On Audrey Hepburn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tura Satana, Gregory Peck, racist cookies, and not being an American writer.[admin / April 4th, 2011 / Young Bright Things / Tags: arnold schwarzenegger, audrey hepburn, elvis, filipinos, gregory peck, humphrey bogart, tura satana]
My father used to say that I was an American made of Filipino raw materials, so for a long time Iâ€™ve thought of my body as composite and cybernetic (cybernetic because my American part is definitely electronic—which is to say, nostalgic and prone to random temperamental breakdowns—and in any case, the Filipino part alone is already synthetic, has been synthetic from the year 1521).
And yet I am often surprised when I remember that Iâ€™m actually an American: that I like ketchup and peanut butter, that I still think about Dwayne Wayne interrupting Whitley Gilbertâ€™s wedding, that I say â€œhella.â€
The idea that I am an American writer is even stranger to me; I have trouble finding my way into American stories, let alone inventing them. Having never grown up with anyone, or indeed ever even lived with anyone, who spoke English as a first or only language. (Except for my youngest brother, another composite.) Everyone who has ever formed my life, or been allowed into it through a tiny hole I made in a vein here or there, has thought of home as somewhere else. Somewhere else other than the ground weâ€™re nervously standing upon. Ground that isnâ€™t ours. You have to stop thinking of the ground as something you can belong to. It hurts at first but then you get used to it. Like every other unbearable thing.
Now I live in Europe (well, sort of: England, and thatâ€™s a big sort of), having had one foot in Europe since I was seventeen. No, earlier than that. Since before I was born. No, earlier than that Earlier than that, and backwards. Other way. Europe has had a foot in me. Also since 1521.
First things first, worst things first: you pronounce my last name Cast-ILL-yo (as in, “that’s ill, yo” as spoken by my cousins—-and myself, in certain time zones). Not Cast-EE-yo. Defiant mispronunciation an anti-imperial, anti-colonialist gesture. Paella also pronounced pa-ELL-ya, etc, etc. How to unmake the Spanish of our Spanish names.
A couple weeks after turning eighteen I moved to Spain for many supernatural reasons, one of them my now-waning obsession with retaliatory colonization.
The first Filipino I met in Spain was a packaged cookie. A ring-shaped biscuit coated in chocolate. I met three kinds of Filipino, in fact:
- a pale biscuit enrobed in milk chocolate
- a pale biscuit enrobed in dark chocolate
- a dark brown biscuit enrobed in white chocolate.
Obviously there is a reminder here. Either you are dark on the outside but white on the inside (which is to say: You are never real Asians, your English is too flamboyant and too plainly good, you enjoy too much canned meat, your nurses are too lovely and well-trained, you live too close to an American base, you dance the salsa too well, too many words in too many of your languages are broken up and mashed together with Spanish, but the Spanish of a bad dream, Spanish through a sieve which turns out to be a gangrenous wound).
Or: you are white on the outside but dark on the inside (which is to say: Even you paler mestiza bitches with your European or Chinese grandfathers are still brown girls, brown girls with brown organs, brown bones, brown blood and brown shit in your brown guts; you might be paler than Jacky Cheung, but that’s not going to stop him from treating you like shit).
The Philippine government filed a diplomatic protest against the Spanish government and Nabisco, trying to get the company to change the name. Foreign Secretary Domingo L. Siazon resisted this protest, pointing out that Austrian people donâ€™t get offended about Vienna sausages. In 1976, Siazon had been the Philippine Ambassador to Austria.
Is this cybernetic thing the reason why my father and I were always so in love with Arnold Schwarzenegger movies when I was a kid? Arnold Schwarzenegger was a total alien in Hollywood and now heâ€™s the governor of California and married to a Kennedy. Arnold Schwarzenegger is actually living the only nineties movie he didnâ€™t make. The one he must have been saving in his back pocket. Thinking, I donâ€™t want this one to come out in the theaters and then go to VHS. The tape I film it on has to be my life.
