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Toxic Filipino Culture That Impedes Progress

By: Meg Daupan

In college, a professor in a philosophy class I took asked the question, “Should we do away with culture and tradition?” My response at that time, thinking of all the fun big family gatherings and parties, Philippine culinary delicacies, and beautiful traditional dances was a straightforward “no!”

As I continued on my path, traveling to different places and learning about many cultures, I began to see that various norms, traditions, and beliefs were in fact toxic—and that we should do away with them. Culture is meant to evolve to keep communities thriving and surviving together. We no longer live in the same dwellings or dress the same way our species did thousands of years ago because our culture evolved to incorporate modern methods to build stronger, safer homes. Our health, safety, and survival may depend on these advancements. If a particular part of our culture hinders our progress - in other words, our survival - then it is time to re-evaluate and assess what needs to be changed. While there are many aspects of Filipino culture and tradition that I will work hard to preserve, I will focus on three ideologies or traits that are common in Filipino culture and in many other cultures that are impeding rather than promoting progress.

(1) First, let me start with the “utang na loob.” It is a Filipino cultural trait that literally means “a debt of one’s inner self (loob).” This is particularly applied to children as a feeling toward their parents—whether or not they raised you. None of us asked to be born.

This is why it is the parents’ role to groom their kids, provide them with basic needs, and support them the best way they can until they are able to make their own decisions and survive the challenges posed by society and the world. It is a wonderful thing to give back, of course, to a parent who loved and cared for you, and also to other friends and family who supported you along the way. But imposing this as a requirement on a child is selfish and toxic. Children are not born to become retirement account funds. If you love your children and truly give your best to them, they will surely know how to love you back and care for you.

It is important to note here that there are many children who, as young as preschool age, start to help their parents with sustaining their livelihood. And it is simply not fair for these children to be told later when they become successful in their career endeavors that everything they are they owe to their parents. In the face of failures, those same children are told it is their own fault! We are who we are because of the choices we make in life. Our genetic makeup is but a part of our being.

We should also be aware that different cultures have different ways of caring for their elders, and it is not a matter of right or wrong. I have heard a lot of people condemn the American way of “disposing” of their old parents in nursing homes or assisted living facilities. This is mostly for those who can afford these facilities, of course. I’ve been bothered by this too, but after learning more about it, I have realized it makes the most sense given the living conditions in the US (which is very different from the Philippines). Many younger adults in the US take at least two jobs to pay their day-to-day living expenses, and attending to their elders’ daily needs will take away from their ability to improve their situation, and nearly impossible to also save enough to have children and help them pay for their education. Beyond that, the high cost of healthcare and insurance is already crippling, with a single hospital visit potentially costing many thousands of dollars. This is why we, as individuals, need to learn how to take care of ourselves and plan for our future, and not simply plan to rely on others who may be facing greater challenges in the future. In addition, public and private institutions also need to re-examine their systems to better support rather than take advantage of individuals.

Given the ever-increasing difficulties to maintaining financial security and affording an education, we need to consider the impact that utang na loob has not only on our children, but our grandchildren - if our children spend all their money on us, how will our grandchildren ever be successful? It is time that we plan for our children’s future success, rather than planning on our children’s success. If we truly want our children and grandchildren to thrive in a comfortable environment under intense social, economic, and environmental pressures, we cannot keep on using the “utang na loob” for our children to save us. This will just hinder the progress of individuals, communities, and our country as a whole.

(2) Second, crab mentality. Think of a crab that is placed alone in a small bucket. It will climb out and escape easily. Interestingly, when you place this crab along with a few others in the bucket, as one tries to escape, other crabs will pull it back down to the bottom of the bucket. The crabs may not know that they are causing their own doom this way, but as humans we should know better. There is nothing healthy or positive in the mindset of “if I can’t have it, neither can you.” It is one thing to feel jealous, but acting on it to pull someone down is very harmful to any relationship.

When I started applying for graduate schools in the US, I received dramatically more pushback than words of support and encouragement. Some of this pushback included sentiments aimed at making me feel guilty for leaving my mother, who raised my brothers and me by herself—ironically, when someone from a well-to-do family leaves the country for a better opportunity, you’ll never hear the same comment. But for a woman like me who grew up in a financially struggling household, people made me feel like I had no right to advance. I was also told that it was impossible for me to get accepted to universities in the US, and if I made it, that I would incur insurmountable debt. And I was told if I made it that far, I would eventually have to let go of my aspirations to live abroad and go back to the Philippines. Almost everywhere I turned, sharing my dreams (and my careful plans) resulted in ridicule. Fortunately, my mother was supportive of me and there were a precious few family members who took great risks to support me—and I grabbed every opportunity I could. During those early years, I worked even harder than I ever thought possible. Along the way, through working multiple jobs and getting promotions and raises, as well as learning on my own about financial planning and management, I completely paid off all my loans within three years after I graduated. I am proud of what I have accomplished with support of the few, and in spite of the many. I left my home country not out of selfish desire, but to better understand what is going on with our global society, why we lost thousands of our countrymen to Typhoon Haiyan, and what we can do to better protect our environment and our community.

We need each other’s support more than ever. This crab mentality will only bring us all down, when we can be supportive and help lift each other up.

(3) Last, this age-old mentality that the older you are the wiser you are (even better if you are a man). It is interesting to note how Tagalog has terms for older relatives (“kuya” for older brother, “ate” for older sister), but no equivalent terms for younger people, so we usually end up calling them by their first names. Other unique words we use when speaking to elders are “po” and “opo.” Deference to older people is ingrained in us from our very first words. On the one hand, these lead to many fun and cute names and nicknames, and they remind me that I am still young with plenty of opportunities in life. Beyond the use of language, what bothers me is when older people assume they know better about everything, to the point where they try to run young people’s lives. Worse still is when others are convinced of this belief as well, even among the younger generations. People can become manipulative and arrogant simply because they believe age equates to wisdom. Life experience is valuable for wisdom, but we can never fully know what other people’s experiences are. We cannot deduce that we are wiser and more correct just because we are older.

There have been many occasions when I felt disrespected by older people who talked down to me, telling me how I should have done things differently (even in situations where I had been very successful), or making false accusations and adding that I am ungrateful (even when I was already doing everything I could to cover expenses and provide for older family members).

We should focus on our own lives and how we can help make this world a better place. If we insist that we know better than anyone else, then that leaves us no room for growth. But there is always something to learn from someone else if we allow ourselves to listen, regardless of age.

I added “even better if you are a man” above because our society still struggles to combat gender discrimination. A Filipino friend of mine in the US told me how their Tito chose not to vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US election, not due to any disagreement about political agendas, but in his words, “because she is just a woman.” I learned later on that this man lives rent-free in his elderly aunt’s house (even though she is “just a woman.”) Unbelievable!

We can all benefit from the wisdom of the young and old; the rich and poor; men, women, and gender nonconforming people; black, white, and other people of color, and indigenous wisdom, ancient wisdom, and cutting-edge knowledge, especially in this fast-paced environment where new technology evolves faster than our culture.

My hope is for more individuals to look through all these norms and not blindly follow what is presented to them. A lot of people are suffering and feeling suffocated because of how we have structured our society. What is a community for? What is culture for? If a community, culture, or tradition is impeding your growth and diminishing you, what should you do?


Cover photo by John Euclid Templonuevo

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