Filipino Culture and the Perversion of Filipino Values

My name is Gabby, and I am Filipino-American. The Philippines is a third world country that consists of thousands of islands, nestled between larger and more developed countries such as Japan, China, and southeast Malaysia. We are mostly known for our people’s contributions in the arts, bringing forth celebrities such as Bruno Mars, Lea Salonga, and Jessica Sanchez. While there is a lot to be proud of, there have been some common themes in the belief system and mentality that take a serious toll on mental health. For instance, there is great beauty in devotion to family. On the other hand, devotion can sometimes lead to expectations and even dependency. Many of these issues can lead to families and friends cutting ties with one another and problems with one’s self-esteem and self-worth. I have provided a list below of some major issues with the Filipino belief system that need to be addressed.

Before moving onto the list, I wanted to mention that I am very proud of my roots and culture. However, I felt that it would be helpful for my fellow Filipinos to be more mindful and understanding of how their words and actions affect the psychological well-being of those around them. No one is perfect. This article is in no way trying to demean this beautiful culture centered on wholesome values, like family and hospitality, but instead put into perspective how some of these values can spiral into drastic consequences. The more we know, the more we can learn and improve our relationships with our loved ones.

1) Chismis, competition, and Christmas reunions 

Thanksgiving and Christmas are the perfect holidays to get together at someone’s house to catch up with relatives, enjoy good food, and reinforce the bonds between family and friends. However, many of these reunions become a hotbed for “chismis,” or gossip. Gossip is a natural part of everyday life, but in the Philippines this gossip is often taken to its extremes. Talks of a distant aunt can spiral into the nitty gritty of a nasty divorce, an absence of a cousin leads to condescending talks of their underlying mental condition, or the sudden coming out of a family member becomes the basis for disparaging homophobic jokes.

Unfortunately, gossip has been intensified by social media. Now don’t get me wrong, social media has contributed to society in beneficial ways. But while scrolling through our newsfeed, we can see that our cousins graduated with honors or our best friend from middle school got engaged. Social media plays a role in Filipino culture by creating a competitive atmosphere. Proud parents often post their child’s accomplishments and in turn other parents show their children these photos of report cards, medals, and certificates. Immediately, the words that escape the parents’ mouths are, “Why can’t you be like your cousin? Do you not have a debate team at your school? How come they have honors and you don’t?”

Rather than recognizing the aspects of their child’s personality that make them unique and amazing, they focus primarily on the qualities they lack. There is a great emphasis on academics and accomplishments, and little attention to the child themselves. Negligence at this level often puts children at risk of issues such as low self esteem and depression. According to renowned psychology professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, Kevin Nadal, Filipinos alongside other Asian Americans are reported to be one of the highest recorded groups diagnosed with depression, which is accompanied by a staggeringly low percentage of those actually seeking treatment.

2) Emphasis on image

One’s reputation and image seem to be an important aspect of the Filipino culture. On social media, we often try to display only the best moments of our lives and hide the reality of what is truly going on. Some Filipinos tend to present themselves in a certain way; usually as affluent, clean-cut, and successful. Any photograph, text, or video that betrays that ideal appearance results in a tainted reputation. Newsfeeds are piled with pictures of day trips to Davao, traveling with the family, and more. Before posting a picture or sharing a link, it does not seem right to have to reflect on what to post because it would “look bad on the family” or “shows people that we raised you wrong.” We should not have to restrain ourselves from expressing who we to avoid appearing “disgraceful” or “dishonorable.”

3) “Kaya mo yan” mentality

Kaya mo yan is a phrase that literally translates to “you can do it.” At times, this can be an encouraging message, especially during difficult ones. While I was applying for law schools these past few months, my father would often text “kaya mo yan” after I expressed my worries about the application process. In my father’s case, he used the phrase sparingly and it definitely gave me the motivation to continue onwards. Kaya mo yan encourages Filipinos to pick themselves up and push forward, to stay resilient during times of adversity, and not to go down without a fight.

However, this phrase tends to be used as the default response when someone discloses how they truly feel to their loved ones or friends. The phrase is used almost automatically, without really listening or validating how the other person is feeling. During times of sadness or trouble, I like to think that we would much rather have someone listen to our thoughts and recognize it as our truth. We do not expect advice or a solution right away. So, rather than defaulting to “kaya mo yan,” it would be best to listen, validate, and then advise, in that order. When a child comes to their parent with a problem, the parent should match their energy, try to see what it’s like to be in their shoes, and only then can they fuel a meaningful connection. That is why we have two ears and only one mouth. We were made to listen.

4) Colonial mentality

The Philippines was conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century. In 1521, Ferdinand Magellan claimed the islands as part of Spain and Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, a Spanish explorer, set up colonies later on. After taking several history courses, I’ve come to the general consensus that colonialism is the practice of domination from one group over another. So many aspects go into the idea of colonialism, but it includes the possession and dispossession of land and goods, assimilation policies over culture, education, religion, and often violence and genocide. Prior to Spanish conquest, the Philippines had no one single identity per se, as it consisted of many different ethnic groups. All those beautiful ethnic traditions were stomped on as the colonizers imposed their views onto the colonized. Unfortunately, these views are still held in the Filipino culture. Rather than loving their dark brown skin, there is a great emphasis on skin-whitening products. English is the language taught in the schools rather than the language of the indigenous peoples. 

5) Youths’ opinions are undermined or silenced within the social hierarchy

One of the biggest customs within Filipino culture are addressments of respect. For example, at a family reunion you will see Filipinos throw around titles. These titles are used to address people, including “Tita” and “Tito” for Aunt and Uncle respectively, and “Ate” and “Kuya” for Older sister and Older Brother, alongside their name. These titles are used loosely, which means that even family friends and unrelated acquaintances can be given these monikers. In short, a non-Filipino can be Tita Jane and Tito John if they felt like it. It’s a bit difficult to wrap our heads around because from an American perspective we tend to see kinship through a biological lens.

Another example of respect is the usage of “mano”, or hand. This act involves the younger person taking the elder’s hand and raising it up to the former’s forehead. Usually this happens at the start of every interaction, and failure to do so is considered rude. In American families, it is more common to see kissing and hugging rather than mano.

These titles and addressments of respect firmly establish the social hierarchy within families. Elders are given the utmost respect and their opinions are highly valued in times of crisis and major decisions. However, this becomes plenty of reason to undermine the youths’ opinions. It is understandable that elders have lived longer, therefore they have plenty of wisdom to share, unlike the inexperienced youth. But using this logic has the potential to be extremely discriminatory. Opinions can be undermined, overruled, or silenced. Speaking up or disagreeing comes at the risk of seeming extremely disrespectful. As a youth, it makes talking with others as difficult as navigating a minefield.

I am not asking people to simply stop doing mano or addressing their big brother and sister as Kuya and Ate. I am just asking to please consider what the youth have to say, for we want to be heard just as much as the Elders. While we are young, we also have our own brand of wisdom to share, and it should be shared with all rather than be silenced and ignored.

Research credit goes to Danielle Anne Birog, my little sister! Thanks for helping me out. :) 

All images via Pexels