Basketball

Alex Compton: On Filipinos, Fil-Ams, and his love affair with the Philippines

InterAKTV/Roy Afable

What’s a Filipino? Whether you agree with him or not, broadcaster Arnold Clavio’s “They’re-not real-Filipinos” criticism of Azkals players following a sexual harassment suit brought against some members of the national football team, appears to have hit a raw nerve – and raised an important question. This article is one of a series exploring the very notion of “being Filipino”. Follow @interaksyon on our #WhatsaFilipino discussion on Twitter, and on this special coverage on InterAksyon.com.

I WAS BORN IN MANILA, at Makati Med. My parents were Southeast Asian scholars; they met in the Peace Corps in Thailand in the 1960s. My dad’s first job, after completing his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, was at the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction in Silang, Cavite.

My dad’s job was for two years. We left the Philippines when I was six months old, and I grew up in the States.

My parents are some of the whitest Asian people you will ever meet; both my parents are fluent in Thai and Lao, and they had a lot of Filipino friends. My dad was a professor, and my mom worked in the Southeast Asian studies department at Cornell, and one of our friends was a Filipino who taught Tagalog there.

But I’d never been to the Philippines when I came back in 1998. Coming to play basketball here was a complete accident. I was the captain of the Cornell basketball team, and I always spent time at the coaches’ office, talking to them, breaking down film.

I was talking to one of our assistant coaches, Tyrone Pitts, who played as an import in the Philippine Basketball League. At the time, I didn’t know he played in the Philippines, I just knew he played around the world as an import. I just asked him where he played, how that was like, because I loved traveling, and obviously my background is international.

And he just mentioned this story, “In 1991, I played in the Philippines.” And I was just, like, “Wow, you played in the Philippines? That’s where I was born, that’s crazy!” And that’s where the whole thing started. He said, “You were born there? Can you play there? Basketball over there is huge, you have no idea. You’ll be hanging out with movie stars, it’s wild!”

And he mentioned, “I played with this guard who’s better than you, this guy Johnny Abarrientos, and he’s the real deal man, he can play.” It was the only Filipino player name I knew, and that was how I discovered that there was pro basketball in the Philippines.

COMING TO THE PHILIPPINES to play basketball was a complete dream come true. I always wanted to play pro ball overseas. I never dreamed about playing in the NBA.

In fact, when I was 11 years old, my dad took a sabbatical from Cornell, and we lived in northeast Thailand. And I’ll always remember, I was playing with my brother, we had a Maxwell House coffee can that we nailed to a cardboard, and we’d shoot at it with a tennis ball.

My brother’s five years older, and he was my idol, and I just thought he was the greatest player in the world. And I told him what my dream is: I wanna be good enough to play at an Ivy League school, and good enough to play pro basketball overseas. I think, when I said it, what was in my mind at the time was Yale and Spain, but I’ll take Cornell and the Philippines. It ended up working out pretty well.

I always dreamed of playing overseas, and the fact that I was born here, excited me that much more.

When I knew I was coming here, I started to read up about the Philippines — I was studying about Apolinario Mabini and Aguinaldo and Rizal and all those guys, about the islands and the structures, little nerd stuff.

So I wasn’t totally ignorant, but then it was my first time, and I didn’t have a lot of Filipino friends. I didn’t really know anything about the culture, except what my parents had told me, and hearing stuff second-hand is very different from experiencing it.

But I’d lived in Thailand when I was 11, and that was for a year, where people did not speak English at all, and that was a world-changing experience. So I think that prepared me to get excited to come to the Philippines.

The adjustment joining the Manila Metrostars in the MBA was easy. Kasi ang experience ko dati, Thailand ang basis ko eh. Apart from us, there was only one other American family. So halos kami lang yung nag-e-English. We had to learn Thai.

When I got here, that’s what I was expecting. And then you come to Manila, there’s McDonald’s, there’s Burger King, there’s Chili’s, there’s Wendy’s, there’s Pizza Hut, there’s so much Americanized stuff, a lot of the TV stuff was in English, and a lot of my teammates spoke English pretty well. I was kind of shocked; I thought, this is gonna be so much fun.

BEING A WHITE GUY IN A FILIPINO league may have been weird, but in my mind, it might have been weirder for my teammates than for me. Growing up, because of the type of people my parents were, I was used to being in the minority as a white guy.

In my little nerdy study of the Philippines before I got here, I found out that the country had more than 7,100 islands, and depending on the linguist you talked to, there were anywhere from 60 to 300 languages spoken. And yet, it was this one unified nation.

And that means there were these really interesting and intricate cultures and sub-cultures to see around the country. That means that the outside of the houses might look the same, the roads might look the same, but it meant that people are a little different in GenSan, than they are in Pangasinan.

