On the Spot: Tagalog-speaking American author Rafe Bartholomew
The author of <em>Pacific Rims</em>, an ode to Pinoy basketball, on why he has come to think of the Philippines as his second home.
Rafe Bartholomew shares his hoop skills at the Alaska Power Camp. Click for more photos.
SPOT.ph chats with Bartholomew about learning Filipino from Wowowee, scaring kids as a vampire and becoming a "proper tanggero."
Have you tried playing basketball Pinoy-style, flip-flops and all?
Of course I’ve played in tsinelas, but for someone who really grew up [wearing] Nikes, it’s very hard to feel comfortable without basketball sneakers. When I would play in slippers, I couldn’t run as hard or jump as high as I would in rubber shoes, because I’d always have this image of swollen ankles the size of pomelos lurking somewhere in my mind.
What part of traveling with the Alaska Aces do you treasure the most?
The players and coaches! Alaska likes to say that no other PBA (Philippine Basketball Association) team has a family atmosphere the way they do. I can’t say if that’s true, because I didn’t spend nearly as much time with other teams, but the Alaska guys are not exaggerating when they call themselves "tight-knit." They take vacations together, have family outings and become ninongs to each other’s kids. I remember sitting next to one of Bong Hawkins’ daughters at a game and listening to her cheer for Poch Juinio: "Go, Ninong! Dunk!"
Alaska also had some of the funniest guys I’ve ever met when I followed them in 2007. Willie Miller would not let me sit through a practice without making me laugh by tucking a ball into his jersey like he was pregnant or turning some athletic tape into a pair of glasses, or playing some other joke. Poch and John Ferriols were the same. The roster is a lot different now, but I bet the players still have a lot of fun with each other. It’s just the team’s culture, and it was something that I was honored to be a part of for a short period of time and that I still miss to this day.
Rafe Bartholomew on Pacific Rims
You got to interview some of the Philippines’ noteworthy sports personalities for Pacific Rims. With whom did you have the most unforgettable consultation or conversation?
It’s tough to choose among so many fascinating and lively people, from the late PBA commissioner Jun Bernardino to (Ateneo Blue Eagles coach) Norman Black to a former speechwriter for Freddie Webb during his [stint in the] Senate. But the interview that I just can’t forget is when I talked with (Crispa Redmanizers legend) Philip Cezar at his home in San Juan. One of his nicknames as a player was "The Scholar," and he really did sound like Philippine basketball’s resident philosopher. He spoke in this slow, gravely smoker’s voice and didn’t use any more words than necessary. He described the game in fatalist terms--teammates of Jaworski had "no choice" but to be aggressive and tough as nails, etcetera. In my book, I called his voice Morgan Freeman mixed with Yoda in a Pinoy lilt. He just oozes this semi-mystical basketball wisdom.
Did you ever hit a wall while working on the book?
You know, I didn’t hit too much of a wall in writing the book. Sure, some days I sat down and stared at the screen for hours, wrote three awful paragraphs that I’d have to erase the next day, and gave up. But for the most part, the book just flowed out of me. One reason for this might be that my publisher didn’t give me a lot of time to finish it, and me being a first-time author, I didn’t want them to lose faith in me and cancel my contract. The other reason is that the book had just been hovering inside me for years, so by the time I got an opportunity to write it, I had all these great emotions and experiences and observations just sitting on the tip of my tongue.
The bigger challenge was convincing an American publisher that there was an audience who’d be willing to read about Philippine basketball. A lot of editors told me, "One, basketball books don’t sell, and two, Americans don’t even know where the Philippines is." Sadly, that statement isn’t totally false, but I believed that Philippine culture and basketball were filled with enough humor, warmth and tension to make a story that would be fascinating for anyone, no matter where they’re from or what interests them. Thankfully, I found an editor who felt the same way!
Rafe Bartholomew promotes launch of Pacific Rims on June 16 at Union Square in New York City.
Do you have definite details about your book signing in the Philippines next month?
