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|An American's Reflection on the Persistence of Colonial Mentalities
|16th January 2002|
One of the recurring themes of these Pearls has been the sheer complexity, intricacy, and depth of the intercultural linkages between the Philippines and my country of origin, that being the United States of America (see Ex-Pat Reflections, The Yankee-Filipino Rojak, and Icebergs and Rorschach Blots). Herewith another in the series, as always reflecting the cumulative baggage of my ongoing battles in the trenches of the Makati business world, interpreted with a (some say too sweeping) brush influenced by nearly-forgotten lessons in academia, and embodying a certain random element.|
As a red-blooded American immigrated to the Philippines, I have had to make many adjustments, some large and some small, some difficult and some easy. I am sure most Westerners find themselves facing many of the same challenges:
Despite the obviously heavy influence of American norms and icons on Filipino culture, I sometimes wonder if it's all just the thinnest of veneers. Despite the pervasiveness of McDonalds, Hollywood flicks, Marlboro ads, and basketball, this can still be stranger-in-a-strange-land territory. Particularly discordant is the incredible, inescapable poverty that surrounds one and the equanimity with which it is accepted (by the poor as well as by the wealthy). The rich live lives of insulated splendor, while the poor live vulnerable lives of squalor, illness and hunger; I have made my share of comments about this sad situation elsewhere (Globalization, Part 1 and The Social Volcano).
The relations between classes - and I purposely risk using (or misusing?) that tired old Marxist term - are outwardly civil and deferential on the part of the masses. Indeed, from the perspective of an American (or other Westerner) acculturated to the norms of equal opportunity, do-it-yourselfism, and upward mobility, one of the more challenging adjustments can be learning to interact appropriately with working class Filipinos in whatever capacity. Whether dealing with drivers, domestic help, or service workers, you are bombarded with "yes sir" this and "yes sir" that and obsequious, self-effacing behavior.
There's also a perverse cultural inferiority complex that drives me bananas. As a white ex-pat, I am generally ushered through security checks at malls and hotels even though the Filipino guy next to me is practically strip searched. Whenever I raise a ruckus about some lapse in service (which I do now a lot more often than when I first came), people scurry around trying to correct whatever the error might be. Underlying such interactions is a troubling presumption of a wide and seemingly unbreachable social, cultural, and entitlement gulf.
But I can't help believing that, just below the surface, there is a deep river of long-term resentment just waiting to bubble to the surface (see The Social Volcano).
The Philippines' complex colonial heritage (see An Oversimplified History Lesson, Cronies and Booty Capitalism, and Globalization Part 1) continues to have a major impact on the country today - on the political system, on social relations, and on the way people live their lives. Let's reflect briefly on a few of the more important dynamics.
One could start with a discussion of the hacienda system (see Sugar Cane, Sugar Cane), a system that originated in the Spanish economic institution of the encomienda (meaning literally "to entrust"), which had already been pilot tested in Spain's Latin American colonies before being imported to the Philippines.
When the King of Spain made a grant to the Spanish colonialists in the Philippines, they were expected to keep peace and order and help missionaries convert the natives to Catholicism, while also being given carte blanche to exact tribute. In theory, the encomienda system was designed to impose order and some semblance of a "just society." In practice, it was cruelly exploitative; the Spanish masters typically demanded and got exorbinant tributes and enslaved and overworked the indigenous peoples. Pity the poor peasant who disregarded the master - public floggings were common (think to a bloody pulp) and native women were routinely abused and raped, with no recourse.
Although the encomienda system was abolished in the Philippines towards the end of the 18th century, the somewhat modified hacienda system based on land grants that took its place was only a marginal improvement. The status differentials between the mestizo (mixed Spanish and native) hacendero families and the peasants who provided the human labor were extreme and rigid.
During the 20th century, of course, the large landed families diversified and expanded their economic and political influence into all sectors of the Philippine economy. The status differentials continued and perhaps even became greater.
On a personal level, I can testify that Filipino élites accept the unequal relations between classes as the way things are meant to be - it is the order of the universe. Having been married into an aristrocratic-but-no-longer-rich Filipino family for going on two decades, this issue has at times been a source of low-level discord in the marital relationship. However, I recognize there is nothing I can do to change an entire culture. With regard to the domestic help who are in our employ, I try to be appreciative and not be dismissive or authoritarian, and do what I can in a subtle guerilla sort of way to create a more humane environment. But any actions I take aren't about to have an impact on this social system and ingrained modes of class interaction.
As discussed in other Pearls, the second half of the 19th century saw the rise of the ilustrados, drawn from the children of the old line mestizo families. Educated in Europe, these young men derived their intellectual frameworks substantially from the Spanish. However, many of the key values as they evolved ended up having a significant element of traditional Filipino values embedded (e.g., personalized exchange, reciprocity, indebtedness).
As he struggled to articulate his own philosophy, José Rizal spent a year in the British Museum researching the precolonial roots of the Philippines, trying to trace the origins of his people, origins that had been lost under Spanish colonial rule. Among his works was the annotation of a 17th century Spanish text; Rizal noted that the Filipino people had "forgot their native alphabet, their songs, their poetry, their laws, in order to parrot other doctrines that they did not understand…" as a result, "they lost all confidence in their past, all faith in their present, and all hope for the future."
