Culture Shock

For Father’s Day, I enrolled in a writing workshop-cum-tour of Writer’s Block Philippines featuring the irrepressible Carlos Celdran. We walked from Plaza de España (Roma) in front of Manila Cathedral, to the crypts behind San Agustin Church. Along the way, Celdran talked about Manila’s bloody past and how it helped shape our national identity. In so doing, he extolled Manila’s charms with a passion rare in Manileños. Most would rather talk about how decrepit Manila has become, or how it’s just a shell of its former self, but not Celdran. “I may not change Manila, but I can change the way you look at Manila,” says Celdran at the end of each tour, and I believe him. After earning his degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, Celdran now makes his home in Ermita’s fabled North Syquia Apartments, where on occasion his pad also hosts other interesting events.

The apartment itself is monument to a bygone era. The building’s art deco design cues identify it as a survivor of the American carpet bombing of Manila (which Celdran emphasizes on his walking tour). The floors are made of hardwood older than my seventy seven year old father (not confirmed, but as much is obvious). While the identity of its architect and of its former tenants have been lost to time, the building is in pristine condition. One gets the feeling that the intervening decades have been kind and that not much has been lost.

The tour intimates that Manila was like this once – a grand, cosmopolitan city in the bosom of the Pacific, transformed into America’s image from the outhouse it had once been under Spanish (Celdran would say Vatican) rule. So thorough was the transformation that some had taken the American period as a promise that one day, America’s annexation of the Philippines will be total and complete such that all our colonial troubles be a thing of the past. Such dreams were much like, I imagine, that of Jose Rizal, speaking a century ago while toasting Luna and Hidalgo at Madrid’s Hotel Inglés:

Seated and participating in our reception and honoring the illustrious sons of Filipinas, you also honor Spain; because you know this well – the limits of Spain are neither the Atlantic, nor Cantabria, nor the Mediterranean; what meanness it would be were the sea a dike against her greatness, her thought. — Spain is there, there where she makes her beneficent influence felt, and even if her flag were to disappear, her memory would remain, eternal, imperishable.

The facade Hotel Ingles in Madrid as it appears today.
Thanks to Madrid Tourist Guide for the picture.

Celdran, in his tour, acknowledges as much. “We were supposed to be the fiftieth state, not Hawaii,” he says mockingly, while detailing the excesses of the American period. I did not realize how pervasive this dream was until I stumbled upon a rant on Facebook by a first-generation Filipino-American migrant, who had become incensed that old-timers in the United States had come to calling the Philippines as PI, short for the Philippine Islands. He had taken offense at its repeated use, and so furious at this state of affairs he made a Facebook group for it. Rightfully so: the Wikipedia entry on the subject notes that the term was last in use in the Commonwealth Period, where it was adapted as a direct translation of the Spanish. It was as if these old-timers were trying to hide that they were immigrants from some other country.

***

As I wrote previously, I grew up among die-hard Republicans whose idea of a perfect Philippines was its annexation by the United States (complete with snow). They’d do anything to be called Americans. Call them fake Americans and they’d feel elated. Anyone who had the opportunity to go to the United States and become a citizen or stay on as an illegal immigrant, yet chose to come back and be a Filipino was an unmitigated failure of a human being.

When I asked them why they felt that way, I was met with the condescension that one gets from questioning the edict of an elder.

When I watched international sporting events (i.e., the Olympics), I was made to cheer for the United States. I didn’t understand it at the time, but it was the 1984 Olympics, and the United States was eating up medals like Pac Man eats pellets. They were winners; who didn’t want to be associated with winners? At the same time, I was made to understand that the one and only acceptable name for the Philippines is the Philippine Islands (the use of any other name would only spawn confusion, they said). I guess “PI” was what they heard inside the Naval Base, where the streets were immaculate, none of the dry goods were made in the Philippines, and everyone had fistfuls of dollars – unlike the chaos that was the order of the day in the Municipality of Olongapo.

I guess it would be easy to conclude, if you were brought up with such a stark social, cultural, and economic contrast in your own hometown, that life would be better if we were like the United States. It was often said in my home that the problem with Filipinos is being Filipino. We were nothing but lazy, indolent retards whose race and skin color doomed us to a life of misery. However, if you sold a box of skin whitener to my folks, you could bleed my folks dry. Whether the stinky, smelly stuff actually worked was not the point. One was trying to improve the race, and consequently, one’s lot in life, and that’s all that mattered.

Because of this American Idol-worship, most male members of my matriarchal family have gone on to the United States, taking advantage of the citizenship on offer when military service is performed. There they are held as paragons of virtue and achievement, all the more so when their offspring are presented as on their way to successful careers (except when the pace and drive required for success in these careers take them so far away they’re never heard from again).

It was only later that my own family personally learned just how ugly this idol-worship could be. My sister had just come home from college in the United States. To celebrate, we went with Mom around the Katipunan area looking for a place to eat. My sister, who in the throes of puberty had come to think of herself as infallible, began nitpicking on how some UP buildings looked really decrepit and on how the roads were full of potholes, all the while blaming the poor state of affairs on being Filipino. Road construction was subpar because of our attitude and work ethic. Building construction was subpar because no building material could tolerate being built by a Filipino. As the aggrieved student defending his beloved campus, I spoke up in her defense. This sparked a huge row that ruined everyone’s appetite. We returned home hungry, and have never spoken about the incident ever since.