What is that thing that people say about immigrants, that I hate? That they have determination. My mother moved to Tennessee in 1972 when she was twenty years old. Martial law had just begun. She was in love with someone whose first wife was Ferdinand Marcos’ cousin. That someone was my father. She left home because going to America seemed more like going home than actually staying home would have been. Enforced homelessness the first imperial legacy. Good colonial subject: she knows no Filipino songs by heart but almost fainted in front of Johnny Cash. And still talks about seeing Elvis Presley a few days before he died. (“So fat, but still so flirty! You know he offered us food? He told us to come inside his house!”)
Elvis, who was in love with the part-Filipina actress Tura Satana. A friend in Glasgow told me recently that Elvis tried to turn Priscilla Presley into Tura Satana, after the latter turned down his marriage proposal. Tura Satana who taught Elvis the dance moves that would drive all of America crazy. Tura Satana who died last month.
To take an image from a book Iâ€™ve hated my entire reading life (as always, a lot of hate has to go into an essay about being an American): America shines its green light everywhere. My father used to blast Patsy Clineâ€™s â€œCrazyâ€ from his souped-up car radio. The acoustics in the garage made it a tiny opera house. You could hear Patsy Clineâ€™s broken heart all the way down the entire street. Americans shouted, from places we couldnâ€™t see: SHUT THE FUCK UP.
Iâ€™M CRAZY FOR LOVING YOU.
Another great non-American American: Audrey Hepburn. Audrey Hepburn is never an American girl and never really pretends to be. She does American drag. She always has at least one melancholy parent who comes from somewhere else. Relatives who either killed people, or were all killed. The good guys or the bad guys, you never know and youâ€™re not meant to know. Thinking about Audrey Hepburn’s own fascist and Nazi sympathizing parents.
Audrey tumbles out of history somewhere in the middle, lightly covered in a mix of Eurasian and Roman dust. She washes the master’s Rolls Royce in a plaid shirt that shows her midriff. Tranvestite Americana as interpreted by Givenchy. She canâ€™t erase that suspicious foreign element. She’s an American the way some of us are; which is to say, we aren’t. She has an accent that never goes away.
(Suspicious in this case nearly always meaning “erotic,” “trauma-sketched,” “the part of Europe where Europe might start to mean Asia; what about that unnamed country in ROMAN HOLIDAY where she comes from, who else would pick a name like Anya” “something about a dark-haired girl.”)
Arnold Schwarzenegger the twentieth-century Frankensteinâ€™s monster (another composite), lumbering into the movies with his Styrian voice, and slipping into American life everywhere it flapped open. I dreamt of Arnold Schwarzenegger as my kindergarten teacher. As my friend with the overly formal English, who saves the world I live in by immersing himself in a vat of molten steel.
I never saw the first TERMINATOR, where Arnold Schwarzenegger is the villain. I only saw TERMINATOR 2, where he is your dorky foreign friend-pet to whom you have to teach the ways of the world. How to speak. How not to kill people. Arnold naked in a biker bar asking for clothes, money and a motorcycle.
Arnold Schwarzenegger as Defoeâ€™s Friday. Arnold driving a station wagon heading south (America always dreams southward), being told by a teenage boy: â€œYou gotta listen to the way people talk.â€
Audrey Hepburn keeps going to Paris and coming back a lady. Coming back as someone who knows how to wear a hat. As someone who’s better than homegrown Americans because she has acquired a touch of exotic luxury, as if it hasn’t been there from the beginning.
I went to Paris and got endlessly harassed. I couldnâ€™t walk down the street without somebody saying â€œkonnichi waâ€ or â€œwo ai niâ€ or â€œgeisha.â€ A homeless woman spat in my face when I tried to give her a meringue. I was called dirty and then I was stalked. The next time someone tells you how romantic and civilized France is, take a look at the body that person’s living in.
Arnold, do you get offended by Vienna sausages? I ate a lot of them growing up. Vienna sausages, Ligo sardines and Spam: Filipino cupboard.
HASTA LA VISTA BABY CHILL OUT DICKWAD NO PROBLEMO.
In TERMINATOR 2, the bad guy is the cop. The movie at least knows that much. In the first shoot-out scene in the galleria, just before Arnold Schwarzenegger shields Edward Furlongâ€™s body with his own, an Asian man in workwear (janitor or handyman) is riddled with bullets. Shot by the cop.
