The Wily Filipino redux

For everyone with a bee in their bonnet over TV show statements, take a deep breath, relax (you’re in distinguished company, Filipinos from generatons past have vigorously protested what they perceived as disparaging slights in Hollywood), and read this marvelous essay from someone who managed to be funny and affectionate about Filipinos:

It’s the essay The Wily Filipino, by Steve Martin:

In Search of the Wily Filipino
By Steve Martin

“We’ve seen the slit-eyed dangerous Jap, we have seen the wily Filipino…” – Marlon Brando discussing movies on “Larry King Live.”

The wily Filipino. How often have I gone to bed at night with that phrase echoing through my head. And yet I only recently became aware that I had actually never seen one. I had driven through Filipino neighborhoods, and everyone and everything I saw appeared to be straightforward. Signs for this or that – the dry cleaner’s, and auto-repair – all seemed innocuous but probably hid a true guile lurking beneath. I wondered under what circumstances the wiliness would come out.

I have worked with a Filipino for several years, and I decided upon a little test. I asked her what she would do if she saw a traffic accident and someone was wandering around looking dazed. “I would stop and help, I suppose,” she said.

“Why?” I asked. “To get something?”

She looked at me. “What would you do – call for help and wait for it to show up?” I realized that she was invoking the stereotype of the benign and polite Wasp, and I recoiled. I was so upset that it almost made me want to be angry.

I decided to rent movies where I might examine the portrayal of the Filipino. I watched “The Godfather,” “2001,” and “Gone with the Wind.” There wasn’t a single depiction of a wily Filipino. Why? Perhaps the movie industry is secretly run by Filipinos. Perhaps it is they who have been the hidden hand behind such films as “The Logical Filipino” (1986), “The Straight-Up Guy from Manila” (1993), and the adventure classic “Deep in Wily Laos” (1995). And if that were true wouldn’t it demonstrate unquestionable guile?

A friend of mind told me about a sensational Filipino acupuncturist. I called to make an appointment. “What seems to be the problem?” a deceptively pleasant voice asked on the other end of the line. “I… I…” I hadn’t quite worked out this part of the plan. “I… I…” I hung up. Thirty seconds later the phone rang. There was no one there. I thought nothing of it, then recognized the craftiness at work: Caller ID! The wily Filipino had called me back using caller ID, and now had my number! Fearing reprisal, I phoned again and booked an appointment.

I entered the office and sat in the waiting lounge. Waiting for what, I wondered. Probably waiting to be outfoxed, one way or another. The assistant asked me to fill out a form. She cleverly slid the sheet toward me and artfully offered me a pen. I filled it out as I listened to the coded dialogue going on in the office. Common inquiries about the weather were no longer empty pleasantries; they were complexly structured sentences in which the first letter of every word combined to spell out my mother’s maiden name. Once inside the office, I started using words with the doctor and his nurse that were uniquely American – words like “cahoots.” I wanted to see their reaction. I got none. Well, just one – a look so wily I shuddered.

Then this exchange happened:

“It says here you want treatment for parvo.”

“Yes,” I countered. This game was rough.

“Parvo is a dog disease.”

The lakes of perspiration on my forehead instantly beaded into a map of Michigan.

“Yes,” I replied. “I’m worried that my dog may have it.”

“So you’re here for anxiety? You want me to treat you for worry?”

This was not just idle sparring between worthy foes. This was a coded chess play of words, a dazzling display of cunning.

The needles went in. Four in my ears. Three in my scalp. Some were twisted by hand. Some had electric current sent thought them. Ten minutes later, they were removed, and I felt a remarkable calm. The tables had been turned. The wily Filipino had allayed my anxiety, and now I was indebted to him. He had won. I had anticipated wiles of some form, but never suspected that they would be at this level of sophistication.

I returned home and turned on the television. “Larry King Live” was still on:

“… the luckless Italian, the furtive Chilean, the horny Hawaiian, the pungent Norwegian, the strict Eskimo, the loud-talking Canadian -”

“We’re running out of time,” Larry said, and the show came to a close.

I needed to get away. I packed my bags, booked a ticket on WILY (the official Filipino airline), and fled to Hawaii.

* From The New Yorker, July 6, 1998.

