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Filipinos Around the World aims to present stories, real and fiction, about Filipinos anywhere they can be found in the world.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Name of Indelible Panache

 This story is an except from Amadio's Box.

On August 18, 1950, in a self-inspired, brazen proclamation, I declared, “I am a Filipino”. Up to that time, my 16th birthday, I had been an American-born and New York-bred American. However, when I turned 16, impudently and unilaterally, with all the exuberantly fledgling panache of a late-blooming teenager, I declared myself to be Filipino. Emboldened with newly found pride, I shouted, “On this day, August 18, 1950, I proclaim that from now and forevermore I am a Filipino!” Even though I had an unequivocal right to claim to be Filipino by reason of heredity through a direct blood line to my Filipino father, this wildly paradoxical decision to abandon a coveted, die-in-the-wool-because-I-was-born-there, almost-every-Filipino-wants-one, streets-paved-in-gold American identity surprised almost everyone close to me, including my parents, my brother and sisters, relatives, especially the ones who were desperately clinging to the slight hope of going to the States to get American citizenship, and the selected few neighborhood friends and high school classmates I told about my decision. My claim to be Filipino was somewhat enhanced by my having lived in the Philippines since arriving two years before in 1948 on M. Salvador Street in San Juan del Monte in Rizal Province, a suburb about thirty minutes by jeepney from downtown Manila. 
The only one not surprised by the bombshell I had dropped, and actually the only witness to my somewhat blustery momentous proclamation was my best friend and self-appointed Philippine mentor Johnny Wilson, who was also a classmate at Far Eastern University Boys High School. I asked Johnny to be my witness because, like me, he was somewhat of a fish out of water in Philippine society, a social paradox, who would understand why I took such a drastic stand. Like me, he was also an “American”, but with a slight difference in that, unlike me, he had never been to America. In appearance, he looked very much like an idealized American, certainly much more than me, down to his sandy hair, brown-eyes, his credible, but not overbearing, height compared to mine, and, most of all, his apple pie, “who’s on first” typical American name, Johnny Wilson, juxtaposed against my nebulously Filipino Amadio Antonio Arboleda. Though initially shy and reluctant to promote himself, he would later use his impressively out-of-the-ordinary visage to his advantage to become a well-known actor in Philippine movies and television which later became a convenient stepping stone to become a politician in his native Makati area of Manila. 
His situation allowed him to understand well how perplexed and puzzled I was as a “Filipino” knowing little about the Philippines and still unable to speak more than basic Tagalog. Johnny himself spoke perfect Tagalog and a variation of English with a lightly spiced intonation that I gathered he picked up by imitating the accent of his paternal grandfather who had been an American soldier in the Philippine American War and who had, after the war, chose to stay behind in the Philippines. 
Johnny had warned me that simply proclaiming I was Filipino would not terminate most of the difficulties I had faced until then. I told him, “Yes, I realize that”, “but, doing this, even with all its pitfalls, it will be easier for me to manage my difficulties and focus on my future with a clearer image of what I am.” 
As Johnny foresaw, it wasn’t easy and still isn’t today, sixty-three years later. I did encountered many pitfalls, not so much with my chosen identity as a Filipino as with the discouraging and debilitating images of the Philippines in world and, to some extent, by extension, of Filipinos in general, that have been perpetuated by the Philippines itself or extrapolated from its actions. Many times, upon learning that I am Filipino people would ask callous questions, such as, “Have you ever shot anyone?” or “Is it true that a Filipino would pimp his sister for sex just to make a buck?”, or “Are there any politicians in the Philippines who aren’t crooks?”. I resented that some people had such attitudes about the Philippines, but also realized that news coming out of the Philippines was often dominated by negative stories, whether generated in reality by Filipinos or not, and this colored many impressions about the country. 
In spite of this, I have never regretted making my 1950 declaration, although, for various reasons, I never tried to get Philippine citizenship to become a bona fide, legally documented Filipino. I considered more than once going back to live in the Philippines again, but I never did after I left following graduation from college. For my own satisfaction and as a kind of self-imposed “prerequisite” for maintaining and continually nurturing my Filipino-ness, I have consistently gone back to visit or work and have maintained strong links to the Philippines through legions of relatives, friends, former classmates and colleagues. I also decided I would not reside permanently in the United States again and in time moved to Tokyo, Japan, where I have been living and working since 1969. There is a tad bit of method to my having chosen Japan as a place to live; it is only four hours by plane to Manila, it boasts a cuisine that in some ways resembles that of the Philippines, including rice and a love of fish and various kinds of noodles, and it has typhoons every year that it often shares with the Philippines. To some extent, I still maintain the determination and integrity of my youthful, somewhat impudent declaration to identify myself as a Filipino I made sixty-three years ago. One compromise I eventually made was to accept some of my American heredity and call myself a Filipino American.
