A stereotype of Filipinos:  great singers, musicians, entertainers.  Friendly people.  Not perhaps as industrious as their Asian neighbors.  Fun loving but not really “serious”.  

            Stereotypes have some grain of truth, at least this one.  Filipinos are friendly and they are famous entertainers, hired throughout Asia in major hotels and clubs because of their skills as singers and musicians.

            Stereotypes also serve a purpose for those holding them.  It is convenient  to see a people who has been oppressed and colonized as childlike and in some ways inferior.  So Americans have made stereotypes about native Americans, black Americans and Filipinos to excuse our past actions.

            I lived in the Philippines from 1987 to 1989 and have visited many times since.  I have glimpsed the colonial relationship that still survives, subtly, between Filipinos and Americans – though I believe the termination of the US bases agreement in 1992 has done much to end the colonial era and its mindset.

            On this trip I came to appreciate more a side of the Philippines that I (and probably most Americans) have never appreciated:  the key role Filipinos have played in the development of Asia.

            My wife Lina taught students from all over the world, including the USA, at MIT (Mapua Institute of Technology) and AUF (Araneta University Foundation) in the early 1970s.  They came to learn applied science, applied math, agriculture, engineering, forestry, veterinary medicine, animal husbandry, family planning, journalism and publishing and other technical fields in which the Philippine universities excelled.  They returned home with these skills.

            Generations of rice scientists have trained at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños  and have gone back to their countries in Asia to double and triple rice production.  This is perhaps the greatest and most obvious contribution that the Philippines has made to the development of Asia and countries beyond.

            On this trip we’ve met two Vietnamese women who are dynamic social workers.  One of them, a nun, has worked for years creating opportunities for Vietnamese as refugees in the Philippines and as entrepreneurs in Vietnam.  The other has introduced social work to Laos and the Lao education system.  They trained in the Philippines in the early 1970s.

            The Philippines has a rich tradition of community organizing and rural development on a small scale.   Places like the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction have welcomed students from around the world and sent trainers overseas to train NGO staff.    When I co-directed the Vietnam program of the American Friends Service Committee in the early 1990s, we found Filipino trainers to be very skilled and also appropriate to the cultural contexts they were working in, unlike some high-priced consultants from Western countries.

            This tradition of grassroots organizing led to the most stunning nonviolent movement in recent history, the peaceful toppling of the Marcos regime in 1986. 

            No one would claim that People Power – the 2 millions people who massed on EDSA and stood firm against the government, until the army came over to their side – has solved all the problems of the Philippines.

            But is there a better example of determination and courage in the face of tyranny?   Like the civil rights movement, this was not a spontaneous uprising, but rather the result of many years of patient preparation, of courageous inner work and courageous organizing.   Filipinos are indeed fun loving and friendly, but they do not lack in seriousness and courage when the time calls for it.

            I heard an interesting and surprising comment from my Vietnamese friend in Laos.  I have lived and worked in both Vietnam and the Philippines for two and a half years and visited frequently since.   To me, Vietnamese culture seems closer to its roots than the Filipino.  Vietnamese architecture and village festivals point back to a long history before the French colonial domination.  They speak of a culture that has a distinct identity, part Chinese, part French, and still Vietnamese. 

            Those roots seem harder to find in the Philippines, and indeed Filipino intellectuals and artists discuss what it means to be a Filipino, a citizen of this huge island archipelago without one dominant culture like the Kinh/Vietnamese.

            Xuyen, our friend in Laos, commented that, coming from Vietnam, she was so struck by the lively and authentic culture she found in the Philippines, so different from what she left behind.

            Filipino cultural groups present programs with dance from the Spanish period (333 years of colonization) such as “Pandango sa Ilaw”  (fandango with candles); tribal dance from the northern Cordillera or the Muslim south; and the village fiesta and its colorful dances like “Tinikling” (bamboo poles clacking together and feet moving nimbly between).  Children learn these dances in school here, not to a professional level but well enough that they can usually dance them as adults, and some do indeed go on to master them.   Perhaps this is what Xuyen noticed and appreciated, something missing from her growing up in Vietnam, where culture is perhaps not so participatory.  I must ask her.