There's a story behind this, of course. S and I started watching daytime game shows out of boredom: she was stuck in the hospital with her mother, who had her gall bladder taken out; I was stuck at home with my alien eye and my cold. Every afternoon we'd turn on the television and text each other our comments: Ugh, can you believe how horrible Kris Aquino's accent is? Dude, I can't believe he got that question wrong. Man, I LOVE how that woman HAD to tell the whole world she lives in EUROPE!
It started out as a joke - We have to do cultural immersion, S told me. We're going to be representing OFWs, who watch these shows. We can't remain totally ignorant of Philippine pop culture! So we started watching game shows and local commercials, trying to get into the Filipino mind - and I'm dismayed. After sitting through an entire episode of Wowowee! one day, I texted S - Geez, I said. That was like watching thirty minutes of absolutely nothing.
When you live overseas, your perception of Filipino culture gets filtered, simply because you're too far away from the Philippines to get the full impact. If you're lucky - like S and me - you get exposed only to the best of our culture: folk songs and traditional dances, the elegance of our national costumes, the dignity and respect of the mano and referring to your elders in the third person. Our embassies aren't that grand and our officers aren't really the politest people on earth - I have to admit that, even though I'm going to become one of them - but we weren't really exposed to the shabbiness, when we were younger. Mostly we went to the fiestas, the receptions, the grand celebrations of Independence Day. In Bangkok the mothers formed a small amateur dance troupe composed of elementary children, and the expatriate community was so charmed by the Filipino dances that they invited us to their parties and events to perform for them. In KL, all the Filipino women had lovely silk ternos tailored for Independence Day, and when our Malaysian friends came to the formal dinner, they told us that they had never seen national costumes that were so colorful and elegant.
I know how beautiful the Philippine culture is, because I grew up surrounded by the best of it.
Here in the Philippines, a lot of what we get is filler - not just our entertainment, but bits and pieces of our entire lives. Our sandwiches don't have real ham and tuna; they have mayonnaise that's flavored to taste like ham and tuna. Only in the Philippines have I ever had a tuna sandwich that did not have a single flake of tuna in it. Our detergent is mixed with chalk. Our rice is weighted down with pebbles. Our canned meats are full of extenders and our pork-and-beans have one piece of pork fat mixed into the beans. Our boxes of fruit are packed with one layer of good fruit on top and three layers of rotten fruit on the bottom. Our fresh meat has formaldehyde. Our fishballs and squidballs are eighty percent flour, nineteen percent air, and one percent flavoring. In fast food restaurants, our soft drinks are watered down with too much ice. Our cheese isn't really cheese, it's processed cheese food. Our milk isn't fresh, it's milk powder. Our orange juice is Tang or Eight O'Clock and sugar. Our chocolate drinks are Milo or Ovaltine. Our public transport is made out of scrap metal. Our entertainment shows are nothing but a lot of nonsense highlighted with lights and music.
Our tourist spots are littered with trash. Our government is corrupt.
I'm so tired of the Philippines, sometimes. My mother can't go to a grocery store without blowing her top because half of what is being stocked on the shelves is stale or full of preservatives and sodium. My sister can't get a proper education because her teachers arrive two hours late for a class. My father gets a suit tailored for an event and then can't wear it because it's not ready on time.
I'm so sick of being a second-class citizen in my own country. I hate it that when you speak Tagalog to people they look down at you. I hate it that people have to learn that I grew up "abroad" to give me some respect. I hate it when people hear me speak English and say Oh, you must be so smart. It makes me sick to think that I celebrate Independence Day with so much more gusto when I'm in an embassy somewhere else than when I'm here in the Philippines. I hate it that being Filipino has come to mean accepting fillers instead of the real thing. I loathe having to live as if I'm something slightly less than human - having to eat fillers instead of food, having to pay taxes for roads that never get fixed, having to buy newspapers that are full of false information and skewed opinions.
It makes me angry to see how second-rate things have become. When I was twelve years old I fished a milk carton out of the garbage can so I could copy the Panatang Pambansa onto a piece of paper and memorize it at home, because I was too ashamed to tell people that I didn't know it. Now I walk around and hear people say, laughing, My gosh, I don't even know what that is! like it's a badge of pride, and I burn. I burn so hard I'm afraid I'll start screaming, because I wasted so much time trying to be like everyone else when I was perfectly fine the way I was.
Sometimes I think that tomorrow waves could come and wash the entire Philippines away, tear the trees and the islands and the historical landmarks down, and I'd be fine. I'd cry over the loss for a week, then get up and move on because it wouldn't really matter. I am Filipino no matter where I am, no matter what I sound like, no matter what I'm wearing. I've lived here half of my life and the only place I'd ever miss if it were gone is the UP Diliman campus.
I would like to say the Philippines calls me home, but it doesn't, and this is why.