March 25, 2004
Everything sweats in the Philippines. Just two weeks in Los Baños sent me looking for a place to get my head shaved. A storefront nearby advertised "Nap’s Haircuts, Air Conditioned," and I was sold. Stepping in, I was greeted by a Filipino in a white barber coat. He sat me down and wasted no time starting a conversation.
"So, how old are you?" he asked, his accent rounding the O’s. I told him 20. A long pause.
"Well, you didn’t ask, but I’m 64."
He was obviously proud of how well he had aged to tell this to a complete stranger. I played along:
"You don’t look 64."
The smile of a child warmed his face.
"Would you like to know my secret? I don’t worry about things. I leave that to God."
Now, to say I felt this small talk was educational at the time would be a plain lie. Old people just say those things, or so I thought.
Filipinos commonly describe their own history as "300 years of [Spanish] convent followed by 50 years of Hollywood," a phrase they usually speak with a laugh, perhaps because of the odd pairing of ideologies. Twice colonized by the United States, the Philippines’ "love affair with America," as one native put it, is certainly a precarious one. After liberating the Philippines from the Japanese in WWII, the U.S. reoccupied the nation, only to wear out its welcome, and was asked to leave in 1950, a date Filipinos mark as something of a second independence.
Since that time, the Philippines has had more than its share of problems—rampant poverty, corrupt governments (the cause of an abandoned military coup during my stay), civil war in Muslim Mindanao—the list goes on. Presently, the communist revolutionary party known as the "New People’s Army" is working to rally resistance in rural areas, yet finds itself increasingly abhorred for its violent methods.
But this only tells half the story, for leftists have the difficult task of mobilizing a Christian people whose aim is not social justice (at least the worldly variety) or even material wealth, something that became apparent to me during a cab ride through Ayala Alabang, Manila’s upscale district. My driver, a very dark man missing several teeth who was a bit too fond of berry air fresheners, pointed a finger in the direction of distant mansions on the hillside and said "Mulyanaire Avenue." I asked him how much money he made a day and he said 250 pesos (roughly five U.S. dollars), a more than decent wage in the Philippines.
"Is that fair? They have so much more."
He only chuckled and shrugged his shoulders, but I was persistent.
"Shouldn’t the people try to fix the problem?"
He fell silent and I thought I had offended him.
"He already has," he answered and nodded towards his dash. On it stood a figurine of the Madonna, and wrapped in her arms was a babe.
Despite making themselves a poster child for free trade and even sticking their necks out to publicly support America’s "war on terror," Filipinos have little to show for their government’s loyalty to Western thinking. The Philippines has one of the lowest living standards in Asia. It could be said that America’s grand imperialist vision of remaking the country in its own image has failed. The question is: Why?
Looking back, I think a part of me hoped I would find in the Philippines a people who had fit together Western ideology and Christian faith in such a way that neither was compromised. But unfortunately (or fortunately, I can’t really be certain), much of what makes Filipinos good Catholics also makes them poor capitalists. In a country where eight of ten people call themselves Roman Catholic, the culture is literally saturated with Catholic imagery.
The backs of jeepneys, the most common mode of public transportation, read "God Bless This Trip."
Need lunch? Try "Our Daily Bread" bakery, just down the street from "St. Peter’s Key-Cutting Service."
Live in the Philippines long enough, and God starts appearing everywhere. It is as if Christ is reborn every day, welcomed, only fittingly I think, into the most unassuming of places. To be of the flesh is sacred, and to suffer can be Christ-like. Blessings come not in the form of large houses, but large families. I recall telling a class of college students that I didn’t see my family at all when I was away at Wabash. They stared at me as if I were orphaned. "Even on the weekends?" a girl finally chimed up. Someone, I realized, must be mistaken in all this mutual pity. In the incarnational worldview of Filipinos, modern philosophy and science have little to offer. The mysteries of Creation were sufficiently revealed long ago in the Middle East. All but absent from their culture is an eagerness to improve upon one’s station in life. Filipinos, it seems, are laboring toward something else, something higher. If you can peer through their visible struggles, you will see a people dancing in a shower of crimson light, washing themselves with the bloodstained beams of a crucified Christ.