While that is par for the course when it comes to petty fights with my sister, it took some time before she came to accept herself as Filipino. Now, and although she has never dated a Filipino and is about to marry a white guy from Texas, she couldn’t be more proud of her ability to cook Filipino food (all while saying it was a cardiologist’s nightmare). That being said, I find it cool that once she gets married, no one can tell she isn’t Caucasian just from looking at her name. Everyone else thinks it’s cool because she’ll have white babies.

To this day, I have to field questions from relatives in the United States asking how life is back here in the PI. I think they ask the same question to all family they left behind. When I tell them over the phone that things are looking up, I’m met with polite smiles and long pauses. I have no doubt that if they were to ask me the same question in person, I will be met with blank stares and awkward pauses.

Give them a few more minutes, and conversation along this line dies. Eventually they’ll mutter something about how they’re sorry for what happened to Mom and say they’ll call again at a more appropriate time.

***

On the lighter side of things, my childhood wasn’t that bad. Since ivory-white skin was the be-all and end-all of the family’s Caucasian American dream, my sister and I were considered quite fortunate as kids. As the products of parents of Chinese and Malay ancestry, we had lighter skin than most (although it’s more yellow than white), and were generally thought of as pretty children who had much potential.

Two years old and running. A walking, talking siopao.
My daughter just loves siopao, but I digress.

I HATED being called Chinese. To be Chinese was to be a drooling, lazy, good-for-nothing oaf who did nothing but sit by the entrance of the local hardware store, chewing betel nuts. On the other hand, to be Filipino was to be one with everyone else, to be united in their suffering, and to be part of the country where I live. In protest, I refused to learn Mandarin and took a passion for writing in baybayin. While I never did become that fluent in Filipino, I did become adept at using baybayin for passing notes around when class got boring. I also won some small essay-writing contest in high school, but I think that contest was rigged.

As exposure to the sun from basketball and tennis took their toll, my body looked less of a siopao and more like a dark brown lizard (to hear my wife and her family describe how I used to look in those days). Those in my family were saddened by all that wasted potential.

Now that I’ve returned to looking like a siopao, albeit a dark, fried one, I am now working hard to return to looking like a brown lizard. Here’s to success in that venture.

***

I became acquainted with two of the main movers of the writing workshop-cum-tour, Niña Terol-Zialcita and Nikka Sarthou, through friends of different circles. Nines opened for fellow Cue alumni Mike Unson at one of his monthly shows at Cynthia Alexander’s Conspiracy Garden Cafe in Quezon City. I found her posts on Twitter interesting and got to know her more at Mike’s gig. While I met Nikka for the first time that day, she remains good friends with my friend Ching Quintos-Kubel, who, together with Nikka, went to the same high school and are in the same batch as the wife. We were able to talk about common friends during breaks, including Ching.

Ching grew up in Manila and in Baguio in middle class surroundings. She claims her dad calls her jeprox, but her accent betrays her. She went to high school in a prominent school for girls, and took her tertiary education in a respected institution of higher learning. After college, she found employment with a German company with a branch office in Diliman. While in Stuttgart for training for that company, she met a man with whom she fell madly in love. Several years later, Ching bade goodbye to the Philippines and moved to Germany for love.

She moved in 2007.

While through the years one will hear Ching rave about tiny bits of culture learned from vacations in Italy (she doesn’t need a visa) or the latest episode of Doctor Who, I have never heard her rant about how being Filipino is the root of all evil. Instead, she rants about how tanga PostSecret senders or Lufthansa‘s marketing department can be, or how the expat Filipino community in Stuttgart seems to be just a little bit too quiet.

For now, it is all she can do to keep the three stars and a sun aloft in a small town, in what she calls “the land of wurst and beer.” I wish her all the luck in the world.

***

If only all Filipinos were as dedicated to remaining as Filipino as possible. Two weeks ago, I had my attention drawn to the growing antipinoy movement, in which Filipinos are becoming increasingly embarrassed by their culture in the same manner that one is embarrassed by parents at school functions.

In an article for the Philippine Online Chronicles, Iya Justimbaste condemned Filipino herd mentality, as if groupthink were a trait exclusive to Filipinos. In it, she writes:

Many Filipinos—I’m not saying all, have this inclination to follow the norms of the society regardless of how flawed and shallow these norms are. If one would dare say anything that is conflicting to the views of the majority, he or she would be condemned or worse, regarded as someone who is a deviant. This Nazi-like attitude of the Filipinos has often pulled the whole nation down because honestly, what the majority in the Philippines believes in is most likely irrelevant, trivial, and downright stupid

The absence or lack of individualism in Filipinos have caused so many problems that include voting for a candidate just because they think the majority supports him even if the candidate is incompetent in many aspects giving birth to a culture of “going with the flow”. Respect does not come in the form of confirming to the beliefs of many people. It is recognizing the differing views of other people.

