain, continues to gaze at her, his smile soft and his stomach full:
“Small and white/Clean and bright/You look happy to meet me/Blossom of snow/May you bloom and grow/Bloom and grow forever/Edelweiss, edelweiss/Bless my home-land forever.”
Aurora’s life has been one of hard work, resilience, sacrifice, and years spent away from her family in the service and care of others, all culminating in hope for her homeland. As a witness to her story, Bourdain finally answers his question: “Filipinos give of themselves, of their time, their money, their love to others. They do and continue to do what needs to be done to survive.” Thus, Filipinos care out of necessity—care is a survival strategy in times of mourning, loneliness, violence, and lack. Bourdain here recognizes Filipino care as postcolonial—a necessary response to a colonial past that left the country without economic infrastructure to support its own people. Instead, the country’s GDP is dependent on the will of the people to venture overseas to external labor markets, only to send their money where their hearts remain—home. Where the government will not step in, the people will—a national, communal care. Indeed, Bourdain shines light on a people’s resilience to historical trauma. However, he inadvertently helps to mask the real problem, which is the historical trauma itself, and how its effects linger on in the present day, in spite of the people’s resilience. Calling a people’s care exceptional, indeed a means of survival, does little to help their circumstances, and even less to dismantle the power structures that have created their circumstances. As living and working conditions continue to deteriorate in the Philippines, Bourdain and men like him might expect Filipinos’ care to simply become vaster, even more exceptional. Meanwhile, that which is being survived is a smiling, grateful, sated absence.
That absence has left a trail, in policy and in cultural norms. In Empire of Care, sociologist Catherine Ceniza Choy explains how notions of benevolence and exceptionalism motivated the United States to bestow its education and medical systems to its “little brown brothers” out of “white love.” Inevitably, though, it was predominantly Filipino women who were the “beneficiaries” of American nursing education, which enforced American gender norms that dictated women were better suited to be nurses, as they were the more natural caregivers. Prior to U.S. occupation, men and women served as nurses in equal numbers; men were discouraged from enrolling in American nursing schools and nursing became a woman’s occupation. These American-run programs advertised themselves to Filipino women as a route to upward mobility—they could learn the American nursing system at school in the Philippines, travel to the United States where wages were far greater, and eventually return to their homeland, earnings intact. Meanwhile, Filipino nurses were advertised to American hospitals as well trained, more obedient, exceptionally caring, willing to take lower wages than their American counterparts, and less likely to cause disputes. Once they got to America, Filipino nurses faced intense discrimination and low wages, and could not afford to return to the Philippines as they’d originally planned, leading to a brain drain of healthcare professionals. Still, the myth of nursing as a path of upward mobility for Filipino women persists to present times, with Filipino nurses making up a third of all foreign-born nurses in the U.S., and many families still pressuring their children to enter the healthcare industry.
The Filipino capacity for care, taken as inherent by Bourdain, his film crew, and other Western visitors to the Philippines, was in fact an import—a mirror of those who arrive, expecting the care they’ve crafted and taught. Thus, the stereotype of the caring, nurturing Filipino nurse did not arrive to the American imagination on its own—the American imagination arrived to her. Bourdain’s question about the force and volume of Filipino care is not simply about care, selflessness, or love, but rather, labor. He neglects American imperialism’s systematic establishment of a gendered and racialized market of care in the Philippines, through several sectors including nursing, tourism, service, OFWs, and sex work. The U.S. did not nurture the Philippines. Rather, the U.S.’s benevolent “tutelage” comprised the Philippines’ insertion into an empire of care that emphasized how to care for the colonial other.
When Bourdain asks how Filipinos can care so much for strangers, he forgets that he is no stranger in the Philippines—no white American is. By praising Filipino survival and decontextualizing it from its exact disaster, he shows us who he is and where he comes from. He is American, and he marvels at the capacity for care in others, while saying little of his own. Perhaps he would have argued that his care came in the form of his program and the attention he brought to postcolonial states like the Philippines, where the dollar is both God and little child crying for his nanny. But like so many Americans, he does not see the problem of his observation—that Filipinos care—because he is a beneficiary of it. In this image of the Philippines that his reality show has constructed, the wellness and self-care ethos of American neoliberalism does not exist. Whereas Americans put the oxygen mask on ourselves first then help the child next to us, Americans praise Filipinos for the opposite practice—to care first not only for our own children, but for strangers who come to the table hungry and desiring a meal from famously gracious hosts. Even as we starve and suffocate.
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I am haunted and unsettled by the connection between food and care that Bourdain makes when he shows his viewers how Filipinos care for people by feeding them. To connect food and care also means to connect consumption and love, all within the context of the parasitical relationship that U.S. colonialism established with the Philippines under the insidious ideological rhetoric of “white love” of the “brown brother,” or more accurately the “brown woman” or “brown girl.”
At a travel agency’s company Christmas party in Manila, Bourdain sits at a festively decorated table with a group of middle-class Filipinos, kicking back with bottles of San Miguel and karaoke. The company has splurged for a lechon—a roasted pig atop a bed of banana leaves in the traditional kamayan style. Bourdain’s new friends explain lechon is “always the star” of the party, a way for the host to show off. Bourdain shows us how this lechon has been prepared—pierced through from snout to tail with a bamboo pole, slowly rotated by hand over a massive fire spit, in a line of a dozen other sizzling pigs. At the end of each pole is a woman squatting on a crate and slowly turning the handle, blocked off from the flames by a short cinderblock wall, children running around. The scene seems a world away from the company party. When we return to Bourdain and his companions, they are playing drunken musical chairs. The scene ends with a charmed Bourdain as the winner, a laughing Filipino woman in his lap.
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I can’t quite grasp why Americans react as they do to lechon. The dish is as common an occurrence in my life as birthday cake—not my birthday, per se, but someone in the family eventually has a party where a lechon appears. Perhaps this is a concession of my own privilege as the daughter of a political family who immigrated to California from Pampanga—no one in my extended family has been the one to turn the bamboo crank. But they have selected the pig from their own livestock, then supervised as someone else slaughtered and suspended it over flames—perhaps the best depiction of class hierarchy in the provinces that I can offer. I have watched this process in person. It is gruesome, and it is more striking still to see how my parents, aunts, and uncles don’t bat an eye. Once the roasted lechon has been butchered, my family and the workers who prepared the feast gather around a communal table, not far from the spot where the animal’s neck was cut. We eat it over rice, often with our hands, as if to touch the meat offers a greater appreciation and knowledge of all that went into the meal.
My parents immigrated in the early 1980s, and I know no other home. Just as I know no one in my family has turned the bamboo crank, they have never flipped the on-switch to activate the rotating skewers of an oven. Instead, they call a specialty caterer in the suburbs and a long, steaming box arrives. In the rare occasion when a non-Filipino has been invited to a family gathering where a lechon has been procured, I have witnessed reactions ranging from delight and revelry like Bourdain’s, to confusion and disgust. I suspect the dismay comes from being forced to confront the wholeness of the animal, to see what one eats in a form not compartmentalized by the chain of labor that begins with the animal and ends with just the meat. With lechon, the animal is the meat, and to eat it, you must acknowledge what has happened—something has been sacrificed for you to take it into yourself. Someone has made that sacrifice. Someone has done it for you.
Alyssa Manansala is an essayist and poet from San Francisco. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from California Institute of the Arts, where she taught classes in Asian American and postcolonial studies as a Teaching Fellow for the School of Critical Studies. She is currently a PhD student in American Studies at Brown University. Her writing can be found in Hyphen Magazine, TAYO Literary Magazine, Agape: A Literary Journal of Good Will, among others.