Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Hey Joe

Early in his short career, Jimi Hendrix wrote a blues song called "Hey Joe," that was nothing more than a pretext for his improvisatory guitar genius. The lyrics are simple and formulaic:

Hey Joe,
Where ya goin' to
With that gun in your hand?

I'm going' to shoot my old lady
I caught her messin round
with another man.

I'm reminded of that Hendrix song every time I leave my house here on my Philippine island and walk down the highway. Every time I do, I hear someone yelling "Hey Joe!" at me. It's an exclamation that foreigners have heard for decades in the Philippines, ever since World War Two, when American GIs were the first foreigners ever seen in some parts of this country. You won't hear it in Manila or in any tourist area, simply because there are far more foreigners around. But down here in the Sticks, where foreign faces are still a notable occasion for the natives, it's uttered almost as a joke. Living here as long as I have, however, has made it the most irritating phrase I know.

One of the things that some people hate, but that I happen to love, about living in a big American city is the utter anonymity that living there makes possible. One can live anywhere in such a city without ever knowing the names of one's neighbors and, more importantly, without their ever knowing yours. Standing in a crowd, one might as well be invisible.

But here in the Philippine provinces, from the moment I emerge from my house to the time when I go back inside, I am the center of attention for whomever is outside. I am aware of a number of eyes that are on me. I can feel the weight of their stares. My Filipino friends are shocked when I tell them this: that when I go to town, or to the market, or into a mall or supermarket, I am watched with unnerving scrutiny. The looks seem inspired by various things, everything from simple curiosity to sexual attraction to downright hostility. I have found that wearing sunglasses helps to soften the stares.

Men will make comments in dialect that are easy to guess at as I walk by a group of them, and the comments are usually scatalogical. They will make feeble jokes, like all of their jokes, at my expense. There are even a few who will simply stand in my way, agape, and scowl at me as I pass by them. Women will be so bold as to address my companion with questions about my sexual predilections. Am I sadistic? they will ask. (They have all heard stories about how foreigners are all sexual "manyakes" [maniacs].) Young women, many of them still in high school, will exhibit curiosity in easily misconstruable terms. Most of their overtures are innocent, but I have never been crazy enough to take therm seriously.

Taken all together - the pervasive heat, which glues my shirt to my back within minutes, the constant hazard of being overcharged for everything (my companion handles all my cash transactions), the staring eyes, the contemptuous jokes, the come-ons, and the cries of HeyJoe - it is with understandable relief that I arrive home and close the door. It is only within the walls of my house that I can relax, that I can let down my guard and be myself. I am rarely out of range of one or another electric fan. And as time has passed, I have found fewer occasions to leave the house. Moritz Thomsen, a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador, got it right when he wrote: "I think anyone who has not lived the wholly public life of a foreigner in a small town, where every scratch and belch is noted with fascinated curiosity, cannot realize how essential it is to have a place of refuge where you can hide from time to time and reform yourself."*

Privacy is something of which Filipinos have only a nebulous understanding. For them, to be "private" seems to carry some of the Latin meaning, to be "deprived." Rumors were spread among my neighbors about my staying indoors so much - that I must be hiding there, that I'm living here in a Philippine province because I am on the run for some mysterious offense. Like everything else, these rumors are merely to be endured. There is nothing to be said. And how should I explain myself?

Why did I have to travel six thousand miles to become a recluse? In Alaska, where I lived prior to coming to the Philippines, I lived indoors because of the cold, which lasted half the year. Despite it's reputation as America's "last frontier," I didn't encounter much in the way of outdoor activities there. Here, among 7, 107 islands belonging to the Philippines, beaches are ubiquitous. But because virtually all of them are privately owned, and because Filipinos seem to fear the water (most of them never learned how to swim) and would rather not further darken their brown skin, the beaches are deserted. I don't go sightseeing. I have seen all the sights worth seeing. There are no centuries-old Spanish churches on my island. There are several garish mansions, all belonging to the despotic governing family. There are views, most of which require some amount of travel to view.

So I stay indoors, watching the American - and some British and Australian - news, Hollywood movies, with an occasional foray into a true foreign film (Filipino movies and TV are beneath comment), reading and writing, and going online. I show up when I'm invited to a bash, with barbecued pig, lots of tuba (fermented coconut juice), and Empy (Emperador Brandy). But because men and women are segregated, and because I can hear my lonely electric fan calling to me from across the kilometers, I don't stay long. And as I stroll toward the highway to hire a trike to take me home, I always hear, like a constant refrain, voices calling "Hey Joe!"


*Mortitz Thomsen, Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle

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