I don’t have a date for the signing yet, but I’ve already bought a ticket, so I’ll definitely be in Manila. I’m arriving August 20 and leaving September 1. It’s way too short for me, but it’s hard to get away from my day job for a long time. My publisher will help set up readings and book signings most likely at branches of the stores that have been selling Pacific Rims: National Bookstore, Fully Booked and PowerBooks. Other than that, I’m wide open and looking forward to other opportunities to promote the book, as well has just reconnect with friends and enjoy the feeling of living in Manila, even if it’s just for a short period of time.
We read that you took on odd jobs to supplement the one-year stipend you got from the Fulbright grant. What are the three most memorable ones for you and why?
[For starters,] I was a coach at the Alaska Power Camp. Because my fellow coaches were more accomplished players than me, (they were all former varsity players from Ateneo like Sonny Tadeo and Epok Quimpo), I got stuck with the youngest age group. My players were between four and seven years old, for the most part, and I coached about 15 of them on my own. Basically, I was being paid to give their yayas a break and hopefully teach them a little hoops.
[Then, I was an extra] in an Anchor Beer commercial. What a nightmare. I sat around in an empty sound studio at Sucat for 16 hours to stand in a nightclub scene for no more than 30 seconds, and only about one second made it into the actual commercial. People explained to me afterwards that my experience was par for the course for showbiz, but I was unprepared for the boredom and spent most of the day eating pancit and growling at the people around me. Not my best moment.
I’m not sure if this counts as an odd job...but I dressed up as Count Dracula for the Xavierville Phase II Halloween celebration. My duties consisted of chasing trick or treaters around the subdivision and jumping out from behind bushes to scare kids. I had no white dress shirt to wear under my black cape, so instead I wore my barong Tagalog, although the weirdness of my costume’s cultural mash-up was probably lost on the kids, who were too busy running and screaming and grabbing candy to notice. My compensation was a gift certificate to Teriyaki Boy, and, of course, the kids’ smiles, which were priceless.
What subject did you teach at the Ateneo de Manila University?
I taught a sports writing seminar in the communications department. Only six or seven students enrolled, so I was able to work very closely with them. I tried to expose them to the kind of long-form, magazine writing I like best, and I think they enjoyed it, and I was kind of a pushover with grading, so almost everyone finished the semester happy.
Rafe Bartholomew appears in Bakekang (part 1)
How did you land the Bakekang gig?
How else but through basketball? The former La Salle and PBA player Chris Tan is a friend of mine from pickup games. His wife is a host on GMA, and she told him that Bakekang needed some American guys. He called me one night and just said, "Do you want to be in a teleserye? You’re going to have a bed scene with Sunshine Dizon." The rest is history.
What was it like working with Sunshine Dizon and the rest of the cast?
All of my scenes were with Sunshine and another American actor, so I never got to meet Lovi Poe or Sheryl Cruz. Sayang! I’m a fan of both and many others in the cast. Sunshine Dizon was a borderline saint to put up with two gigantic Kano guys with no clue how to act. She was sweet and thankful and helped us do the best job we could, although in my case I still managed to make a pretty big fool out of myself. But it was really an honor and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be there with her and Direk Gil Tejada and the rest of the cast and crew.
Rafe Bartholomew appears in Bakekang (part 2)
What’s your favorite Filipino teleserye?
Of course I’m loyal to Bakekang. I think I watched more of that series than any other. My other sentimental favorites are Majika, because it was the first teleserye I watched, and the koreanovela Love Story in Harvard, because when an American friend of mine who studied at Harvard visited me, he tried to hit on a girl by telling her that he graduated from Harvard, and she asked him if it was the same school from the koreanovela. I’ve been teasing him about it ever since.
Rafe Bartholomew appears in Bakekang (part 3)
Any chance you’ll try acting in Philippine TV again? Or maybe modeling?
If anyone is crazy enough to let me act again, of course I will! I guess there are some people who can say no to a chance like that, but I’m not one of them. I’m afraid, however, that I’m a generation too young for an acting career in Manila. My talents place me in league with the guy from the infamous Dragon Katol commercial or those "himbos" riding horses and bicycles in the 1980s cigarette ads. As far as modeling, I don’t know if I can take the idea of myself as a model seriously, but if somebody wants me to do it, than who am I to judge their taste? I’m game! Just don’t turn me into a bold star!
