A few weeks ago, my six-year-old cousin Teeyah blatantly refused to speak Tagalog to her Ate Christine (Ate is a colloquial term to show respect for an older female) over our weekly Facetime call. She said she would rather speak English over Tagalog. Born and raised in the Philippines, she is a spunky, intelligent and artistic little girl — she can also barely speak a word of Tagalog. This sparked my interest as I stewed on this question: how can a girl living and studying in the Philippines not know Tagalog (the official Filipino language)?
I speak fluent Tagalog; I grew up in the Philippines, immigrated to the United Kingdom and my family eventually settled in Northern California. I allowed myself to fully delve into the previous question and journeyed through texts and readings and even interviewed several members of the Filipino community.
Throughout my research, I found that centuries of colonization have gradually taken away and degraded traditional Filipino culture that modern Filipinos are now tailored to believe that a Western way of thinking is much better than being and thinking like a traditional Pinoy (colloquial term for Filipino).
So — where does this leave us?
I. History of Filipino Culture — Me, Manila. 2004. Handa, Awit
I grudgingly walk into a military-like formation as my third-grade teacher corrals my class for our weekly school assembly. She yells to me, “Ms. Bumatay! Please fall in line. We are going to sing the National Anthem shortly.” I turn red; I am always belligerently embarrassed by my teacher in front of the entire class. It is something I am used to as other kids are too. The teachers are bullies — especially Ms. P. Perhaps it is not as bad as my daddy’s school days. He said that his teacher used to spank his hands with a wooden stick if he didn’t stay quiet.
The announcer finally speaks, commencing our three-hour long assembly. He leads our National Anthem:
“Handa, awit. (Ready, sing).
Perlas ng Silanganan
Alab ng puso
Sa Dibdib mo’y buhay.
Duyan ka ng magiting,
Di ka pasisiil
Sa dagat at bundok,
Sa simoy at sa langit mong bughaw,
May dilag ang tula
At awit sa paglayang minamahal.
Ang kislap ng watawat mo’y
Tagumpay na nagniningning;
Ang bituin at araw niya,
Kailan pa ma’y di magdidilim
Lupa ng araw, ng luwalhati’t pagsinta,
Buhay ay langit sa piling mo;
Aming ligaya na pag may mang-aapi,
Ang mamatay nang dahil sa iyo.”
Before Ferdinand Magellan discovered the Philippines, the country was a beautiful archipelago with indigenous peoples spread out throughout lands; the Ifugao People of the North are only one of many. The Ifugao/Igorot people of the North farmed the steep mountainous regions of Northern Luzon, close to where my mom grew up. Over 2000 years ago, the Ifugao people carved the Banaue Rice Terraces, coined as ‘the Eighth Wonder of the World’. Ifugao culture revolves around rice and intricate celebrations correlated with agricultural rites. There are many other indigenous peoples; the Southern island of Mindanao is home to multiple indigenous societies to this day. Perhaps the interesting part about the Philippines is that there is no secularity in the islands— atheism is unheard of and each region has its own religion, belief and customs, even before the Spanish colonized the islands.
In 1521, Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan arrived in Homonhon, Eastern Samar in the island of Visayas; this marked the beginning of Hispanic colonization in the Philippines. In 1543, Spanish explorer Ruy López de Villalobos named the archipelago Las Islas Filipinas in honor of King Philip II of Spain. The Philippines, from the very beginning, was named after a colonial power and not after our own people. In 1565, Miguel López de Legazpi from Mexico City arrived, and the very first Hispanic settlement in the archipelago was established. The Philippines would then be a part of the Spanish empire for over 300 years.
In August of 1896, The Philippine Revolution began when Spanish authorities discovered Katipunan. The Katipunan was an underground anti-colonial organization led by Andrés Bonifacio, a Philippine war hero. The Katipunan was a liberationist movement with the goal of gaining independence from Spain through revolt.
After the Philippines won over the Spanish during the Philippine Revolution, the First Philippine Republic was established. It was momentary, however, being followed by the Philippine-American War. The Treaty of Paris of 1898 relinquished Spain of the remaining colonies of the Spanish Empire and was then surrendered to the United States. Countries included Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. The United States retained sovereignty over the archipelago until after World War II — when the Philippines were finally recognized as an independent nation.
