On belonging…


The Filipino sense of community is very different from the Western individualistic approach to life.  I notice how it plays a part in so many things here, contrasting daily in positive and negative ways.  Really understanding another culture takes time, and after two years I only feel like I’m beginning comprehend the nuances of so many things that go on around me.

Some things are more obvious.  Brand new in Manila, the very first thing you notice is how common uniforms are.  They are everywhere.  Every store has one and it not just about branding, although branding is very big here.  I think they are partly about clothing allowance as wages are so low, but there’s much more to it that that.  As I child, I refused to join the Brownies because I didn’t want to wear a uniform.  Very early on, I had developed some basic individualist leanings.  Here it’s just the opposite.  Very early on the emphasis is on belonging and collective responsibility.

My first experience with Filipino kids was playing at an orphanage in Makati.  After games were over it was time to clean up, and it was pretty amazing to watch.  The kids knew everything that needed to be done: brooms appeared, litter disappeared, and balls and toys were back where they belonged in seconds with no words spoken.  By contrast, yesterday, after an American family party, I went to the games room to clean up.  I asked the kids to help me pick up.  Their shoulders slouched, their arms went limp and they looked at me in horror.  They couldn’t slide out the door fast enough!

But the cookie crumbles both ways.  We raise independent kids who are raised to think for themselves.  I watch my son at 17 have a pretty clear idea of who he is and what he wants, and that makes me happy.    I want him to listen to his parents advice — we are the experienced ones after all — but to balance it with an awareness of his own needs.  Then he has ownership of his decisions, including his own mistakes and the responsibility to actually learn from them.  I see many Filipino kids that appear to have had their decision-making capacity removed and only know how to act by the rules.  It frustrating to watch, and infuriating at times to experience an adult who refuses to apply logic or adapt rules in a sensible way.

Nowhere do these two paths seem more distinctly different than at the international high school where Western kids parents’ complain about failing grades and how their kids “just don’t care”, and Asian kids whose parents’ rule their schedules, leaving little social time for their kids. I see them in the elevator at 8 o’clock at night returning from a tutor, still in their school uniform.

Its clear that communities are important everywhere, and many aspects of Western society aren’t looking too healthy these days.  There’s a lot the West could re-learn about community responsibility from the Filipinos.  On the other side, placing rigid limits on individual expression suppresses creativity and growth, and Americans have individual expressionism down pat.  There’s no right or wrong way, but plenty of opportunity for open mindedness on both sides.

Its not lost of me how ironic it is that that the Philippines strives to emulate American culture in so many ways, but deep down it is so different.  Living here for the past two years and watching the two cultures blend, clash, combine and adapt has been a continual learning experience and one I am very grateful to been around.  It will be one of my biggest takeaways from my time here.

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