He got one line in the movie. HEY, YOUâ€™RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE IN HERE. Then he gets killed. Iâ€™m not supposed to be in here, either.
Foreign body for American body. I think Arnold already knows thatâ€™s how it goes. Foreign body for American body.
That last thumbs-up the Terminator gives before fully sacrificing his body for the good of a world that may not be worthy of the sacrifice (but not knowing if itâ€™s worthy is half the point of doing it). An American thumbs-up by way of Thal, Austria. That’s one of the things he was taught. How to be an American optimist just before you die.
Was my father planning his death already, watching that movie? He who never became an American optimist. America never took. The body rejected the transplant.
Years later I also found myself screaming, just like Edward Furlong, at a body determined to leave the world: NO DONâ€™T DO IT DONâ€™T GO I ORDER YOU NOT TO GO I ORDER YOU NOT TO GO I ORDER YOU NOT TO GO.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was already Mr. Universe at twenty but the universe is nothing compared to America. To California. California where I was born. Of course, I had to be a child of California. A prodigal child of California.
Arnold’s father was a member of the Nazi party, too.
Audrey Hepburn as Princess Ann will always remember Rome. She got to be free in Rome. Learned how to use money, rode a scooter, wore a manâ€™s pajamas, smoked cigarettes, fell in love.
Italy has the largest Filipino community in Europe and Rome is full of Filipina domestic workers. You can’t walk down a street without hearing a Filipino language. Or if you can, you’re not listening.
I read that â€œfilippineâ€ is slang for maid. Itâ€™s not limited to Italy; in Greece: â€œeho Filipineza,â€ I have a Filipina, I have a maid. In Hong Kong: â€œbanmui,â€ Filipino girl, derogatory shorthand for maid, servant.
I moved to Europe but I will never feel free in Europe. Iâ€™ve learned how to use money. I rode a scooter, I wore a manâ€™s pajamas, I smoked cigarettes. I fell in love. Like Princess Ann, the country I’m meant to return to remains unnamed. But unlike Princess Ann, I don’t go back. There isn’t a scene in which I look up with an expression of great dignity and wistfulness, already receding back into my customs. I have no customs; the unnamed country doesn’t exist, or doesn’t exist for me.
Maybe I’m actually Gregory Peck. Gregory Peck, who always looked a little bit Asian to my eyes. At the end of the movie I’m going back to an apartment I rent in a city that isn’t mine and if I ever start talking to the guys about buying a one-way ticket back to the States, they all know by now not to believe me.
In SABRINA, Audrey Hepburn tells Humphrey Bogart a European story, which is actually an American story. A prince falls in love with a waitress. The princeâ€™s family tries to buy the waitress out. First they offer krone. Then they offer dollars. Humphrey Bogart is the one to offer dollars, playing the role of the disapproving family. How did dollars get into this, Audrey asks sharply. The same way dollars get into everything.
Humphrey Bogart says no self-respecting prime minister would offer krone. Itâ€™s an outdated currency. Itâ€™s part of a world that shouldnâ€™t exist anymore. Audrey counters, No self-respecting waitress would accept dollars.
But lots of people accept dollars, Audrey. Lots of people even want them. You accept them, too. All American fictions are written on them. Even when the fictions are people, or lives. Lives you invent and people you want to become. I live in England now; I don’t have to pay for anything in dollars. But I know very well that I’m still paying for everything in dollars. My entire life is being paid for in dollars.
How does this operetta end, Bogart asks. Bogart, who is such a perfect American that Jean-Paul Belmondo dies imitating him in Ã€ BOUT DE SOUFFLE.
Audrey says: I donâ€™t know. I guess they run away to America on a Zeppelin. With everybody singing like mad.
I havenâ€™t run away from Europe to America on a Zeppelin. After the Hindenburg disaster, the Zeppelins died out. My American success story has ended before it even begun. No one is singing. Iâ€™m always listening, but no one is singing. Sometimes I sing to myself. Usually I sing to myself.