Life between the ivory tower and a cardboard box

Metro Manila

What province are you from?

Map of the PhilippinesHere in the Philippines, All Saints Day and All Souls Day have been declared working holidays. Many Filipinos are taking the time to visit cemeteries all over the country, where they can reunite with loved ones, honor the dearly departed, and find another excuse to eat good food together. I am sure it can be fun, but I never grew up with it, mostly because we were abroad.

At work, many of my colleagues had been preparing for the holiday for weeks, anticipating the time when they get to go home and see their families again. Some had asked me where I was going for the holiday, and, among these conversations, the question “What province are you from?” popped up.

For readers who aren’t familiar with the question, colloquially, the “province” basically refers to any region in the Philippines that isn’t Metro Manila. Technically, Metro Manila, or the National Capital Region, is also its own province. However, I have found that many do not consider this when using the term “province”. According to Wikipedia, the same meaning is also applied to the term “province” in France, Peru, and Romania.

Much like the question “Where are you from?”, the question “What province are you from?” seeks to gauge who you are culturally, amidst the vast diversity that exists throughout the 7,107 islands. What province you are from apparently tells others what language you speak, what kind of food you like to eat, what religion you follow, and so on.

Like the question “Where are you from?”, I generally do not have any personal problem with other people asking, “What province are you from?” I know that, generally, there is a genuine social need to answer this question. However, my problem does lie in how to answer it.

First, even without the third culture kid aspect of my life, I have a problem answering the question, simply because I never lived anywhere in the country outside of Metro Manila. When I say this to people like my co-workers, many are genuinely surprised, as they themselves grew up outside of the city and only came here for school and work. The province is still considered “home”. To assuage their surprise and curiosity (and possibly any thoughts of my being a “city brat”), I just tell them I grew up abroad, and somehow that makes it more understandable.

Second, I often find myself answering the question by telling other people where my parents are from. However, I still don’t think this says anything about me. I have visited my dad’s hometown in Bicol and my mom’s family in Quezon many times. The most time I had ever spent outside of the metro and its connected suburbs (where my high school is located) was about three weeks or a month in Bicol. However, I don’t really feel like any of these places have influenced or define me. I don’t speak Bikolano, and even my mom’s Tagalog is different when she is with her family. I am also not knowledgeable about the way of life in both places. So, I feel like I’m just telling a half-truth when I answer the question “What province are you from?” in this manner.

Nonetheless, it still appears to be very useful when I tell other people what provinces my parents are from. Last week, I took a cab home with a particularly chatty driver. He told me he was from Bicol, and I ended up telling him that my dad was, too. Even though I told him that I didn’t speak any Bikolano, he was still very excited and proceeded to tell me about all the other Bikolano people he met here in the city. He told me that the cab he drove was operated by a fellow Bikolano, who basically gave him a lot of flexibility with the cab, even telling him that he could own a cab of his own one day. He told me about another passenger he once had, whose father was also from Bicol, and she said that, even though she also didn’t speak any Bikolano, she knew she was a true Bikolana because she really liked spicy food. We then had a good laugh and started a conversation about spicy food, including the famous Bicol Express. Provincial affinity is clearly still very important to many people here.

While I cannot relate to it, I have always wondered what it would have been like to grow up in the province. My mom likes to tell me outrageous stories from her hometown that somehow always involve faeries, duendes, or creepy neighbors standing outside of your window waiting for you to die. Many of the old folks from that area still believe in many of these stories, and will talk about them matter-of-factly at family gatherings. My dad’s side of the family also had a family reunion a few years ago, and I didn’t know most people and lost track of how I was related to everyone. Despite my own very culturally rich upbringing throughout the world, in a way, I feel like I have missed out on something just as valuable and, in a way, that is a part of who I am.

I will never be comfortable with telling people about what province I am “from”. However, I may consider looking for some ghosts or stopping by the cemetery in my dad’s hometown someday to light a few candles and perhaps enjoy some barbecue.


Scene in the City: Elections

In honor of the coming Barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) elections this Monday, October 29, today I give you not just one, not even two, but three short videos I took last weekend, of campaign activities going on while I was doing field work in the metro. They aren’t fabulous quality or anything (two were taken with my digital camera, while one was taken with my cell phone), but they do the job.

This first video features just one minute out of a five minute parade of cars that passed in front of our site, all of whom sported posters and balloons, while supporters wore pink T-shirts to promote their favorite candidate.

This second video is a another, more flamboyant parade that happened some time after the first video, featuring loud sirens and high school students playing the drums to attract the attention of potential voters.

The third video (obviously the one taken with my cell phone) shows a candidate appropriating a Britney Spears song to tell voters why she is the right person for the job. Her first name is Baby, which may explain the song choice.

