The Manila Boy from Kabul

By Najib Habib, February 2002
Whenever my Filipino friends and I get together to shoot the bull about the good old days, the topic of conversation inevitably drifts to how difficult it is to adapt to the culture of the country we now find ourselves living in: the strange food, the frosty nature of the natives, racism, feeling left out, how hard it is to find decent friends etc. I know the feeling, I experienced it as a hairy, light-skinned foreign-looking kid from central Asia growing up in that great capital of the Philippines, dizzying, dirty and beautiful Manila.
I arrived in the Philippines from Afghanistan a sprightly one year old, as my father was to begin work at an international lending institution then based in Pasay city, overlooking Manila Bays striking blue water and hypnotic sunset. He had been previously an Afghan government official serving the monarchy, ten years before the soviet invasion pushed the county into a long bloody civil war. I was enrolled in the Montessori school system in a large, converted pre-war house behind my Dads office. This was in contrast to the expatriate families who usually sent their kids to US curriculum international schools. It was in that school in Pasay where I started to learn to be pinoy.
No matter what one thinks, your mother culture still has a big influence on how you think and behave, despite living in a country for a long time. At home we practised Islam, spoke Dari, the Afghan language, ate authentic Afghan food prepared by my mother and adhered to Afghan traditions, but outside the home, it was a different ballgame. In an overwhelming Catholic country where the church is hugely influential, I was considered a strange sort of fellow, with bizarre dietary restrictions (‘What? You don’t pork barbecue and lechon ? You eat Lamb? Ugh! You don’t go to church? Why?’). I wasn’t an American or European, people that my classmates could easily identify and caricature, but I did get a fair share of being called’ bumbay’, sort of a derogatory term for people of Indian extraction who smell bad in the hot climate. As a result, I made sure I was always scrupulously clean, washed and perfumed, even up to this day, which now cause my female co-workers in London to regularly complement me on my cologne, and be an object of jealousy to my less-well scrubbed male friends.
As I grew older and hit college, a realisation was growing in me that despite my refusal to be identified as Filipino (we were Afghan after all, owners of a proud and long heritage), I had picked up a host of traits that would identify me as a pinoy, more specifically a ‘batang Manila’ (Manila boy). It came to a point that I knew certain parts of the capital like the back of my hand, all short cuts, legal and illegal. I knew where to find the best arroz caldo porridge at four AM, which was usually in a small street stall that jeepney drivers frequent, whose name to drop when you were caught by the manilas finest in a traffic violation, where to find the cheapest imported shoes, etc. When I went for further studies to the University of Santo Tomas in Quiapo, my speech went from the kind of false-American sing-song English spoken in the private schools across the capital (which, when I use in London, people assume I’m from the Caribbean) to a very hard, Sampaloc accented tagalog. It came to a point that when I spoke on the phone, people would think I was Sampaloc born and bred, but when they saw me in person, treated me as a novelty (‘ Hey, look how well this foreigner speaks tagalog, say something…’). My friends would joke: ‘ He’s more pinoy than us’. Now, my chief source of pleasure when I go to Filipino gatherings in the US or Europe is to speak straight Tagalog to people I meet, leaving them stunned and amazed. ‘You must be half Filipino!’ they exclaim. No, I think, just a product of my environment.
There was no denying it. Twenty-six years of living in Manila has had an indelible impact on me. The way I speak, my sense of humour, my cultural values and attitudes, not to mention my closest friends, are Filipino. This became very much apparent when I left the Philippines and moved abroad to London, where contact with a mass of diverse people of all cultures and colours forces you into a realisation of who you are. You become an amalgam of the places you’ve been, and people you know throughout your life. Hence, in spite of the British weather I dress habitually as if I’m going for stroll across Megamall: white polo shirt with rolled up sleeves, khakis, no socks. I still get bad cravings for bulalo, calamansi juice and of course, arroz caldo with a lot of paminta, though I married an Afghan, and cook both Filipino and Afghan food at home. Its not an easy burden to carry, being a product of two cultures, but I’ll tell you one thing, I feel it great honour to have lived in Manila, and I’m proud to say I’m a Filipino by heart.