A Culture of Disconnect

Since the 1970s, Filipino Americans in college took it upon themselves to make themselves feel more Filipino, whatever that meant to them. What was clear was that there was a void, a disconnect, and a wish to be closer to that archipelago a whole hemisphere away. What followed is a quiet phenomenon. It was an annual show that incorporated dance, drama and music all through the prism of Philippine culture.

Today, generations later, it continues with every new class, eager to sink their teeth into the connection and the experience. At my school, we've done 19. The biggest of the Filipino clubs, Samahang at UCLA, has just put the cap on their 31st. It's become an annual mainstay of Filipino clubs, spreading even to High Schools, to other ethnic groups, to the point where it becomes a culture in and of itself. It has warranted academic analysis, study and research papers. This attempt to represent Philippine culture became one of the few things that belonged solely to Filipino American youth. Not Americans, not Filipinos, not even our immigrant parents. Just a specific subset of educated, young, Filipino Americans with little to believe in.

But it's still just an attempt. There is no doubting the passion behind the show, but the reality of it has been called into question time and time again by writers like Theo Gonzalves. First of all, it's a massive time investment. It's months of preparation, while balancing school, sometimes work, as well as regular "filipino club" events. Ask anyone who's ever been in a big one: It's a dominating, over arching presence. At some point you have to take a step back and wonder if it's having an adverse affect on one's academic success. Because more Filipinos graduating college is more important to the Filipino community than one night of questionable dances.

At its core, the PCN is an exercise in haphazard execution. Dances are copied and approximated from Philippine dance groups like Bayanihan, who basically make up a lot of the dance based on their interpretation of katutubo (indigenous) traditions. Simple wedding dances become highly stylized affairs about balancing pots on one's head. Indigenous tribes living in the northern mountain regions are portrayed as head-hunting, woman-bagging brutes. A culture and a people very much alive are depicted as an artifact, to be put on a stage.

It's not without precedent. The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, known commonly as the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, is noted in Filipino American history for its human display exhibit. America's newly purchased island novelties like Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines were put on display during the 8-month fair. Much like a zoo, indigenous people were persuaded to come to America, and were given materials to rebuild a facsimile of their village on the fairgrounds in which to live and constantly do native dance out of context. The message was clear: These are not people. These are fascinating case studies. This is a glimpse into the world of savagery, so let us get our viewing glasses.

That's the concern with today's PCN critics. It is seen as a mockery and an insult to a tradition and a people that still exist today, specifically in the inappropriately named "Mountain suite" and "Muslim suite." Any noble notion of preserving a culture or authenticity that some PCN participants like to espouse is misguided. What is being preserved in these two dance categories is a mainland characterization of raw tradition. For a group that cares so much about culture, the Filipino clubs have been helping to reinforce an objectionable stereotype.

But as misguided as it is, there is still an inspiring sincerity to it. Let's face it, PCNs are on paper about portraying an entire culture in an unreasonable amount of time, but the reason people keep coming back is the experience. It's the shared suffering on those cold nights the week before the show. It's the inside jokes you have for the rest of your life when you recall lines from the script. It's that moment, behind the curtain, barely protected from the shine of the lights, when the crowd rumbles in anticipation on the other side and something hums in your bones.

I can't hate something with so much community values. Yeah, Kappa Malong-Malong isn't a real Southern Mindanao dance, but sometimes it's not about that. Sometimes it's about Filipino Americans, and what we need to do to feel close to what came before us. Sometimes it's not about accurately portraying the same static movements from a century ago. The originators of the tradition, yeah, they can own the original dance. We'll take this highly stylized, ridiculous, stunt-based version, with the gold sequin shawls and we'll own it ourselves. We can call this Filipino American culture.

I mean, let's call it what it is. It's a Filipino American dance now. It's not a "Muslim dance" or "Southern Mindanao" dance, it's not a real "Kalinga" dance or "Ifugao courtship" dance. We should stop fooling people into thinking it is and we should stop labeling it as such. This spade has a name, and it's not authenticity.

Because the other option, altering the dances to be authentic, is a lot less likely. When you've seen them in the flesh, it dawns on you why some Bayanihan yuppies decided to add drama and stunts to it, as insulting as they may be. They are folk art at it's purest, coming from the people, movements that spawn out of people feeling like they should move. They are not theater. They are not meant to be observed. These remind you what dances are. They are meant to be participated in, to commemorate a celebration, and to just amplify the good feelings that accompany a wedding or a festival or a birthday. In their true form, they are not meant for anyone else.

I write this because next year, in 2009, our 20th PCN, I will have the monumental task of being the script writer, the director and the showrunner. When we're up there with wooden swords and silk jackets, I want there to be no illusions as to what we're doing. We're not representing the indigenous or the southern. Not anymore. This is us. We are showing ourselves. Through our dances, we are showing the world our dedication and urgent need to feel like we're part of something bigger than us. That identity void? That distant feeling? That's our culture.

Too many of us take this show as some kind of street cred for ethnic identity. As if knowing these things, and being part of them, is the solution to the problem of having a disconnected, cobbled-together ethnic identity. I can see why that kind of comfort is tempting, but if we can't be real to the actual culture, then we have to be real to ourselves. Sometimes we can't belong because there's nothing to belong to. Sometimes articulating that disconnection is more interesting than approximating someone else's culture.