“No wang-wang zone”

My dad lives in the Philippines, and I was in the Manila airport on my way to visit him. I was in the part where you get in line and wait for them to glance at your passport when I saw a cheap computer printed sign taped to a column.

This is a no wang-wang zone.
We have cameras, don’t embarrass yourself.
Stay in line.

I couldn’t help but notice it, which made me wonder why I’d never seen it before — I’ve been visiting that country every few years since I was 12. It didn’t seem like a very airport type of sign.

Eventually I had a chance to ask my stepmom, and she explained. Wang-wang is pretending that you’re really important. Say you don’t want to wait in traffic. You light up the siren on your dashboard, get over to the shoulder, and plough on past all the suckers. Or say you don’t want to wait in line at the airport. You put on a pair of sunglasses, tell your family to follow you in a tight pack while tittering about your celebrity or photographing you, and stroll confidently past all the long lines right on through to baggage. It’s called wang-wang because of the first example: That’s the sound a siren makes.

I’m not one of these Foucault-fawning critical theory types — at all — but when I think about wang-wang I can’t shake words like “postmodern” and “postcolonial.” They don’t usually go together, but I think wang-wang is both. The Philippines was colonized for centuries and the country, despite its merits, has a bad case of some of the worst aspects of Western culture, like extreme wealth disparities, deified celebrities, and the use of bureaucracy for interfacing between citizen and state.

Naturally there are forms of resistance to those things, and wang-wang is one, but it stands out to me for how savvy it is to the arbitrariness of power. The terms of being a powerful person are a bit arbitrary in any culture, but they are so blatantly arbitrary in the Philippines, partly because of the colonial mold: their governance system and economic structure were copied and pasted from Western models with Western loans and no regard for this idea that a country’s political and economic systems should be congruent with its culture. The common result is the portfolio of asymmetries that characterize life in the developing world, like asymmetry in wealth, in power, in the development of urban and rural places, in the relative amounts of law and lawfullness, and in the amount of admiration for Westerners over compatriots.

If asymmetry is the common result of orthodox international development, the “no wang-wang zone” is the postmodern result: a rule in an airport immigration lobby chastising this new kind of person who can break all the rules by pretending to be the kind of person who can break all the rules.