In times like this, the last thing the country needs is people who are afraid to beg to differ to the “majority“.

While I agree that groupthink is best countered with independent thought, it seems to me that her own political science is based on self-perpetuating paradigm: her links, preserved above, all come from AntiPinoy. In particular, they come from a poster writing under the nom-de-guerre ChinoF, who describes himself as:

Chino believes that Filipino culture is backward, repressive, corrupt and defective, so if you want to do something right in this country, you have to go against culture. He also knows that in doing so, you risk being called “anti-Pinoy” by the defective and deceived people, and hence he feels at home in this blog site.

What got my goat was Iya’s last paragraph describing herself:

She is a 21 year-old girl who believes that the Filipino Culture is what keeps on impeding the country’s progress and that Filipino cultural values are resistant to development.

I read somewhere that when all you read is that with which you agree, you reinforce your own beliefs to the point where fair evaluation of one’s work becomes impossible. If I remember right, that article was written in relation to Glenn Beck and the radical wing of the Republican Party in the United States, but that can also apply to all manner of self-referencing political theory/propaganda/big lie. Naturally, I can’t find the article now, but I assure you it’s out there in the ether.

For a more thorough skewering of Iya Justimbaste, here’s Ria Jose’s take. Perhaps when heads are cooler and deep breaths are taken, we can find the points through all the rhetoric and come to something much more substantial.

***

I think I’m not alone in thinking that the antipinoy people would’ve been Dick Gordon’s core constituency: people who, shocked at the efficiency of other societies/systems, advocate for a wholesale overhaul of the Filipino psyche. It sounds good on paper, but past attempts at overhauling other societies have led to disaster.

In Corporate Finance class under Jose Cochingyan III in Ateneo Law, we learned about how foreign technology, if not specifically adapted to factor in local conditions, including but not limited to the prevailing socio-political environment, can lead to disastrous consequences. In simpler words, just because it works for them doesn’t mean it will work for us. There are more complicated issues to be worked out first. Failure to do so results in white elephants, which in the Philippines, is apparently not an endangered species.

My good friend, soon-to-be expat and blogger extraordinaire caffeinesparks tells me the antipinoy movement, led by benign0 is fuelled mostly by diaspora. I’m inclined to believe her, if only from experience. There would have been no hope for change, however, if it were not for people like her and Ching, who though miles away from home, remain as fiercely Pinoy as ever, and for Carlos, who left the other side of the fence so that we may learn what being Pinoy really means.

Experience tells me that the antipinoy line of thinking is a mere side effect of culture shock, and tends to right itself over time. In my family, it took decades, or the time it took to realize what was lost, whichever came first. I’m sure my family’s story isn’t the first, and as our diaspora increases, I’m sure ours won’t be the last.

#

For the record, the official name of the PI is the Republic of the Philippines. It hasn’t been officially known as the PI since 1945. I don’t care who you are but if you call it otherwise, PI mo. I know you understand what that means.

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3 thoughts on “Culture Shock”

  1. I used to edit benign0’s submissions to peyups.com, so I’m used to all the posturing and the rhetoric.

    While I may not agree with all that he says, or with the hypotheses/framework laid out in the book (it seems to be amateurish scholarship, filled with motherhood statements and cultural bias), I will defend the right for it to be heard.

    What I see instead, is a sense of frustration among those who are not versed in the social sciences, realizing what is intrinsically a problem of economics, sociology, and political science. There is political and economic theory being laid out by the book’s author, but it has not passed academic rigor. That’s my main beef with it.

    We do not know just how long people have had grand plans for the Philippines, just as we do not know just how long people will have grand plans for the Philippines.

    On the other hand, I get the sense that there is frustration with technocrats, because their understanding is without context. As such, they are hard-pressed to find applications to their acquired knowledge. The answer, if I read the GRP book correctly, is to remove context. I can’t see how that will happen, because the context developed out of people finding ways to game the system. There is a need for an interdisciplinary, studied approach that considers the complexity of the entire system.

    Instead, what I see is a group of people conducting what seems to me to be rudimentary agit-prop tactics to implant a meme, which may or may not be correct.

    I say this because it needs to be said. This goes to all sides of the left/center/right debate. Just because the theory fits doesn’t mean it’s correct, or that it’s encompassing. Sometimes the entire truth is wrapped up in a dozen theories, all running parallel to one another. Just because there is a counter-theory doesn’t mean the other person is hopeless or stupid. He just sees things differently.

    Proper discourse on this magnitude requires more structured, disciplined thinking. Step out of bounds, and you put one more brick on the road to hell.

  2. Francis! (Er, Kiko? Same name as my boss, hehehe…) I’m so sorry for being able to read this post just now, but YOU WRITE SO WELL! Thanks for not only mentioning WBP and the tour, but also–and more importantly–for displaying a love for the Philippines that we do hope to rekindle among Filipinos from all over the world.

    Do keep writing, and please keep in touch!

    ~ Nina/Nines

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