Sunday, October 4, 2015
"Even today, in a supposed postcolonial age, colonial images of the Philippines...linger on in global discourse like an invincible virus...Inheritors of that formalist history (as opposed to living, unwritten traditions) occupy the exact same spot where stood the original observers and the with the same bent: viewing themselves as though they were Other, perpetuating a decidedly painful colonial hangover." -Filipino author and historian, Luis Francia
I'll be the first to admit that I am an outsider, an inheritor of colonial privilege, and I only spent three and half weeks in the Philippines on 3 islands out of 7,100. I am not a Pew researcher, nor am I an expert on Filipino culture, history, and societal trends. I am, however, asked often what I think about the Philippines and her people, and the purpose of my blog was to document this experience. So here is my disclaimer: The views, ideas, and perceptions in this reflection come from a rather short time in the Philippines, albeit full of rich experiences, meetings with leaders and educators, and observations of schools, by a non-Filipino. Still, I must acknowledge that like the colonizers of the Philippines, the Spaniards and later the Americans, I stand here writing this piece (ironically) as both an observer of the "Other" and a critic of the cultural imperialism that has woven itself throughout the fabric of this archipelago.
That being said, I went to the Philippines with my own set of assumptions, one of which was that as a post-colonial nation, I would encounter dissent and the revolutionary spirit of Jose Rizal. Not unlike Luis Francia’s reflection in the opening quote, I found mostly adoration of the American way of life among the Filipino people I met, and I can’t say that I encountered open and obvious dissent in Filipino society during my visit. I know it's out there, but I didn’t find it outside of the Rizal museum and a few cursory news articles about "militant" students protesting American interference in the conflict with China in the outside of the American embassy. The Filipino national hero is Jose Rizal, a firebrand and highly educated non-violent revolutionary against Spanish colonialism. He is present everywhere. Streets are named after him, every student reads volumes of his writing, and one can easily find shrines in his honor. Interestingly, Rizal, like Francia, was just as self-critical of Philippine acquiescence towards Western domination as they were critical of Western imperialism itself. Before going to the Philippines, I thought that I would find a society rich with dissent and challenges to American exceptionalism. Instead, I found incredibly caring and loving and vibrant people who are obedient to both country and religion and desperately wanting to be Western. Here’s an anecdote that illustrates this desire. In the United States, the word “progressive” means forward-thinking and connotes equality and egalitarianism. I heard Filipinos using the term “progressive” several times, and the contexts in which they used that term caught me off guard and compelled me ask what they meant by “progressive.” I learned that by “progressive,” Filipinos mean “developed” and “Western.”
I think that dissent is there, I just don’t think I was in the right places at the right times with the right people, nor was I the right person (an American teacher brought there by the U.S. State Department), to see it. I did, however, find dissent in the literature that I read. A Brief History of the Philippines by Filipino historian Luis Francia is teeming with critique of Western domination and attempts to paint a “people’s history” of the Philippines in the spirit of Howard Zinn. The novel Illustrados is a story of a dissident author who uses his novels to push back against the corrupt politicians in Manila and subsequently pays with his life. Jessica Hagadon’s Dogeaters included an array of characters, all of whom break the rules of Philippine society in their own ways. Contemporary Filipino poets write prolifically about the paradoxes and contradictions faced by individuals in society. Although contradictions are not necessarily “dissent,” I have to say that I noticed contradictions constantly. For example, there seemed to be an genuine acceptance of the gay community throughout Filipino society, which was unexpected given the power of the Catholic Church in both politics and society. I also met several openly gay teachers who are incredibly devout Catholics despite the Catholic Church’s history of intolerance. It’s almost as if the church’s intolerance is ignored when it’s not relevant to the way people want to treat each other, or perhaps diverse conceptions of gender identity and sexuality pre-date Spanish colonialism and were impossible to undue, even for the powerful Catholic Church.
I had many questions before I went to the Philippines, and some of them went unanswered, some changed, and new ones emerged. Before going on my trip, I read a lot. I read newspaper articles, novels, poetry, history books, and short stories. No matter which genre I was reading, I noticed a dominant theme emerge: the Philippines and their “struggle” for identity after a long history of Spanish colonialism and American imperialism. And so I began to wonder if this “struggle for identity” actually existed or whether this was struggle imposed upon the Philippine people/nation by presumptive Westerners, and perhaps even Filipino ex-pats, who assume that Filipinos are confused and don’t really know who they are. But aren’t all nations in a struggle for national identity? We, Americans, seem to also be struggling for our identity, and look no further than national politics and the “red state/blue state” divide to see it quite clearly. Some want it to be a conservative Christian nation, other see it as a bastion of progressiveness and equality. We’re constantly struggling for a sense of identity, and perhaps, in this way, the Philippines is no different, despite the colonial and imperialist legacy. The question of whether or not the Philippines is struggling for a sense of identity is impossible to answer. Although I noticed so many contradictions in Filipino society, I never got a sense that they don’t know who they are. The people I met in Bacolod were proud, confident, joyful, constantly singing, and seemed to know exactly who they are.