*It is not within the scope of this post to define exactly what Filipino culture is, on the whole and overall. I will not attempt it because I do not know and because I may not be able to catch myself from thinking Tagalog-centric thoughts that will discredit the other regions, tribes, and languages. The Philippines is young and its people are trying to discover who we are―very much like teenagers. That’s why I suspect that not even the most senior members of the local culturati know what Filipino culture is, and that those who profess to know may be kidding themselves.
**For the purposes of this post, I will be referring to the internationally-known Filipino language as Tagalog, seeing as there is very little difference between the two. I will also be referring to the local dialects as languages for the same reason that I wish as much as possible for a non-Tagalog-centric mentality to pervade this post. And just so we’re clear, a dialect in this context is:
The other usage refers to a language that is socially subordinated to a regional or national standard language, often historically cognate to the standard, but not derived from it.
***Mini Philippine history and culture lecture ahead. Possibly drowse-inducing. You have been warned.
I have an uneasy relationship with Filipino culture.
The question of culture has been bugging me of late because of my Clarion UCSD acceptance. I am told that the 2014 batch is a very diverse group, very international: apart from North America, my classmates hail from Finland, Spain, Australia, Bulgaria, and Singapore. One has Iranian blood and two have Russian ancestry. This is great when you consider how diversity and inclusiveness are huge issues in today’s international SFF scene―just consider the Hugo Award nominations hullabaloo and trending Twitter hashtag, #WeNeedDiverseBooks.
I’d be glad to represent Filipinos in the international writing scene some day (sooner than I think, it seems). There’s just one problem: for the last 22 years, I’ve felt detached from my culture―a foreigner in my own country, an outsider looking in on history being made all around me. I even write about outsiders; most of my characters are loners and society misfits.
As if this weren’t enough, I have been told at local workshops by some veteran writers that my work and my generation―and myself, by extension―is not Filipino enough. Before, such a sentiment used to make me seethe inside for three reasons:
- These writers were addressing social and educational factors beyond my control;
- They were raging not at me, but at my entire generation;
- They were mourning periods in time that the elders back in their day probably would not have considered “Filipino enough,” either.
Let’s leave out for the moment how Philippine literature’s “default” mode is social realism and how many “literary” writers do not take the literature of the speculative seriously, even though most of early Philippine literature is full of “highly magical oral-epic tradition.” That’s another essay for another time.
I am a middle-class young woman. I went to a progressive all-girls’ Catholic school in Metro Manila, the megalopolis where I was born and raised. I am the eldest daughter of overprotective parents in a patriarchal society. I was not allowed to commute anywhere (whether alone or with friends), sleepover at any friend’s house, stay out later than my curfew (which depended on the function, thankfully), and I was not brought to public markets―a pity, as these are places I consider as cultural hubs on par with art museums and preserved historical sights.
From my father, I inherited Polycystic Kidney Disease. Our lives have been defined and rearranged by his having had a kidney transplant and my having the stage one version. There are many very unhealthy Filipino foods I was trained not to eat, such as isaw.
My first language is English, much of which I learned from a steady diet of Disney movies and North American and British works of fiction. There was a time when I was eager to learn Nihonggo because of all the anime I watched, and later French (Parisienne?) because of all the French animated films I adored. But I actively refused to learn Tagalog because my older cousins teased my sister and I for speaking English (they did so in Tagalog, naturally). I came to view the former language, ironically, as the language of my oppressors. In later years, I would adopt a halting version of Tagalog with a heavy American accent I tried hard to suppress as a defense mechanism of sorts. Everyone I spoke to in Tagalog was marked as an acquaintance. I suppose that’s why I had few friends growing up, even though my batch at my old high school numbered over 400 students―and even when I did gain friends, they were very much like me.
This is what I know when I “write what I know”―and when you consider that the Philippine archipelago has 7,107 islands, 81 provinces, 17 regions, 180 tribes, and over 170 languages, I know nothing.
I am trying to navigate my way around this culture dilemma: I join writers’ workshops because of the opportunity to travel and meet new people and try new things; I got into journalism because a friend told me that this was the kind of job where people grow up fast.
These last three years haven’t been all good. For example, I’ve been literally shoved by the cruelty of strangers in the middle of a parade ground―and we work in the same company. My hair was once caught and pulled in the crush of the MRT crowds and I was publicly made fun of for crying out in pain.