See my Inquirer Current entry on the same article. Scholarly articles, too, such as You’re a Better Filipino than I Am, John Wayne: World War II, Hollywood, and U.S.-Philippines Relations by Charles V. Hawley, and What to Show the World: The Office of War Information and Hollywood, 1942-1945 by Clayton R. Koppes, Gregory D. Black. One incident mentioned in one of these articles is mentioned in turn, in Why & So What Now? -an official protest by Philippine officials to Hollywood in the 1930s.

And as Torn & Frayed in Manila points out -the hullaballoo was over a work of… fiction.

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Manuel L. Quezon III.

99 thoughts on “The Wily Filipino redux

  1. Again with the “Desperate Housewives” thing. The way I see any reaction to this issue is an affirmation of our mentality of being “victims.” From a marketing professional’s point of view, this could not have been an issue at all. The exposure to this supposed “slur” would have been isolated within the target viewership of this show, laughed at, or dismissed as nonsense, or maybe even fall in the “didn’t get it” scenario. The “over reaction” of some sector of the Filipino community (which I believe is very insignificant) catapulted this otherwise “trivial” event into a GLOBAL CONCERN. They even evangelistically spread the word in the known cyberspace. Basing on experience, we don’t have to overtly assert ourselves as it will sound “silly.” Picture this, some care giver shouts “respect us or perish!” to his/her patient and then proceeds to wipe his/her ass. For me, inorder to reach the level of respect that we want will not be won by “whining” but by “achievement.” By sheer competence and productivity lets show these ugly Americans what we’re made of, let them see that we are not just capable of “servicing” them, that we are capable even of outranking them.
    Two months ago I met some American executives to give them some bad news. Seeing that I was asian they went on and on about they’re rising costs, union issues, etc,. etc., I had to cut them off. After summing up the profitability (or unprofitability) of their operations, ROCE, 2007 profitability program, I ended with “we’re shutting you down,” we’re moving this part of our operations to China. These “big men” as I am just 5’6″ reacted the same way Filipinos do after getting fired, the same facial reactions, same loser look, no big difference. On the way out, one of them commented “so you Chinese must be doing great?” I smiled (as its always an automatic reaction for us Filipinos in awkward situations) and said “yes, I’m from the Philippines.” In hindsight I should have said “I’m Filipino” but I guess I still lack that degree of patriotism.

  2. Honestly, I didn’t understand the essay “In Search of the Wily Filipino” on first reading. I’m used to straightforward everything, to include “humor,” I couldn’t help thinking about the cunning and scheming COYOTE in the ROAD RUNNER cartoons of my childhood. The way I see it, after all those talk about the “wily Filipino” he expected to be duped by one and ended up disappointed as the Filipino is not wily after all, and he even had a pleasant experience during the encounter. Not that I subscribe to this again “servicing” the American scene but then again it was a negation of the Filipino being the bogeyman, thats not so bad for me…

  3. Actually, the stereotype of the wily Filipino (sly, cunning, deceptive, treacherous) has been floating around in the American popular imagination for quite some time– since at least the 19th century, even before colonization in 1898. In Melville’s Moby Dick, published in 1851, for instance, Ahab’s mysterious harpooner Fedallah (refered to as a “Parsee,”) leads a crew composed of Filipino sailors:

    “Less swart in aspect, the companions of this figure were of that vivid, tiger-yellow complexion peculiar to some of the aboriginal natives of the Manillas; – a race notorious for a certain diabolism of subtility, and by some honest white mariners supposed to be the paid spies and secret confidential agents on the water of the devil, their lord, whose counting-room they suppose to be elsewhere.” (Ch. 48, The First Lowering)

  4. renmin,

    No way! I wouldn’t have believed it but I have a copy of Melville’s Moby Dick, right in page 187. I didn’t think of these “Manillas,” as Filipinos before because of the way they were decribed here “a race notorious for a certain diabolism of subtility, and by some honest white mariners supposed to be the paid spies and secret confidential agents on the water of the devil, their lord, whose counting-room they suppose to be elsewhere.”

    If this is what “wily Filipino” means, then I’m for it, call me WILY!

  5. ramrod,

    I guess indeed some wouldn’t mind diabolism of subtilty either, which seems paradoxical at best (paradox being a self-contradictory proposition but in reality expresses a possible truth, and “subtilty” an old form for subtlety, one meaning of which is “delicacy of discrimination”); and paid spies and secret confidential agents on the water of the devil, their lord, whose counting-room they suppose to be elsewhere could either be an allusion to the “gutsy” Spanish galleon sailors or, as described by Rizal, the seafaring Rajahs and warriors who captured Sarawak and “conquered and overthrew the terrible Alzadin . . . renowned in the historical annals of the Far East.”

