After three years of writing Pearl, I am acutely aware of the risks associated with trying to write objective commentary on life as a foreigner in the Philippines. Among the factors that make me vulnerable:
- My willingness to self-disclose and propensity to free associate about sensitive issues
- My own immersion and semi-assimilation into Filipino culture and the inevitable conflicts about mixing oil and water
- A focus on the "special relationship" between the Philippines and Uncle Sam, the ex-colonial power
- The undeniable reality of my own race and cultural background
These factors make me wide open to such criticisms as (a) sticking my nose in where I have no business, (b) oversimplifying and culturally stereotyping, and (c) coming across as condescending and arrogant by pretending to understand a culture to which I can never truly belong.
Points well taken, acknowledged in the very first Pearl over three years ago, and regularly noted in the interim. I pays my money and takes my chances.
Given the sensitive nature of some Pearls, I'm surprised I haven't been lambasted more (see the Pearl topical index to access the full repertoire). I receive Pearl e-mails almost every day; I assiduously file them in a Pearl folder and reply when able. The Pearl folder has three subfolders: one for kudos, one for people requesting information about the Philippines or raising substantive issues in an intelligent manner, and one for flames.
Thanks to those of you who have sent kudos. Ditto for those who have contacted me seeking information or providing intellectual inputs; I'll do my darndest to get around to all of 'em when I can. Even thanks to the flamers (a small percentage actually), a few of whom have now been "converted" into FOPs (Friends of Pearl).
All of which is by way of introducing a strange adventure that unfolded in real time earlier this month. The content is intercultural quicksand and I fully expect to hit some raw nerves. Sorry about that. But I have taken the precaution of consulting with my attorney Raoul and he assured me that when there is a true story that needs to be told then one should relate the specifics. So, as they say, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.
It all started when I received an e-mail from a Filipino living abroad who maintains a web site known as "Get Real Philippines" that is, not to put too fine a point on it, critical of Filipino culture. Although he uses a pseudonym (Benign0) and is not personally identified on his site, the content is of good quality and directly addresses some of the major problems facing the Republic of the Philippines. The style of the site is "in your face," and the content pulls no punches in its criticisms and suggestions for what needs to be done.
The email had two purposes. First, Benign0 was informing me that he was featuring one of my recent columns (Halo-Halo Culture) on the site; last year he had been kind enough to feature a link to my "Social Volcano" Pearl. Second, he extended a polite invitation to join a discussion going on over in pinoyexchange.com, a popular discussion board owned by the Ayala Corporation. Since the thread in question was entitled "An Honest Evaluation of Filipino Culture," I figured it was right down my alley.
So I poked my head in to survey the terrain. It was an active group, with the discussion thread already at page 31 and counting; a superficial survey of previous posts suggested it wouldn't be a total waste of time. So I posted, greeted the group as expat1, and provided a link to the main Pearl index.
It didn't take long for fireworks to begin.
Notes on the tale to follow:
Quotes from the discussion board, including the examples that opened this column and those below, are verbatim (intact with typos, grammatical errors, and insults). Most of the participants in question are anonymous figures in cyberspace, while expat1 is a real live identifiable person - namely me.
- There was a fair amount of Tagalog and Taglish used, so rough translations are provided for Tagalog phrases.
- One of the more troubling aspects of the experience was the way in which snippets were taken out of context from Pearls. I run the same risk by abstracting isolated posts without the context of the full thread. Thus, I encourage readers to visit pinoyexchange, join under a pseudonym, and peruse pages 32-37 of the thread "An Honest Evaluation of Filipino Culture" (located under "Foreign and Local Issues").
The first few posts, which went up within a short period, were warm welcomes saying nice things about Pearl. There were also a few substantive comments and what looked like a serious debate about Filipino culture. But first impressions were deceiving.
Before long I couldn't help but wonder if Rod Sterling was behind the whole surreal experience. Specifically, I found myself being lambasted up one side and down the other, with subsequent posts including self-righteous protestations about the nerve of the Kano to pretend to understand Filipino culture, blatant misinterpretations of my columns, and vicious personal attacks. Nasty stuff.
The thread is lengthy and, as noted above, I don't want to make the same mistake the flamers did in cutting and pasting out of context. Nevertheless, the tale cannot be told without examples.