But the good outnumbers the bad. I’ve finally been to a local festival, partaken of a Cordillera tribe’s ritual, swum atop a sandbar, eaten fresh urchin roe (thanks to the kindness of strangers), worn a hijab in the Muslim city of Marawi, haggled for goods at a public market, stayed out on a boulevard for hours just to catch the sunrise, learned a handful of words in the respective languages of new friends. Every new place I go, someone passionately lectures about the Spanish/Americans/Japanese influences and their inflicted damages on the food, on the buildings, on the land, on the people―and I will listen, because I am genuinely interested in history.
Yet even after all that, I still don’t know what Filipino culture is. I feel its pull, but it eludes me.
You’d think the Philippines a huge country when I describe it, but in truth, we function much like a small town where everyone knows or claims to know each other. It doesn’t help that, due to over 350 years under three colonizers, we are the most Westernized nation this side of Asia. How can I hope to represent 95 million people of an intensely diverse, intensely colonized, intensely regionalistic nation? I am still learning how to question its divisive modes of thinking!
Barring all these factors, I don’t even know what Manila culture is. I don’t know what the hell being Filipino is supposed to mean―though like I said before, I don’t think anyone does.
None of the above should or would have bothered me, but then I chose to pursue writing as a passion (specifically, writing fantasies). No matter what you write, you can’t be an ace in such a pursuit without constantly asking of yourself “how?” and “why?”
None of the above should or would have bothered me, but then I read Nick Joaquin’s “A Heritage of Smallness” under Dr. Ambeth Ocampo in my junior year of college. That damn thing will break you if you let it. And I let it because what it postulated was true: Filipinos of ages past preferred and excelled in the small endeavor, whether this was literature, architecture, business, or industry. And to think that Joaquin wrote that gem in the 1960s!
The task before me and others like me, then, is to build something great. Something built on and with the bones of the East while bridging it with the West.
And now, I’m going to a writers’ workshop in the United States and by God, I am frightened by the possibility of not being true to my roots there.
I believe in people writing whatever the hell they want, but I also believe in peer pressure. Will I feel forced to write “Filipino” stories, which some define as work devoid of colonial influences? Or will I keep making up worlds like I usually do, occasionally borrowing from other cultures not mine, the way Westerners do? What if I fail to speak for my people? Is it presumptive of me to even call the indigenous tribes my people when I only know of the existence of a handful and seen even less individuals up close and personal?
There is a very problematic strain of thinking in talks of nationalism. It frames the Filipino without any influence of the West. Many agree with this kind of thinking, going so far as to protest in front of the US Embassy when Barack Obama came to visit.
I do not agree with this kind of thinking. While trying to reclaim a lost pre-colonial culture, it also rejects everything good the West ever brought to the archipelago. I am talking about the 12 items Nick Joaquin lists in his essay “Culture and History” as the greatest events in Philippine history―all of them introduced during the 16th century, the beginning of the Spanish era. These are as follows:
- The Introduction of the Wheel
- The Introduction of the Plow
- The Introduction of Road and Bridge
- The Introduction of New Crops like Corn, Tobacco, Camote, Coffee, Tea, Cocoa, Beans, Achuete, Onion, Potato, Guava, Papaya, Pineapple, Avocado, Squash, Lettuce, Cucumber, Cabbage, Singcamas, Sigadillas, Mani, etc., etc.
- The Introduction of New Livestock like the Horse, the Cow, the Sheep, the Turkey, the Goose, etc., and the Carabao as Draft Animal
- The Introduction of the Fabrica, or Factory
- The Introduction of Paper and Printing
- The Introduction of the Roman Alphabet
- The Introduction of Calendar and Clock
- The Introduction of the Map and the Charting of the Philippine Shape
- The Introduction of the Arts of Painting and Architecture
- The Introduction of the Guisado
And let’s not forget who finally united a whole cluster of different barangays, even if it was just in one island group (Luzon). It definitely wasn’t the datus.
(Side note: Isn’t it fascinating how so many turn to history to find culture?)
However, the Philippines does not owe Spain a debt of gratitude simply because they brought these innovations or even because they named the archipelago after a Spanish king, for better or worse. These are simply facts, and people ignore facts at their peril.
But although we must acknowledge what good came to the Philippines from the West, we most certainly cannot shun our own for the embrace of a foreign culture, even if we do not exactly know what we own if it sat right under our noses. I don’t just mean the different traditions and histories of the indigenous tribes; I also pertain to both the traditions and modernity found in the cities and metropolises, though these have been “tainted” by the foreign.