    Unfortunately, wily ram, Merville’s characterization of the “aboriginal native of the Manillas” of “yellow-tiger complexion” (possibly another racial mix-up of the Steve Martin variety) could mean a lot of things but “wily.”

  6. I’m sorry for my “funny” slur against the Cat. I guess that’s what we get by taking seriously and literally what’s written on a satire?

    I thought the piece was written quite simply and in a very straightforward manner. Steve Martin started it off with a quote from Marlon Brando (of the wily Filipino) and because he didn’t know or see any of that, he tried to look for one. Until the end he didn’t see one (in his piece anyway).

    If you read it like that, then it can be taken as a defense for Filipinos. If you focus on the wrong imputations then you will miss the point he was driving at entirely.

  7. most pinoys always express exaggerated indignation over “slurs”, “insults”, “put-downs”, “bad-mouthings”, real of imagined, done by a foreigner in the name of humor. while generally, we can laugh at ourselves, we don’t like people from other groups laughing at our expense.

    having lived in america for almost 4 decades, i find the average american (regardless of the level of education attained) better able to take a joke. usually, they can dish it out as well as take it, all for fun. i believe, it is because they are a very confident people, so sure of themselves that they don’t seem to mind being called the “ugly american”, “great satan”, or described as ignorant, uncouth, wild, or stupid, even by non-americans. thus, they seldom, if ever, sue for racial discrimination, class defamation, or make diplomatic protests for alleged international affront.

    unless the joke is cruel and deliberately made to ridicule someone’s physical, mental, psychological, or sexual condition, or racial/national origin, i think it’s best to treat it for what it is – a laughing matter. getting all worked up on, and making hysterical condemnation of, a ridiculous and false joke only serves to give it a life of its own and a semblance of validity.

    i believe it’s best to to treat a joke the way americans do – laugh it off and quickly think of a funny repartee, instead of stomping one’s feet on the ground and crying like a baby.

  8. Pumpy, thank you so much for posting that link of James Fallows’ essay. have never read it before. now that i have, it just intensifies my extreme sadness for our country. hope everyone who hasn’t read it yet read it.

  9. Yeah Bencard, Mel Gibson is Australian, and Don Imus “Ho” is Greek? And political correctness was invented in Iran.

  10. “We have witnesses the birth of a new stereotype: The Whiny Filipino.”-jeg

    Hahahahaha! Personally I’m getting to like this “WILY” tag. “Cunning, diabolical, subtle” – I believe it aptly describes us OFWs, working smartly, never minding anyone’s business, while silently siphoning dollars and euros and sending them to the folks back home (of course saving a cut for GMA and company).

  11. watchful eye, gibson and imus made cruel, demeaning racial/national origin remarks vs. jews & black americans, respectively, which were not at all funny. a joke about filipino doctors’ license (on the heels of the much-publicized cheating on the nurses’ licensing exams)was ridiculously funny. who in the world would believe that cory is a “______”? it’s like saying hitler was a humanitarian icon, which is outrageously funny, isn’t it?

  12. Cory a “____?” Along with the dress, rosaries, and hair -“frigid” is a more insulting word.

  13. Besides, is ‘slut’ still a pejorative? I think the use of that word reveals more about the speaker than the target.

  14. Seriously, not all americans are racists, actually I’ve never met one myself. Several of my colleagues are americans and we have become good friends. There’s one thing I really find endearing with americans though, you can argue with them, bang your fist on the table even, you can both shout at each other to prove your point, yes even an ocassional insult is in order, but in the end its just “work.” You can have a beer o martini afterwards without fear of “getting stabbed in the back.”

  15. ramrod: Seriously, not all americans are racists…

    However, many Filipinos are. When I was in Dubai, Pinoy OFWs had pretty choice things to say about Indian and Pakistani OFWs.

  16. “However, many Filipinos are. When I was in Dubai, Pinoy OFWs had pretty choice things to say about Indian and Pakistani OFWs.”- jeg

    Yes, I also notice this, referring to the unique “armpit” aroma. Some people (Filipino OFWs) would snicker and whisper to each other as if its not obvious.

  17. ramrod: Yes, I also notice this, referring to the unique “armpit” aroma.