The post-WWII era in the Philippines does not paint a pretty picture. Often, the country’s tumultuous experience with democracy has been splashed in headlines all over the world; the EDSA Revolution against Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship is one of them. Currently, the Philippines has been in the media due to current President Duterte’s mass killings of people and his backwards concept of fighting the war on drugs.
Perhaps the constant tumult of the country is derived from the identity and cultural gap which came after our victory against the Spanish during the Philippine Revolution. Our dissociation with the Filipino-Hispanic past still reflects Filipinos’ actions to this day, and instead of trying to uphold our traditional customs, we are clinging to Western ideals and ways of thinking.
II. A Traditional Filipina—Cross your legs
Standard Things A Filipino Girl hears everyday from her Nanay (grandmother) and/or Mom
- Cross your legs! Hindi magandang tignan yan, babae ka pa naman. (Cross your legs! It’s not nice to see that, you’re a girl.”- Nanay
- Pray first before you eat. – Mom
- Kailangan dapat may lalaki kang kasama pag-uwi, at saka bawal kang lumabas nang bahay mamaya, madilim na. Kailangan ka nasa loob nang bahay nang alas-syete. Okey? (You need a man to walk home with you, and you cannot leave the house later, it is too dark. You need to be inside the house by 7 p.m.”- Nanay
- Bakit ang taba mo na naman? Tumigil ka na ngang kumain. Ano ba? Hindi maganda yan!! (Why are you so fat again? You need to stop eating! What is wrong with you? That doesn’t look good!” – Mom, Nanay
In my opinion, it is much more difficult to be a woman in the Philippines and in general, a Filipina. Traditional Philippine culture calls for a demure lady— short and skinny, long black hair, small eyes, button nose, full lips, porcelain skin, shy and submissive, a devout Catholic, the light of the home, a waiting wallflower. In short, she must be perfect.
There is a multi-million Peso industry based on Filipinas wanting to have lighter skin. To be called mestiza is a huge compliment in Philippine society (mestiza, in the Tagalog context, means to have light skin). Women are often subjected in the Philippines, and physical appearances are key. There are thousands of whitening products sold at drug stores, grocery stores, markets, malls, etc. The most sought out products have the whitening ingredient called glutathione. Many Filipina celebrities even use their social media to share their “gluta” experience — experiences include trips to Belo Medical Group (the largest and most popular beauty/cosmetology medical group in the country).
Growing up in the Philippines, I was a rebellious, loud and outspoken gal on the block who had her fair share of fights with the schoolyard kids. My neighborhood was pretty rough, but I never felt unsafe. Our house was my great-grandfather’s; the land I played in was my family’s from generations back.
I would always be disciplined on how to “be a lady.” Don’t be burara or unkept, my mom would tell me. Don’t eat too much. Brush your hair. Don’t bukaka or open your legs while sitting down on a chair. Be good. Do well in school.
Within a historical standpoint, the Spanish severely punished Filipinos who were untidy, unruly and uncivilized. The Spanish saw Filipinos as slightly barbaric — for example, it is a Filipino custom to eat with your hands, with meals served on banana leaves. The Spanish ruthlessly disciplined Filipinos to become like them, and eventually, Filipinos did adhere and adapt to Spanish customs. We even adapted Catholicism as our national religion.
Most Filipinos are extremely devout Catholics, with a superstitious way of living. As per Spanish customs, Filipinos have a room or a corner in their homes with saint statues, the cross, rosaries, prayer books and your occasional alay or offering to the dead. Alay is usually a plate of food with an alcoholic drink. It is an offering to your loved ones who have passed away, and it is customary to have a conversation with your loved ones as you are offering the alay.
Besides our love for karaoke and pointing with our lips, our love for food is possibly what we are known for the most. Filipinos are massive foodies. Food, in a cultural aspect, is something Filipino families enjoy together. We never eat breakfast, lunch or dinner alone. Kumain na tayo or ‘let’s eat’ is a phrase I have heard in 5,000 different ways throughout the years but all mean one thing — the family that eats together, stays together.
