Reflections on Seeking Solutions, 2018-2019

The Manila Memos, Issue 6, 2018 December

Emily had said that I could never understand the world she had come from. And I knew she was right. Unless I had experienced for myself at least some of what she had experienced, I would never have any real sense of who she is.

Sure I had some basic history, from the Spanish colony claimed by in the name of King Philip (hence Philippine Islands) to the American protectorate flowing from the Spanish-American War of 1898, to Douglas MacArthur in 1942 (‘I shall return’) to Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. I also knew The Philippines was a struggling third world economy and society, a wild mixture of wealth and poverty; and this was the reason The Philippines’ number one export is people. Filipinos have migrated to many first world countries, just as Emily had made her way to Canada as a nanny and then her own house cleaning business; she became a Canadian citizen. And she then sponsored her sister to follow as a nanny; and Jenny sponsored her husband, and added a son. This is how the Filipino community expands all over the world from Australia to America to Germany.

I knew all this. But what did I understand? I could learn more facts: until Emily, I knew nothing of what and where her home province, Cebu, is (one of the larger islands in the Philippines archipelago, home to another variety of Filipino, Cebuanos); but Emily is not Cebuano, she is Ilonggo and so a minority even in Cebu. Emily’s language, Ilonggo, is native to Panay, another large island in the Philippines. Maybe Emily’s family was originally from Panay. The principal language of Cebu is Cebuano spoken by some 25 million people. Ilongo has only 7 million native speakers, a separate dialect to the ‘official language’ of the Philippines, Tagalog. 

But beyond these learned facts, what did I know about life in The Philippines? I suspect this is what Emily really meant. 

My mind-numbing trip on Sunday to Cavite had opened my eyes to the reality of The Philippines: crowded, cluttered, cacophonous. Chickens, lactating dogs, young men and their motorcycles, speed shops, beautiful young women, weather-beaten older women, bent-over old men; smiles, disguise for desperation. A country of dramatic contrasts. Look at any travelogue video on YouTube and be impressed with the scenery, and the seas and even the western style luxury. Drive through the villages and prepare to be shocked. And I learned this shock merely from the safety of an authorized taxi, or a luxury van with a knowledgeable tour guide. 

But I also knew that culture shock is temporary. The human capacity for resilience and recovery is amazing. It is the reason we should not, must not, project western middle-class values on another society. It is the same reason we should not, must not, apply 2019 Western intelligence and values to the reality of the 19thcentury, or the 15thcentury, or any other time. It is the arrogance of the present time, an arrogance that probably marks the history of human kind.

Filipinos are known for being happy people, smiling, willing, positive. Certainly this was my experience of Emily, though she often said it was just her personality. She was clearly extroverted and maybe that’s the side she showed me, and the world. But maybe there was a deeper, perhaps even darker, side too. Filipinos are also known to be dutiful – they aim to please. Emily herself felt this was almost a burden. She would seriously inconvenience herself rather than disappoint another. And sometimes this ‘duty’ created conflict when she couldn’t meet all her obligations. She was modest and deferential, and deflected her innate assertiveness. She came to blame her farming parents for inculcating this national trait in her, especially when she observed this value wasn’t practiced nearly as much in Canada.

In seeing Carmen in her own environment I noticed similar things. She was smiling and positive, or was that merely because she was happy to see me? She had a sense of duty to her community, and her church, and a strong need to pay back. But she had experienced a lot of adversity in her last ten years: had she always been like this? Did she have these national traits when she was the daughter of a high-ranking army officer, and the wife of a very wealthy merchant? 

I observed that the staff at the hotel demonstrated those tendencies in spades. But that is to be expected in the service industry, it is part of the selection process. Should we assume everyone in this island nation have the same traits? What about the executives in the financial sector? The police on the beat? The hot and exhausted construction worker?

In our drive through the streets and detours and main road to Cavite I mostly watched people. And what did I see?: beautiful young Filipina, in tight jeans, smart tops, fresh faces, though how young is not always certain as Filipina seem to keep lineless faces to middle age. Young women, happy women, going somewhere. But older women, overweight and hanging faces hanging laundry; yet they still looked to be smiling. Young men, not nearly so pretty as the young women, riding motorcycles, inspecting motorcycles, repairing motorcycles. Or maybe their cars. And worrying about their jobs and how to make payments. They don’t look as happy as the young women. And the older men, in stained white undershirts, baggy pants, and baggy jowls, and sandals. They don’t look nearly as happy as the older women. What conclusions can we make about the stereotypes now? What do I know about Emily now? Or of Carmen for that matter?

In going to Philippines I knew I was trying to discover Emily’s roots. Emily was the eldest of four children, 3 girls and a boy. Her parents operated a small farm, which Emily subsequently bought for them with her foreign earnings, typical of ex-patriot Filipinas. Their house was almost certainly small, no basement, how many bedrooms? Chickens and other farm animals just outside the door. What could that mean for a girl growing up, a world away from metropolitan Ottawa, her new home. I didn’t know where her parents lived and it would be very hard to find them: how many Ducos live in Cebu? Cebu is about an hour’s flight from Manila and many days searching to find them. I didn’t make it to Cebu; Carmen had no interest in going there, for some reason. She even suggested Cebu was not a nice place and Panays are not to be trusted! Carmen’s home province is next door to Cebu, Samar. Maybe I’d never get to Cebu. But I vowed, if I was going have a future with Carmen I would certainly go with her to Samar.

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