Looking back, in that sense, it was a blessing to play in the MBA, because not only did I get to play, but even in my first year, I probably saw more of the Philippines than most Filipinos have. Throughout the year, we were traveling, and the management of the MetroStars was great. We’d go out of town, have a game, and they’d take us somewhere nice afterward. Just that richness of experience, I really felt like, “Wow.”

WHAT COMPELLED ME TO LEARN TAGALOG? Wala akong magagawa — it was my parents, it was how I was raised. My mom’s a linguist, and we were just ingrained that if we were going to live in a foreign country, you better learn how to speak that language. Coming here, I just thought, ganun lang dapat.

It didn’t go well during my first year. I had a bit of intellectual pride, and when I was young, when I learned Thai, I learned it really quick. Kasi habang bata ka pa, mas madali kang matuto. So I figured, learning Tagalog was going to be like that. It wasn’t.

At one point, I wasn’t doing too well, and I gave up. I was getting made fun of by people, I don’t like failing — and I kept failing — and I was embarrassed.

And then I kinda had a revelation: Of course I’m gonna suck! What, was I expecting to suddenly be writing poetry in this language after six months? Of course not.

So I learned to take things easier on myself. I knew I was going to say things that would be funny and sound bad, and I needed to laugh with other people when they’re laughing at me. That was the only way I was gonna get better.

Learning Tagalog, ang laking bagay ng nagawa nun para sa akin. Kaming mga point guard, maliliit, so kailangan ikaw yung pinaka-madaldal, ikaw yung coach sa loob. Pagdating sa kwentuhan, kadalasan may kwento ka. Nung dumating ako dito, napansin ko, pagkatapos ng ensayo, andito ako, at andoon sila, nagke-kwentuhan, nagkukulitan, ganun. So na-miss ko yun.

Pero after learning the language, siyempre, sumama na ako sa kanila. Ah na-gets ko na ‘to. Ngayon, may konting ammo pa ako, may sagot pa ako.

But it wasn’t just that. What I didn’t realize about learning Tagalog was that it would allow me a depth of relationship na kung Inglisero lang ako, maliit lang ang grupo ko. But if I speak Tagalog, ngayon, makaka-relate ako kahit sa guard doon, o sa tao diyan, sa taxi driver makakapagkwentuhan kami, “Ah ganun ba? Taga-saan kayo? May kaibigan din ako dun.” It’s something where you could connect with people. And I’m a people person, and I like being able to connect.

Even though Filipinos speak English so well, it’s still a second language for most, so it’s not your heart’s language. Sometimes, yung iba, umiiwas sila pag nakakita ng Amerikano. “Sir, buti na lang, nag-Tagalog ka, akala ko spokening-English ka diyan, baka mag-nosebleed ako dito eh.”

By learning Tagalog, it gave me a richness of relationship and connection with the Filipino that I just wouldn’t have had.

I BECAME A CHRISTIAN OUT HERE, and I felt God just touched my heart and changed me.

Now, I always feel like I have to go where I’m supposed to go, and I have to do what I’m supposed to do. I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be, and I’m excited about the Philippines.

When my career was ending, I thought about going back to the United States. But I thought, “Where would I have the most impact?” All of my professional connections, all of my social connections, all of my spiritual family, everything was here.

Here, for whatever reason, I have some sort of platform — whether it be helping youth basketball, speaking to somebody and trying to give an inspirational message, or just trying to make a positive impact on people. That platform just doesn’t exist in other places. I think I can have the most positive impact in most people’s lives here in the Philippines.

I’VE TAKEN A LOT OF YOUNG FIL-AMS under my wing when they first arrive back here. Ako, para sa akin, unang-una, alam ko yung feeling na mag-isa ka lang, na ikaw yung stranger diyan. Naranasan ko yan. Hindi masarap yung feeling, nakakalungkot ang feeling na parang nag-iisa lang ako dito. It just doesn’t allow somebody to express the fullness of their potential.

For the young Fil-Am, mahihirapan siya sa una. He needs someone to say, “O, ganito yan.”

It’s nice to know that there would be good, kind-hearted Filipinos who would try to help them, but if they also don’t understand the American perspective and framework and how these guys’ minds work, it’ll be harder to help with that transition. Whereas I could say, “Alam ko kung paano ka nag-iisip, you need to look at it from this light.”

I see conflict sometimes in the Fil-Am versus Filipino issue where people just don’t understand each other too well. I have friends on both sides who are great guys, who can get a little combative in the issue. And I’m like, “Kung kilala mo lang ‘to, mabait ‘to. You guys just don’t understand, but if you were on the same team, you’d get along great.”

ARNOLD CLAVIO’S STATEMENTS MAY NOT BE APPROPRIATE but they’re common sentiments. The issue of Filipino identity is an argument with many different sides; hindi ito black-and-white, multi-faceted tayo dito eh. It depends on how you turn it, you’re gonna see a lot of different angles, and there’s legitimacy to many of the arguments.