When I made the decision to declare I was Filipino there was one important fact of my personal existence that provided strong impetus for me to do so. This was my Filipino name. Although the name had on occasion been a source of considerable confusion and embarrassment while I was growing up as a child in the United States because it was generally difficult for Americans to pronounce and culturally identify with compared to names such as John, Peter or Thomas, to me my quintessentially Filipino name was a crucial and important part of my identity. In some ways, I harbored secret hopes that my surroundings could be transformed in such a way that it would allow a name like mine to be accepted and acknowledged as commonplace.
I was born Amadio Antonio Arboleda in Savannah, Georgia in the United States in 1934. My father was Federico Peralta Arboleda, a Visayan from the municipality of Kalibo in Capiz Province (now Aklan Province) in the Philippines, who went to the United States in 1924 after completing a college-level course that focused mainly on English at the Aklan Literary Academy in Kalibo. As the eldest son of a family of seven children, he intended to continue studying English first and then go on to other studies after for degree before returning to the Kalibo. However, the world economic downturn brought on by the Great Depression forced him to change plans and join the United States Coast Guard, when it was still part of the Revenue Service under the Department of the Treasury, which promptly assigned him to a station in Savannah, Georgia. It was here that he met my mother, who had been born Isabella Garvin Driessen in Hilton Head, South Carolina. He was stationed in Savannah, Georgia as a crewmember aboard the Revenue Service ship USRC Yamacraw and she was a registered nurse at the Georgia Infirmary Hospital, also in Savannah. A multiracial African American, white American, and native Indian American, her family had sent her to attend Oakwood Junior College in Huntsville, Alabama to get a basic education that would prepare her to study at the Georgia Infirmary School of Nursing to become a registered nurse (RN). Although many lonely young bachelor Filipinos far away from home and new to the United States sought to meet white women, even though fraternizing among races was illegal and fraught with danger, Federico was attracted to the relatively light-skinned Isabella with long silky hair because he found it fascinating that unlike the majority of non-white women he had encountered up to then she had gone to college to study for a professional career. It was quite apparent to him that she was an unusual type of woman for the time, especially for one who was not white. The combination of her beauty, brains and spirit greatly appealed to him.
One of my father’s Filipino colleagues in the Coast Guard who was dating a friend of my mother arranged to introduce them. After meeting my father, the taller Isabella dismissed him as a short, cocky Chinaman. My father and his Filipino friends had learned soon after arriving in the United States that most Americans were often not able to distinguish between Chinese, Filipinos and Japanese and knowing very little about Filipinos, constantly called many fair-skinned Filipinos “Chinks”, a generally derogatory term for Chinese that was sometimes used as a term of endearment. Eventually, Isabella succumbed to Federico’s relentless courtship, admitting that she liked his “chinky” eyes and the way he smiled and they eventually hit it off. After they got married, my mother took to calling Federico “Ling”, a short form for “darling” that she concocted because she preferred to think of him throughout her life as her “Little Chinaman” and to her Ling sounded like a Chinese name.
Although I carried the name Amadio like a banner from the time I could remember, I did not really know my own name until I was sixteen years old. Of course, I was aware that my given name was Amadio and also knew it was the name my father and, to some extent, my mother, had chosen specifically for me. However, it is a fact that I only became aware when I turned sixteen that the name spelled as “A, M, A, D, I, O” was incorrect. Before that, while growing up in Staten Island, New York, where my father had been transferred by the Coast Guard when I was seven years old, I became increasingly aware in elementary school at Public School 16, near the corner of Corson Avenue and Daniel Low Terrace, that the name “Amadio” and my family name “Arboleda” were anomalies bordering on incomprehensible within the context of the all-white, mainly Irish, Italian, Jewish, Tompkinsville community where we lived. 