    Among other things. Words that also came up were ‘bobo’ and ‘tamad’. As in ‘Mga tamad yang mga pana.’ Pana is what they call the South Asians.

    As for smell, a couple of colleagues who were sent to Indonesia told us about the time when they were in an elevator with an Indonesian and one of them complained about his smell in Tagalog. Unfortunately for them, the Indonesian understood a little Tagalog and angrily informed them that Pinoys also have a distinct stink.

  18. I find Imus very funny and all he said were “ho” and “nappy head.” But even the white establishment has ganged up on him. Can Americans, black or white, really take a joke?

  19. It only goes to show that the GOLDEN RULE is still very relevant to this time “do unto others what you would like others to do unto you.” As Filipinos have embraced this destiny of being global citizens, we should be able to take what we can also dish out.

  20. “I find Imus very funny and all he said were “ho” and “nappy head.” But even the white establishment has ganged up on him. Can Americans, black or white, really take a joke?” -watchful eye

    There’s this black reverend or something I couldn’t remember his name who cries “racism” everytime and makes too much fuss. Oprah, I believe didn’t react much to this “Imus” issue.

  21. … and Bencard, did you hear too about General Betray Us. Wow, even antiwar senators signed the Senate resolution condemning the MoveOn ad, didn’t they? KJ!!!

  22. …. and, and when the Iranian president said there are no gays in Iran, those funny Americans thought the little guy was serious … hahaha

  23. and before I go, Bencard, when Hilary cackled during an interview, many Americans thought it wasn’t funny at all and criticized her for being unpresidential. talagang KJ itong mga kano. sana matuto namam sila sa Pinoy.

  24. Unfortunately for them, the Indonesian understood a little Tagalog and angrily informed them that Pinoys also have a distinct stink. – Jeg

    I read somewhere that we Filipinos smell like dried fish. Unfortunately, there’s no way for me to tell.

    As for the odor of the Indians, once the conversation gets going, my Singaporean, Malaysian and Thai friends acknowledge that too (although it’s my Filipino friend who brings up the topic) particularly in connection with riding the MRT over here.

    Yeah, i agree Filipinos are a racist bunch. We don’t even have a respectful vernacular for other races (e.g. ‘Intsik’ for Chinese, ‘Bombay’ for Indian, ‘Negro’ for Blacks). I remember in TV Patrol when Noli de Castro burst out laughing when he mentioned the word ‘Intsik’. Mel Tiangco (who had Chinese blood) had to get him out of that pickle.

    Of course, it would be wrong to overcompensate by being too politically correct because what is repressed eventually comes out with a vengeance.

  25. “Of course, it would be wrong to overcompensate by being too politically correct because what is repressed eventually comes out with a vengeance.” – cvj

    Filipinos above all, OFWs, have this propensity for diplomacy. In general, we know when to talk and when to shut up, precisely because we have a clear picture of what our priorities are. We are citizens without barriers, this is where I believe “proactivity” is widely practiced consciously or unconsciously in the way we relate to the different cultures and races we encounter. Of course there are occasional slip ups. “Aberration is the hallmark of homo sapiens, while longanimous placability is the indicia of supramundane omniscience.” To err is human, to forgive divine…

  26. I believe that ‘intsik’ only became a pejorative during the American occupation when they used the word as a pun for ‘insect.’ Originally it was a term of respect that came from the Malay word ‘encik’ (en-chik) which means ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’. Malay was the language of trade before the Spaniards came and Filipino traders spoke Malay to their trading partners, among them the Chinese.

  27. Ramrod, i’m fine thank you. Sorry, had to google the meaning.

    Jon, i read somewhere that the word was derived from the Chinese (don’t know if hokkien or mandarin) equivalent of ‘your uncle’.