Sa akin, one of the things I believe for many of the Fil-Ams coming here, I would hope that they’d be humble, accept their blessing and understand that it’s a blessing, and treat people with respect. Even if you’re part-whatever, dapat lang may respeto. It’s just basic human dignity, that people treat each other with respect.

And I would hope, for a lot of Fil-Ams coming over, they would slowly — or quickly, I guess, depending on the person — learn about Filipino culture, understanding the nation, understand concepts like “sama ng loob,” “utang na loob,” intricacies like delicadeza, things that you don’t initially get because they’re not in the culture you’re originally coming from.

On the flipside, overseas Filipino workers are heroes in so many ways. I can’t tell you how many friends have studied because Tita, who’s in the U.S., put them through school, or Tito, who’s been in Saudi for ten years, built this house — and he doesn’t really want to be in Saudi, but he wants to provide for his family. And how many billions of dollars are generated from OFWs who are trying to help their countrymen?

Now their kids, sino ba sila? When they’re in the U.S., they call these kids Filipino, but in the Philippines, they’re called American. They’d be like, “I’m not anything, anywhere. The law says I’m Filipino, and the law says I’m also American. But you’re always looking at the negative side.”

And then there’s another angle. Erik Spoelstra, the coach of the Miami Heat, is a hero, he’s a Filipino-American. So Filipinos would claim him. But then, if things don’t go quite so well, they’ll say it’s his American side. It’s like mom and dad. Kapag mali ang ginagawa, “Anak mo ‘yan!” Kapag tama ang ginagawa, “Ang galing ng anak ko!”

It’s a really difficult issue. For the mixed-blood Filipinos, because they’re legitimately Filipino, but they have a foreign-culture background, I would hope that they would make the effort to understand this culture.

At the same time, I would hope that Filipinos would look at foreign-born Filipinos and embrace them also as brothers — maybe with a different outlook, a different perspective. Right now, it’s too combative.

LET’S TALK ABOUT A HYPOTHETICAL EXAMPLE. Olsen Racela is one of my favorite players. From my understanding, one of his children was born in the States. Let’s say, five years from now, the LA D-Fenders in the NBA D-League sign Racela as their coach and he moves there. Eh ‘di malaking karangalan yun, yayabang ang Pinoy diyan, ‘di ba?

What happens when his kid grows up? Fil-Am na ba ‘yun when he joins the PBA draft? But it’s Olsen Racela’s kid, c’mon, he’s pure Filipino! Pero English-speaking na ‘yan. At what point do you draw the line, when do you stop becoming Filipino and when do you start becoming Fil-Am?

I don’t have an answer. It’s too emotional a subject right now, and there’s too much anger on both sides. There’s not enough effort to understand the other side.

WHAT IS A FILIPINO? Well, what does the law say?

You have to have a basis for that statement. I can try to base it on a feeling, but that’s a poor basis. It has to be based on the law.

Some people would say about foreign-born Filipinos, “Hindi naman Filipino ‘yan, English-English slang yan eh.” And I understand their point. But they’re talking about culture, not legal status.

Because if you look at the culture of someone living in Tawi-Tawi, compared to someone living in Sagada — parehong Pinoy ‘yan, pero they’re not the same. Ang layo niyan. There has to be some unifying basis where we say, this is the point, and that should be what the Philippine Constitution says.

It doesn’t negate the negative feeling people feel when they say, “Amboy yan eh! Hindi nagta-Tagalog!” But I also have some Bisaya friends who are totally Filipino, who never left the country, who barely speak Tagalog, and they’re Cebuano.

I love the Philippines, but I’m not a Filipino. I have no Filipino blood, and it would be presumptuous and arrogant of me to say that I am.

I GOT MARRIED TO A FILIPINO. But I don’t know, I was already feeling pretty Filipino before I got married to my wife.

I don’t think marrying Michelle made me love the Filipino more — although in that sense, I love one Filipina more than anyone else. But I had a great deep love for the Filipino before marrying Michelle, and I wasn’t looking to marry a Filipina, I was just looking for the right girl, and she just happened to be a Filipina.

But I think the flipside is more true; if I had married someone from another country, it would not have taken away from my love for the Philippines, but it would have taken away from my consciousness, as I would try to understand some other culture.

My newborn son is technically Filipino-American. I think, for him, it’s an exceptional benefit. I want him to be fluent in English and Tagalog, if his mom could help him, Bisaya din. I’d love it to be a complete blessing for him, where he has a heart for the Philippines as well, and also within the context of global issues that affect our world. I personally think of it as a huge benefit for him; he should be proud that he’s Filipino. We want him to know that this is also his home.

Alex Compton spent his whole professional basketball career in the Philippines, playing in the Metropolitan Basketball Association, the Philippine Basketball League, and the Philippine Basketball Association. He now serves as an assistant coach for the Powerade Tigers and the training director of the National Basketball Training Center.

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