Scenes like these have been going on all over the city and the country, including my own neighborhood, in anticipation of Monday’s elections. In addition to the entourages and the loud music, there are also posters and banners lining the walls, phone lines, and, soon, the bins, gutters, and burning piles of trash in every street all over the Philippines.

While all of this fanfare was going on, I couldn’t help but wonder: What would make me choose any of these candidates? Each parade had several candidates trailing one another, all featuring the same pink balloons, the same pink T-shirts, and the same smiling, waving, hard-hat sporting candidate hoisted at the back of the same pick-up truck. You have to possess basic reading skills to be able to tell each candidate apart. As far as I could tell, there was nothing that made a candidate stand out. This is exacerbated by the fact that I have no recollection of any running candidate taking the time to talk to voters about the issues. I haven’t been employed that long, so I would have been around in case someone came by or announced a forum to discuss barangay issues. Even my mom, who is currently not employed and little more knowledgeable about what goes on around here, has no idea who any of the candidates are and does not intend to vote on Monday. It is a little disappointing and frustrating to be faced with the responsibility to vote for someone when you have no idea what they can do for you.

I also find it disingenuous how candidates seem to think that making noise, wasting paper, and covering pop songs somehow makes them worthier of my vote. That doesn’t really tell me anything, except maybe who you are friends with and how creative you can get by inserting your name into a Top 40 hit. It is also insulting to voters, who deserve to know what they are getting into, instead of being manipulated by people who are supposed to serve them.

Then again, what do I know. I have not had the chance to participate in Philippine politics since turning 18, due to the fact that I was away and living far from the nearest embassy. Perhaps I just don’t know enough to understand that this is how it works here, or that I’m still so out of the loop that I’m missing some of the different ways that voters are getting their information. In a way, I still feel like a foreigner here, still trying to learn even the most basic aspects of life in the Philippines. I am sincerely asking anyone out there to enlighten me on the mechanics of the upcoming elections, if you find my thoughts too uninformed or offending.

This is what I do know, though. I was also the foreigner when I was living in the U.S., but for someone who couldn’t vote, I was still fairly informed about U.S. political affairs. My social circles ran the full spectrum, from deeply involved activists and people employed by presidential campaigns, to the uninformed or otherwise apathetic. All of these people have at least heard of candidates running for office (local, state, or national), and even friends who would be considered members of the so-called Sex and the City demographic can give brief talking points or soundbites given by candidates after simply talking to friends or tuning in to the evening news for a few minutes. Basically, I thought that it was not hard to be informed about politics there, as the media does a decent job of reporting what is going on and sticking to the issues. On the other hand, I am hard-pressed to say anything truly insightful about Philippine politics, besides the occasional quip about how “corrupt” it is or maybe a comment on the usefulness of the phrase “legal gobbledygook”.

This is not meant to be biting political or social commentary, but just my reaction to some things I have seen and am truly baffled about. All I am saying is that, as a citizen and someone who does make an effort to stay informed, I don’t feel like I know enough, and I think that future and current politicians and the media in the Philippines aren’t doing a good job of informing all people about what is really going on and why they should care about it. All the rhetoric about being patriotic and doing things to uplift the fellow Filipino doesn’t mean a damn thing until people — who, by the way, are supposed to be part of this “democracy” — are properly informed and educated about the issues. Until things change, unfortunately, there is nothing all the Britney Spears songs in the world can do to help us become a more engaged and politically functional community.


Scene in the City: Open 25 Hours

25 HoursApparently, it pays to defy logic.

Since I came back to the Philippines, I’ve seen more than a handful of restaurants around and outside the city that claim to be “Open 25 Hours.” While it appears to be GoodAh!!!‘s motto, I have seen it on mom ‘n’ pop type carinderias along the way to the provinces as well.

I don’t get it. Does this mean to say that they are open 25 hours a day? While obviously breaking the laws of science, I also fail to see how this can work with people. Most people are quite aware that there are only 24 hours in a day, especially those of us who have had to live with deadlines or lack a decent night’s sleep. So, how does one successfully get away with advertising something so blatantly false and contrary from common knowledge?

It reminds me of how, just this morning, I was reading the side of my Langers Cranberry Grape juice bottle (as you do), and found myself won over by the charming tale of how the owners of the company grew up drinking and tasting fresh juice squeezed from “firm, juicy cranberries” by their dad, the “head juicer”, while the owners were his “official tasters”. When I switched to the other side of the juice bottle, I was very disappointed to find out that my delicious and “fresh” Cranberry Grape juice was only 27% juice and contained high fructose corn syrup. I continued to feel disappointed as I gulped down the rest of my glass and poured myself another to drink with my brand new pile of lady pills. I mean, really, if they were going to lie — badly, at that — they should have just completed the circle and sold me a crappy product. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt as bad for adding to my already chemical-ridden body.

