Friday, April 24, 2009

Why we are what we are

A long time ago, a Filipino client asked me to represent her on a claim she wanted to pursue against a car rental company for charging her credit card, in addition to the rental fee, the cost to fix the damages to the car which had been dented while it was parked on the street outside her apartment. My client came to Canada to work as a nanny and she was waiting at that time for her permanent resident status. This was the second time she had come to my office for help. The first time was a few years back for a petition to divorce her husband in the Philippines because she did not want to include him in her application for permanent residence status.

She rented the car for the weekend during her day-off. A week before, she was so thrilled to receive her driver’s licence. It meant the world to her. She could now buy her own car and drive around the city and visit places like Montreal and Niagara Falls. To drive her own car was one of her dreams in coming to Toronto.

The automobile represented to her the one biggest thing she could lay her hands on. For the first time in her life, she could be independent and could go anywhere she pleased. No more taking the subway trains or catching the bus during peak hours squeezing herself through a throng of sweaty bodies in the middle of summer or a crowd of people smelling of unwashed and mothballed winter coats and jackets in Toronto’s cold and frigid months.

Memories of years she spent in Manila riding in overcrowded jeepneys and buses or walking through muddy and always-flooded streets, easily dissipated in the air as soon as she took out the brand-new plastic driver’s licence from its envelope. She had been anxiously waiting for it for some time, feeling green with envy that some of her friends were already driving their brand-new cars. Had she stayed in Saudi Arabia where she first worked overseas, she knew she wouldn’t be able to drive because women like her were banned from driving on public roads in that country.

After buying her car, she dreamt of stuffing her apartment with all the niceties money could buy: a new plasma TV, a desktop computer with wireless Internet, a new Blackberry, and the finest pieces of furniture and modern appliances she could buy on credit. When it was about time to have a family, she thought of buying a house in the 905 area with a concrete driveway and a huge landscaped-garden in the back where she could host barbecue parties for friends and relatives in summertime.

Would this caregiver have been more interested in what is going on in public, with the plight of other caregivers like herself who are caught in-between abusive employers and greedy employment agencies, for instance?

Or would she care about other public causes like raising funds for breast cancer research, or petitioning the government to end domestic abuse, or rallying along with other women workers to demand more equal access to jobs?

From the way she recounted her story, my client’s avowed aspirations appeared no different from the dreams and hopes of Filipino immigrants and newcomers or even of the oldtimers to this country. The hope to succeed and to enjoy the fruits of one’s labours seemed to run across class lines, whether rich or poor.

Someone has said that Filipino values have been primarily those of the “economic man.” Filipinos tend to measure their relationships and their worth in terms of cold cash. “As human beings, our goals, our happiness, and our possibilities have been reduced to crude economic terms. We strive to enrich ourselves or our lives not by being much but by having much,” he said.

This seems true not only for Filipinos who have become successful overseas but also to those who have been likewise fortunate back home. The welfare of others doesn’t really count much in our estimation. The self is always the top priority, and what happens to society as a whole becomes only important to the extent that it impinges on our individual pursuits.

Because of this attitude to think only about oneself, many Filipinos have embraced the safety and comfort of being intellectually simple-minded. They have sunk to the level of the lightweight, conjuring escapes to entertain themselves from boredom and to keep them from thinking of more serious matters in life. A friend has observed how Filipinos of today have succumbed to a collective lassitude: they have become too lazy to think. Or perhaps, even afraid to think.

Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, in his pamphlet, “The Indolence of the Filipino,” wrote that “A man in the Philippines is only an individual, he is not a member of a nation.” This observation remains valid today. Back home, Filipinos are as divided and as estranged from each other since the colonial days of old. This lack of unity and harmony among the people is not geography’s fault alone. Mostly, people’s personal economic circumstances have driven them to fend for their own needs first before they could even think of the general good of the nation. People cannot be expected to cooperate in the name of national unity or for a larger social cause if they are still preoccupied with their personal and individualistic concerns.

The overseas Filipino behaves in the same way. The family’s economic well-being is more important than anything else. No time is wasted fretting about other people’s problems or of the state of the nation if they do not directly and personally impact on his life or on his family. He may join social clubs or other organizations like his school alumni or town association for the simple need for fellowship or camaraderie, or to enhance his public image, or to network with others who can potentially be helpful or useful to his personal pursuits.

Thus, it is easier to invite Filipinos to a social gathering where, for example, the main feature is watching a world championship boxing match between an adored and idolized Filipino boxer against a white or Mexican opponent. Especially if beer is served with home-cooked Filipino food as appetizers. But mobilize them to join a rally against exploitation of Filipino live-in caregivers or to protest against injustice and cruelty committed to a Filipino youth by city’s policemen, and nary a soul will show up except those few who are genuinely committed to social causes.

It will not be difficult to persuade Filipinos to come in droves to a celebration highlighted by singers and other entertainers or a beauty contest such as the Miss Toronto or Miss Canada-Philippines pageant. Ask them to join a political meeting and only the diehard social activists will show up. Importing celebrity entertainers from the Philippines could bring in bigger crowds than inviting a politician or a labour leader to speak in an open forum.

Even the deeply religious Filipino Christians among us are lukewarm to support causes or advocacies that espouse humanist values such as helping wipe out poverty or eliminating homelessness. Like the religious Filipinos back home, the overseas Filipino religious population seems content to express their devotions in attending masses or novenas more than once or twice, and in participating in prayer groups, chain letters and pilgrimages, or in other activities, which may be criticized, rightly or wrongly, as promoting an escapist religion that is disconnected from social reality.

Why is it so difficult for Filipinos to support social causes? Have Filipinos have become more materialistic? Perhaps the earlier deprivation of material things in life back home has made Filipinos in this new land pursue more materialistic objectives once given the opportunities. The colonial mentality ingrained by foreign occupations and an educational system that rewards individual efforts have pushed the Filipino to become more selfish, rather than selfless. Amassing material comforts has diminished whatever is left of the Filipino’s aspiration for a higher and nobler reason for living. Once basic needs have been satisfied, the effort to elevate to a higher hierarchy of needs appears to stop. Money and material things seem to be the apex of the Filipino’s achievement index.

Something must be wrong with the Filipino psyche. Many attempts to correctly identify what it is and explain why, including this one, have fallen short of expectations. And we better start with a new analysis or a fresher insight rather than keep repeating the observations of our Filipino historians or intellectuals, present and past, because we’re not getting the right answers or clues on what’s really wrong with us. We cannot keep blaming our colonial history, our miseducation, or the shallowness of our religion. We cannot forever rationalize our lack of collective vision or dream by pointing to our economic deprivation. We cannot simply escape towards the comfort and safety of a new life that is totally disconnected from our past.

The Filipino is not a mystery that cannot be untangled. We owe it to our forebears and to our children to lay the path towards a future that gives more sense, weight and meaning to life than merely buying a car.

No comments: