Pacific Postcards

The Philippines as a Continuation of Pacific Culture as a Whole (Ruby Telles) 


The Philippines: A Continuation of Pacific Culture 

In the short story, “The Laughter of my Father” by Carlos Bulosan, Bulosan tells about a boy, his father, and his cousin who attend a wedding just outside of their island village in the Philippines. This first person account of a typical wedding celebration includes travel to and from the event and customary interactions between all of the families in attendance. This story showcases Pacific values across many avenues, including generational wealth (both in physical or mental terms), marriage, and gender roles, and, when compared to literature by David Igler and Epeli Hau’ofa, shows an exchange of tradition and practices amongst many native Pacific islanders as their cultures overlap. 

In the beginning of the story, Bulosan describes specialty shoes that the boy only wears to weddings. These cowhide shoes reflect the parallel importance of animal hyde and their trade value in other Pacific cultures. Like David Igler talks about in Chapter 4 of “The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush,” sea otter pelts were rich, soft, and shiny and therefore carried a high price tag. Items of such magnificence should be cherished, like these cowhide shoes are by this boy--he only wears them once or twice a year for special occasions. Luxury items bare similarities across wide stretches of the Pacific. There will always be something incredibly special about being able to own the skin of an animal. Perhaps it is the idea that great delicacy and elegance can come from such violence. This idea might be comforting to European settlers who committed great acts of violence against native populations in order to maintain power wherever they traveled. 

In the short story, the boy describes what work in his village looks like, saying “[t]he people were all farmers, because their ancestors had been farmers.” This description reflects Hawaiian culture like Epeli Hauʻofa speaks about in "Our Sea of Islands." The passing down of traditions through many generations, like Hawaiians continually telling the same stories and songs and dances through multiple generations, is comparable to the people on this island in the Philippines, learning their trade by way of watching their ancestors. Skills and beliefs alike are deeply embedded in the culture from very early on. These practices--like singing, dancing, or farming--are not taught something taught in a university. These skills are picked up by proximity and care. It is a show of affection to teach family members how to live off of the land they might inherit or sing songs that have been in their bloodline for many, many years. Like the point that Hau’ofa makes in his book, these experiences are no less important or impressive than concrete skills that people would go to college for in the United States. A lot of research today tends to highlight sources from European perspectives, simply because it is easier for them to believe a journal entry or a map than a song or story told aloud. In order to deeply connect with Pacific culture, these verbal accounts cannot be written-off. They must be cherished. 

The author of this story, like Hau’ofa, takes on the island perspective as one of expansion and inclusion and looks from the inside out, rather than accepting the limiting European mindset of small islands being trapped in isolation. The boy's family traveling all day to go to a wedding in the next village shows that practices of gossip, sharing news, and commemorating good fortune are prevalent in their culture. Celebration is an eternal language. Across all cultures, people get excited about marriage, birth, or even death, and ways of sharing this excitement tend to be very similar. Expressing joy often comes in forms of song and dance, listening to music and giving gifts. Another common aspect of celebration is connection. In this example, people from entire separate villages are invited to the wedding, and the bringing together of people, even those who may be far away, makes it that much more special. This story then, is much more about inclusion than isolation. The wedding goes on for at least three days and there are special dances and foods present that are particular to the Philippino culture, showing again the rich development of tradition and individuality outside the scope of imperialism. This only furthers the argument against the archaic idea that the Europeans discovered the world, and that everything and everyone outside of Europe until then was barbaric and savage. Perhaps this 1942 account serves better as an argument of the fact that cultures native to the Pacific have managed to survive and thrive, even after being ransacked and threatened by European travelers during times of expansion. 

It is also interesting to analyze the portrayal of the family dynamic in the story, in particular, the relationship and exchanges that happen between a young man and his father. At the wedding, the boy’s cousin dances to impress the many girls in the audience. The boy’s father says to him, “‘Do you want your cousin Pedro to make you look like a fool?’” This quantifies a type of competition amongst the young men in a particular family. Especially with respect to being able to attract a suitable woman for a wife, especially on such a small island--only home to 40 huts--whoever can marry the most beautiful woman could be considered to have some sort of advantage. The boy mentions his father’s dislike for his brother and the way that it would be embarrassing for his son to be without female attention if his brother’s child is in the spotlight. We see two generations demonstrating different aspects of opposition to the other males in their lives. Across multiple Pacific cultures, there are different ways for men to assert their power or dominance. For these young boys, they are taught to value attraction and must appeal to women to achieve any credibility. This is arguably similar to European traders who might take a bride from a land they visit as a token because they think they are above all else and therefore deserve a beautiful woman. Hawaiian chiefs or leaders achieved their power by showcasing their knowledge and influence, and public support, much like the adoring eyes of women, is very important to their standing as an ‘alpha.’

The story’s discussion of “anting-anting” or a talisman that made the sons attractive to women reminds me of Chang's discussion of creation stories in “The World and All the Things upon It: Native Hawaiian Geographies of Exploration” and the sense of wonder and magic that they bring about. Both Chang’s and Bulosan’s accounts showcase more particular parts of culture that are unique to their own pieces of the Pacific. The fact that these stories still exist and continue to be told in the 20th and 21st centuries show us again the ways they lasted despite widespread imperialism. Superstition, legend, and ‘gift giving’ are all vessels of continuation. 

Women’s rights and societal standing show much of the same trends, no matter where you are in the world. History often is unkind to the woman, constantly putting her beneath the man, and women of color even below white women. Often, if a woman has any worth, it is tied to her purity and innocence in a sexual context. In this story, the bride’s father “claimed that [the boy] had ruined his daughter.” ‘Ruin’ is a very concrete word, suggesting that this woman has passed a point beyond return. Soiled by the eyes or the touch of a man, she can only be saved in one particular way, which then points us to the importance of marriage in this specific Pacific culture. These ideas are similar to a lot of catholic or older European beliefs about virginity and preservation. This could be a sign of potential overlap or sharing between Europeans and Pacific natives.

The giving of the carabao to the bride's family as a promise is representative of the meaning of trade in their culture, even trading possibly more as a loan or trading something that you expect to get back. The actual water buffalo is a large animal and must have been of extremely high value--comparable perhaps to otter skins from the Pacific Northwest of the United States or meats, tropical fruit, or other plants from Hawaii.

As we near the resolution of this short story, the son ends up getting sent to the United States to escape the cultural expectation that he marry the girl that he “ruined.” This could be almost a reversal of europeans’ arrival to the Pacific; while the boy escapes the Philippines to flee a family that deems him a ‘ruiner,’ europeans arrived to the Pacific (and the Americas) and largely ruined those communities already existing there.

This story ends with the father reminding the son of the gift he gave him; signifying, regardless of what is being passed down, the importance of inheritance and continuation of tradition--reminding the son of his gift so that he, too, can use it like his father did. 

Unlike the European idea that trade or interaction between separate Pacific islands did not exist before they had arrived, this short story, compared against Igler’s and Hau’ofa’s accounts of life in the Pacific in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, shows an undeniable overlap in shared aspects of culture. Styles of dance, valued items of trade, and ideas about women and male power show a clear connection between people across the Pacific. 



Works Cited 


Bulosan, Carlos. “The laughter of my father.” The New Yorker, 19 Dec. 1942.


Chang, David A. The World and All the Things upon It: Native Hawaiian Geographies of Exploration. University of Minnesota Press, 2016. 


Hau'ofa, Epeli. “Our Sea of Islands.” The Contemporary Pacific, vol. 6, no. 1, 1994. 

Igler, David. The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017         

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