What the Hell for You Left Your Heart in San Francisco

What the Hell for You Left Your Heart in San Francisco, Bienvenido N. Santos, 1987

  • Philippines, #18
  • Borrowed from SF public library
  • Read May 2018
  • Rating: 3.5/5
  • Recommended for: weirdos and strays
San Francisco, 2015

What the Hell for You Left Your Heart in San Francisco (which, incidentally, I am never typing out in full again so it will henceforth be referred to as “WTH”) is the story of David, a Filipino writer who finds himself effectively exiled to the United States, unable to return to the Philippines because of his unwillingness to censor his writing to comply with the Marcos regime’s restrictive laws. The story is episodic rather than plot-driven, loosely organized around David’s attempts to start a glossy magazine for the Filipino expat population, teach a course on the Philippines at City College, and possibly to find his long-lost father, punctuated by seemingly random sexual encounters with largely anonymous American women. I really did not know what the point of those episodes were. I mean, one time he meets a woman at a tennis court and just goes home with her and then they never see each other again; another time he meets a homeless runaway and shares her sleeping bag on a high floor of a disused building, surrounded by other unfortunates. Are these incidents a metaphor for his superficial and unsatisfying relationship with America? Was this just what casual sex was like in the time before AIDS? Are they just dropped in to add some spice to what can sometimes seem a rather pointless tale (and, for David, a rather pointless existence)? I don’t know. They do serve to emphasize David’s loneliness and detachment, but they aren’t really necessary for that end. The whole book is a cry of loneliness, and David’s detachment and isolation pervade the entire narrative.

San Francisco, 2017

Immigrant stories often focus on economic hardship and the alienation that comes from immersion in a foreign culture. Being accustomed to these sorts of tales, I found myself having to repeatedly recalibrate my expectations while reading WTH. This is not a story of poverty: David isn’t wealthy, but he is financially comfortable, living rent-free on the bottom floor of a Diamond Heights mansion (a long aside here: when I read this book I was living in Noe Valley, at the foot of Diamond Heights. I used to go for walks up there sometimes and some of the houses are insane, four or five stories clinging to a hillside so steep that the bottom floors are supported on thirty foot-tall stilts jutting up from the rocks below. They are big, luxurious dwellings, worth millions in today’s insane real estate bubble, and David’s vision of the whole sparkling city spread out beneath him at night is seductive…but I always feel they would be terrifying to live in). Neither is it a story of prejudice; while America Is in the Heart focused on the rampant racism against Filipinos in Depression-era California, and The Bamboo Dancers revealed and reveled in the ignorance of even well-meaning Americans when confronted with a foreign culture, in WTH Americans are almost entirely absent. David inhabits a world populated by expats. Even his students at City College are a mix of foreign-born and first-generation Filipino-Americans; his Diamond Heights benefactor and the other wealthy businessmen who commission David’s magazine are all Philippines nationals, living temporarily in the US and largely loyal to the Marcos regime. This is not a story about the hardship of immigration; rather it is about the hardship of emigration. The pain David feels is not a result of being at odds with his adopted country. It is the pain of being exiled from his own country, the place he truly feels is home. True, these things usually go hand in hand, but in this case the emphasis is much more on the latter than the former.

San Francisco, 2017

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