Rafe Bartholomew has been getting a lot of press for his newly launched book, Pacific Rims. For my column On The Radar, we took it a step further and went beyond the book. I spoke to Rafe about living in Manila, what he's been doing in NYC, plus more, chismosa style!
(I thought the glass was broken by a wayward basketball, so we had to ask for the inside story on this photo. Here's what Rafe said: This was taken on the corner outside the building I live in here in NYC. It's across the street from my place. Nothing particularly significant about it. My publishers were yelling at me to get some headshots, so I went out to the corner and that was that. I'm actually wearing basketball shorts with this outfit since I knew we weren't going to be taking any long shots. I've always thought it was funny that sometimes groups of guys shoot grassroots hip-hop videos on my corner because of the abandoned garage with the broken glass. I guess they think it looks tough...)
NEW YORK — Rafe Bartholomew, New Yorker and author of widely acclaimed book Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball, is Pinoy as Pinoy can be. In fact, he may even be more Pinoy than you or me. Here, in On the Radar, he dishes out on sisig and tokwa’t baboy, being back and working in NYC, and (brace yourselves for this one, girls) his love life.
First, we’re curious. How do you pronounce “Rafe”?
My parents named me Raphael with the intention of calling me Rafe, pronounced like “safe” but with an “R.”
I’m named after my great grandfather Raphael Egan, and he pronounced his name the same way. Of course, when I moved to Manila 2005, I found that people didn’t always like the way my name sounded, so I got used to being called Raf or Rafi, or Paeng, or, when I spent time with Alaska in 2007, Tiyo Paeng (although the players meant it the other way). At this point, I’m comfortable being called about a dozen different names. Even “Joe” doesn’t bother me that much.
So you’ve been back in NYC since 2008. Have you gone back to Manila since and any plans to return?
I left Manila in October 2008 and actually returned in June 2009. My plan was to write the rest of Pacific Rims there, but I had to leave early to begin my job at Harper’s magazine and only ended up staying for one month. So the last time I was in Manila was June 30, 2009.
My last meal was ginataang alimango and inihaw na lapu-lapu at Dampa Cubao, then I drank too much Red Horse at a Parokya ni Edgar concert and almost missed my flight the next morning.
That might have been a subconscious attempt not to leave, but I made it back to New York and I’ve been missing the Philippines ever since.
The good news is that I’ve already bought a ticket, and I’ll be back for a visit during the last two weeks of August. I’m also hopeful that I’ll be able to find another project or work to do that would allow me to return to the Philippines for a much longer period of time.
What do you miss about Manila?
Can I answer everything? If you force me to think about it, I’m sure I can come up with some things I don’t miss about Manila: MRT crowds, I guess, but I kind of enjoyed the giant horde of humanity in the Ayala station at rush hour. Every day was like a test of my commuting skills. For a guy with a basketball mindset, I could always get the competitive juices flowing there.
Of course, I miss my friends more than anything else, but the aspects of life in Manila that I miss are the ability to see, feel, experience and play basketball at almost any time and any place (which I could do in places all over the Philippines, as well). And, without a doubt, I miss the food.
It’s pretty easy to get the staples of Philippine cuisine here in New York — adobo, dinuguan, pinakbet, liempo. But the guiltiest pleasures — isaw, tenga, kwek-kwek, dirty ice cream, banana cue and maruya — are very hard to find here. I have my itinerary for August planned already, and nothing will stop me from getting all the food I’ve been craving.
Have you had cravings for Pinoy food? Where do you eat Pinoy food here in Manhattan? And what do you eat?
Whoops! Guess I got carried away on that last one! Well, you know what I crave, but as far as Pinoy food in Manhattan, there aren’t many options. Since I’ve been back, two well-known places — Bayan Cafe and Elvie’s Turo-Turo — both closed down. It hurt to see Elvie’s go. The food was cheap and delicious and their servings were the right size, plus I had been going there for my ginisang monggo fix for years.
Thankfully, a new restaurant and bar opened about five months ago. It’s called Krystal’s Cafe 81, and it’s in the East Village. The food is good, but the place is probably more of a lounge, so when I’m there I usually eat pulutan like sisig and tokwa’t baboy. Thankfully, they actually use maskara in their sisig; a lot of Philippine restaurants in New York don’t, but it’s just not the same without the crackle.
