Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Being Filipino

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

My column last Monday (Independence Day 2011) triggered a spirited discussion among friends on whether the current generation is less nationalistic than, say, the generation of our parents or if the concept of nationalism has simply taken on a different meaning today.

Naturally, we couldn’t come to an agreement.

We burst into laughter when someone pointed out that our inability to come to an agreement validated very clearly that we were indeed, Filipinos. Apparently, this is has become one of our distinguishing characteristic—we cannot come to an agreement on practically anything, most importantly on major national issues. And worse, we do not seem to know how to manage our disagreements. This has been painfully obvious in the way we’ve managed the national discussion on the reproductive health bill and on the recent wrinkle in our lives—the divorce bill.

Adding fire to the spirited discussion was an accusation one of my friends came across in Facebook Sunday night at the height of the televised debated on the divorce bill. The biting accusation was directed at those who were avid supporters of the divorce bill: Parang hindi kayo mga Pilipino! (You cannot be Filipinos!).

I am not sure anyone has the right to question anyone else’s qualification as a citizen of this Republic. I don’t think there is a person in this country that is qualified to judge what is in another person’s heart. Unfortunately, this kind of self-righteousness is pretty common today among those who think they are made of sterner moral stuff such as those who are fiercely opposing the reproductive health bill and the divorce bill. Just to set the record straight, I am all for institutionalizing divorce in this country but I question the timing of the measure. I think we’re doing a major disservice to both the reproductive health bill and the divorce bill by imposing both on the people at the same time.

But what does it take to be Filipino?

There are probably as many answers to this question as there are Filipinos.

There are a number of Web sites in the Internet that is compiling a list of the things that define what or who is a Filipino. The list cover a wide range of categories such as food (you are Filipino if you eat with your hands, dip everything into soy sauce with lemon, eat animal entrails with blood and fish heads, etc), house decors (you are Filipino if you have a giant wooden spoon and fork and a painting of the Last Supper in your dining room, a shrine to the infant Jesus in your living room, and a barrel man in one of your display cabinets), language (you are Filipino if you refer to the bathroom as a CR, you call people by making the pssst sound, and you call it a ballpen rather than simply a pen), and social norms (you are Filipino if you have to press the doorbell twice, wait for the phone to ring twice as well, your parents call each other Mommy and Daddy and you call all their friends uncle or auntie).

Very often we tend to define the question in the negative—what does it take to be considered a non-Filipino?

“Parang hindi Pilipino” (acts like a non-Filipino) is an accusation that is often hurled at Filipinos who are supposedly being inconsiderate to others such as when they refuse to grant favors to others or when they flagrantly violate Filipino social norms. It’s sad because in many cases the favors being asked for is unethical or borderline illegal such as not complying with regulations or looking the other way in the event of a violation. I remember the time when I was a volunteer for a national elections in the eighties and I was at the receiving end of such an accusation simply because I wouldn’t yield to requests that would have given certain candidates undue advantage.

Even sadder is the fact that people also resort to making the judgment to spite those who do not share their opinions or beliefs on raging issues of the day, as if they owned the franchise to being a Filipino. I can understand - from a purely intellectual level—how bishops can question a Catholic person’s Catholicism when that person does not share the Church’s stand on issues considered important to the faith. But I cannot see how questioning a person’s citizenship and nationalism is relevant in matters relating to non-religious issues.

There have been occasions when I have personally come across someone who had seemingly become a stranger to our culture; such as Filipinos who do not have the faintest idea why Mommy Dionisia Pacquaio’s antics is endearing to many or cannot empathize with our seeming predilection to make the same mistakes over and over again in the name of faith. I still don’t think these things make a person less Filipino that the person who can gobble half-a-dozen balut in one sitting.

I have an American friend who is often described as being more Filipino than the “average” Filipino. The American friend being referred to has been here in the country for two decades now, speaks fluent Tagalog and Cebuano, and has imbibed many of our cultural quirks and idiosyncrasies. For example, he has gotten into the habit of making the sign of the cross every single time he leaves his house, peppers his speech with po and opo, and has even learned to point with his lips. Unfortunately he cannot camouflage the color of skin or hide his Caucasian features. When he travels around the country, children still shout “Hey Joe!” to his face, and he knows that he still sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb during social occasions.

The diaspora has produced quite a number of individuals of Filipino descent who grew up abroad but self-identify as Filipinos. And if they have exemplary abilities such as when they are star athletes, have extraordinary musical talents, or when they have made name for themselves as beauty queens, movie actors or actresses, or when they have won elective posts elsewhere, we’re more than happy to certify that they are indeed Filipino even if they look Caucasian or cannot pronounce a single Tagalog word correctly.

So what indeed does it take to become Filipino? I will leave the anthropological discussion to my good friend Mike Tan (who is probably the country’s eminent anthropologist today). I am sure most of us can agree on certain non-negotiable traits and behaviors such as sustained efforts to uphold the laws of the country and to fulfill one’s duties as a Filipino citizen, manifested love of country, and faithful service to country and countrymen. Unfortunately these are motherhood statements that really don’t mean anything to most people today.

One wishes that we made conscious efforts to articulate our responsibilities as citizens the way we used to when we recited the Panatang Makabayan (Patriotic Oath) everyday when we were children. Unfortunately, reciting the oath is no longer required except in elementary schools. There are hardly any integrated efforts to educate citizens of their duties and responsibilities as well. We seem to presume that it’s all commonsensical. Unfortunately, common sense is really not that common.

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