Everything That is Wrong with This Country

Feb 09, 2011

An American living in hopeless Philippines has his personal island (2,395 square meters) of Western ideas.

395 Chaos spawned by Filipino inertia: The jeepney is a transportation workhorse, especially in rural areas. (Photo credit: Danny O.)


One of the pronounced differences between American and Filipino cultures is the structural disposition toward change. In America, change is relentless, brought on by businesses that drive to innovate, by socially attuned people working through the courts, media and organizations like the Civil Liberties Union, by an educational system that favors individual expression, ambition and achievement, and by a government that is powered by… well… power. This leads to further innovation, mainly in technology.

In the Philippines, these forces are extraordinarily weak. The big corporations are complacent for they rule the market and make money with the ease of those favored by regulators and friends. There is little unified citizens' commitment for change. The courts are not accessible or responsive and the media are ineffective because the broad population is not well read. The government is managed by a closed class of “old school” friends, relatives and classmates engaged in the trade of favors; development is upsetting to their rich complacency. Schools force kids to learn by rote and obey a uniformed order dragged down by the lowest achievers and 50 kids in a classroom – ambition, individuality and achievement are stifled. Furthermore, the brightest, most progressive Filipinos leave for greener (moneyed and opportunity-laden) pastures overseas. And, finally, Filipinos have that famous “onion skin” that is hypersensitive to criticism. This means that progressive ideas are met by the resistance – either overt or unaware – that “we are Filipino and happy the way we are”.

The only innovation in the Philippines is that which originates elsewhere. The only order is that which is reactive, not that which is planned.

The only innovation in the Philippines is that which originates elsewhere. The only order is that which is reactive, not that which is planned.

As an outsider, I often throw my hands into the air and give up on the notion that someone can inspire any kind of progressive thinking here. Filipinos are cemented into their collective of egos, unable to change. There is no righteous, articulate driver like Thomas Jefferson or Abe Lincoln or Barack Obama to fire up the Filipino soul, no compelling force for higher reasoning and achievement. Filipinos of powerful but mediocre and self-serving abilities would not stand for such uppity perspectives, such threatening ideas.

I have my personal island (2,395 square meters) of western ideas (pollution free and free thinking) on a peaceful island of green. Venturing into the surrounding chaos is simply a surreal and anxiety-ridden trip much akin to a Disneyland ride. I dodge the packs of dogs and kids and overloaded vehicles, honk at the guys lined up pissing along the National Highway, avoid the ferries or PAL for safety sake and chuckle in amusement at the self-engaged thoughtlessness of drivers who park in the middle of the road and ride without helmets (“Who, ME, die?” – the ultimate ego-centric attitude about life). I accept that my environment will not contain many rules of civilized behavior. Like, enforcing laws or being courteous or resolving a dispute with a conversation instead of a gun.

I accept that my environment will not contain many rules of civilized behavior.

My home, now under construction, will have its own generator to counterbalance the inept ability of the nation to provide power. It will have its own water reservoir to offset the days when that precious liquid refuses to flow through the civic pipes. It will have a large storehouse for rice and other foods to provide a margin of life-support for the rueful day ahead when calamity arises, inspired by inept resource management. It will have walls and guns and cameras and guards and dogs to keep the chaos out. It will have enough money to buy labor and materials and services that keep me apart from the drudge of Filipino subsistence, that great unmovable, unmotivated satisfaction with a culture locked centuries behind the rest of the world.

When I want to engage in the positive aspects of Filipino culture, like fiesta celebrations or beautiful beaches or the tuba table at my father-in-law's place or shopping at the mall, I will travel in my metal Honda cocoon with black-tinted windows and celebrate that I don't have to pay Disneyland prices to ride the wild ride that gets me through the widespread chaos spawned by the inimitable Filipino inertia.

When Filipino friends want the pleasure of direct and courteous conversation, the beauty of sculpture gardens amongst the bamboo, the exquisite flavors of fine Filipino cuisine, the uplift of cleanliness and the calm of classical music played at a subdued level, the joy of a huge library of books to explore, the absence of loud men swaggering about with fighting cocks under their arm, pissing on the trees, no roaming dogs with fleas and mange, and no cheats or insecure rationalists defending their reason for being… they will happily venture through the chaos to visit my little personal island of progressive civility. Money or gifts or favors or social standing are not needed to gain entry; the only requirements are courtesy toward others and a spirit that aspires toward fine things.


The author is a permanent resident in the Philippines with his Filipina wife and culturally ambidextrous son. He is a retired banking executive.

This post was originally published on The Society of Honor by Joe America in January 2011.