Familial bond and loyalty maintains a huge presence in Filipino culture. Due to devout Catholicism, pro-life beliefs and quite frankly, boredom, most working class Filipinos are “fruitful and increase in number; (they) multiply on the earth and increase upon it” (Genesis 9:7). Most working class families at or below the poverty line have 3 or more children and have no education regarding birth control.
In 2008, I volunteered at a local clinic in the Philippines in order to delve more into what medicine looked like in progressive countries. I did not expect much, as I knew what I was getting myself into — my parents had worked in these clinics previously and they have told me their stories repeatedly. However, in this case, I was still shocked. A 22-year-old woman who looked like she was in her 40s, held two babies as she came in demanding to know more about condoms. She said that the third baby was on its way, and her husband was relentless with wanting to grow their family. My dad always makes a joke referring to these cases, saying they are “not family planning but family planting.”
Due to the Catholic Church’s refusal to teach birth control at schools, most Filipino either do not know or are completely ignorant to the issue of policing birth control. The lack of secularity within the school system is a social issue which is almost always shot down in Congress due to the Church’s stiff hold on the education system.
Because of this way of thinking, many teenage girls become pregnant and become socially branded as wayward girls, as girls who are wanton. It is part of Filipino culture to protect a woman’s virginity — her virginity is a trophy, a medal which a man must win through marriage, and she is only allowed to give it away once she receives her college diploma. The correlation between education and sex is still an issue I deal with personally to this day — perhaps only specifically to this subject, I have a more Westernized perspective as I did go through mandatory sex ed in the 5th grade and high school.
There are many instances where traditions have been erased; the lack of policy around birth control and the policing of a woman’s actions are not part of these instances. In fact, I do not think that these issues are going to dissipate any time soon.
III. Language — One Day
Me, 6 years old, Mandaluyong City, Philippines
“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men never saw Humpty Dumpty again,” my mother sings to me as I lay in bed with no blankets — it is a very hot December night. The fan makes whirring noises across from me like helicopter blades. Beads of sweat pour down my back; it makes me believe that there are ants all over my body. I think about how come the other kids at school have “air-con” (air conditioner) and we only have this measly old fan. Daddy is in England, my mom says. Daddy is in England to work for you and your brother Jian and your education. Why are you speaking in English, Mommy? I ask. Because it will be good for you one day, she says. What do you mean? I ask. Because it will mean all of this will be worth it, she says.
I grew up in a multi-lingual household, intermingling and switching both English and Tagalog in my everyday vernacular. The glorification of English is a social construct in the Philippines, and speaking both Tagalog and English is not only welcomed but celebrated. Filipinos tend to associate speaking “Taglish” with the higher class or sosi (a shortened version of the term sosyal — a colloquial term which means ‘of the higher class’).
The modern Tagalog language is a patois made up of multiple languages. Its origins come from the Malay language; however, dahil sa mga Pinoy nung araw, or because the Filipinos of the past constantly trading with Eastern countries such as China and Indonesia, the Tagalog language also has Chinese and Indonesian elements. During the Spanish colonial era, Filipinos were forced to speak Spanish — thus, the Tagalog language having many Spanish colloquialisms. Shortly after, American colonization gave way to Filipinos learning English. Today, the Tagalog language is a mixture of Malay, Spanish, Chinese, and English words. It is particularly interesting that the language is a reflection of current Philippine culture — although nowadays, Filipinos center their lives and concepts mostly around what Americans watch, eat, drink, or simply do. The streets are filled with English signs, the malls are full of American stores and restaurants (i.e. Forever 21, California Pizza Kitchen, etc.). It is custom to glorify the American culture and think that it is ang pinaka-best, or the best there ever will be.
The glorification of the English language is a rite of passage in the Filipino culture. It is a classic belief that if one speaks English, then one must be rich. The colloquial phrase “Marunong ka ba mag-English? Ang yaman mo talaga, te!” (You know how to speak English? You are truly rich, girl!” is said again and again in the Philippine society. Like many things correlated with the arts, Filipinos truly believe that the ability to speak English is an association of being mayaman (rich). In contrast, Filipinos of the working class have a way of expressing their difficulty for speaking English through a slang term called “nosebleed.”
