AMADIO ARBOLEDA Reviews
Her Wild American Self by M. Evelina Galang
(Coffee House Press, Minneapollis, Minn., 1996)
It was only after reaching “Mix Like Stir Fry,” the last chapter in M. Evelina Galang’s Her Wild American Self, did I realize I had gone through the entire book without picking up on its unique unifying refrain. It was like the repetitive elements in song or verse, somewhat like “Let it be, let it be…” in the Beatles song, that thematically hold a piece together. Starting with the initial intonation, “The Look-Alike Women,” and continuing in “Lectures on How You Never Lived Back Home,” repeating itself like “Let it be” to make it feel as if all the stories were one ending with the “Mix Like Stir Fry”. It is Galang’s song about being a one-of-a-kind person that she explores from varying perspectives as only someone with her background can know, as a woman, as a woman of color or no-color, depending on one’s point of view or experiences in such matters, as a Filipina American and as a Filipina. The New York Times Book Review said Galang’s work was, "Told in an elegant, mesmerizing style ... while the brief, chantlike monologues that frame the collection are as lyrical as prayers". And if Vicki Liley (author of The Complete Book of Asian Stir-fries), who claims the stir fry (as in the final piece) technique “…seals in the flavors … [and preserves] the color and texture,” can be believed, Galang does more or less the same in a literary sense. With a deft toss of words and ideas she works her ingredients until they emerge as a satisfying, flavorful mélange or well-tempered song mixing the cadence and rhythmic prose of Filipino with spartan definiteness of English. Her Wild American Self skillfully projects a blended cultural mixture depicting the situation of modern Filipinos living in America.
Mostly, her song is about the situation of women, particularly Filipino women, and specifically those who find themselves in America, by birth or migration. Using the views and expectations Filipino women have of themselves as a base, she mixes in, as a slight seasoning, the presumptions of men, Filipino and non-Filipino, including the often disrupting results. Unfortunately, Galang does not tell us what she think should be expected of men, especially, Filipino men, in regard to their women, even though men – fathers, husbands, uncles, brothers and boy friends – play key roles as foils in almost all of the stories. The book’s three-part refrain, unlike in most songs, does not use the same words, but only the same intentions. Sandwiched between the three thematic parts are the first four stories and the second group of five stories; nine stories in total.
Galang starts out the first part with “Rose-Colored,” a look at two raised-in-America Filipina American cousins who both dreamt when they were younger of breaking free of the rigidity of Filipino tradition. However, only Mina, the taller and prettier of two, has been able to achieve this as a go-go dancer in a nightclub. Rose, the shorter woman, and, by her own description, “… a young Filipina – brown skinned and thick lipped, short stocky legs...", is envious and frustrated even though, in keeping with her parent’s wishes, she is a surgeon. Mina chastises Rose during an argument about the frustration, telling her, "… You’ve always been uptight. You’ve always kissed everybody’s ass and now you’re miserable. …” In the end they console each other, as Filipinas do, “… she puts her arms around me, pulls me gently to her, embracing me the way my mother has, my grandmother has. The women in my family have always embraced and understood this silent way.” This ending characterizes a thread that runs through all the stories, the ever-present Filipino kahabagan.
The last story in the first part ends it with an unnamed narrator (Filipina everywoman perhaps?) relating the title story “Her Wild American Self”. The opening sentence characterizes the tone of most of the stories, “It’s like my family’s stuck somewhere on the Philippine Islands,” while almost at the end we are met with “Family is family.” The function of family, or the Filipino family, is curiously apparent in every single story. In her Wild American Self this is emphasized when Mona and Ricardo attempt to counter their daughter Augustina’s budding rebelliousness, “When [they] moved to America, they brought with them a trunk full of ideas – land of opportunity, home of democracy, and equality – but God forbid we should be like those Americans – loose, loud-mouthed, disrespectful children.”
The same basic pattern of the lives of Filipinos in America continues throughout the five stories in the second part. The one I enjoyed most was “Contravida” because the title is the only one in Filipino and because it epitomizes the complexity of the Filipino. It is a Spanish word adopted first into Tagalog then later into the newer Filipino that is now spoken by a people who no longer know Spanish. I also like the role of Tita Lina who is a very modern Filipina, unmarried, between boyfriends and working in the film industry. Ironically, she is also the family stalwart of traditional Filipino decorum.
The stories are about an America I don’t know (I have lived most of my eighty-one years outside the U.S., in Japan) told from a dichotomized viewpoint combining an understanding of both modern Philippine and modern American cultures wrapped like lumpia in a thin outer covering of traditional Filipino values. This dichotomy reminds of the difference between the name of the country, spelled with a “P”, that spawned Filipino Americans and the name of its people, spelled with an “F”. The people of America are “Americans”, the people of Japan, “Japanese” and of England, “English”. But, the people of the Philippines are “Filipino”. Of course, we Filipinos know the reason for this, but others may not. Nevertheless, even though the stories are about Filipino Americans in an America unfamiliar to me, as Karin Aguilar-San Juan observed in Women's Review of Books, "These stories are a welcome addition to my library of Asian American fiction, in part because I find traces of myself in them… “.
Graduate School of International Administration and
Graduate School of Humanities
Josai International University
In a way, I am an apotheosis of Filipino American (that I refuse to hyphenate) not only because I am American born of a Filipino father and an American mother, but because I was educated both in the US and the Philippines, where I also spent my formative years becoming Filipino in the years immediately following World War II. In my 81 years, I have been a research chemist, book editor, dictionary editor, book publisher, United Nations official, university professor, artist and, recently, a budding violin-maker. At present, I teach graduate courses in intercultural understanding, NGO NPO policy and thesis writing and presentation for master and doctoral degree students at Josai International University in Tokyo, Japan. My published output as a writer, up until recently, has been mainly academic. Most significant among my books are: Scholarly Publishing in Asia (University of Tokyo Press, 1973), Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: Emerging Techniques (Kodansha International, 1977), Publishing in the Third World: Knowledge & Development (Heinemann Mansell, 1985), "Publishing in Japan,” in International Encyclopedia of Publishing (Garland Publishing, 1995). My most recent book is Amadio’s Box: How I Became Filipino (Anvil Publishing, Inc., 2015).