In an interview, you said the Celtics would win the NBA Finals. What was your first thought when you found out the Lakers won? Do you think they deserved it?
Of course they deserved it. The series was great, even though neither team shot very well in game seven. What more can you ask for than game seven of the NBA Finals? I didn’t have any money on the Celtics, so it didn’t bother me too much when they lost. I’ve been wrong about bigger stuff than that! Plus, as a New York guy and a fan with a soft spot for eccentric players, I was really happy to see Ron Artest come through in the big moment.
The new season of the UAAP starts on July 10. Which team will you cheer for?
The UP Maroons! I believe in miracles! Plus, all my UP friends will finally stop moaning about their basketball team--for a year, at least. But hey, if it doesn’t happen, maybe they’ll reclaim the cheerdance title.
Balitang America interviews Rafe Bartholomew.
Where did you study Filipino?
Everywhere! At my old house in Loyola Heights I’d watch Wowowee (good for beginners because it’s 90 percent Taglish) and then teleserye and then news shows (it was years before I could understand these). But the hardcore studying was done with my tutor, Rebecca Dizon, who drilled prefixes and infixes in me twice a week for three years, and who I still call on Skype to practice speaking with. She went from my teacher to one of my good friends over the years. And then, I owe a lot to the guys of Loyola Pansol TODA. These guys taught me how to really use the language--in good and bad ways--and taught me tons of other valuable skills, like how to open a litro bottle of Red Horse with my teeth, how to be a proper tanggero and how to pull my T-shirt up over my belly. Really, a lot of foreigners might see tricycle drivers in a neighborhood and think they look rough and scary, but these guys treated me like family and helped me improve my Filipino language skills so much.
What’s the first Filipino word you learned?
Ito. Sorry it’s not interesting or funny like "nakakapagpabagabag." I had a tutor in Chicago before I moved to Manila and her first words to me were "Ito ang silya," while pointing to a chair in her apartment.
What’s your favorite Filipino curse word?
Anak ng pating. Okay, it’s a euphemism, maybe not a real deal swear word, but I enjoy it.
Rafe Bartholomew sings "Buloy" at Cafe 81 in New York City.
Have you tried haggling in Filipino? Did you get a good deal?
I try whenever I go to tiangge. The most I get out of them is a ceremonial P50 discount. I think no matter what language I speak in, the vendors see a white guy and know better than to cave to my demands. Also, I’m a bit of a pushover. I’m pretty good at getting taxi drivers to use their meters, however, so maybe I can get some brownie points for that.
Do you know what jejemon means? What do you think of it?
I have read the articles in newspapers about jejemon, so I know it’s a kind of text slang that evolved from the messages people send each other when they play computer games and the general need to save space in text messages by using abbreviations. I don’t think it’s much different from what we call AIMspeak (from AOL Instant Messenger) here in the States, in that it’s a distorted form of the language that drives old people crazy and leads to a lot of exaggerated claims of the death of literacy. I think people can be equally fluent in jejemon talk and Tagalog or Ilonggo or English or whatever. When people don’t learn formal reading and writing skills as well as they should, there’s probably a bigger cause than jejemon. It really seems like a natural evolution of the text abbreviations that I got used to using in the Philippines: "d2 na me" or "asa sari2x kyo?"
What’s a must-do whenever you go to Metro Manila?
Quiapo, Greenhills and Metrowalk. Got to visit my suki at all those places!
What do you think are the best places in Metro Manila for a date?
Oh my God. I’m a terrible date. I feel like this was part of growing up in the States, or at least in New York, but throughout high school and college I hardly ever went on a real date with a girl who wasn’t already my girlfriend. So we didn’t have a lot of courtship rituals. We started as friends, then realized that we had feelings for each other, then became couples, then did couples dates like simple movies and dinners or going to the park. When I first arrived in the Philippines, I went on a couple of dates, and they were excruciatingly awkward. My dates were expecting me to make panliligaw to them, to woo and court them, to take off their jackets for them and pull out their seats and everything else. I didn’t have anything against doing these things, but I’d never done any of that in my life! Everything before had been so informal. So we’d be sitting there at a restaurant, the girl wondering if the fact that I’m not being a gentleman means that I don’t like her and me wondering what’s wrong with her, and it was just a mess.