Herewith a few excerpts from this savage journey to the heart of the Pinoy dream.
Reactive comments with no basis in reality and exhibiting little or no knowledge of the topic under discussion:
Given that the participants were Filipino, I was surprised by the level of ignorance displayed about substantive topics affecting the Philippines. To give just one example, I mentioned my active involvement in the Philippine call center industry (serving on working groups, writing magazine articles, working on a white paper to influence public policy, etc.). This generated responses like the following:
So you plug RP when the government commissioned you to write PR materials for the government but in your website, all these positive pics that you draw about the country are wiped out with your sweeping generalizations about how bad our culture is .
The attraction of putting up call centers in the Phils is not because of any write-up of anybody but because of the cost savings that these projects will bring the company... the cost/benefit/risk has been done before some expats are flown to the country.
The people from Silicon Valley have been around and I'm sure they have seen places to make Manila seem like paradise. They have real fellows on payroll that have done the cost/benefit and risk analysis so most of the real work has been done before you meet them at the airport. All that you have to do is remind them how little they have to pay Filipinos to get high quality work to satisify the sharks in green shades and make sure they can find the local McDonalds and bars. I'm sure you'll do fine. You might not be a Peter Wallace but neither are you a Mike Wallace.
Aside from the fact that I've never been paid for such industry activities, the irritating thing was that the comments were so far removed from reality. The "write-up(s) of anybody" are read by international investors and help build the "brand image" of the Philippines on the global stage. Sure, the MNCs do cost-benefit analysis before they come here. But they do not automatically choose the lowest cost offshore location and they never, ever make an investment decision without extensive fact-finding missions and comparative analysis with other offshore locations.
Note: Logical responses such as the above, when posted, led to inflammatory rhetoric and personal insults. The fact that the anonymous posters had no ground level knowledge of the topic was apparent but didn't stop them from challenging any point I made, regardless of how solidly grounded in personal experience and verifiable reality. It was, to be honest, somewhat disorienting.
Distorted Interpretations and Misreadings of Pearl columns. - (This is where things got personal)
Several postings soon appeared attacking me viciously for specific Pearl columns. Although I am not thin-skinned and have been fielding flaming e-mails since I launched this endeavor three years ago, the vitriolic quality of the posts was striking.
For example, the leading flamer - whom I shall call Madcat - made a very puzzling post attacking Filipino Business World 101. This early Pearl told the story of an ex-pat business consultant who completely screwed up an engagement because he failed to understand Philippine culture. The column describes how the project fell apart because he failed to understand the importance of face, group norms, and basic cultural sensitivity. I am proud that the case has been used in MBA courses at both De La Salle and Ateneo de Manila, and that I have been asked to discuss it with students in those programs.
Thus, I was astonished when Madcat attacked me for painting a portrait of inefficiency and blaming the Filipino workers for the fiasco. In fact, the case explicitly points out the mistakes made by the ex-pat consultant in failing to operate within Filipino cultural norms. The purpose was to educate international executives about basic Filipino values and to illustrate how they should not behave. Crystal clear.
Of the numerous other examples, one of the strangest and most off-the-wall concerned my Eva from Cebu column, which remains one of the most popular Pearls. "Eva" tells the unvarnished and existential story of a GRO (guest relations officer) toiling in a karaoke joint. Like many Pearls, it is atmospheric and (some say) gripping.
Madcat, however, found it unacceptable and accused me of breaking the law and promoting prostitution in the Philippines:
Prostitution in the Philippines is illegal. Prostitution in Singapore is legal. But I doubt if they will allow an indirect promotion of sex trade in any web site masquerading as a e-business magazine.
