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To catch a Pinoy

By Salve Villarosa Published Nov 05, 2020 4:00 pm

Pinoy-baiting. It’s a term that’s recently made its way into the pop culture lexicon. Essentially, it’s when foreign media attempts to rake in more Filipino viewers by alluding to the Philippines and/or its culture. At first, it mostly appeared in the form of clickbait videos on YouTube, but Pinoy-baiting has lately been making its way into more mainstream media. Netflix hasn’t even tried to be subtle about it (I see you, Lucifer and You Season 2), with their American characters clumsily managing a line or two of Tagalog, or casually mentioning the Philippines in conversation, regardless of whether or not it actually plays into the episode’s plot. You just know some wily marketing exec was behind the idea: “Filipinos love Netflix, social media, and being validated on the world stage! They’ll go nuts for it! Watch them make memes out of it, repost them on Facebook ad nauseum, and cha-ching! Free marketing for us!”

In the film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians, there were two Filipino actors in the film, but neither of them got to play Filipinos. In fact, there were no explicit Filipino characters in the movie at all, and in the original book? There were a few, sure, but they couldn’t possibly be “Crazy Rich Asians,” could they? No, in the first book, the Filipino characters were nameless household helpers, because “The Filipinos were great with kids.” And yet we all — myself included — lapped it up, didn’t we? We outwardly snickered at Kris Aquino’s cameo but secretly our hearts soared, because WOW! A homegrown Filipina actress in a major Hollywood film! All right, so she had two lines, and she didn’t even get to play a Filipino — pshh, who cares? It was enough for us to gleefully declare, “Pinoy pride!!!”

While this trend of intentional Pinoy-baiting is somewhat new, our reaction to this kind of “representation” — desperately holding out our hands for tiny little breadcrumbs — isn’t. Looking back, it was evident even in the things we considered our comfort zones and safety blankets.

Like many a bookworm, I grew up dreaming of having adventures like the ones I read about in books. Like every other teenager in the 2010s, I braved the barrage of dystopian-vampire romance-love triangle books that the young adult publishing industry threw at us, and came out relatively unscathed. These books were usually very Westernized, so I remember Freaking Out whenever the Philippines was mentioned: Elizabeth Fama’s dystopian novel Plus One had its redheaded American protagonist take on the alias “Sunny Puso,” with another character quipping that puso means “heart” in Tagalog. An unnamed “tiny Filipino” appears once in Arwen Elys Dayton’s Seeker, never to be seen again. In the sci-fi series The Lunar Chronicles, it was briefly mentioned that Manila was now absorbed into the Eastern Commonwealth, the capital of which was New Beijing (yikes, file that under “books that didn’t age well”). And of course, a shout-out to those who remember the Filipino reference in Twilight — you’re the real OG. These were shallow, one-off mentions, and yet I applauded these books for doing the bare minimum. To have Filipino characters be at the forefront of a popular YA series? Impossible. It was more likely to have literally any other fantastical trope in those books come true — Greek gods exist! Vampires go to my school! Bloodthirsty tyrant takes over the country! (oh, wait, that last one did come true; go figure) — than for a Filipino teen to be the hero of a story.

And so I settled for the breadcrumbs. Whether these authors intended to or not, they’d succeeded in Pinoy-baiting me. For my teenage self who was desperate to find herself reflected in the books she loved, a passing reference was enough to set my heart racing. That was enough for me back then. But it shouldn’t have been.

Flash forward to 2020, and the YA scene is much changed. As a kid, the idea of a local Filipino author landing a YA book deal with a big-name publisher like Scholastic or Penguin Random House was a pipe dream. At best it was a one-off event that garnered media attention because of how rare an occurrence it was. But through the years, more and more Filipinos managed to do it. One of the main characters in Roshani Chokshi’s historical fantasy The Gilded Wolves is Enrique Mercado-Lopez, a member of the Ilustrados, and writes for La Solidaridad. Locally-based Filipino authors like Rin Chupeco and Kate Evangelista have published multiple YA novels internationally, proving that those kinds of book deals aren’t one-off events anymore, and that you don’t need to live abroad to land one. And Randy Ribay’s YA novel Patron Saints of Nothing — which went on to become a National Book Award finalist — gave readers the world over a glimpse of what living as a Filipino teenager under the Duterte administration was like. Thanks to these authors and many more like them, kids who dream of becoming an internationally published author no longer have to label their goals as “Totally impossible,” but as “If I put in the hard work, someday it could be my name on that cover.”

And yet, we’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to enjoying this newly diversified YA landscape. Local bookstores’ bestseller lists are still packed with the same names that have been there for years (not least because of Suzanne Collins’ and Stephenie Meyer’s recent cash grab — uh, I mean new releases). Now, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t an attack on anyone’s reading tastes. God knows, I’m a sucker for those kinds of books as much as the next person. But when will we stop feeling like we have anything in common with upper-middle class teenagers who live in the American Midwest? When will we be able to show up to a Halloween party in a book-inspired costume, without having to add the disclaimer “Oh, I’m a Filipino version of (insert most likely American/British/white YA character)”?

Some people read books to escape, and maybe to a young Filipino reader, losing themselves in a Westernized story is exactly the form of escapism they need. But I suppose I’m also looking forward to the day when they give us more than breadcrumbs. When our culture and stories are given value not for the views they rake in, but because of the beauty to be found in them. I’m hoping for the day when my former classmate who dreamed of becoming a bestselling author gets to be one, because there is finally an audience willing to listen to the stories that have been there all along. I’m hoping for the day Filipino kids get to show up at Halloween parties and just go, “Yup. I’m this character.” No disclaimers, no prefacing, no baiting. Just Filipinos stepping into the spotlight, as the heroes of their own story.

Art by Marvin Medios