The Epic of Us (Notes on FilAm Fellowship)

In a hole in the ground, they found a Hobbit, dead for more than fifty thousand years, surrounded by the things that meant comfort: a rhino carcass, a stone tool that might have been an adze or a shovel, and the bones of friends. It’s likely that when living, she was brown skinned.[1]

No one says she died partying, but I don’t think I’ll be faulted for finding that story in the fossils.

The Hobbit’s children’s children’s descendants were many, though not too many, and grew twice as tall as she, which was still not very tall. They encountered other tribes from across the great salt waters who lumbered into their islands, sometimes in love and sometimes in cruelty, and never left.[2]

Like so many Little People that entered into commerce and relationship with Big People, the Hobbits were often degraded and debased as incapable of commerce and human relationship.[3]

But as a Big Person once said, while one can learn all there is about the ways of Hobbits—their good food,[4]

their inclination for danceable music,[5]

their raunchy, sometimes questionable humor[6]

—in a month, still, after three centuries in a Catholic convent and fifty years in Hollywood, they can surprise you.[7]

Hobbits are in America, bitches. We’re blowing your noses and intubating you, and we’re not afraid to die doing it.[8]

Sorry about the “bitches”!

It won’t do to write crudely of Hobbits.[9]

 We don’t style ourselves as dragonslayers or kings.[10]

 We are the guy on America’s Got Talent who sings like Celine. We are the machine room guys from that cruise line who worked for years—who knew that many working hours could be compressed into a single year?—oiling bearings and pistons on an engine the size of two dragons, painting everything not bathed in oil to keep away the ever-creeping rust; we bled oil and paint. Or maybe we are the waitstaff and dishwashers, sweating clarified butter and greasy steam. We lived and breathed shipshape for years, sacrificed and saved, watched our children grow up via Facebook, and then maybe, one day, bought the company so that we could professionalize our natural inclination to entertain while making a fair wage.[11]

Everyone knows this story: A Hobbit leaves his beloved Shire, a land of blue skies and green fields, now turning golden, now turning brown; sunsets of dazzling pink, oranges, purple and deep red, and a variety of sweet fruits.[12]

He carries a deceptively alluring Burden into One Great Darkness, worlds away from the Shire, in Fellowship with the Big People who created the Burden in the first place. The Hobbit’s size, blamelessly low status, and strong urge to return home don’t matter in the making of history, nor in choosing his story.

“All we have to decide,” says the biggest of the Big People to the Hobbit, “is what to do with the time that is given us.”[13]

The happy ending for the Big People is that the Hobbit carries the Burden to its destruction. They are redeemed! But, although his quest succeeds, the Hobbit is robbed of his last hope for power and he loses a finger.

Only a finger? you might say; but it’s a piece of himself, and losing it feels like losing a piece of his heart. He wrestles with the loss and sorrow every day, never escaping isolation despite the Fellowship who pledged to support him, never again able to find comfort in the Shire that he loves so dearly.

What kind of ending is that?

[1] Homo luzonensis, Homo floresiensis, and others are species of tiny humans identified from fossils in the islands of Southeast Asia.

“The poor Hobbit was accused of being an example not of a small new human species, but an abnormal Homo sapiens, bearing any of a variety of growth and hormonal conditions. The Hobbit, many scientists decided, had no place among the giants of the human evolutionary record. Yet she—yes, the Hobbit was later found to be a female—had her revenge” (José Alexandre Felizola Diniz-Filho and Pasquale Raia, “Fast Evolution Explains the Tiny Stature of Extinct ‘Hobbit’ from Flores Island,” The Conversation, October 8, 2019).

“It can end up being the smaller individuals, who need less energy and find it easier to hide from predators, who survive . . . Limited amounts of food and other resources can sometimes mean that survival of the fittest does not always favor those who are larger and fiercer” (Elizabeth Rayne, “Hobbits [Sort of] Existed, and They Might Be Related to Us,”
syfy.com, March 24, 2021).

[2] In the narrative suggested by the human fossil record, “The youngest bones of Homo floresiensis date back to about the time when our own species arrived in Southeast Asia and Australia. It’s possible that we drove them extinct, perhaps by outbattling them for food and shelter” (Carl Zimmer, “Are Hobbits Real?” New York Times, June 20, 2016).

A similar pattern appears in colonial history, with the invading culture outbattling the indigenous, the women taken as brides—or just taken. “After the Americans forced the Spanish out of the Philippines, their typewriters couldn’t type accented vowels. My name is Jose because of Spanish colonialism. But Jose isn’t José because of American imperialism. Even my name isn’t really mine” (Jose Antonio Vargas, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen).

“It all leads to a kind of ‘shame’ that means usually no one in the community is willing to talk about this history.” (Emil Guillermo, “The Other Filipino Vets, War Brides, and Why Veterans Day Means a Lot to the Filipino American Community,” Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, November 11, 2021).

