[Review] David R. Brubaker’s Liberace’s Filipino Cousin

{Written by Sandro Lau, this review is part of Issue 40 (June/July 2018) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

David R. Brubaker, Liberace’s Filipino Cousin, ThingsAsian Press, 2016. 160 pgs.

Liberace's Filipino CousinIn his anthology Liberace’s Filipino Cousin, David Brubaker gives us intense snippets of contemporary life in the Philippines, in a rousing, insightful, and humorous manner. I must admit I had reservations before reading this book—the thought of a middle-aged Western man travelling through and writing about the Philippines did not seem to bode well. However, once I began to read, I found myself drawn further and further in, and was surprised to find myself finishing the book the same day. Brubaker’s passion for the Philippines is infectious, (Fungus in Paradise, anyone?) evidenced not only through his descriptions of every minute detail, but also through his interactions with the people living there.

Liberace’s Filipino Cousin reads like an anthropological, and sometimes philosophical travelogue. As detailed in the prologue, Brubaker has condensed his more than twenty years of travelling in the Philippines into a collection of around fifteen select adventures, each detailing some particular facet of Filipino life. What truly makes Brubaker’s work exceptional, even in the genre of travel literature, is the amount of time he dedicates to letting the residents tell their stories. From trials of embracing cultural differences, to the disparity between rich and poor, to the lives of expatriate communities, Brubaker lets the residents tell their stories without adulteration or through any form of judgmental lens. Each person, object and situation is painstakingly described, and given as much importance as the next.

Throughout the stories, one underlying constant is poverty—its exploitation and its conscious maintenance by certain elements in society. As readers, we bear witness to the stratification between the rich and poor, through stories from both those that have gained personal success, to those less fortunate. The inferred question here is, what can be done about such poverty? This is not lost on Brubaker, who states:

The extremes of wealth and poverty in the Philippines were, at first, disturbing to me. After a while, I got used to the class system, the deprivation of the many, and the opulence of the few. Perhaps it is this fact that is the most disturbing, that we begin to accept the unacceptable, making change that much more difficult.

Brubaker introduces the myriad ways in which Filipinos attempt to dislodge themselves from poverty, and their varying degrees of success. His explorations provide a fascinating insight into Filipino life mediated through open questions and honest curiosity. We meet the Tampon Queen, a nickname that she uses proudly, as it shows her success in her tampon business. Through Rosa, we hear the stories of women who travel from the provinces to work in Manila: “The girls either work as helpers or in stores, or they get involved in organised crime or prostitution.” Through Tony, a human trafficker, we see how young Filipina girls and old Westerners are brought together. Once again, Brubaker makes no judgment of the ethics of such a business. Instead, we hear from Tony: “These men mean a better life, sending money home. So what if the girls are fourteen? David, the men get companionship and the girls get security.” Here is the only time that Brubaker comes close to offering an opinion to the reader: “Tony seemed relatively educated, quite bright and yet …” And yet Brubaker keeps it to himself once again. In the end, it falls to the reader to make any conclusions about morality versus necessity. However, it is evident that there is an underlying message about the vicious cycle of poverty—most of those who are born poor tend to remain so—and those who break free tend to do so with the help of foreign money. I believe that the underlying message is that we should not “accept the unacceptable,” but work to change the overbearing system that relies on “the deprivation of the many.”

Liberace’s Filipino Cousin also gives us glimpses into expatriate societies, most notably through Brubaker’s humorous quest to find the “Lucky Buggers Club,” comprised of the “male trailing spouses of expat wives.” These men often do not work, but keep their minds nourished through “criticising world politics and politicians,” and engaging in activities of interest—all the while their other halves work in high-paying, powerful positions. It would have been easy for Brubaker to make judgments, and yet he makes none. Instead, he approaches them with genuine inquisitiveness.

Liberace’s Filipino Cousin brings a message of embracing cultural differences, rather than holding onto preconceptions and judgment. Be empathetic. Yet this is no easy feat, as Brubaker acknowledges, that people “are sometimes quick to make judgments based on preconceptions, not realising that what they see might not be ‘the way things are.'” Instead of judging others too quickly, we must first appreciate what we have and what they have. This message comes through clearly in the character on Diego, who goes from describing the Philippines as “a kind of upscale ghetto,” to stating that, “it’s pretty nice here, I can’t complain.”

Brubaker contrasts the seriousness of any inferred messages that his stories carry with numerous comical instances of self-depreciation, and an appreciation for all things, no matter how mundane or ordinary. He has at once an “arthritic ass,” and a child-like fascination for anything and everything. This try-everything-once attitude even has him delving into the superstitious side of the Philippines, picking up a mysterious potion for his sinuses, which he still keeps today: “Sometimes I apply some surreptitiously. Marilyn doesn’t seem to know the difference.”

Brubaker must be commended on being a passive narrator, letting individuals tell their stories without interruption and with ample room for explanation. This is, I believe, a smart approach to embracing new cultures. In the end, it is up to us, the readers, to draw our own conclusions from what Brubaker has presented.

Let me finish by noting Liberace’s Filipino Cousin timely relevance to contemporary society in Hong Kong, home to 352,000 foreign domestic helpers, of which 54% come from the Philippines. Perhaps if Brubaker’s open-eyed approach were applied similarly to society here in Hong Kong, we would realise that there is much to learn and appreciate from our compatriots. His anthology serves as a reminder that true fulfilment comes without presumption.

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Sandro Lau, born and raised in Hong Kong to a local father and Italian mother, is currently working towards a PhD in English Literary Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He received his BSSc in Architecture and MA in English Literary Studies at the same university. His major interest is speculative fiction, and his personal interests include learning about languages and cultures.

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