This was particularly offensive in that I know for a fact the Eva column has had an impact in raising the consciousness of some sex tourists (who learn at least a bit about what the life of a bar girl is really like) and that the portrait it paints is valid in a social realist sense. I have received positive validation in the form of e-mails from Filipinas who have traveled that particular trail of tears, e.g. the following note I received from a Cebuana not long ago:
I thought I would like you to know that I just read your column in the internet the Eva from Cebu, just so you know it got my attention and I really admire you for writing it . . . but I can relate the life co'z I myself wishing the good future like she want's. luckly I got lucky and married and American a good one as I may say, I thank you for your malaking puso (Rough translation: "big heart"). I know you know what it means. God bless your heart at least someone out there has understood the life of a typical filipina just wanting to survive in this crazy world. I hope that Eva well get her wishes come true, she may not exist, but I and God knows there is many Filipina life like Eva that really exist, and may God Bless them and my heart and prayers be with all of them. Again maraming salamat sa iyong pagsulat Eva from Cebu (Rough translation: "hearty thanks for writing Eva from Cebu")
This one comes with the territory in a discussion board, of course, but I was still shocked by the sheer nastiness of some of the posts. BTW, the strategy worked - they got my red-blooded American hackles up and prodded me into by golly defending myself John Wayne-style.
Here's Madcat at her best:
Cut that crap of drumbeating that you write articles in order to promote the country which you learn to love. It is not spelled L-O-V-E for the host country. It is spelled PR and and sales promotion strategy for your consulting business.
Here's one of my responses:
I care deeply about the Philippines, and am amazed that there are Filipinos like you who would reject the possibility of a white boy actually having something to contribute or caring about what happens here. You should be ashamed of yourself.
Madcat's all-too-predictable reaction:
I am touched. What really is the image that you would like to impress ? What is your crusade ? I see nothing but insights on how to be seen and heard in order to create a name in the consulting business. If ever you will hear me applaud, it is because I can see that you applying what you learned in Management and Consultancy Business 101 superbly. Huwag mo na kaming PAUTANGIN NA LOOB na ginagawa mo lang dahil sa kapakanan ng Pilipino (Rough translation: "Don't pretend that you're doing it out of the goodness of your heart or for the Filipinos"). Now I am drenched in tears. Let me wipe them off with the Dilbert funnies' pages.
Elsewhere I was called "frat boy" and (later, after I quit playing the game) "white deity".
The insults exchanged between the two warring camps were vicious. On one side of the fence was the Get Real gang, arguing that certain aspects of Filipino culture have kept the country from progressing and will continue to do so if not addressed. On the other side were Madcat and her allied Pinoys, steadfastly resisting any critical comments about Filipino culture and always finding scapegoats for any perceived slight to their beloved nation. The exchanges between the pseudonymic individuals in the two warring factions can only be described as hateful (e.g., "you ignorant recently ejected paper pushing, lunchtime free office internet loading, sorry - *** whining, Aussie citizenship-waiting, white-arse kissing, mulga wood hide rubbing, fish and chip munching, wannabe social scientist w*nker").
Not surprisingly, these mutually vicious attacks dominated the thread and less than 20% of the posts actually dealt with the supposed topic of "An Honest Evaluation of Filipino Culture". The rest was devoted to calling each other names or lobbing grenades at the intrusive Kano in their midst (little ole me).
Complete Misunderstanding of what Pearl and APMF are about.
One of Madcat's major protestations was that Pearl is horribly offensive because it presents itself as a business column, yet delves into places it's not supposed to go. She went on and on and on, questioning why I write about OFWs or bar girls or pagan rituals, asking why I didn't just stick to business issues like I should.
Talk about out to lunch!
I responded by reminding Madcat of the word "Random" in my subtitle and pointing out that I have a long-term affinity with a certain Dr. Thompson of gonzo fame.
Every once in a while the "Get Real" Cavalry would come to my defense. Illustrative posts addressed to Madcat about the Eva issue:
It's either you didn't read or failed to comprehend. Eva's plight and that of the OFWs are stories that have to be told. Not to deride them, but for them to be understood and consequently turn society's indifference and callousness towards them into compassion and understanding. If you had read carefully, you would not feel like mocking them after reading the articles but ponder on how the plight of people like them can be improved.
What difference does it make if the articles appear on Pearl, Get Real Philippines or Time.com? It still would make the world aware and appreciate the plights of those people. They would be able to understand that behind the GRO is someone desperate and sorrowful yearning for a decent life or behind the hard working OFWs are human beings too with frustrations and dreams. That may make them treat our countrymen better, now that they see the person in a different light, beyond the facade.
Others defended Pearl in a broader sense:
I don't find anything wrong with the usage of the title "Pearl of the Orient Seas" to describe Mr. Henderson's compilation of articles. It merely accents how ironic that title has become nowadays with a lot of sad things that plague the supposedly pearl-like Philippine society. It isn't bad in such a way that I interpret it as inspite of all the room for improvement the Philippines has, it is still a pearl that just requires polishing.
