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Bourdain’s Field Notes

MANILA, April 2016—Like many children all over the world, my daughter arrived home from the hospital to find a Filipino baby nurse. Vangie was with her from the very beginning of her life, and in time, my daughter came to know her son, her daughter-in-law, their kid, and, in time—extended family and friends in New Jersey, Southern California, and the Bay Area.

And of course, most importantly, Jacques, Vangie’s grandson, her best friend, from whom she has been inseparable since infancy—her older brother in every way but biological—her partner in crime. If I go back through old photos today, at least half will be of the two of them together.

Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, vacations, and birthdays are celebrated together, our families in and out of each other’s homes interchangeably. So, I have noticed some things, some features of Filipino daily life that I thought worth investigating. There’s always singing, for instance. Everybody seems to sing—an affinity passed on to my daughter. Family, and church, of course, loom large (even in my otherwise atheistic household). And food.

My daughter is no stranger to sisig and sinigang and adobo and holds me in disregard for being unable to procure her the delicious Filipino pastries and breads she finds at her other family’s home. She knows a few phrases in Tagalog and looks at me pityingly when I don’t know what she’s talking about.

So, that’s what this episode is really about. It’s NOT about the Philippines. How could it be? There are over 7,000 islands in the Philippine archipelago and I’m pretty sure I’ll die ignorant of most of them. It’s not even about Filipinos—as my experience, however intimate, is limited in the extreme. This episode is an attempt to address the question of why so many Filipinos are so damn caring. Why they care so much—for each other, for strangers? Because my experience is far from unusual.

Hundreds of thousands—maybe millions—of children have been raised by Filipino nannies. Usually mothers of their own children who they were forced to leave behind in the Philippines. Doctors, nurses, housekeepers, babysitters, in so many cases, people who you’d call “caregivers” but who, in every case I’ve ever heard of, actually care. Where does this kindness, this instinct for … charity come from?

For sure, to go abroad and look after others is a huge part of the Philippine economy. Overseas workers account for an enormous and vital part of the lives of those who remain. Not everyone in the Philippines, I should stress, has such limited options—but it is the overseas worker—and those they have had to leave behind, who interest me most this episode.

I guess you could say it’s personal. I hope the overseas Filipinos and our fans in the Philippines like this episode more than they liked the last one on our other show. This is certainly not the definitive show on the Philippines, and it will not be our last show there. I imagine this time around there will be tears. At least I hope so. We tried to do right by people who’ve been very, very good to us.

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Travel like Bourdain

Metro Manila, bustling, sprawling, Southeast Asian capital of the Philippines, home to somewhere between 12 to 20 million people. The world’s most densely populated city.

Local Lingo

Kare-kare: A Filipino oxtail and tripe stew flavored with peanut butter.

OFW: Overseas Filipino Worker

Halo-halo: (Literally “mix mix”) Filipino dessert made with a treasure trove of ingredients, including bean curd and bright candied fruits.

Know Before You Go

Christmas comes early in this predominantly Catholic nation. At midnight on September 1 many people post Christmas greetings on Facebook, and from then until December 25, much of the country is aglow with Christmas lights and buzzing with carolers.

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