I guess this goes to show that it doesn’t really matter what you say in your advertising, as long as it gets people to buy your product. This is no longer about how good your product is, but how well you are able to spin it nicely enough to catch people’s attention. After all, we are living in a time where a series of insurance commercials featuring cavemen can be turned into a TV sitcom. It looks like counter-intuitiveness is the way to go.

Perhaps NGOs could pick up a few lessons from the private sector. No more need to air commercials with images of rail-thin, disease-ridden, starving children in far away countries. We can stop pretending people care when they attend worldwide concerts centered around giving aid to Africa. Instead, I propose they utilize new, sexy slogans that have absolutely nothing to do with their causes, but, at the same time, promote them with their paradoxical catchiness. I already have a few ideas of my own: “I Like Big Butts and I Cannot Lie — Join National Action Against Obesity!” or “Open 25 Hours! — The Minuteman Project.”


I’ve Made My Bed, I’ll Lie In It

Classified Ads

The other day, I was sitting with my mom at lunch, complaining as usual about how hard it’s been to find a job in Metro Manila. Usually, she plays the good mom by telling me that I will eventually find something, and that these things take time. However, that day, she decided to keep it real.

“You know why you can’t find anything?” she asked me. “It’s because of your course. You should have taken something practical. How do you expect to take care of yourself?”

I replied by mumbling something about how I’m not good at anything “practical.” It’s true. I don’t want to be a nurse and I don’t want to take business or computer science. In fact, my Economics courses in college were the some of the biggest reasons why my GPA was less than stellar.

“Well, it’s true,” my mom continued. “You need to take something more in demand if you want to live. You have to eat, you know.”

The rest of the meal was spent by me brooding quietly some more about education and skill sets and experience.

I have no problem admitting that my mom and others like her have a point. College does play an enormous part in shaping your skills for a career. It therefore helps your prospects much more if what you learned in college tends to be something more employers are looking for. In the Philippines, this includes nursing, teaching, IT,and business. Moreover, you have a higher chance of getting even the most menial of positions if your degree matches their qualifications or even the nature of the organization. You can’t even be an administrative assistant for an engineering firm without an Accountancy or Engineering degree. Part of it has to do with high competition, while another part has to do with the way things are done here. Unlike in the United States, where there is plenty of room for flexibility, when you declare a course in university here in the Philippines, you make a commitment to be in that field for life. As it goes, since I have a degree in Anthropology, I must be an anthropologist.

It also goes that friends and family here were duly perplexed upon finding out I wanted to major in Anthropology.

“Anthropology?” they asked. “What’s that?”

“It’s the study of people and cultural and social behavior,” was my short answer.

“Like an archaeologist? Do you want to dig up bones?”

“No, I don’t want to dig up bones. I’m more interested in cultural anthropology.”

“What? Where’s the money in that?”

And so on. People have given me much less grief about it and even humor me when I talk about it in casual conversation. On the other hand, I try to make myself sound more legitimate by telling people that my degree is in Anthropology and Global Development Studies. Never mind that GDS was just a concentration and not a full blown major. Never mind that GDS was really just a big mix of Anthro, Political Science, Econ, and some other stuff, leaving me unspecialized in anything. Nonetheless, that strategy seemed to give me a little more street cred, especially with employers.

In Manila, you definitely have more freedom in terms of what degree you pursue, if you are willing to start your career at a call center. All call centers here ask for is English fluency. That’s it. Everything else, from the script, phone etiquette, product overview, and even a contrived American accent and working knowledge of U.S. culture, is given to you during the compulsory training period. These days, you don’t even need a Bachelor’s degree anymore, since the industry is growing too fast to match the number of competent English speakers who want to work at a call center. While the money is quite tempting, I am done with call centers. I worked at a call center in Pasig one summer and did Phonathon all through college. I also did not spend five years building myself up in the U.S. only to come back to the Philippines to work at a call center. I think it’s time to move on from the phones.

So where does this leave me? I am not sure. It is pretty common knowledge that just having a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology isn’t going to bring you very many places. I learned this a while ago. I also realized that the country that readily sends its people to work as maids and janitors in other countries would not really understand what an Anthro degree really is. So, I’ve been aiming for numerous NGOs, teaching/training positions, and even an alumni coordinator position. So far, no success. I know the job search process takes a while, and I haven’t stopped looking, but it has been so easy for me to lose my resolve very quickly. I don’t like being poor, I hate having no routine, and, honestly, I don’t like comparing myself to other people and feeling like I am light years behind my peers. In any case, I will keep looking.

The truth is, I don’t really mind it too much. I know I made my own bed. I know my life is going to suck for a while. But I would still rather be where I am now than be in a position where I’m making much more money doing something that I’m bad at or bores me. The truth is, Anthro really does interest me, and I know that there is a way I can make it work later on in life.

If the going gets really tough, though . . . well, as we liberal arts majors always say, “There’s always grad school.”