As I come to the end of my sojourn in Philippines it seems timely to recount some observations of this country, so different in many ways, yet not, to my life in Canada. I had come to Philippines to learn about the country and the people, its clichés and its paradoxes, to prove to others that I could understand, and to learn something about myself.
Philippines and Filipinos should not be conflated, nor stereo-typed, but of course, one drives the other, and vice versa.
It is hot in the Philippines and this tropical climate is demanding on souls; Filipinos do not think of themselves as fortunate people living in paradise. This distorted view that northern tourists have is not reality: a week at a resort is not the same as a lifetime in oppressive heat. As my young Filipina minister told me a year ago, The Philippines has four seasons: hot, very hot, unbearably hot, we don’t talk about it hot. In fact the Philippines do not mark the usual four seasons of the northern temperate experience; there is no Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall except in the solar calendar. There are only three seasons recognized: The March to June period (tag-init) is the hottest and there is no escape, even if you spend the day walking around the air conditioned malls. The heat has given Filipinos coping capability and stamina but this may not be the same as thriving; tag-ulan(June to October) is the rainy season, which shifts to dangerous typhoon season in the later months, and this too influences the Filipino character, resilience; and taglamig, (November to February, though typhoons my carry over to December as we reported in the Chapter, Calamities), the ‘cool’ season, the months of blessed relief where daytime temperatures may often fall below 30!, and of Christmas! And it is certainly true that Filipinos love Christmas. It begins in September and holds over to February.
Filipinos are smiling happy people, and that is surely a stereo-type. Filipinos are said to be good natured and laugh easily. They tell themselves this; it’s even highlighted in their national tourism advertisements. It’s infectious. I think the cliché of the smiling Filipino is mostly true, but it may also be a mask. The ones struggling each day in the sun, driving tricycles and building roads, and brooding by their roadside stands, may not be as happy in their inner thoughts as their easy smiles suggest. Life in the Philippines is a struggle and that can’t be papered over. And yet, all in all, the people are accepting, if not content. If Scott Peck and Gautama Buddha are correct, and all life is suffering, even in prosperous Canada, who is to say Filipinos’ approach to life is wrong – smile, though your heart is aching….
I saw a lot of idleness amongst the idle, the unemployed squatters squatting in their own squalid ghettos, but even these poor souls may be industrious in their own right, with their makeshift houses and pirated power from the grid. But I didn’t see indolence amongst workers. It is hot in The Philippines and such heat is debilitating. And you would think this affliction afflicts Filipino productivity. But I didn’t see that. Construction workers swathe themselves in hats and cloths, both to shield from the sun and to wick the sweat. Progress seems slow but it is steady; they are working, from 8:00 to 5:00 and often well on to 7:00 pm even though it is after dark. Household women are sweeping and cleaning all day long, even the street in front of their little abodes; there is nothing indolent about them, though they take time for chatting on their devices. The army of self-employed vendors who struggle to keep their little businesses going, travel to the Baclaran wholesale market in Manila to buy ‘stock’ for their clothing, toys, cosmetics businesses, once or twice a week, by bus and tricycle, an all-day affair. Grueling. I think of Carmen having done this for 15 years, often with one of two little kids in tow. And then we think of Canadians complaining of their 35 hour work-week.
Corruption & Crime
Corruption is rampant in the Philippines, as it may be in most of the rest of the world except the puritan West. I’m not saying I favour corruption but it seems a very common factor in the human condition, to our demerit. Ordinary Filipinos resent corruption amongst the bureaucrats and wealthy but is largely treated with the classic Filipino shrug, what can you do. This has been the Philippines condition since long before Jose Rizal wrote his revolutionary books decrying the friars and the petty administrators exploitingindios. The corruption is mostly minor but occurs at every level in the system, thus enabling high and higher levels of graft at the highest levels. The worst kleptocrat on record is of course Ferdinand Marcos, aided and abetted by his ambitious wife, Imelda. Many in the intelligentsia decry this systemic corruption and cynically say that each change of administration promising an end to corruption is merely to exchange one corrupt regime for another. And they assume President Duterte is just another one. Rodrigo Duterte was elected President of the Republic in 2016 on a platform aimed at protecting the people and raising the lives of ordinary Filipinos. Filipinos are very supportive of Duterte trying to improve their plight by making The Philippines more morally upright. Unfortunately, that also seems to include murder and mayhem.