Nose bleed is a term prevalently used to describe the difficulty of understanding and speaking English. Although the Filipino is able to understand what the foreigner says, there are particular colloquialisms and phrases that are somewhat difficult to express in full English fluency — thus the term “nosebleed” is used as a term to express this difficulty.
On the other hand, it may also mean that the Filipino is having trouble understanding the foreigner due to their accent. In any case, the idea that Filipinos use an English word to explain their difficulty of understanding and speaking English is ultimately ironic and perfectly shows one of many paradoxes in Filipino culture. Perhaps these paradoxes, and the way we have submitted ourselves to colonial languages and customs, have become the reason why Filipinos have dissociated themselves with our traditional culture.
IV. Television— ABS o GMA?
“ABS-CBN o GMA ka ba?”
Class associations with television networks are also part of Philippine culture. Your choice of shows, movies and networks fully reflect your societal class. There are several T.V. networks in the Philippines but only two truly matter: ABS-CBN and GMA-7.
GMA-7 and ABS-CBN are two of the largest television networks in the Philippines. They have a long-lasting rivalry with regards to celebrities, t.v. shows, movies, etc. It is a custom for Filipinos to look up to and copy celebrities — they call them their “idols”; the actual phrase is: “ <insert celebrity name here>, idol kita!” (you are my idol!). Filipinos are loyal fans, and they tend to be very competitive when it comes to their networks. I know that from personal experience, many of my friends from home follow celebrities on social media just to copy their looks, diet, what they buy for their skin products, what they wear, etc. Furthermore, family friends only watch a certain network mostly because their idols are loyal to that network. A sense of affinity for idols is prevalent in Filipino culture as well.
Filipinos’ total loyalty to their celebrity idols is imminent when one looks at television ratings. It is a part of the Philippine culture to watch soap operas or teleseryes with their celebrity of choice. It is a Monday-Friday, 6-9 p.m. tradition to watch Filipino teleseryes with family or friends. Perhaps this is due to the fact that it is also customary for women to be home before sundown (6 p.m.) and serves as a reason for women to come home before supper. The teleserye tradition is an established custom in the Filipino community, so much so that it has followed Filipino immigrants abroad.
*ads of popular teleseryes
The Filipino Channel, colloquially known as TFC, is a channel targeting Filipino expatriates and their families. I stopped watching TFC as I am a solid GMA-7 fan, but I can tell you that TFC channel is almost always on in every traditional Filipino household. Produced by the ABS-CBN network, watching shows on TFC is a custom for Filipino immigrants abroad. It is a way for them to feel closer to home.
Being raised in the Bay Area in Northern California, I have encountered many Filipino family friends who watch teleseryes on TFC every single day. I have entered into Filipino homes with teleseryes on every television in the household. Today, TFC teleseryes and shows carry English subtitles to boost fluency in both languages — most especially targeting the younger generation of Filipino-Americans.
V. Filipino-Americans & the Future
*For the sake of my argument, I have to clarify that by Filipino-American, I mean Filipinos born and raised in America by native-born Filipino parents. The events that I am about to share are my personal experiences with the Filipino-American community and are not meant to be generalized whatsoever. *
Between native-born Filipinos, concepts about the Filipino-American community are a bit hazy and in fact, very judgmental. There are many discrepancies and cultural dissociations between Filipino-Americans and traditional Filipinos. In Carlos Bulosan’s classic memoir America is in the Heart (1946), he describes these differences and what it is like to be treated as a criminal in a strange and alien America. Bulosan, a well-known Filipino poet who immigrated to California, stated that “it was a crime to be a Filipino in California” (America).
To be frank, there have been many moments abroad that I felt this way. Many passive yet racially motivated events have happened to me but only one occurrence comes to mind: when I was in fourth grade, I immigrated to America from a 6-month stay in the United Kingdom. I adapted a British accent, as I was forced and bullied into it. When I arrived here in California, I was bullied again due to my accent by none other than a Filipino-American girl.