Where American and Catholic values intersect within Filipino culture, or where "convent" meets "Hollywood," things become complicated. Filipinos make a distinction among themselves between those who live in the cities, and those who reside in the countryside ("lowlanders"). Generally speaking, city-dwellers are less religious and more familiar with Western popular culture. American movies, my friend explained, are "the national pastime" in the cities precisely because "movies allow Filipinos to escape reality, if only for a few hours." Hollywood can be purchased at any street corner, where lines of vendors hawk copied DVDs for about one U.S. dollar (the bigger the explosions and more racy the sex, the better they sell).
Sadly, many Manilans are drawn from the countryside with false hopes of finding better work. What awaits them is a population of people who, like them, have come and found nothing, some forced to live as squatters in sheet metal lean-tos scattered alongside the city’s congested freeway.
Attitudes towards issues such as pre-marital sex, birth control, and abortion, once a Catholic consensus, are shifting in the cities. "The Church still tells us these things are wrong," a girl told me, "but people have stopped listening."
My colleague, Popen, recalls an era in his hometown when, at the strike of 6 p.m., the angelus could be heard playing over the radio in every home. But this beautiful practice "has become a thing of the past with televisions and computers." Internet cafés have allowed a young generation of Filipinos to be raised like American kids, spending hours on end intoxicated by the freedom of the web, taking breaks only to enjoy the latest nihilistic shoot-‘em-up video game. The newly discovered cosmetic gospel of MTV Asia has taught teen Filipinas how the right makeover can help them completely reinvent themselves and bring fresh meaning to their outdated identities (every six weeks, that is). A vast cultural liberalization is sweeping the cities, and the youth, well schooled in the ways of the West, are leading the charge.
Of course, sometimes things do make sense; sometimes the First and Third worlds meet in the manner they should. My work in the islands concerned biotechnology. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAA) was investigating the introduction of insect-resistant corn in the area, and I thought a Wally should tag along. The Philippine government had recently approved the commercial sale of the high-tech hybrid corn, making them the first nation in all of Asia to do so. Our results, I’m pleased to report, were very promising, revealing that our biotech trait has the ability to substantially increase yield and income for its growers. I must admit, it was a rather curious sight—water buffaloes pulling plows between rows of genetically modified corn, as if one had one been misplaced.
As with many "Cultures and Traditions" discussions, sometimes what begins as a question remains such, and yet something is learned. How should Western Christians think about Filipino Catholicism? Must modernity necessarily be at odds with conservative Christianity? Or is there the possibility of a Christian modernity, one without the moral drift of the West?
I’m afraid I have no answers. But if, as it appears likely, Christianity in the third millennium will be marked by the continued explosion of third world Christianities, then the conflict between Western globalization and Christianity in the Philippines will be a case-study for some of the world’s most important developments. At stake is nothing less than defining what it means to be a Christian in our modern world.
Perhaps, in the end, answers for Christians are fragmented and the truth is not transparent. The Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton once said that the Catholic Church "is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his own age." That’s how I like to remember the Filipinos I met, as a people living outside any man-made age, without care for social thought or progress, at home only in their Church and family, content to live in an invisible kingdom.
Wandering the dirty alleyways of Naga City one evening, not entirely sure what I was after, I came across a peasant woman and her young daughter. We stopped and studied each other. Sadness seemed to distance the mother’s eyes from me. The bottoms of the daughter’s naked feet were black with grime, and she wore her mother’s hip to shield herself from me. I was about ready to be on my way when the mother suddenly reached out and cupped my cheek with the palm of her hand that I might feel her soul pressed to mine. Never have I felt such utter compassion and humility in a human heart. And it was there and then that I realized I no longer knew which of us was suffering, and which of us could help save the other.
The author invites readers’ comments regarding the questions raised here. Contact Rose at firstname.lastname@example.org.