Murder and Mayhem
I was warned about the crime rate in Philippines and it is no joke. Pilipinos themselves are the main victims of crime – we egocentric westerners think we are the only targets. That is true to some extent because white people (assumed to be American, but could be European, or Australian, even Canadian) are assumed to have money, and thus become targets for robbery and ransom. Crime is not the only motive for violence – revolutionary politics is also a major factor. There are very active pockets of communist insurrectionists in Palawan and Negros Occidental; the NPA in Ilocos is a real force. And Muslim separatism and Al-Quade forces are very active in Mindinao.
Against this historic culture of violence is a real scourge in Philippines – drugs. Drug lords and their armies of dealers have been killing delinquent customers and each other for decades. But worse than the violent crime has been the destruction of families and the social fabric because of the widespread debilitation from drugs and drug dependency. Duterte’s targets when he was elected President were corruption and inefficiency in the bureaucracy, and the war on drugs. His methods have been ruthless. By some estimates more than 26,000 people (yes, that’s no typo, 26,000) have been killed by Police in what turns out to be a true war on drugs. Dealers and drug lords have been wiped out with no thought of due process arrest and prosecution. And many targets have been the mayors and police chiefs and officers in the great bureaucracy who have shielded and benefited from drug traffic. This vigilantism is barbaric, but has yielded major results; drug use is way down. The people are very grateful to Roddy for looking out for them, his approval rating is over 86%!
Political pundits in Canada often refer to politics as a blood sport. I wonder if they realize how trite it is to say such a thing. Have they ever been to the Philippines?
It may be a joke in Canada but in The Philippines it is no joke. And it’s not a cliché either. Violence and politics are bitter partners. I’m not sure why this is. Is it a long ago Malay trait? An acquired meme from the 300 years of Spanish conquistador culture? Or even the wild west gun culture of the America masters who followed the Spanish? Regardless, frequent murders and disappearances of Filipino politicians make this a known high risk occupation; it is so commonplace as to attract the classic Filipino shrug.
Carmen had been close with the mayor of Trece for many years. She herself comes from a political family in Samar and may be familiar with stories of political violence I have not heard, nor likely ever will. When she moved to Cavite it was natural for her to support Mayor Sagun on the campaign trail in Trece, canvassing with him door to door. This way she could later call in future favours. When Jun Sagun was no longer constitutionally eligible to run for the mayoralty in 2019, his son, Milan, was to stand in his place, but Jun’s Vice-Mayor, Alex Lubigan, decided to run himself. He was mysteriously gunned down in a hail of bullets by a pair of gunmen on a motorcycle. (Motorcycle gunmen are the most common form of attack because the bikes are stolen and the gunmen just disappear.) The Saguns were absolved of any culpability but suspicion hangs over them. Ironically, Alex’s widow, Gemma, ran in his place against Milan and won! But this is a common story in Philippines. Famously, Senator Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino was to run for President in 1983 against Ferdinand Marcos and was assassinated on the tarmac of the Manila Airport as he arrived from exile in the USA; this led ultimately to Ferdinand Marcos’ expulsion with the upshot that Ninoy’s wife, Corazon, carried the Aquino flag and became the 11thand first woman President of the Republic. (And Manila Airport was renamed Ninoy Aquino International Airport!)
Old White Men and Filipina Partners
If there is a cliché of the Philippines this is it. And to my mind a very discomfiting one. Not only for the facts of the matter but for how close it comes to my own situation, and who wants to be an example of a cliché, especially a bad one. If you are not familiar with this cliché, look up Ninety Day Fiancé on YouTube.
The man is invariably middle-aged, or older. He may be coloured but that is not common and certainly not part of the cliché. It is assumed he is American, but could just as easily be Australian, or South African, or German, or even Canadian. The assumption is the white man is rich. This is not true of course, because a rich white man can have any woman he wants, but for a poor Philippines girl every white man looking for a Filipina partner is richer than any Filipino suitor. The situation is so common in The Philippines it is an accepted, though unspoken, strategy for a woman to escape her plight of poverty: to find a sponsor. (To be inclusive, in the Philippines often the sponsor is not an old white guy, he may be an old Japanese!) I hate sounding judgmental but the men always appear to me to be losers, someone who can’t find a suitable match amongst his own kind and so ventures far afield and out of his culture seeking comfort, and maybe love. (See? Discomfiting.)
