We had meetings and consultations with academics, media practitioners, psychologists, writers, artists, parents, even children, on what being Filipino meant to them. The answers we got spanned a broad spectrum of opinions and observations, from the mundane to the heretical, from the pious to the irreverent. I wish I had kept my notes from those sessions because I remember being awe-struck by the realization that our culture – our sense of being – is so much richer and broader than what we thought we knew when we started our research.
I remembered all these when I was chatting with some old friends and someone opined that with millions of our countrymen now scattered all over the globe, we should start redefining being Filipino beyond geography or nationality and look at ourselves as global citizens. This got us to thinking, what traits or behavior do we carry with us even as we leave our native land and integrate ourselves into entirely different societies and assume changed personas? What makes a Filipino still a Filipino even as he speaks a new language, acquires a different citizenship and changes the way he sees his future?
Yes, we will always be hospitable to strangers and respectful to elders. No matter where our psyches may stray there will always be a part of us that submits to a Higher Power. Throughout our lives there will always be a select few we owe an unending debt of gratitude to. The parents among us will do anything to give our children a good education. We are generally a happy bunch and we smile probably more than most people of other ethnicities. But there are other traits or instinctive behavior that may or may not be uniquely Filipino but are so ingrained in us that it isn’t a stretch to claim them as our own.
We have a natural tendency to greet people we haven’t seen for some time by commenting on their body shape. Tumataba ka yata, you seem to have gained weight, or payat ka ngayon, you have lost weight. Someone told me that before we were “Americanized” (i.e., became too conscious about body weight), being plump was considered a sign of prosperity and health. Thus when someone says you have added pounds, you ought to be flattered. Among us, we take such greeting lightly, but say that to a non-Filipino (especially one trying to lose weight) and he’d feel insulted.
We’re irrepressible matchmakers. When we find out that someone is unattached, the Rolodex in our mind starts whirling, trying to find a good match. We don’t bother to find out whether that person is interested in meeting someone or if he/she even wants a partner. It doesn’t even occur to us to ask what gender that person prefers. We just assume that he/she is lonely and dying to meet someone, anyone of the opposite sex, even that rogue who has been discarded by all the other singles we know.
We’re just as irrepressible as gift-givers. We invented the balikbayan box and keep discount stores in business. Whenever we travel, we spend a lot of time shopping for pasalubong, souvenirs for almost everyone we know, even those who had no idea that we went away. I will not even venture into the whys and wherefores of this endearing but often impractical tendency of ours. I prefer to think that we are always conscious of sharing our bounties in whatever way we can.
We’re probably the world’s ultimate snackers and food figures in everything that smacks of a good time or even a sad time among us. A few years ago, we visited Ho Chi Minh City during the Tet (Lunar New Year) festival. We joined the throngs of revelers that packed the major boulevard of the city. There were flowers all around and parades and street dancing. The collective energy was intoxicating. But we couldn’t fathom why, other than the traditional tasteless Tet rice cakes and a few stalls selling soda and water, there were no food vendors around. Can you imagine a street festival in the Philippines without the bananaQ, the barbecue, fishballs, peanuts frying in oil, corn on the cob wrapped in burlap, taho (sweet tofu) and balut (duck egg)? Neither can we.
Establishing kinship with a fellow Fiilpino we have just met is instinctive for us. After we find out each other’s full names, we ask which province the other guy is from, where he went to school, whom they are related to. Pretty soon, we would be able to dig out a nugget of information that connects us (as in my sister-in-law’s cousin went to the same school as your brother) no matter how flimsily, and somehow that transforms the stranger into a friend. Among Filipinos, two degrees of separation is often enough. The concept of intruding into another’s privacy by asking prying questions is too alien for us.
Many lament our “crab mentality,” how we pull others down and tear each other apart with our cattiness and petty jealousies. But these negativity are not ours alone. Other cultures complain about this too. What we often forget is that, notwithstanding the criminals and evildoers among us, we common folk look out for each other. For as long as our lives and families are not threatened and our sense of self is not compromised, we are naturally friendly and generous especially to our compatriots. If you don’t believe me, try speaking in Filipino to the girl behind the counter at a pastry shop. With a gesture of kinship, chances are you’ll get an extra éclair.