In my Facebook feed this morning: the headline “Sandwich Downs More Than 300 in Bataan.”
At first I flicked it up, into the realm of stories I would never read. But the use of the word “sandwich,” singular (one sandwich for 300 victims?), piqued my curiosity after some delay. I retrieved the link from its infinite-scroll grave.
MORONG, Bataan — More than 300 people were treated for suspected food poisoning after they ate banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich that is popular fare at a store in Morong, Bataan.”
I read the whole thing. I wondered why, when Vietnamese food, especially banh mi, barely has a presence in Manila, someone in Bataan had opened a banh mi shop and it was so popular that hundreds of people bought sandwiches there every day.
At the end the writer added,
A number of eatery owners in the former Philippine Refugee Processing Center were taught how to make banh mi by Vietnamese refugees.
As Wikipedia elaborates,
The Philippine Refugee Processing Center (PRPC) was a large facility near Morong, Bataan, Philippines, which was used as the final stop for Indochinese refugees making their way to permanent resettlement in other nations.
Opened in 1980, PRPC … prepared Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees, including ethnic minorities (such as Chinese) from those three nations, for immigration to a variety of resettlement nations such as Canada, Norway, Australia, France, and primarily the United States. …
PRPC operated like a small city with schools, hospitals, libraries, restaurants, sports facilities, fire brigades, sewage treatment facilities, power generation facilities, water treatment centers, markets, and houses of worship for four religions.
It seems the original version of the food poisoning article carried the headline “Vietnamese Sandwich Downs More Than 300 People in Bataan.” The truncated version that had caught my eye used sandwich in the singular form because it referred to a cultural and historical phenomenon rather than the physical products, sandwiches, that were the perpetrators in the story.
The former PRPC is now a technology park, part of a cluster of special economic zones. The other SEZs nearby are former US military bases, sites from which the US Navy and Air Force fought Vietnam. I paused to think about all of this for a long time: The histories of a refugee camp and the US military bases that cemented people’s legal status as refugees have all been flattened into the postcolonial, post-totalitarian future of Philippine neoliberalism. Still, in the everyday economies of the cities in and around these zones, the legacies of their former uses—say, banh mi or sex work—live on. The macro processes of historical abstraction are never complete; their unevenness must mark people’s lived experience all the time. Only sometimes are these marks exceptional, as when sickness afflicts 300 people and their bodies become sites of conflict between failed and imagined ideals of national sovereignty.
“Virtually all refugees had confirmation before arrival at PRPC that they had been accepted to resettle in the West,” the Wikipedia article notes, “and therefore the mood among the refugee population was frequently upbeat and positive.”