Streetbuzz Interview

November 24, 2003

Jon Woodward: expatriate American, long-time resident of the Philippines


"The Philippines is what you make it."

Jon Woodward

STREETBUZZ: Jon, what was your start in this world?

JON WOODWARD: I was born October 22, 1956, at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego. My father was career Navy, a lifer. My mom was a Navy housewife. My grandparents were farmers in Oklahoma. I had four brothers and a sister. My sister died in a drowning accident at the beach in San Diego when she was three, and one of my brothers died in Vietnam.

I was a rough kid, in and out of juvenile hall. I quit school, but then later I got my GED at night school. At 17 I joined the Marines, a six-year enlistment. That was 1973, so I just missed Vietnam. But they wouldn't have sent me anyway, 'cause my brother got killed there. I didn't like the Marines: too many chiefs, not enough little people.

STREETBUZZ: And you came to the Philippines?

JON WOODWARD: Yeah, my first overseas post was to the Philippines, the base at Olongapo (Subic Bay Naval Base, at the time the largest overseas US military base in the world.) My unit got assigned to Leyte, where we were training Filipino marines in security. We were out on foot patrol, which we did every day, with our Filipino counterparts.

One day we were out in this sugar cane field and I saw this fucking beautiful girl, she was a visioin of beauty. I got one of the Filipinos to translate for me. She was only fifteen, but at that time they didn't make any kind of deal about the age thing, fifteen was OK, no problem. Not like now. I was 22 then. So she became my live-in pretty much right away, within a couple of weeks. We lived together for two years. I went back to Olongapo, and I got an apartment there for her, off the base. Finally we got married, we were married by Dick Gordon, who was the mayor of Olongapo then. We had to get her a fake birth certificate, 'cause even by then she was only 17.

Then I got discharged, back in the States at San Diego. I came back here right away, and we bought a bar in Barrio Barreto (near Olongapo.) We did pretty good, and we lived really good. You could do well with a bar back then. By the time we went to the States in 1984, we'd saved $30,000 dollars.

Back home I went to work driving trucks. We lived in Washington, Hawaii, Calfornia, wherever the work was. But I was living a "Bohemian lifestyle" if you know what I mean. Among other things, my weight went up to 450 lbs, I had a 68" waist. I really wasn't takng care of myself. In 1987 I had a stroke, an aneurysm. First I was at Harborview Hospital, there in Seattle, then I was transferred to University Hospital. I was paralyzed, I couldn't speak. I was in the hopsital, rehabilitation, for six or seven months. They really pushed me, the staff. If it wasn't for that, all that time in the hospital, I wouldn't be here today. That's why I got better.

Jon Woodward


JON WOODWARD: Later we came back to the Philippines. I got a disability pension, 'cause I couldn't work any more. But then my wife got cancer.

At first she just had stomach trouble, so we thought she just had a bad stomach. That was 1997. Finally in 1998 she got diagnosed, it was uterine cancer. We were out in the Camotes, and she started bleeding. It was like her period you know, but then it just kept bleeding. I had to hire a pumpboat, it was 5000 pesos, to bring her over to Mandaue. She had surgery right away, the bleeding didn't stop until they operated on her. That's when the surgeon said, "Hey, it looks bad", it had spread all over her insides. So she had chemo, that stopped it for awhile. But then she got it in her breasts, and she had a bilateral mastectomy. Then she got it in her brain, she had two brain surgeries. Finally she died.

I lost everything, my wife and all my money. We spent everything for medical treatment. The U.S. embassy was totally unhelpful. Because she was a Filipino citizen, they said.

She was the love of my life, she was beautiful. We were together 22 years. She never hurt anything or anybody. She was a good wife and mother. I got lucky: she was a really nice lady. She didn't deserve what happened.

We had four kids, three boys and a girl. Now they're 15, 16, 17 and 21. They're all U.S. citizens. They're living with me in Leyte. Before, we had our own house, but I lost it. Now we're just renting. My oldest boy wants to go to the US. So that's OK with me.

Right now I'm over here in Cebu waiting for my check. I get a disability pension from the U.S, from Social Security. But it's only 24,000 pesos ($428 US), not enough since I got four kids, three of them in school. I think they're screwing me on my kids.

STREETBUZZ: You have a new girlfriend now...

JON WOODWARD: Yeah, Gemma, she's a bright girl. She's eighteen. We met at a barangay disco. She walked up to me and asked me to dance. I said no, so we just talked. Her father was a gambler, he was killed in a gambling argument. Her mom is dead too. She knew my wife. She said "I know you're lonely, I'm lonely too. If you want me, you can have me. I just want to finish school." Right now she's in high school, then she wants to go to college. Sure I'm helping her. She doesn't ask me for a fucking thing. She's a sweetie.

STREETBUZZ: What can you say about the Philippines?

JON WOODWARD: Well, to be honest, the only reason I came was because of my wife, she's Filipina, it really wasn't because I have a deep attraction for this place. Sometimes I feel trapped, sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it.

The Philippines has lots of potential; it always has, it always will. But the people cut their own throats, constantly. Like the bases. You know, when Pinatubo blew up, it ruined the air base at Clark. The U.S. was gonna come back and rebuild everything. But they kicked us out. It wasn't like this was a colony or something...

STREETBUZZ: We weren't a colonial power? The U.S. killed something over half a million Filipinos to subdue the country in 1898 when we came in. The Philippines was a formal U.S. colony for fifty years.

JON WOODWARD: But the U.S. was a different kind of colonial power, not like England or France. We tried to give them their independence. Later, we needed Clark and Subic Bay during Vietnam. They were very strategic.

STREETBUZZ: OK, so much for the U.S. How about the Philippines...

JON WOODWARD: The Filipinos are too money hungry. They want freedom and independence, but they stand in line to sell their votes. Have you been here for an election yet? At election time all the barangay captains, concilmen, mayors, they all cut deals with the candidates; if you give me this, I'll deliver my votes. Then they pay all the voters. But is that 100 pesos really gonna make a big difference in their life? They say, "Oh, America, it's so great!" but at election time they stand in line to sell their vote. As long as they allow their politicians to be corrupt, it won't change. I love the Philippines and Filipinos, but they have no sense of values. It's all petty politics, it's all local loyalty. Everybody knows that Marcos stole billions from this country and put it in Swiss banks. But Imelda Marcos got how many million votes when she ran for Congress last time? They support whomever will do something for them personally. That's why the infrastructure here is so fucked up, there's too many elections. Every time there's gonna be an election, all the public projects come to a halt so they can see who's gonna win.

Because here there is no yesterday, there's no tomorrow. It's all living for now. It's like the taxi driver, instead of picking up a customer at the airport and giving them his business card, you know, like "Hey call me while you're here and I'll be your personal driver", well instead of that, they try to rip the customer off. That's why most businesses fail here, they have no sense of business. If they make enough for some rice and fish today, then they're happy. It's generally true but not for all, there are exceptions.

STREETBUZZ: How about the foreigners here?

JON WOODWARD: Very few are nice guys. 80% are jerks, 20% are OK. It's like they have a vision: marry a Filipina and she'll wait on 'em hand and foot. It's the wrong idea. But the Filipinos feed that fantasy too. Filipinos complain about foreigners, that they have no manners. I have to agree with them. It's too bad, it ruins it for the guys who aren't like that. And the expats don't help each other out.

In the end, the Philippines is what you make it. You can live here on the cheap, meet a lot of very nice people. Or you can stay in a first-class hotel and be an asshole. It's what you make it.