  28. we just laugh at the jokes thrown on us, the likes of calling us names, like the Great Satan, dirty perverts American and laugh them off, But watch the skies over your head, our Warthogs, our F-14s and our Sherman tanks will be tramping your land, you gays (for Iran) and the damm Saddam the ruthless dictator of Irag with its billions of drums of oil underneath, and you too NOKOR, one more joke from you and you will experience the wrath of this ugly american… so better keep you joke for yourself, we may laugh at them but just watch for your skies and your shores…

  29. Funny people my neighbors. But so far we get along just fine. Well, that’s how they sometimes interpret their Freedom of Speech, say anything you want and if they hit the bulleyes, just apologize for some at least we already heard what they really meant to say. Remember George W. calling the 3 countries the “evil empire”? well it was a Canadian speech writer who feed the words to his mouth. We don’t say it, let the American president say it cuz it carries a lot of weight…

  30. “The wily Filipino. How often have I gone to bed at night with that phrase echoing through my head. And yet I only recently became aware that I had actually never seen one. I had driven through Filipino neighborhoods, and everyone and everything I saw appeared to be straightforward.”-Steve Martin

    Ah, he’d never seen one because he never made his search in the Philippines. The wily Filipino does exist; he is amongst us, he is cleverly disguised in one form or another. Sometimes, he appears as a religious leader.
    He spreads the word of God here and abroad and in the process, he somehow manages to acquire huge amounts of wealth and power.

    Know why? well, maybe its because he subtly makes his followers part with ten percent of their money and call it ‘tithing’.

    One can tell if he has a large flock and powerful influence already because politicians of opposing sides usually make a beeline towards his doorstep on his birthday and during campaign periods.

    Of course, again, maybe I’m just imagining things.

  31. the tackiness of the pinoy ways is best illustrated by what makes him laugh. subtle, cerebral jokes don’t appeal to him. he laughs at physical appearances, infirmities, defects of another. nothing is funnier to him than someone being pilay, duling, maitim, mataba, payatot, pandak, pangit, utal or bulol, gago or luko-luko or bobo. he finds someone accidentally slipping on a banana peel and falling down as hilarious.

    compassion to others for their physical or mental deficiencies, unless the subject is a close relative, is almost absent.

    there are psychological explanations for this. one that comes to mind is “defense mechanism”. it seems ridiculing a poor, physically impaired (including speech deficient) person gives the troll a sense of superiority, a feeling that ” i’m better than her because i talk better”.

  32. Bencard, I am with you all the way if a joke is referred to the deficiencies of a disabled individual, physically or mentally.
    I remember a year or so, i read in an inquirer column about a “light hearted joke” by one of its columnist ( a respected priest) and referring to a Canadian disabled individual. I wrote him (with a generous donation to his charity) and put him to task about discrimination against the disabled and to make a joke about their disabilities go deeper than just light hearted. He apologized and I show his apology to a Filipino friend (a new arrival) of mine who happened to have a disabled child, and that’s the main reason why he immigrated here. to give his child the respect and equality lacking in our native country and he could never been hapier with that decision….

  33. Its a shame how we “cruelly” treat the helpless among us and cry foul when we think we are being treated cruelly also. I fully understand what you mean, when my son was born I prayed so hard the way I never did in my whole life that he will come out normal and complete knowing the way disadvantaged children are treated here.

  34. I believe the humor Bencard is referring to is called slapstick. Most pinoys hasn’t yet evolved (so to speak) into liking subtle or witty humor. probably the reason for this is that only the well-educated can get witty humor. hence, the rest of the masa are consigned to the humor that they can appreciate best.

  35. slapstick has universal appeal. as a kid, one of the most popular shows i remember was the benny hill show, certainly not the height of british sophistication. we all like low brow and high brow humor is just a matter of what today is called niche humor marketing.

  36. devils, slapsick is true humor and usually self-deprecating. what i was referring to is ridiculing someone else’s personal defects, that exist through no fault of his/her own, with obvious intent to cause pain and contempt. it is a mark of ill-breeding, regardless of wealth and “education”.

  37. I watched the Benny Hill Show too, lately there’s Mr. Bean. Locally, we have the old Dolphy movies which was funny but not offensive because he mostly made fun of himself or was the butt of the joke. Then we had Tito, Vic, and Joey, people I don’t find funny at all. I don’t know but I believe it was Charlie Chaplin who introduced the “man slipping on banana peel” scene, now this is supposed to be an accident but we still find it funny. Some of the popular funny people have unique physical attributes like “Dagul.”

  38. Helloooooooooooooo . . . . i know it’s 2 years later but I just listened to the audiobook version of ” In Search of the Wily Filipino” which is just of many schticks in the Martin book “Pure Drivel.”

    I just laughed myself silly. Manolo, your words resonate. It’s absurd- even dadaist. Affectionate? Yes. I think so.

    Profundity can be found in Pure Drivel. This book about nothing has more to offer than all the seasons of seinfeld.


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