Obversations From the Philippines
Part One

One trivia question I like to put to my students learning English to demonstrate the global reach of the language is, "What country boasts the largest English-speaking population?" Invariably, they answer the U.S.A., and of course they're wrong -- America only ranks #2. India is the nation with the largest concentration of English speakers on the planet, a legacy of British colonialism (and also a solution to the problem of an unmanageably diverse multicultural society -- Bengalis and Tamils and most of the other ethnic groups in India don't share a common tongue, so English makes communication possible nationwide). #3 is not, as you might suspect, the United Kingdom; the motherland finds itself holding steady at #4. No, with most of the 72,000,000 Filipinos bilingual in the language of Shakespeare and Douglas McArthur, and the official Tagalog (or whatever dialect is spoken on their native island; the Philippines, with its more than 7,000 islands, claims many distinct South Pacific cultures under its umbrella, including a substantial number of native tribes still clinging to their traditional stone-age lifestyles). Thus the Americans, who took the archipelago as booty from the Spanish-American War (and subsequently slaughtered 100,000 Filipinos who tried to rise up in independence from the imperialist Yankees; Uncle Sam finally granted them that wish after WWII, though American troops remained on military bases until 1991), left their mark.

"400 years in the convent, 50 years in the brothel" -- referring to the Spanish and American rule, respectively -- it has been said of the Philippines. Such a long period of colonialism has left the Philippines in a culturally confused place. It seems to have been misplaced geographically on the wrong continent; psychically, it feels more Latin American than Asian. Several thousand miles west on the other side of the Pacific from Panama and Peru, you can find brown-skinned poor people referring to white-skins as gringos and American/Canadians as Norteamericanos, speaking English with a gurgling Spanish lilt. Filipinos love to party, take long siestas, bet on cockfights, drink San Miguel, and all have names like Miguel, Maria, Rosaria, Felipe; the men have a code of machismo and the woman are casually flirtatious -- a few hours off the airplane and I felt like I'd left Asia completely behind. Coming from nearly a year in Taiwan, the cultural differences were striking. Since my Chinese still remains in preschool (I know several hundred words and can carry on an intimate conversation with your average five-year-old), naturally being able to communicate easily with most of the people around me was a relief; not to mention being able to read the signs in the street and order food in a restaraunt without looking at a picture of the food (aside from numbers and the phonetic bu-pu-mu-fu alphabet, I am illiterate in Chinese ideograms). My first day I hit some bookstores, since English-language books can be hard to find in Taiwan, and found myself rudely disappointed; apparently the Filipinos' taste in literature leans towards trashy romance, horror, and spy novels, so aside from a few used copies of Shakespeare paperbacks I found in the bin for .40 cents, and some books on learning Chinese at a much cheaper price than in a Chinese-speaking country, I found the selection little better than that in Taipei.

I did go on a CD shopping spree, though; since it's an English/Spanish-speaking country, most of the music is from the U.S./U.K. pop axis, with a substantial minority of Latin and Asian pop present. Unfortunately, it seems that the Philippines is where '70s to early '80s soft rock goes to spend its retirement; Terry Jacks' "Seasons in the Sun," might as well be the national anthem, "Nobody Gets Too Much Heaven"-era Bee Gees national heroes, and I can't remember the last time I heard anything from the Grease soundtrack played on the radio until I took a cross-country trip in a bus with music piping over the speakers. Good thing I'd just purchased a portable CD player in Manila.... In fact, being a third-world nation, everything is dirt-cheap in the Philippines. Even if the merchants are charging the stupid tourist twice as much as the locals -- standard practice in most of the developing world -- a pair of new Nikes can go for $7 U.S. dollars, or about the same price as your air-conditioned hotel.

The cheap prices reflect the nation's grinding poverty. Frankly, if one goes to a place like the Philippines, one should prepare callousing one's heart. A sense of detachment is essential, or else passing by all the people sleeping in the streets, being tugged on by all the sad hollow-eyed children begging for money, and all the other sights of human misery will prove too much for your bleeding heart to take. It's hard not to feel guilty realizing that the cost of my 9 days' stay here amounts to more than most of these people earn in a years' work. I saw a billboard advertising for a telemarketing job that indicates how little your average Filipino earns: the job advertised the whopping $1,800 pesos a week, or $36 U.S. dollars -- apparently an enticing salary in metro Manila. And Manila, crime-ridden, dirty, decaying, and polluted as it is, is the most developed part of the country; in many of the island provinces, people make nothing more than the catch of the day (fishing is still the most common source of employment in the Philippines). Most of the people there seem desperate to get out, to the promised land, wherever that may be -- America, obviously, but also Taiwan (Filipinos constitute the biggest group of foriegn workers in the ROC). Being a white male journeying alone, I quickly discovered how desperate many of the Filipinas were to sell their body to me for the night for a pittance....this soon became annoying, being unable to walk for more than a few meters after dark without having recieving some offer for something I was not in the mood for. I quickly caught on that the friendliness of many Filipinos to me wasn't exactly altruistic; when they eyeballed me, all they saw was my wallet. I had to constantly be on guard against taxi drivers and others trying to fleece me, along with the street hawkers trying to wave me down on every corner. One lesson is to never allow anyone to do you any small "favor" because they expect a "bonus" -- don't allow the taxi drivers to show you a nice hotel, because they get a finders' fee from the hotel, which will overcharge your night's stay, in addition to the tip the driver will expect. I even had a man in the street expect me to cough up pesos simply for pointing me in the direction of a hotel a block away. These things are to be expected, I suppose, when you are ten to twenty times richer than the people around you, as Westerners visiting the third world are. I chose the Philippines as my vacation destination precisely because I knew it was so inexpensive; I'm trying to save some money and also see a bit of the world while I'm in Taiwan, and Manila is only a 90-minute flight from Kaohsiung. It was interesting to gain the experience, but all in all, aside from the beautiful beaches, my impressions of the Philippines weren't very positive, and I doubt I'll return again....more reasons for that in Part Two.

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