So, that said, the one date place I remember going to was Tiananmen Bar on Makati Avenue. The dark, private booths were nice, and I knew that some of the basketball players I met went there on dates, too. So if it was good enough for them and their dates, then it was good enough for me.
Rafe Bartholomew at Adams, Ilocos Norte. He captioned this: "I jump off a rock into some water in front of a very beautiful waterfall, but first I pussyfoot around getting up the courage to jump."
You have tons of admirers (just look at the comments section of SPOT.ph’s article on you). Have any of them stalked you or just made you feel uncomfortable?
Maybe I need to read those comments again. I don’t recall seeing anything scary, along the lines of "I’m watching you through your window right now, lover boy." But as for the attention I’ve gotten since the book came out, I’m flattered and honored by all of it. I’ve noticed a few conversations about me on Twitter and Facebook that made me blush a little, but nothing that’s made me want to buy an extra lock for my front door.
Humor us: What are your dating deal breakers?
I don’t know if I’m in a position to be making any ultimatums. I mean, I don’t even have a car! And, on a more general level, I think deal breakers are all relative. If you really like someone, they can get away with all kinds of things that would be turn-offs for anyone else. I guess the one thing that I can’t stand is feeling like I have nothing to say to someone on a date, or even just in casual conversation. It’s not because one person is boring or something like that, it’s just that sometimes there are no vibes. You say something that you think is interesting and your date looks at you like you’re crazy, then your date says something she thinks is interesting and you look at her like she’s nuts. I hate when this happens and wish that we could just call off the date right there and go home, because we can already tell it’s going to be a bad experience.
What’s your favorite street food?
Kwek-kwek. It kills me that no one makes this in New York. I was watching the YouTube video for how to do it, and I might have to start doing it myself. Although with all the flying hot grease, I might set myself on fire.
How about kakanin?
Suman. The sari-sari store on Rosa Alvero Street near the corner of Esteban Abada in Loyola Heights used to give me free suman when I passed on my way home at night. Always hit the spot.
It was the Bacolod Chicken Inasal chain, but I noticed as time went by that my chicken was getting drier. Maybe it was just my branch. Of course, I haven’t had it in Bacolod or anywhere in Negros, so I probably should wait until I try the original to say which is my favorite. In a very similar category, I love Jo’s Chicken Inato.
Rafe Bartholomew sings "Pare Ko" at Cafe 81 in New York City.
Aside from catching Sinosikat’s gigs at Saguijo and Freedom Bar, what other Filipino bands and singers do you like, and where do you watch them?
Over the years, I caught a number of great OPM artists’ performances: Sugarfree, Brownman Revival and Julianne. My monthly pilgrimage, however, was to 70s Bistro at Anonas to watch Parokya ni Edgar, who had a semi-regular gig there on the last Monday of every month. I know being a Parokya fan doesn’t exactly give me original taste in music, but their songs are really special to me. I used them to teach myself the language, both how to pronounce words and just by learning the meaning of songs that I didn’t understand at first. I also love the playful tone of their songs.
I never listened to rock music in America, so I don’t really know if the subjects are similar, but I found the theme of bad-luck romance in Parokya songs like "Alumni Homecoming," "Sayang" and "Amats" to be funny, touching and true-to-life, all at the same time. Like our love lives are a series of close calls and missed opportunities, until finally, hopefully, we get it right.
I also had the pleasure of catching a couple Nyko Maca shows at Saguijo, and I really loved their sound.
Would you consider staying in the Philippines for good or, at least, for a longer time?
I already am. I’m hoping and starting to plan for ways to come back to the Philippines for a longer period of time, something like a few more years. As long as I could remain in the country legally and make enough money to eat, I would be happy. I’d love to continue writing or working in or around basketball, but that would be less important to me than just being there. I had never been as happy as I was during my three years in the Philippines, and now that I’m back in the U.S., I haven’t been as satisfied with life as I was when I lived in Manila. Don’t get me wrong, New York is my first and only true home, but I also sense that something is missing, and I know where to find it. That thing just happens to be on the other side of the world! But I know I’ll be back, one way or another.