For a meal, I usually go to Queens, where I’m proud to say we now have Jollibee and Red Ribbon, although when I go, I stick to the old-fashioned places like Fiesta Grill, which is as close to perfect as a NYC turo-turo is going to get, and Engeline’s, a true sit-down restaurant with nilagang baka so rich you’ll think it’s bulalo.
You speak Tagalog so well, like a local! How long did it take you to learn it? And have you always been good with languages?
Thank you! It really means a lot to me, since I have tried hard to improve my Tagalog over the years. At the same time, I’m wary about bragging that I speak so well or that I really speak like a local. I know that I have a lot more room for improvement and I have a long way to go before I speak like a native speaker, and I’m going to continue studying the language and trying to get better.
I think I started to really be able to speak and understand in real-life situations after about two years, and I still call my wonderful tutor Rebecca Dizon on Skype to practice speaking with her. I never studied a language as hard as I did Tagalog, so I’m not sure if I’d be able to learn another language easily. I’m actually hoping to start studying another Philippine language — Bisaya, Ilonggo or Ilocano — depending probably on who’s willing to teach me for the cheapest! So we’ll see if I can learn faster this time.
About your book — you came to the Philippines to try and understand the country’s unlikely passion for basketball. You wrote it as “a sort of love letter to the country.” While Filipinos love it, how’s the feedback from American or international readers?
The fact that Filipino readers have enjoyed my book is the ultimate compliment. They are the people who know the country and the Philippine style of basketball better than I do, and the ones who taught me most of what I learned. So if they read the book and think I did a good job, then I must have done something right.
That said, the response from Americans and Canadians and other foreigners who’ve read the book has been really positive, too. Their experience is different from most Filipinos, because foreign readers tend to be really surprised at the simple fact that Pinoys love hoops, while Filipino readers certainly aren’t going to be surprised by the notion.
There have been really positive reviews on American sports websites like AOL Fanhouse, Sporting News’s blog “The Baseline,” and SLAM Online. Many foreigners — even those that don’t care about hoops — have the response I hoped they would, which is they find Philippine culture and basketball fun and fascinating and worth reading about, even though it’s not their own.
Would you consider moving back to the Philippines? Maybe for a second book? If so, what would it be about?
I would consider moving back to the Philippines for a lot less than a second book! How about any gainful employment? I joked with a friend a couple weeks ago about becoming his driver. Imagine what kind of big shot he’d be with an American driver. But seriously, I feel extremely happy and at home in the Philippines, and it would be a dream to move back for a long while.
If I had an opportunity to write another book, that would be perfect.
There are some more things I’d like to explore in the basketball world, but also other aspects of Philippine life that intrigued me. I’d like to spend a more extended period of time in the provinces.
I visited a lot of places, but never for more than a few days, and never enough to really get a feel for the pace of life. Seriously, every day I lived in the country I felt like I noticed something that could be a story.
You’re now with Harper’s magazine. What do you write about these days?
This is going to sound sad, but I don’t write about much at all. I’m an assistant editor at the magazine, and my job is more to work with the stories that freelance writers produce for us than to write my own articles. My main job is to fact-check them — to go through the stories word-by-word and make sure that everything the writer says is not false. I also am one of two editors who work on “Harper’s Index,” a page in the front of the magazine that tells a story about the world with 40 strange, funny and revealing statistics.
Once in a while, I get to write a regular online feature on Harper’s website called “The Weekly Review.” It’s a three-paragraph look at the previous week, from the most important stories to the most bizarre ones, always presented in a deadpan, ironic voice. It’s a great job at one of the best magazines in the United States, but I do miss writing my own stories.
By now, you probably know how intrusive Pinoys can be. You say your heart remains in the Philippines. For the sake of our female readers, do you have a girlfriend?
Tsismosa ka pala! For my own sake, so my girlfriend doesn’t beat me up, I do have a girlfriend. She’s a Pinay from Los Angeles and was a Fulbright scholar in the batch that came after mine, and we got together in Manila in 2007. She lives in New York now, and we see each other regularly.
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Watch out for Rafe Bartholemew’s book signing events this August at National Bookstore and Powerbooks. Follow @rafeboogs on Twitter for updates.