The cosmopolitan in the Philippines is also Filipino; to reject this is to reject the inherent adaptability of the Filipino people. Alone of all the Spanish colonies, were we not allowed to keep our native tongues though we allowed many Spanish (and Chinese and Arabic and later, English) words to seep into these? Are not the descendants of those who were converted to Catholicism still following the framework of our pagan ancestors when childless wives dance for the Virgin of Obando every May for a baby, when multitudes throw their handkerchiefs at the Black Nazarene every January in the hopes of gaining miracles in the cloth? Did we not completely alter until unrecognizable the military jeeps the Americans sold at the end of World War II, hence the jeepneys we have plying the streets today?
We are so good at conquering the tools of our conquerors, even if we never vanquished the conquerors completely by ourselves; why deny this attribute?
Listen, I’m not pro-Spain or pro-America or even pro-Japan. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate as well as critique the parts of the cultures they brought and continue to bring to the Philippines. I think we are all the better enriched when we get an idea of how much larger the world is beyond the horizon, whether you look to another province or another nation.
The Filipino adaptability perfectly encapsulates something I’ve lately realized: a vibrant Filipino culture―and culture, in general―is not captured in any concrete, specific thing. Maybe it is not meant to be captured at all, or at least, not completely and for all time. You can definitely find a people’s culture in their values and in the way they interact with each other and the world. The things these people leave behind are only meant to suggest the dynamism of an entire way of life.
Perhaps our perceptions of culture change with every generation. Culture is not static. Hence, maybe this is why the elderly will always be complaining about the youth and the loss of culture in any period in history, everywhere.
If there’s anyone truly in danger of losing their culture, it’s the indigenous tribes. Many indigenous traditions are dying out because their youth are choosing modernity, education, and work in the big cities (especially Manila). It would be great if we could preserve those, but there are huge obstacles to overcome in the endeavor―not least of which is how many seem to prefer squabbling over regional differences rather than embracing them.
And so we circle back to literature.
There is a Huffington Post article titled “Are Authors Scared to Write Diverse Books?”. It’s not the best article about diversity in literature out there, but I think it’s a good jumping point.
At first I thought it was going to touch on a history of North American racism in literature, but author Roni Loren briefly examines the poetics behind her own writing while breaking down three fears straight, cisgendered white writers may have in writing a character totally unlike them (LGBT, disabled, Person of Color, what have you).
But when I read the last fear, I realized that the article applied to anyone writing from an outsider’s perspective in anything. The fear was, “If I’m not part of a certain group, do I have the right to write about it?”
I applaud her answer:
This topic has varied opinions. Some believe that stories about x group should only be written by writers who are x. I mentioned earlier that we need more diversity amongst published authors, so I see where this idea comes from. And I absolutely agree that there needs to be focus on encouraging diverse voices in the publishing world. (That’s a bigger topic I’m not going to tackle here.) But I don’t think that means that any writer should be limited to only writing about groups they belong to or experiences they’ve personally had (how boring). A rising tide lifts all boats. Let’s all be part of that tide together.
By virtue of blood, birth, association, and responsibility, whether I like it or not, I carry the disparate voices of 95 million Filipinos no matter where I go. The danger of speaking for 95 million is that foreigners who do not know any better will look to me and others like me as the voices for them all, even though every single one of those 95 million people have experiences vastly different from one another. We are united only by that word―Filipino―and we do not even have a solid definition everyone can accept.
I don’t even wish to speak for all of them, especially the indigenous peoples. That would be presumptive; some of the tribes even have people who can speak and write for them. I will occasionally speak about them, but after all, I am an outsider. I am bound to get something wrong. How then, will I ever be Filipino enough (and uphold that proudly)?
It took friends both Filipino and North American, both living in the US, to point out to me that 1) this is a conversation I’ll be having with myself for the rest of my life, and 2) by virtue of blood, birth, association, and responsibility, whether I like it or not, I am a Filipino no matter where I go. I was born as one, I grew up as one, and no matter what my influences are or how left out of society I feel, it’s going to keep showing up in everything I do and in every imaginary world I create on the blank page, one way or another. This existence I’ve been living is valid, too, and I do not owe my career or my subject matter to anyone, foreigners and Filipinos alike.
I may have lived a privileged life as an English-speaking Catholic school girl from Manila with a kidney disease. Some would even consider that the angst I feel when trying to crack this mold as a First World Problem; it certainly does not compare to a faceless corporation evicting you from your ancestral home or sleeping on cardboard boxes in the shadow of a highway.
But you know what, we all have our issues. Having one issue or other does not determine where a person falls in the much too simple dichotomies of weak or strong, right or wrong, patriotic or unpatriotic. Those are just some of the things that make up my voice and I would rather have this kind of voice than the inability to wield any kind of voice at all.
We can only hope to write about each other with respect. But in worrying about the weight of 95 million other voices, I nearly forgot about the heft of my own voice and the respect I must accord it, too.