From personal experience, most Filipino-Americans I have encountered are much more inclined to judge Filipinos than other ethnicities. It is part of Filipino-American culture to be systematically racist towards “FOBs” or “fresh off the boat” — a degrading term for native-born Filipinos who have come to America to work. It is part of Filipino-American culture to not necessarily speak Tagalog but to only understand it. Compared with the Hispanic population in California and their ability to hold onto their language for generations, Filipino-Americans are more negligent towards the Filipino language. I have met some Filipino parents who have blatantly — proudly, even — told me that their children are not to speak one word of Tagalog on the defense that it was a “tacky” and “lost” language. The lack of cultural policing for the Tagalog language is a clear reflection of Filipino-Americans’ adaption to the American culture, though with the cost of losing their ancestors’ traditions.
Likewise, Filipinos who are born and raised in the Philippines glorify America. The ideal of ‘a better life’ is directly related to the word ‘American’ or Amerikano. My favorite examples of this ideal are the way Filipinos see the American brands Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. In the Philippines, massive billboards crowd EDSA — the largest highway in Metro Manila. Billboard ads and posters of the brands are ubiquitously seen in the streets. Working class Filipinos unanimously agree that if you drink Coke, you’re rich; if you eat McDo, mayaman ka na (you’re rich).
Social classes are distinguished through the brand name drinks you drink, the food you eat, the clothes you wear. Much like the judgmental and brand name-oriented Filipino-American culture that I have seen in the U.S., native-born Filipinos are cut from the same cloth. I find it interesting that an ever-changing culture is not dependent upon one’s location but depends on the person.
Today, there is an ongoing search for the ‘classic’ and ‘traditional’ Pinoy (colloquial term for Filipino). The glorification of Western ideals in Philippine society hinders the traditional aspects of the Filipino culture. Scholars of the Philippine community have debated that because the Philippine Republic is so young, perhaps we have not established the balance between Eastern and Western ideals just yet.
On the other hand, I firmly believe that centuries of colonialism have allowed us to process our culture differently than other countries have. Because of the differentiations between the Spanish, American and Japanese cultures, Filipinos have collectively taken concepts from each and created a beautiful mixture of the world. However racist, judgmental, crass, barbaric, and different the Filipino culture can be, there is one thing that I am incredibly proud of about my culture: we are known to be the happiest people in the world.
My theory behind this phenomenon is the fact that we as a people have been put through so many tribulations due to unfair and malicious conquerors that we know and understand real human pain. Due to our innate realization of pain, I believe that we simply choose to be happy every day. It is a custom for Filipinos to thank God for every thing that has happened, is happening, or will happen to us.
When I was around 6 years old, my mom, auntie and I were stuck in floodwaters in a very small Kia. I was terrified — the hurricanes and tropical storms in the Philippines are devastating. My mom was also scared but was singing and praying through the storm. Eventually, a wonderful man helped push our car out of the floodwaters. I still remember the laughter and relief which came after.
We did not worry about the Kia; we did not call AAA; we did not care if the engine might have busted, and it would cost us a lot of money to try and fix it. My mom and auntie were laughing and singing on the way home — I knew then that being Filipino means that there is nothing to be afraid of as the worst has happened to me and nothing could be worse than worst. I carry that belief with me to this day; it has helped me with everything that I have wanted and needed to overcome.
There are many faces of culture — mostly good and perhaps some are bad. Much like other cultures, the Filipino culture is always evolving and adapts to its environment. Perhaps years of colonization have gradually taken away traditional Filipino customs; however, I choose to think optimistically. Happiness, familial loyalty, ultimate love for food and the constant need to smile — those are what I know the Filipino culture to be. Perhaps there are different varieties of Filipinos throughout the world — perhaps our culture is always moving as we move, traveling as we travel, changing as we change.
We play the game of tag with different cultures, always trying to catch the “it” — the richest of riches, the bridge to America, the way out of this supposed “tacky” culture. Perhaps the “base” in this game of tag is within ourselves — that our culture remains in the warmth of our smiles, the loyalty we have to our families, our undeniable love for food, and our constant need to smile and make others happy. Maybe instead of judging who is “more Filipino”, perhaps we should celebrate that — we should simply celebrate ourselves.
For a humorous video regarding Filipino culture, watch here.