The extent of these anomalies began to become clear to me, even at my young age, in about the second month I was in Mrs. McCormack’s third grade class when she did roll call in the morning. “Ronald Rode”, “Dolly Morris”, “Donald Stratton”, “Charles Walsh,” she would call out, rapidly checking off the Irish-sounding names as the children answered “here” or didn’t answer when absent. She would call out the Jewish names like, “Jerry Kurland”, “Robert Katz”, “Elizabeth Bauman”, and “Bernard Kolb”, with almost similar ease and at a reasonable pace. She would slow down a little as she maneuvered through the Italian names like, “Joseph Damola”, “Frances Scarlotta”, “Gina Trifolio”, and “Mario Marino”. The Hawaiian boy’s name, “George Kekahuna”, and the Greek boy’s name, “Gustave Minaedes”, also gave her a hard time and slowed her down more, but she managed. I think she was able to work out a rhythmical beat for each name, even the ones that were not that familiar to her, because almost all the children has familiar Anglo-Saxon-sounding given names that she could use like a metronome to set her pace. Admittedly, she did stumble also when it came to calling out the name of the only other “Asian” in class, a boy named David Ikefuji. After sailing through his easy first name, she would sputter through his last name, rendering “E-kay-fu-ji” as “Aye-ka-fuu-ji.” Her biggest difficulty came when she had to deal with the combination of my given name and family name in succession. This would slow her to a snail’s pace as the tempo of “Ah-ma-di-o” seemed to trip on her tongue, coming out sometimes as “Ah-may-di-yo”, occasionally as “Ah-ma-die-yo” and even “Ah-mod-di-yo”. By the time she staggered through my given name it appeared that she had become tired or frustrated and would stumble through my family name ARBOLEDA, often mumbling some thing like “Ah-ro-bo-della” or an equivocation of “Ah-ruble-leader”, or worse, “Ah-rebel-leader”, or a number of other variations depending on her disposition that day. Needless to say, I would sit there mortified with my head bowed, as if begging forgiveness for some unknown offense. 
A few of my classmates and friends also told me it was difficult to say a South American name like mine the correct way and asked me if they could call me something more “American” and easier to say, like “Alex” or “Arnie”. (This American penchant for shirking the decorum of using a person’s real name because it is difficult to pronounce was a problem I would later have to face with my own name when I returned to the United States as an adult, but not when I went to live in Germany or Japan or when I went to study or work in France, England, Italy, or Finland where everyone would call me Amadio without hesitation even if they mispronounced it.) I argued in vain that my name was not South American, a designation I discovered the school had made when I found “Speaks South American Spanish at home” written on my grade report card. I also staunchly stood my ground and refused to let them call me anything but “Amadio”, even if they could not pronounce it the right way. I explained patiently that my name was like a gift from my mother and father to celebrate my coming into the world as their second son and that the naming of a child in Filipino culture is an important rite of acceptance into the society. Furthermore, I told them my father chose my name after the name of a relative according to a custom where he came from in Kalibo, Capiz. He picked the name of a brother who died as a baby soon after he was born to honor his memory. 
I knew they had no interest in the cultural peculiarities for my name and also recognized that it was hard for most of them to come reasonably close to saying my name the right way, but passionately told them that saying it was more important than pronouncing it perfectly because they would be trying to sincerely say MY name. Eventually, everyone, even those who were not my friends, tried and I became the boy with many ways of saying my name. That was OK with me because they tried. 
I think I also might have had difficultly pronouncing my own name correctly if I had not learned how to imitate the way my father said it as Ah-mah-day-o. This awareness notwithstanding, the entire time until I reached sixteen I did not question the spelling of my name even though I realized quite early that there was something amiss because the spelling “A, M, A, D, I, O” did not match my father’s pronunciation, Ah-mah-day-o. 
In reality, I not given much thought to the spelling of my name until I went to live in the Philippines where I learned that, of course, a huge part of the population had Spanish names like mine. Almost immediately after arriving in the Philippines in 1948, relatives and newly found friends were asking me why I was named “Ah-mah-dee-o”. “ ‘Amadio’ is not a Spanish name”, they said, “not the way it’s spelled”. I was very shaken. My dogged pride in my name was being torn away. In the midst of this startling and disturbing eruption, my father compounded my woes by admitting to me that my name was indeed misspelled. He said it should have been “A-M-A-D-E-O”, spelled in the Spanish way as intended to lead naturally to the correct pronunciation as Ah-mah-day-o just he pronounced it. When I asked, “Why was it misspelled,” he related this revealing story. 
