What Humans Of New York Taught Us About Being Pinoy
The Humans of New York phenomenon has come, seen, and conquered Manila. In February of this year, founder Brandon Stanton spoke to a packed auditorium about his dream of sharing small human stories with the world. That dream has now spawned close to eight million followers on social media. Its number of likes per day rivals an entire Coachella run.
His latest installment took him to our gritty streets where he interviewed a range of people: children, grandparents, ex-cons, taxi drivers and students.
It was not a broad spectrum and not a broad story—I suppose to every foreigner, the authentic Filipino story is a poverty story, so it should comes as no surprise that nine out of the fourteen stories set in Manila so far are slum stories, or are a hair’s breadth away from becoming slum stories. This was the common thread that wove through the Manila narrative despite the particularity of the interviewees’ experiences. Eight of the stories were about family and how society’s most basic unit either makes or breaks its children. The other stories were about various advocacies, unwanted pregnancies, and puppy love.
“My boyfriend left as soon as I got pregnant. I was terrified to tell my father, but he discovered my pregnancy test hidden in a drawer. He didn’t speak to me for a few days. We’d always been close, so I knew something was up. Finally he asked me if I wanted to tell him something. I began to cry. I thought he was going to kick me out of the house. But he just went to speak with my mom in the other room, and when he came back, he asked what I planned to do. I told him I wanted to keep the baby, and from that moment on he was very supportive. He cooked me all kinds of dishes whenever I had cravings. He gave me words of encouragement. He started saving money in case I needed a cesarean section. But during my seventh month he came down with a fever after wading through floodwater. The next week it turned into a cough. We took him to the hospital, went home to get clothes, but he died by the time we got back. It was so sudden. I had no idea what I was going to do. I got all my strength from my father. It seemed like keeping the baby had been a mistake. It’s been a tough few years. I had to drop out of school and find a job, but my son is doing well. He’s very smart. He comes home from school with stickers and stars. He’s a ‘Mama’s boy.’ It’s been hard, but I’ve proven to myself that I didn’t have to end a life just because I couldn’t face it.” (Manila, Phillipines)
Personally, my favorite story was the one about forbidden love between two teenagers whose parents think they’re too young to be dating. What do you do when your girlfriend’s father raises an eyebrow each time you come to the house? Pretend to be gay, of course— which is what the boy does to appease parental suspicions about the nature of their relationship. Sadly, the couple were caught kissing in the park and were ratted out to the boy’s mother. “I had to break up with my girlfriend last week,” the boy says, smirking at the camera as he leans against a rusty window, looking proud of his inventiveness in a sticky situation. If only Romeo and Juliet were as enterprising.
“I had to break up with my girlfriend last week. We’d been trying to hide our relationship because our parents think we’re too young to date. I’d been telling my mom we were just friends. And we told her dad I was gay. But last week a neighbor took a picture of us kissing in the park, and my mom surprised me with the pictures when I got home. I had to promise that I’d end the relationship and focus on my studies. I’m actually on my way to her house right now. But it’s only because I need help with a school project.” (Manila, Philippines)
I also loved the story about the six-year-old who thinks he’s a master ninja, and bemoans all twenty eight responsibilities foisted on him by his parents. Being six is hard work after all. He’s also a master keeper of secrets: “I have over one hundred secrets and only five have been discovered because they’re protected by lasers,” he says, smiling vaguely at the camera, and garbed in his alter-ego clothes: puruntong pants and Mickey Mouse crocs.
“When you’re six you have like twenty-eight responsibilities. You have to help your mom. You have to help your dad. And you have to keep your room clean so your parents don’t come in and see your secrets. I have over one hundred secrets and only five have been discovered because they’re protected by lasers. I’ll tell you one but then I’ll have to throw it away. I’m a real ninja master because I got powers from glowing red rocks I found in the caverns of lost treasure. Someone hid them there in the 1980’s during World War 7. That’s all I can tell you now because I don’t want everybody to know how special I am.” (Manila, Philippines)
It’s important to note that stories with much more gravitas took up most of HONY’s Manila chapter. There was the one with the taxi driver who raised his niece like his own child before she fell in with the wrong crowd (and how, after her death, he took on the role of father to the six kids she left behind). There’s also the story of the ex-convict who adopted a young boy after serving time for the ultimate crime of passion: slaying the man who physically abused his mother. Today, his young son does him proud—he doesn’t beg or fight, he’s respectful of his father, and he’s kept in line by his badass dad’s guide to a long life: “I always tell him if you fight or steal, I’m going to kill you.” And yet both of them look thick as thieves in a photo, their heads cleanly shaved, the boy snug in his father’s tattooed embrace.
“My father died on the day he got out of prison, so I never knew him. I was on my own as a child. I wasn’t able to go to school. I was hungry all the time. I’d wait all day by the marketplace until they threw out the rotten food. And if I couldn’t find any food, I’d steal it. I’ve spent over twenty years of my life in prison. My last sentence was for murder. A man slapped my mother so I stabbed him in the heart. But I’ve been trying to change ever since I adopted my son. I convinced his parents to let me have him because they were neglecting him. He was extremely sick when I found him. He was skinny like a lizard. But now he’s spoiled. Whenever he wants something, I give it to him. I don’t want him to be like me. I want him to go to school. My neighbors are in awe of my son. He never begs or fights. He’s very respectful because he’s so afraid of me. I always tell him: ‘If you ever fight or steal, I’m going to kill you.’” (Manila, Philippines)
Poverty’s a ruthless cycle in the country but there’s a new breed of Filipinos who are less fatalistic than their parents, and who believe that they can climb out of poverty by sheer endurance, education, and the ability to correct the mistakes of their fathers and mothers. Pinoys are also never too tired or jaded to love, even if they’ve loved unwisely in the past. In the case of our local Romeo, Pinoys can also be inventive and enterprising when in a bind. It seems like the “bahala na” attitude of old has become a “bahala ako” outlook.
Every time I read a HONY story, I ask myself what it means to qualify as human and to deserve a small chronicle of my life on social media. Why do some stories get shared, and why do others fall by the wayside? By the hundreds of thousands of likes and shares a HONY post gets everyday, it’s easy to note that people are in love with fuzzy stories, and that this often entails the small triumphs we achieve despite the overwhelming odds stacked against us. It’s been said time and time again that the most personal story is also the most universal— if this is true then maybe being a human of Manila or New York means that we’re all living different versions of the same story.
photos from @humansofny