I was riding my motorcycle along the coast towards downtown Surigao, minding my own business, when a young boy by the side of the road let out a big whoop.
“Hey Joe!” he shouted with a huge grin and energetic wave.
And just like that, I was back at the start. More specifically, the start of my journey in this foreign land that now feels like home. In fact, I hadn’t been called “Joe” in quite some time. But as any foreign white man in the Philippines will tell you, it’s something we foreign white men often get called.
Occasionally, the moniker is uttered derisively with a smirk as if to say, “Hey, you foreign so-and-so, your presence is a stain.” More often, though, it’s mean as a friendly greeting, something akin to “Hey foreign guy, I see that you’re white but don’t worry because that’s ok; in fact I like it.”
What’s obvious, though, is that precious few of these self-appointed greeters—especially the kids—even know what they’re saying.
Not that it’s particularly poignant. The term originated in the aftermath of World War II when the Philippines was occupied by thousands of American “G.I. Joes” seen by many as their country’s saviors.
It had actually started as a1941 cartoon character created by a U.S. Army private named David Breger. Originally published in the Saturday Evening Post under the title “Private Breger,” the strip quickly got snatched up and renamed by the Army.
To make a long story short, the term caught on and survives to this day as a popular line of action figures. For most Filipinos, though, it simply refers to any white man who looks like a foreigner. Which is to say, any white man they happen to see.
I honestly don’t know why, but after hearing it hurled at me regularly early on, it comes streaking my direction far less often today. Is that because the designation has finally reached the early throes of a well-deserved and overdue death? Or because, having become a permanent resident, I’m now a familiar figure with a name of my own?
Either way, I can say with certainty that “Hey, Joe” is a greeting I do not crave.
Apparently others agree. Bob Martin, the American Mindanao Bob who once managed a website called “Living in the Philippines,” said he “bristled every time I heard this being yelled at me, which meant three or four times every day…”
And Nathan Allen, a well-known American blogger who spent several years in the Philippines, expressed his sympathy for white non-Americans routinely assaulted by what many perceive as an unintended insult. “Personally,” he wrote, “I don’t mind it… but then again, I’m from the U.S. If I was British, German, or Russian, honestly, I might take offense…”
Ah, but then America held an election that infused the designation with new life. “Well, what do you know?” columnist Mel Libre gushed in the Sun Star. “The 48th President of the United States is Joe Biden, and I don’t think he’d mind if we’d greet him with the expression, ‘Hey Joe!’.”
Not being as enamored of the President as Libre, well, let me just say thanks, but no thanks.
My old mentor, Bob Martin, however, came up with a ingenious solution. “I decided to start using the term myself!” he wrote. “One day a friend and I were driving down the street, and we saw a foreigner… [So] I rolled down the window and yelled… `Hey Joe!’ The guy looked at me and you could see the shock on his face…”
So, fellow white guys, the next time you see me, just call me Joe. I’m kidding. Call me for a drink instead.
David Haldane’s latest book, “A Tooth in My Popsicle,” is available on Amazon and Lazada. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning journalist, author, and broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Gold Star Daily.