Despite my apparent popularity as I walk any street on the isle of Cebu– “hello!” “good morning!” “how are you!”– the white man a has a checkered history in this part of the world. Magellan was the first to arrive in 1521; he was promptly beheaded by Chief Lapu-Lapu, and his crew excused themselves in short order. The next Spaniards arrived some decades later, and had what must have been the surprise of their lives when the native Cebuanos whipped out a figurine of the Santo Niño that Magellan’s crew had left behind in their haste.
Taking it as a sign, apparently, the Spaniards set about their missionary business with diligence, and had a terrific run over the subsequent 300-odd years until William McKinley took the restive Philippines off their hands. Washington was planning to liberate the country until a bevy of Republican Senators intervened and, well, actually maybe we’d better hang on to those islands after all. Following further decades of colonial oppression and attendant rebellion, MacArthur fled before the Japanese, who got their wartime use out of the Philippines most notably as a death-march locale and a favored source for “comfort women.” Then the Americans came back and finally made good on their promise: Filipinos walked free in 1946.
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Hanging out the second story window of a professional development center in Cebu City a banner congratulates “our students who will be leaving to work in the UK and Canada!” It’s a commonly felt sentiment here. “Honestly, there’s nobody in this country who doesn’t look at that and feel some envy,” said my friend Steve (a Filipino). In the Philippines, it seems, there is no higher mark of achievement than to leave the Philippines. The government actively promotes it, urging people to move abroad if they can, and don’t forget to write– overseas Filipinos send home billions of dollars annually, making up a full 10% of the national GDP. Even the Pope has chimed in, discouraging birth control in the Philippines because human bodies are the country’s biggest export. (This in an increasingly overpopulated country: one of the only net rice importers in Asia.)
While many settle for back-breaking labor in the Middle East (posters all over town seek engineers, electricians, and myriad other professionals who would like to take their talents to Qatar), most Filipinos, it seems, would value nothing more than a one-way ticket to America. The Philippines is not alone in idealizing, even fetishizing the West– the industry for nose jobs (longer, narrower) and skin treatments (whiter, always whiter) does gangbuster business across much of Asia, catering to Hollywood notions of beauty. And to be sure, poor people in every country share dreams of a different, better life. But in the Philippines those hopes often extend even to the middle and upper classes, and seem go beyond aspirations of riches to a deeper desire to shed the culture, history, and country to which they were born.
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With people spread across many of the Philippines’ 7,107 islands (or 7,101 if you discount the six that disappear at high tide), it’s not surprising that there wasn’t much holding the archipelago together as a single nation in the centuries before the Spanish arrival. So it’s tricky to separate what in the culture is “Spanish” or “American” from what’s truly “Filipino;” after 400 years of colonialism, nothing is pure. The delicacies of Filipino cuisine– spit-roast pig, roast chicken, and so on– mostly have discernible Spanish roots. Tagalog, the national language, hardly holds together a country of over 150 spoken dialects, and education defaults to English after secondary school. Even the emblem of Cebu– the icon of the Santo Niño, whose image is in every shop and restaurant, every government building– is an artifact of the first Western landing.
Difficult as it is to point to elements of distinct Filipino culture, it’s also hard to say with much precision what Filipino “looks like.” The brown skin and flat nose of Southeast Asia pervade, but there is great variety in color, shape and size, owing in no small part to the ample Western and Japanese blood floating around the gene pool. Given this colonial rape-history, the diversity of the Filipino ancestry hardly holds the warm and fuzzy “melting pot” connotations we enjoy in the U.S. Rather, the racial variety, the amalgamated culture– these things are to Filipinos a source of shame, reminders of their country’s emasculating history.
I can’t help but compare the Philippines to Thailand, the only country in Southeast Asia to never have been colonized (at least since the Burmese were sent packing in the 18th century). Thai national pride– in their food, their king, their history, their ethnic diversity– is palpable and omnipresent, expounded by the government and shared by the people. China is perhaps a middle-ground example, where the country’s humiliation during the Opium Wars is worn as a chip on the national shoulder. But China’s brush with colonialism never came close to drowning out Chinese identity, and the denizens of Beijing will seize any opportunity to remind you that their country invented spaghetti, gunpowder, and soccer during 5,000 glorious years of uninterrupted self-rule, thankyouverymuch.
There are many Filipinos, of course, who don’t fit the typical mold. Many of my colleagues, though they hope to travel the world and to visit their family in the U.S., are happy in the Philippines and proud of their country. And rightfully so: the mindset that the Philippines lacks a national, cultural identity to be proud of is nothing more than a bogus attitude. This is a land of great natural beauty; the people, taken as a whole, are as warm, friendly, and good-humored as people can be; and the charm of the country’s quirks and peculiarities won’t be lost on any visitor. Manny Pacquiao, a Filipino born into poverty, is now the world’s highest salaried athlete and the most exciting boxer in years (and a member of the Philippine parliament). Hardly quiescent subjects, Filipinos waged formidable revolts against first the Spanish and then the Americans, yielding an array of revolutionary heroes and considerable innovation in guerrilla warfare tactics. And Filipinos accomplished the world’s first bloodless revolution in 1986, getting rid of the Marcos family, following it up with the world’s first “text message revolution” in 2001, tossing out Joseph Estrada. But the government remains corrupt and disappointing, and for those few Filipinos who would fly the flag, it’s hard to be a nationalist alone.
Filipinos do come together, however, in the Catholic Church (Muslim separatists in Mindanao notwithstanding). The Spaniards were undoubtedly successful in their mission and even the most secular, educated Filipinos find community in the pews each Sunday. At no time of year is this more apparent than Christmastime: Filipinos go absolutely bananas for Christmas. A colleague lamented to me recently that productivity across the country drops through the floor as soon as the “‘bers” arrive. And that’s not “‘ber” as in “brr, it’s cold,” rather, that’s “‘ber” as in months that end in B-E-R. On September 1, the clerks and cashiers of every department store don their Santa hats, slip Nat King Cole into the CD player, and the hysteria escalates steadily for four months. In October, planning begins for Christmas festitivies, and sometime in November, everybody starts wishing everybody else a “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!”
In the final weeks before Christmas, every business, every workplace shuts down for a day or two and hosts a party at which “presentations” of singing and/or dancing are more or less required of all attendees. At the Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Science: Virology Research Unit (my workplace), the IT guys will be singing a song while the admin staff does a line dance. The staff at the Mayflower Hotel abandon their posts at every opportunity to review their steps. Even the ground crew at the international shipping company shows up early to work to slip out behind the warehouse by the runway, kicking their feet and waving their hands to get ready for the party. Last night, my final evening in the Philippines, I went down to Fuente Osmeña circle, the center of uptown Cebu, where a stage had been set up so the city could host their own party each night of advent. The students and staff of the Asian College of Technology were the evening’s hosts, and in the glow of a 50-foot “tree” of lights, in front of at least a thousand laughing, applauding people packed into the circle, the faculty of the Phys Ed department performed their dance– part ballroom, part hip hop– to Mariah Carey, and brought down the house.
To my foreign eyes, the obsession with Christmas seems a little bizarre, a little excessive. But it’s a charming part of living in this country, and without a doubt, it’s a really, truly, wholly Filipino thing.