by Kriyan de Leon, February 2003
While I was enjoying a cup of coffee with a Canadian friend, I was asked to describe what it is to be Filipino. I was caught off-guard and quite quickly, I eluded her query by asking her what her definition of being Canadian was. From experience, when a person is asked something he does not know, I find, the best response usually given is a misdirecting reply. It sufficed for that moment as she looked away, smiled and quite contently accepted it and continued on the conversation with another topic. But her admiration and intrigue of how I appeared to be so ‘nationalistic’ had a significant impact on my perspective.
As I bid my friend goodbye and thanked her warmly for her company, her innocent query reverberated in my mind still. Thereafter, memories of a distant event come flooding in as I ponder those implicit questions raised: What is it exactly that I am defending and pride myself to be? Does a Filipino Diaspora exist, even?
Seven years have past since I was approached by an acquaintance that just arrived from the Philippines. He wore his hair differently from others and likewise his clothing weren’t fashionable at that time. Quite often, people whom he thought that he could approach, individuals he considered to be his countrymen, ridiculed him for not being ‘Westernised’ yet. The term branded to these group of individuals, if I remembered correctly were ‘FOBS’, fresh of the boat people oblivious to the new culture surrounding them. Despite what the others say, I entertained his conversation as I found him to be quite pleasant to speak to. Our interactions were often light-hearted, but in that particular instance he didn’t approach me with his usually cheerful demeanour. As he relayed to me what happened earlier that day, it became apparent that a Filipina who caught his heart and admiration ridiculed him. In Tagalog he said to me "Why do they act that way, all high and mighty? They call themselves Filipino yet treat me differently when I speak to them in our native tongue. Don’t they know that we all eat ‘baguong’ (sauteed shrimp paste)"
I told him that maybe she doesn’t know how to speak Tagalog, but in fact speak Ilocano, Cebuano, or any of the Filipino languages instead. He shook his head; a grin slowly developing on his face and he jokingly punched me at the shoulder. We both laughed and that was the end of our brief interaction and we went our separate ways. I spared him more anguish by omitting the fact that the girl herself just arrived a few years back and already she claimed that she has all but forgotten her native tongue, neither capable of speaking nor comprehending it. I find it interesting how a banal interaction could be the source of introspection into one’s own identity.
There were certain behaviours in the past I was not proud of doing. I remember when I was younger being appalled when my Mom cooked traditional cuisines and find my bedroom door open. I was embarrassed if the scent adhered to my clothing. Equally mortified I was to admit to people I consume certain food that they consider not kosher. I’m guilty of that, I admit, but it brings to light how easily it is to lose pride in one’s culture based on matters that can be considered so superficial.
As been stated above, I was asked to give a definition of what "Filipino" is. A friend in London pointed out that it is a geo-political characterization drawn by the Spanish colonialisation some three centuries ago. I agree when he pointed out the diversity within the country itself, each region having different groups of people possessing distinct cultural practises. But one cannot look at the Philippines without studying the works and contributions that Jose Rizal had made. He gave these people a common identity. Filipino then is somewhat akin to a nationalistic term and cannot be narrowly defined. Given the social dynamics, a proper modernised definition must be adopted. I propose that being Filipino encompasses the geo-political realm and manifests itself to groups of people having a shared history of oppression, possessing mostly similar social mores and cultural practises, thereby could be deciphered as a single distinct social entity. Like all social constructs, it exists in the mind and soul alone regardless of geographical place. This matter is important in terms of propagating a culture for it cannot continue to exist without passing these mental elements to generations thereafter. The significance increases exponentially when part of the people settles in foreign soil. It then can be argued that the term "Filipino" may have started as a nationalistic definition but seems to have gained more of an ethnic designation when these groups migrate away from their native land and are considered part of the visible minorities. Given the proportion of the population they represent, it becomes easier for a people to have common understanding and affiliation with their countrymen in this broader sense rather than narrowly by saying they are of a specific clan. I myself am Ilocano, but I share kinship and affiliation to all Filipinos regardless of where they originated.
What significance do all of these have regarding the existence of a Diaspora?
Ethnicity Diaspora purports that the heritage and language is passed on to further generations; that there ought to exist a longing to return or wanting the betterment of the homeland; and there exist a strong cohesion of the ethnic group. For the sake of argument, I shortened the sociological definition for obvious practical reasons, I do acknowledge, however, that points addressed are of great significance. The Philippines is a country of migrants where the people leaving the country exceed those entering, and one would expect that there ought to exist a Diasporic tendency within the host nations. However from my observation, the existence of a Filipino Diaspora does not seem to comply based on sociological definitions. What antagonistic forces prevent the over-seas Filipinos from establishing a firm grasp of their culture? Why can’t they scatter seeds, but instead would rather prefer to assimilate to their new host nation?
Ours is a culture that came to know oppression both external and internal. Nearly three hundred and fifty years of which came from foreign colonialist. I believe this contributed largely to the lack of pride and a sense of cultural inferiority amongst the over-seas Filipinos. This is a mere conjecture of course, I do not expect everyone to accept this assertion; but one cannot argue to the contrary that as a whole Filipinos would much rather be considered as being American, Canadian, British once they possess the citizenship given to them by the respective host countries. Also troubling is the fact that some of the migrants feel a sense of glee to be mistaken as a person of different descent.