[3] “The Northern White Man lived in a cold climate where he saw long empty spaces during winter. There was then a constitutional coldness in him that predisposed him to be a predator-in-waiting. He saw the world as harsh, and therefore something to fight and conquer. In that dreary climate, he could not experience anything sweet. On the other hand, the Little Brown [Man] who came from the warmer climates of the South experienced warmth and bright days of blue skies, green fields, now turning golden, now turning brown; sunsets of dazzling pink, oranges, purple and deep red, and a variety of sweet fruits. His spirit was more relaxed, more at peace with his surroundings, more gentle, less calculating and wary of the stranger. He was thus likely to become a prey of the Northern White Man” (Vina Orden quoting her Lolo Pilong, “The Little Brown Brother’s Burden,” The Margins, May 29, 2020).

Less lyrical is an account of US General Jacob W. “Howling Wilderness” Smith’s brutal campaign in Samar, punishing inhabitants for daring to resist the United States. “To command the mission, Smith selected a swaggering marine major of forty-five improbably named Littleton Waller Tazewell Waller . . . Smith, giving him four companies, said: ‘I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better you will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States.’ Waller, a scrupulous professional, asked Smith to define an age limit. ‘Ten years,’ replied Smith. Waller pressed for clarification. ‘Persons ten years and older are those designated as being capable of bearing arms?’ ‘Yes,’ responded Smith” (Stanley Karnow, In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines).

[4] Anthony Bourdain on lechon Cebuano: “Best pig ever!” (No Reservations, aired February 16, 2009 on the Travel Channel).

On sisig: “Bitch . . . nothing is getting between me and this spicy, chewy, fatty goodness.” (Parts Unknown, aired April 24, 2016, on CNN.

[5] “There was also Bruno Mars. There was Bruno Mars and his impressive drum skills. There was Bruno Mars and his James Brown meets Michael Jackson dance moves. (Did you see that shuffle step where his feet moved seemingly independent of his body during ‘Runaway Baby?’ What was that!?) . . . He was going to Put. On. A. Show. Dammit. And we were going to enjoy it, if it was the last thing he did . . . [G]ive Bruno Mars the Super Bowl MVP” (Kevin Fallon, “Bruno Mars Super Bowl Halftime Show Review,” Daily Beast, July 12, 2017).

[6] “I’m telling you this: I became a comedian, which is totally against the grain when you have a Filipino mom. If you have a Filipino mom, that is not the career choice you’re supposed to have. . . . There’s a lot of Filipinos in here, right now, that are nurses. Today is a good day to get injured at a show because there will be a nurse in here, like, ‘Oh, my God. Put a cold compress on the head. Elebate the peet! Elebate—Elebate the peet.’ ‘What the fuck is “elebate”?’ ‘Just lipt! Lipt the pucking peet! Are you stupid?’”

[7] See Jose Rizal, Filipino nationalist and polymath; the Moro struggle and the Colt 45; the Philippine-American Army, World War II. See Fe del Mundo MD, and the breaking of the gender barrier at Harvard Medical School; and inventing the incubator; and modern pediatrics; and maternal-child healthcare in Asia.

See also Rodrigo Duterte, one of the cleverest and scariest of contemporary autocrats. And Maria Ressa, Nobel prize-winning founder of the Rappler, in whom he met his match.

Also, take note that “the next big find in human evolution is due to occur in island Southeast Asia” (Charles Q. Choi quoting geneticist João Teixeira, “Identity of Mysterious ‘Hobbits’ Possibly Found,” livescience.com, March 30, 2021).

[8] “Let me just say that again. Filipinos make up 4 percent of nurses in the U.S., but almost a third of nurse deaths from COVID” (Tracy Hunte, “The Experiment Podcast: 4 Percent of Nurses, 31.5 Percent of Deaths,” The Atlantic, February 25, 2021).

See also kanlungan.net, “a memorial to the transnational people of Philippine ancestry who make up a huge sector of the global healthcare system. This is to remember them as human beings, not simply as a labor percentage, a disease statistic, or an immigration number.”

[9] Sorry! See chicken and pork and beef adobo. See pan de sal with queso de bola. See bibingka especial, leche flan, hopia, and halo-halo. Remember Bourdain on lechon Cebuano in Note 4? “Best pig ever!” Kain na!

[10] But see Note 7 on Jose Rizal et al.

[11] Kidding. Like this Note, Filipinx cruise ship employees are most often below and easily disregarded. As for fair wages,

“Many describe systemic wage theft and 80-hour workweeks with no days off for eight to ten months at a time. Many also say they are pressured to keep working when injured. Dozens of interviews, hundreds of pages of legal documents, and photographic evidence corroborate these claims . . . Most of these allegations, though, are sent to foreign arbitration and hidden from public view” (Lizzie Presser, “Below Deck: Filipinos Make Up Nearly a Third of All Cruise Ship Workers. It’s a Good Job. Until It Isn’t.” California Sunday Magazine, February 2, 2017).

[12] Quoting Lolo Pilong’s lush Philippine dreamscape in Note 3.

[13] In responding to Bourdain’s words about the twenty years she spent overseas working as a nanny and housekeeper, Aurora appears to misquote the lyrics of “Edelweiss.” I think she sings exactly what she means.