Government officials in Savannah, Georgia where I was born were not accustomed to dealing with the spelling of unfamiliar, obviously foreign given names or family names, at least those they regarded as foreign. They managed to deal with some Spanish-style family names, such as Castro, Perez or Santos, which were not too difficult for them to pronounce because they frequently encountered them. Typical Filipino family names, which they seldom encountered, such as Makabugay or Badabgio, and unfamiliar given names like his, Federico, and mine, Amadio, also often posed a problem for them. My father also developed the impression that white southern officials did not think it was important to be unduly concerned about the correct spelling of the names of people who weren’t white, such as blacks or any others, even where official documents were involved. He had deduced this from the way city officials had responded when he and my mother pointed out incorrect spelling of their names on their marriage certificate. 
Not long after getting married my father and mother noticed that their own names had been misspelled on the marriage certificate prepared and given them to by the clerk at the Chatham County Court office. They promptly went to court office in the city of Savannah to ask that their misspelled names be corrected. Federico’s name had been rendered as “Fred” and “Isabella”, had been written as “Belle”. Even though my father pointed out that the misspellings could cause problems for them in the future since they did not use such spellings for their names, the officials refused to make the requested changes saying it would be very difficult to change an official document without a court order and adding insult to injury proclaimed arrogantly, “In any case, people like you don’t have to worry about difficulties concerning your names since you’ll probably never use your certificate for anything very important.” Both my father and my mother knew that correctness and integrity of any official document was extremely important and could possibly have a negative impact on their careers as a federal civil servant and a registered nurse. “Heavens forbid!”, they wondered, could the attitude and actions of the court office officials be due only to their bigotry or were these presumably racially superior white people lacking in intelligence or basic education.
They began to suspect the latter when they later also found more misspellings on the birth certificates of each of their children when they were born. On my older brother Federico Junior’s birth certificate my father’s given name was misspelled “Freddie” (ironically, my brother’s own given name was spelled correctly as “Federico”). My father’s name on my birth certificate appeared as “Fredrico” and as “Fredrica” on my sister Soledad’s birth certificate. There were two misspellings for my mother’s name “Isabella” on all certificates, either “Bell” to “Belle”. My name on my certificate was misspelled first as “Armadio” and later changed to the final and still incorrect version of “Amadio”. My sister’s middle name “Isabella” appears on her birth certificate as “Belle”. 
My parents found additional mistakes on our birth certificates about their occupations that the Chatham County Court office also refused to correct and which confirmed their suspicions about the qualifications of southern officials to work in responsible positions. My father’s occupation was listed as “seaman” on one certificate and as “sailor” on two others instead of as “Seaman First Class, United States Coast Guard”. My mother’s occupation was listed as “domestic” or “housework” instead of as Registered Nurse on all certificates. My father thought it was a form of retaliation by the white southern officials who could not accept that both he and my supposedly “racially inferior” multiracial mother had professions equal to theirs or better and probably equal or better salaries. 
In concluding his story, my father also told me that although the matter of the spelling of my name was no doubt mainly the result of the ineptitude of southern officials, it had been exacerbated by his absence from Savannah when I was born. That is, he had not been able to check the spelling of my name when the certificate was being written. My mother, who also was not familiar with the spelling of Spanish names and was, in addition, somewhat exhausted after her birthing ordeal, would, most likely, not have known about the spelling mistake. After returning to Savannah my father attempted to have the spelling of my name on my birth certificate changed, but could not get the obstinate city hall officials to do it. My younger sister took steps to correct the spelling of her middle name on her birth certificate from “Belle” to “Isabella” by court order after returning to the United States from the Philippines in 1958. 
I thought about following her move to change “Amadio” to the correct spelling of “Amadeo”, but in the end decided not to. I had come to regard my “Amadio” spelling like Cyrano de Bergerac’s “enormous panache” (the white plume on his hat, not his enormous nose), which I saw, like Cyrano, as “one pure possession – which I have never ceased to cherish or to share with all …”. I felt I also it was my unique badge of pride and distinction as a Filipino so I kept the misspelling but always insisted that everyone pronounce it in the manner of the Filipinos following the pronunciation my father had taught me, “Ah-mah-day-o”. My brother and sisters, Federico Jose Junior, Soledad Isabella, and Consuelo Maria, also carried their names without ever altering them as distinctive symbols of being Filipino. But, the most important significances of my name for me, whether spelled “Amadio” or “Amadeo”, is it is the one my father chose for me, and my mother accepted, to endow me with an indelible to link to the long lineage of the Arboleda family from Kalibo, Capiz in the Philippines and it is the best way for me to exemplify my intention to maintain my fidelity to the declaration I made when I was sixteen years old that I am a Filipino, even if only half.        

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