Although Rizal himself was executed by the Spanish in 1896 (see Cronies and Booty Capitalism), other ilustrados went on to play key roles in the post-Spanish era. However, they were at core a liberal-educated elite, and were ultimately easily manipulated and coopted by the Americans. As the children of the hacienda system, they saw themselves as superior to the pobres y ignorantes (the poor, later to be called the masa). The Americans, who brought with them their concepts of democracy and education for all, were pleased to have a compliant local elite through whom to administer their unaccustomed empire.
The United States' annexation of the Philippines was an ironic outcome of the Spanish-American War, given that the purported goal of that conflict was to liberate Cuba from the colonial clutches of the Spaniards. The terms of the peace settlement propelled the USA into becoming a colonial power, a role that was simultaneously welcomed (about time we Americans got a piece of them little foreign countries) and dreaded (how can the land of Washington and Lincoln impose its will on other peoples?). Indeed, the annexation of the Philippines represented a massively symbolic event signaling Uncle Sam's emergence onto the global stage.
From the beginning, the Americans had a philosophical problem stepping into the Imperialist role. Our own history as a colony that had fought a war of independence, and the strong anti-imperialist sentiments that had prevailed throughout the 19th century, made the role of colonial conqueror a poor fit. But the Americans, ever resourceful, found a nifty way to deal with the potential incongruity. Three policies in particular were implemented that differentiated the Yanks from those evil European imperialists.
First, we declared ourselves the saviors of our Little Brown Brothers, and implemented a system of universal education; the fact that the archipelago was linguistically diverse provided a ready-made justification for imposing the English language. Right after the turn of the century - 1901 to be exact - over a thousand eager young American teachers volunteered to teach in the Philippines. Not only were the salaries substantially greater than what they could earn stateside, there was the romantic appeal of sailing off to the tropics to help Uncle Sam in his new adventure. The largest contingent came on board the Thomas; thus, the term "Thomasites" to refer to the cadré of American teachers.
On the surface, this policy violated a basic precept of colonialism - i.e., you don't educate the natives about liberty and equality. While the European imperial powers might have put up schools here and there, they limited the education to the vernacular and never broached touchy subjects like liberty and equality. Heaven forbid. But in the Philippines, the American-based educational system served the interests of the colonial power quite nicely.
Second, Washington adopted a policy of "benevolent assimilation," which meant that they enlisted the Filipino elite as partners. This is where the children of the elites stepped in; they were more than happy to step into the role, especially with the assumed adoption of the American system of democracy. These efforts were also supported in academia, as Western trained Filipino academics -remember that José Rizal can more or less accurately be termed the country's first political scientist - constructed a framework for "official nationalism" dominated by Filipino élites and supported by the American colonial administration.
Third, we set about to replicate the US system of electoral democracy. In reality, what resulted was a framework through which domestic élites competed for political power (and access to the pork barrel). Nevertheless, the veneer of democracy allowed Uncle Sam to adapt a holier-than-thou attitude towards the European colonial power. When Uncle Sam withdrew, political power was essentially transferred to local elites. The country continues to be by and large ruled by an intertwined, octopus-like network of family-based political clans. Just look at the composition of Congress and the people who are appointed to high government office.
The impact of the Americans, and particularly the policies outlined above, was of course substantial. However, those values and institutions were superimposed on a culture shaped by three centuries of Spanish rule. Rizal was correct that the old indigenous cultures had been largely subverted by the second half of the 19th century. It was the interaction of Spanish and American influences, mediated by Chinese and Malay threads, that created the current postcolonial reality.
The last 15 years have seen some progress towards liberalization, and the forces of globalization continue to exert pressure on countries like to Philippines to move towards transparency. However, it remains an open question whether or not such deeply entrenched social values and institutions can be modified, even in the face of 21st century imperatives.
In closing this Pearl, I should reiterate that I am not criticizing the Philippines or indicating any dislike of my adopted country. To the contrary, the cultural complexity appeals to me even if it makes me crazy at times.
Americans are used to moral absolutes and black vs. white distinctions. God's always supposed to be on our side; he let us down in Vietnam but came back to the fold in Afghanistan - just ask George W. Bush! We certainly did all we could to mold the Philippines in our image. But despite our best efforts to create a clone, the Philippines remains sui generis. Indeed, it is precisely the historical blending of diverse cultural influences that makes the Philippines such a unique (if challenging) place for a Westerner to live and work.
|...from Clarence Henderson's Pearl of the Orient Seas|
|Clarence Henderson Henderson Consulting International Manila Philippines|
|Clarence has had over 20 years of consulting experience in New York, Los Angeles, and the Philippines. He brings to the forum many years of experience in the Philippines and his monthly column integrates the experience of working in the Philippines with business tips earned the hard way! You can learn more about Clarence by clicking on his photo.||
About Clarence - Other APMF Columnists |
|See also Clarence Henderson's Philippines Capsule and Prospect Reviews at Asia Market Research dot Com|
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