BOURDAIN: “I’m at this Christmas gathering today because of one of our directors, Erik Osterholm. It was Aurora who raised him. For over 20 years she cared for and loved Erik and his sister, looked after his whole family. Erik sent me a letter talking about you. I wanted to read you what he said[:] Aurora is such an incredible woman. She has an infectious and loving energy that is so powerful. I am 100 percent the man I am today because this woman literally raised me from when I was six months old.’

AURORA: “Edelweiss, edelweiss, every morning I greet you. Small and white, clean and bright, bless my homeland forever. Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow, bloom and grow forever. Edelweiss, edelweiss, bless my homeland forever” (Bourdain, Parts Unknown).

See also Alyssa Manansala, “Who Are You Eating? What Cares for You? In Response to Anthony Bourdain’s Question, ‘Why do Filipinos care so much?’” Nat. Brut 14.


Here are true stories I know about us:

A young widow from Olongapo City with a cap of black hair and strong arms leaves her children with her sister and brother-in-law on a quest for wealth in New Jersey. Her widowed status makes her sister’s house more stable, even though every rain brings flash floods that drive the chickens to the rafters and force the cats to swim. The black-capped widow is given nothing by which to succeed but a vacuum hose and a Swiffer.

A tattooed, elfin driver from Cavite Province slowly sells off his grandmother’s last pearl, his wife’s mother’s Chinese silks, all that’s left of the hoard that got the family through World War II, after his jeepney fails to meet new regulatory requirements. Finally, he sells the jeepney, which aside from providing the family’s living for so long is a shrine to Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the names of the family’s dead and newly born, in colors that challenge the rainbow. He goes to sea to work below decks and sends his wages home.

From Cebu, a woman with superb taste and a medical degree cherishes a Samurai sword captured by her father during the War. From Davao City, a man with a fine palate, a descendant of Moro warriors, earns a nursing certificate. They face the Big People’s exams and win their way to Virginia and California. The Samurai sword hangs above the medical doctor’s white Federalist mantel and a stone hearth decorated with fragrant candles; in the kitchen of a three-bedroom townhouse after midnight, the nurse concocts sinigang, his wife’s favorite soup, for tomorrow’s breakfast, from whatever makeshift ingredients he’s been able to find at Safeway. At least the fish heads are fresh, given for free by the man in charge of cleaning the fish.

The quests are so successful that wealth flows into Olongapo, Cavite, Cebu, Davao, for years, enough for dozens of children to go to school, enough for grandchildren, and even for other people’s grandchildren to build houses, to care for pet dogs and lush little gardens, to support the Church and the less fortunate.

The Cavite woman’s cap of hair turns silvery. One of her sons back in Olongapo, who she last saw twenty years ago, dies in an accident that no one admits to witnessing for fear of the police. But her daughter, a nurse in Canada, gives birth to a new granddaughter at about the same time.

The Cavite man’s elfin back collapses. His life becomes a cycle of pain medication, medical procedures, and the physical work that he can’t afford to quit. But he looks forward to his son, now in medical school, caring for him. One day soon.

For years, the doctor returns frequently to Cebu, spreading Spam, American cash, and duty-free perfume like pixie dust. She moves away from the house with the Federalist mantel and retires to a superbly appointed condominium for active seniors, surrounded by American grandsons. But the pandemic means she may never return to Cebu again—not even via First Class. After the move, no one remembers what became of the Samurai sword.

The nurse from Davao gets sick. But he gets well. Or maybe he dies, but his daughter’s work in bioengineering contributes to the development of a coronavirus vaccine. Or he gets well—but he can’t work anymore. While his family carries on (working in such a variety of healthcare professions that the sole Humanities student in the clan calls their gatherings the Moveable Hospital), he perfects his pancit bihon and lumpia Shanghai and supervises the completion of a lechon pit. He hosts buffet dinners for Big and Little People for miles around. Food so good, it breaks your heart. Whenever he gets a new Big Person to taste his diniguanor his pinakbet, so fragrant, so bittersweet with ampalaya and camote and bagoong—everyone giggles.

He calls his diniguan “chocolate meat” and offers a bite to the new guest. Its richness melts on her tongue. Its heat fills her eye sockets with tears (the pleasant kind). She’s not stupid—she knows it isn’t really chocolate—but she humors him, her friend’s uncle, who’s on an oxygen tank, who cooks as if his life depended on it.

When someone tells her, spookily, “You’re eating the blood and guts of a pig,” she laughs and says, “Yum.”

“Well!” says the nurse’s wife, “Maybe you’re Filipina.”

“I wish!” she groans. “You guys have the best food!”

Cover Art: Behind A, by Ana Jovanovska

Donna Lee Miele

Donna Lee Miele is a reader, writer, and editor from New York’s Hudson Valley. Her fiction has appeared in the Massachusetts Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Ms. Aligned 3: Women Writing About Men, and elsewhere. She’s a member of the Ms. Aligned editorial board, a founding member of River River Writers’ Circle, and a member of the Inkwell Journal editorial board. This is her first published essay.

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