Monday, October 22, 2007

Telltale Signs/ The Disconnect

Rodel E. Rodis, October 22, 2007

If the question posed by AOL to its Internet users - whether there was “good reason for some to be offended by this (Desperate Housewives) joke”- had been asked of Filipino American and Philippine commentators, their answers would have been markedly different.

Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Conrado deQuiros wrote that his first reaction was “to laugh out loud. Hatcher’s remark is funny, though the kind that hurts only when you laugh. It’s so because like the truly most laughable things on earth, it has much truth in it.”

Philippine Star columnist, William C. Esposo, wrote that “in typical Filipino fashion, we've over-reacted once again over what can be considered as nothing more than one issue in long line of misinformed racial slurs that are commonplace on US television.”

Another Philippine Star columnist Barbara C. Gonzales believed that “we have lost our sense of humor…That was just meant to be funny. Now we are outraged, protesting, demanding an apology.”

Their “get over it” attitude contrasts with those of Telltale Signs reader Purita Guinto who wrote a response typical of the views of many in the US: “I felt those who dismissed it did not feel the sting of that crude ABC joke, in contrast to those or us from the Fil-Am community who raged against it the instant we knew about it. Remember the thousands among us who signed that petition within a few days after it appeared on the Internet?”

At a hearing of the San Francisco Immigrant Rights Commission on October 16, where a resolution condemning the “Desperate” slur was being discussed, I was asked by an Israeli-born commissioner why Filipinos were taking this matter too seriously. “There are anti-semitic remarks in the Al-Jazeera cable channel all the time and we don’t complain about it,” he said.

There is a huge gap in the differing portrayals of Jews and Filipinos in the media, I replied. On any given night, you can view scores of Jewish Americans on network television as lead actors and actresses in TV sitcoms (“Seinfeld” for example). “But how many Filipinos do you see on TV every night?” I asked him.
Except for Cheryl Burke (Dancing with the Stars), whom even then most Americans wouldn’t know is a Filipino, you don’t see Filipinos even as doctors or nurses in medical TV shows (Gray’s Anatomy, ER, House, etc).

When someone utters an anti-semitic joke, people would generally regard it as a bigoted rant and dismiss it in the same way that Michael Richards’ racist rants against African Americans were disregarded. A ‘dumb blonde” joke would have no effect when prominent blondes like Dianne Sawyer, Barbara Walters or Hillary Clinton appear regularly on TV belying the stereotype.

It was context that made the “Desperate” slur sting. Because there is hardly any Filipino presence on network TV, any negative Filipino reference is therefore magnified because of the absence of any counterweighing positive reference.
If there are no positive images of Filipino physicians on TV, then a remark that questions the quality and competence of doctors with diplomas from “some med school in the Philippines” acquires instant credibility in the absence of TV evidence suggesting otherwise.

In contrast, Philippine commentators get to watch Filipinos on TV every night, in various roles, both positive and negative. So when they hear a negative inference about Filipino doctors, they generally don’t see what the “big deal” is as they see Philippine doctors in a positive light regularly, in reel and real life.
Many of them, like Esposo, also asked: “Doesn’t the recent Nursing Exams Leak Scandal logically create the likely impression that we produce sub-standard medical professionals? Doesn’t the reputation of the Philippines as a diploma mill justify that impression too?”

But the unfortunate reality is that Filipinos are so far removed from the radar screens of Hollywood producers and screen writers that it would give them too much credit to assume that they have any interest in knowing anything at all about the Philippine educational system. They couldn't care a whit about us.

The other reality that escapes “the truth hurts” proponents is that Filipino doctors have to pass three medical exams before they can practice in the US: the Philippine medical exams, the Educational Council for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG) exams, and the Medical License Examinations (MLE) in the US, which is the only exam that holders of US diplomas have to take. It's not as easy as buying up a diploma from a sidewalk vendor.

But there is also another context that informs the attitudes of Philippine commentators. Philippine television is generally not subject to the same “fairness” standards that American TV networks are subject to.

When I was in Manila last year, I was shocked to watch a Philippine game show called “Game ka na ba?” (Are you game already?) hosted by (presidential daughter) Kris Aquino where the contestants for that evening were all “little people” (derisively referred to as ‘dwarfs”). The TV audience laughed at them the whole show. That kind of mockery of people with disabilities would never appear on American game shows like Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune.

In the Philippines, every disability is fair game for abuse in politics and on network TV. There are no limits to what or who you can mock. When opposition politicians like Sen. Panfilo Lacson can refer to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as “Dwendita” (little dwarf) because of her vertically challenged disability, one can only imagine what people can say about anyone else.

Because the Philippine media culture has numbed them to feeling any sense of outrage at the utterance of degrading insults, many of these commentators just can’t understand why we’re making such a “big deal” about a "four second joke”.

The disconnect between Filipino American and Philippine commentators is evident in Historian Ambeth Ocampo’s observation of the “Division” (the title of his recent column in the Inquirer) among Filipinos in America. “I’m not a sociologist, so I don’t know the answer to the question,” he asks. “What is it in our nature that makes expatriate Filipinos divide rather unite? The answer will come in handy not just abroad but back home where every day is an exercise in forming a nation.”

From our vantage point, “expatriate” Filipinos have united on this “Desperate” issue more than any other issue in recent memory. It is a unity that our community can build on to address other pressing issues (like the FilVets issue which needs our doctors' support). While not quite an exercise in forming a nation, t is an exercise in empowering a community.

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