Just when I was considering bailing out, Dingodato - the esteemed editor of APMF - unexpectedly popped up in the thread. Having noticed a spike in traffic from pinoyexchange to Pearl, he had dropped by to see what was up. He clarified the APMF philosophy:
Our ezine is designed to give an alternative view, sometimes personal, sometimes analytical, from that than can be normally read in the mainstream Western press and the stymied press in Singapore and Malaysia, by people who actually live, work, and love in Asia, as opposed to those who fly in like wombats.
Culture is a key part of business. And we are giving it it's right place editorially. The Asian business press is full of politically correct articles, who got the top job, boring advertorials, and how i made money articles. We like to think we are offering an alternative street level approach, which includes both personal experiences and straight analysis.
After that intervention, and after a particularly scathing, point-by-point rebuttal posted by yours truly (in my full John Wayne reactionary mode), Madcat flipped out, going into what the Get Real gang refers to as a "tililing" rampage:
So it is me against THE world. heh ?
Why don't you call everybody to reprimand me.
So what is the ruckus all about?
What is this a certificate of good moral conduct?
arghhhh, the woman, what is her name again? has nobody to turn to? to make sumbong and make palo her kaaway. (rough translation: "has nobody to talk to and no way to hit back at the enemy?" ) iT IS TIME TO CALL MY MENTOR IN THE pHILS AND MAY KAKAMPI.... (rough translation: "MY ALLY")
Darn...I mean DARNAAAAAAA....
This one requires a little cultural translation. Darna is a female superhero who originally appeared in Filipino Komiks in 1950 and who has since been the subject of numerous comic book and cinematic productions, originally played on the silver screen by Rosa del Rosario and more recently by Anjanette Abayari. Darna resembles Wonderwoman to a significant degree. It seems a little girl named Narda was granted magical powers by virtue of a stone inscribed with the word "Darna"; when she utters that phrase ("Darna") a brilliant magical flash transforms her into the strong, beautiful, and elegant Darna.
Oh well, if you're going to have a conniption fit, I guess you might as well invoke all the superpowers at your command.
After about a week of these exchanges, I tired of the exercise and decided to bail out. I notified the group I was calling it quits and threatened to go to pinoyexchange management to have the offending parties expelled. After all, Madcat and her buddies were clearly violating the board's policies for User conduct, to wit:
b. As each forum is specifically tailored to address certain topics, you are responsible for initiating new threads in the correct forum. You should stay on-topic at all times. The appropriate content for each forum is described in detail on the PinoyExchange.com Forum Homepage.
g. "Trolling," or posting of insulting or deliberately divisive threads/replies for the purpose of (1) harvesting retaliatory insults and flames, or (2) throwing off the balance of the forum, are also disallowed.
I also said that I would copy it to some top execs of Ayala Corporation whom I happen to know from my incessant networking... a very Pinoy way of doing business, diba?
In the sober light of morning, however, I declined to do so and decided to let off my aggression by telling this strange tale in this forum.
The day after I left I was pleased to find the following post.
Though I still wish that you could find it in you to stick around despite the shameful treatment you have received here, I would like to thank you for your brief participation in this forum. As one of the people who respectfully invited you here, I must admit that I find that we have succeeded in getting across to you through your personal experience with not a few characters here, an appreciation of the extent of the dysfunction and damage that the Filipino psyche continues to sustain to this day despite more than half a century of independence.
I do apologise for the emotional distress caused you but in a way, I feel some satisfaction that you have personally experienced said distress. There is no other way to describe to fellow Filipinos, much less foreign-born people like yourself, the nature of what you yourself have termed as the "underbelly of the Filipino psyche" unless you experience it for yourself.
Well, as Porky Pig would say, that's (about) all folks. The above samples barely scratch the surface and there are many more bizarre subthemes and irrational snippets embedded in the full thread. But this is already the longest Pearl in APMF history, so the above highlights/lowlights will have to do.
In the second part of this column to be published in two days on Thursday, I'll try to step back, be objective, and place this savage journey in some sort of perspective. Wish me luck.