Primarily, the preservation and propagation of the language is of great import for much of the cultural identity rest within the constructs of the tongue. An excellent example is our humour; it is so distinct that if translated into English it would not make sense at all. But unfortunately, the language seems to be the first thing that over-seas Filipinos are willing to abandon. The direct effect of our native tongue presents a potential source of embarrassment to the younger generations (even the older ones, I suppose) for we can easily be criticised for the accent it produces as well as the often mistaken use of "he", "she", "him" and "her". This grammatical error stems from the non-existence of a counterpart within the Filipino languages. Why are some humiliated by this when considered that the ability to speak two languages is something to be proud of? Yes, I must admit that to move to a country dominated by the elites, your eloquence and articulation of their language judge your fate and dictate where your position in society. But is it really sufficient ground to justify forgetting and readily assimilate into a new society?
The grass is greener on the other side is a fallacy. Did the cultural inferiority complex exist before departure or after arrival?
As I travelled through North America and to Britain, most Filipinos I have encountered would always point out the flaws of our society. The incessant gossiping and glee of destroying his own countrymen’s reputation, often described as the "Illness of the Filipinos", tops the list as they smugly consider themselves superior for inheriting a "Westernised" view of life. Also common reaction, I find, is when they shake their head in disgust with the political corruption and with the government’s almost perpetual dismal state.
There needs to be an emphasis that the culture is not synonymous to politics. The government tend to represent the ideals of the elite, not the nation as a whole, and most of the elite (both present and historical) aspire to think and live like Westerners. Of course, this is residual to the concessions given to those who comply with the wishes of the ruling foreign power. It only has been half a century of our nation’s liberation, and this practise may not be eradicated fully if considering that our country has been oppressed for almost three centuries and a half. Though I feel it is necessary to see our own imperfection to be more tolerant a people, we ought not revel in the superiority of others and be oblivious to their flaws. We are not by all means inferior. If one does not accept the purported definition of what it is to be Filipino and still insist that the lines of argument exist within the socio-political sphere to validate the cultural identity, one can argue that our culture has always been influenced with the notions of social justice and equity. Whether successful or not is insignificant; what matters are the constant address of these issues That is something that we can take pride in considering our choice of national hero is an intellect (his name is listed on the Reading Room of the British Museum as one of those who researched there) and have overthrown not one, but two government administrations through mass protest.
The current trend of Over-seas Filipino Workers is a good argument for the betterment of the homeland considering that their remittance of funds have made large contributions regarding the GNP through net transfers. GDP is not used as an economic indicator because our country’s gross domestic product is not all that impressive and not of any value to the politician who seeks to be revered. Due to this, I’m ambivalent regarding to what extent Over-seas Filipino Workers make contributions in preserving the culture. What I feel is more significant is to what extent the migrants and expatriates (first generation), by in large, will hold on to the traditional roots and beliefs. Are the cultural practises, norms, and mores thoroughly entrenched? In the long run, this is what ultimately matters. The remittance of funds will cease once the OFWs decide to reside in their host nation permanently (if the choice is accorded to them) and sponsor their families. One can also argue that this trend of migrating workers paves the way for globalisation and lead the world at this respect. Whether a successful innovation or not, only time would tell.
Within a rapidly globalisation of today’s society, there still exist a need diversification and preservation of cultures lest we reduce ourselves (the whole of humanity) to thinking narrowly. We Filipinos have the advantage regarding this for we have the potential to easily appreciate the notion of social justice. Hence could be more capable of understanding the sanctity of Human Rights. That, I strongly believe, could be our strength and something I take absolute pride in saying. We have been oppressed by foreigners, and unfortunately have oppressed our own. (Though I still believe that our oppression has manifested itself from colonialist influence.) Our strengths and flaws are aggregate to our essence as a people; but I fear that our over-seas countrymen have accentuated the "flaws" more.
When asked, most of those who wish to live back in the homeland dream of possessing large sums of money, have servants and maids attending to their upkeep, and live the lives of the stereotypical "Haciendero". That might be an inviting thought, but it proliferates the inherited elite mentality. I’d rather not maintain the status quo, as I do desire for change and support the plight of a people constantly searching for social justice. Others could care less and would much rather assimilate to their new countries.
Is there a Filipino Diaspora within the context of the sociological definition given above? Whether one agrees with me or not, I’d have to say yes, but at best, it is a weak one. No matter what, I still take pride in saying that I’m Filipino, and there are individuals I’ve met who share my sentiments. I find solace with that knowledge as it gives me hope that our cultural will continue on. However, we still are in danger of losing our social identity, not by force but by will. A further question to bear in mind is to what extent do the people in the host nation accept us as equal; is it enough for us to forfeit our own ethnic identity? If the answer is in the affirmative, I lament then the loss of a beautiful culture, for despite its flaws, it has its strengths often overlooked.