The girl is usually 20 or more years younger than the man. One of the things that distinguished me from the cliché is that Carmen is only 8 years young than I; on the other hand, she looks ten or fifteen years younger than she is, so to the onlooker, the cliché still holds. (To be honest, when I was in Tagaytay I met a number of 60+ white men whose asawas were not that much younger than they were.) It seems to me the young girl is paying a pretty high price for the chance for a different life – she is trading her looks and her youth for some sort of financial security with an old ugly guy who she’s going to have to take care of for the next 20 years. But maybe that exposes my ‘white privilege’ and I don’t fully understand what her life would have been like if she stayed in her station. And for that matter, how different is this strategy than any other woman who exchanges sex for money, including many wives in many other parts of the world. It’s a difficult and moralistic dilemma I am struggling with. And it gets worse. Another common consequence for Filipinas is many of them come home again, in a box. That will be true of Filipina Personal Services Workers as much as for Filipina girlfriends, but all Filipinas seem to know the risk.
And maybe the bargain is not uncomplicated for the man either. If he was only looking for sex he may be happy, but if he was looking for love he might be disappointed: the scamming woman takes his money but gives her love to someone else. The bargain may be even more complicated when the man discovers he doesn’t just get the young woman, he gets the whole family. And you already have a sense of family from my narrative in the last chapter.
So let’s leave our (my?) adolescent views and moralizing behind shall we and accept that life is suffering and everyone is trying hard to survive and thrive, and maybe find some happiness, though sometimes those strategies can be disturbing to sheltered middle class Canadians.
Driving in The Philippines
After having observed the apparent chaos of driving in Philippines, and the almost complete lack of traffic control systems (stop signs, yield signs, traffic lights are rare; and lane markers are merely ‘suggestions’) I wondered how Filipinos manage to get where they’re going without major incident.
You rarely see actual traffic accidents, or even damage to vehicles (evidence of past accidents), and no road rage.
I wondered at this for months. And now I think I have it. Filipinos behave in their cars the same way they do as pedestrians: They go every which way they want. There is a certain respect for and from their fellow travelers but you have to be quick. It’s as if the crowd is jostling through a shopping mall without touching one another, but in their vehicles.
In North America, the vehicle – 1000 kilos of steel, plastic and glass – insulate drivers from their fellow travelers; they are courteous, for the most art, until offended, then it is aggressive road rage. Have you ever noticed that Canadians in cars behave quite differently than they do pushing a grocery cart? But in Philippines, it seems, the vehicle is merely an extension of themselves. You give way only when you have to, but when you have to, it’s okay. Ingress and egress from elevators is the same thing: people start piling in before the current passengers have had a chance to exit and no one is offended; they look at me with incredulity when I try to hold the door back, letting someone in ahead of me.
Filipina are beautiful women. I’m not sure if they own the record but a lot of young Filipina have won International beauty pageants over the years. So too have older women won Mrs. Universe pageants. It may be a dying phenomenon in feminist Canada, but cultivating future pageant winners is a substantial Philippines’ pre-occupation, as is the pop music celebrity culture. Maybe Filipinos see this as yet another way out of their world of poverty.
Not all Filipinas are beautiful of course, and Filipinas may not be the most beautiful women in the world, but it is surely part of the culture of the Philippines to value female pulchritude. Filipinas know well the world of fashion, and makeup, and augmenting surgery, and monthly mani-pedi. I don’t suppose Filipinas’ interest in their nails is any different from Canadian women but surely the percentage of disposable income they expend is. Even though a mani-pedi costs 300-400 pesos (about $10 CDN), half or less than what a woman might spend in Canada, it represents a lot of money for the woman who may subsist on an allowance of 20-30 thousand pesos per month. They must in consequence find ways to save money on wardrobes and hairdos. Most women keep their hair long and straight, and so have less need to visit a hairdresser; they cut each other’s bangs and length until style finally demands a proper coif. (Older women worry about graying hair though, and so spend money they probably can’t afford with their colourist every six weeks or so). When it comes to clothes Filipinas are sensitive to style; even though they hardly have any money they shop carefully for the latest item, at the right price. H&M is a popular budget retailer in major malls for just this reason, but most clothes are knock-off items made in Indonesia, or Vietnam or Bangladesh, bought in those tiny neighbourhood shops and through on-line channels. Whether it’s a dress, or off the shoulder top, tight fitting jeans, or an exposed purple strap, they know how to look good. Filipina seem as fixated on shoes and handbags as I’ve seen anywhere. Maybe this is an xx gene thing. Women freely associate attractiveness with sexiness; they tell each other, oh, you look sexy, an adjective not much heard, though perhaps thought, in Canada; however, a ‘slutty’ look is frowned upon. I have to say, I rarely see a young woman (and at my age, most women are young) who doesn’t look good when they are out on the street or cruising the malls. Bless them.