Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Revolting Traditions

At a recent house party I attended, the lady host remarked that it was a curse to be a Filipino. “My white friends, when they host parties, they only serve one or two main dishes and a lot of crackers and cheese,” she said. “But for Filipinos, we are always expected to serve six, eight or more main dishes.”

“It takes so much more time and so much more money to be a Pinoy,” she said with a sigh.

Thanksgiving always presents the cultural contrast between a typical American family feasting on just turkey and pumpkin pie and a Filipino family which has to serve the traditional turkey along with a whole lechon (roast pig) and several more main dishes.

Filipino middle class families in the US can afford this extravagance, of course. Unfortunately, even those who can’t, both here and in the Philippines, bend over backwards to still try to, because tradition dictates that they do so.

My first involvement in politics occurred in 1965 when I became actively involved in the presidential campaign of Sen. Raul Manglapus of the Progressive Party of the Philippines. What attracted me to the quixotic quest of Manglapus was his book, Revolt Against Tradition, where he decried the Filipinos’ penchant for fiestas where the poor are forced by culture and tradition to borrow money they don’t have just to feed and entertain their guests during the fiesta. They would spend the next year paying off their loan sharks only to borrow money from them again for the next fiesta.

Though arguably simplistic in their approach, some observers blame the moderate Philippine climate and the relative abundance of natural resources for the poverty of this country of 7,107 islands (at high tide). Though humidity is relatively high, the average yearly temperature is only around 26.5 °C (79.7 °F) and all sorts of tropical crops grow almost year-round. In Asian countries which have four seasons, like Japan , China and Korea , the people have to struggle to gather food for storage during the spring, summer and fall so that they will have enough food during the winter. In contrast, in the Philippines, where the sun always shines, people do not need to save for “winter”. They do not have to save for future contingency.

If geography determines culture, then Filipino culture is also shaped by typhoons, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Located within the typhoon belt of the Western Pacific, the Philippines gets belted by approximately 19 typhoons per year, many of which are destructive in terms of lives, habitation and vegetation. The archipelago is also right on the northwestern edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire, causing it to experience frequent seismic activities. Reportedly, about 20 earthquakes are registered daily, most too weak to be felt, although the last major one, the 1990 Luzon earthquake, registered 7.8 on the Richter scale.

Most of the country’s mountainous islands are also volcanic in origin and there are many active volcanos which wreak havoc every now and then. The most notorious of these, Mt. Pinatubo, erupted in the 1990’s and was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of residents in neighboring towns, the destruction of thousands of homes, the temporary cooling of the world by 0.5 °C (0.9 °F), and even the abandonment by the U.S. of its huge military bases, Clark and Subic.

The combination of climate, geography and a history of occupation by foreign powers has fostered in the country’s natives a different set of culture and unique attitude towards life. Filipinos developed a love of partying along with that sense of fatalism that aspires for living large in the now. “Delayed gratification” is a foreign concept to most. To the religious, “Bahala na ang Diyos” (roughly translated, “the Lord will provide”) is the mantra.

These thoughts raced through my head when I read that Asian Americans as a group have fared better than typical Americans in the current financial crisis (see “Home Run: Asian American homeowners and the subprime mortgage fallout,” by Rex Feng on AsianWeek.com). Home ownership among Asian Americans experienced breakneck growth from 2000 to 2005, leaping from 53 percent to 60 percent in five years, but new home ownership among the group quickly slowed right before the housing market burst.

In support of his assumption that Asian Americans are more conservative, Rex Feng wrote: “Asian Americans were seemingly not attracted to the low introductory rates offered with many subprime loans; they prefer large down payments, thereby reducing their loan amount and interest payments. They also prefer fixed-rate mortgages over the more exotic adjustable-rate mortgages that have landed so many American homeowners in hot water.”

The "Asian Americans" described above are likely those who came from countries with four seasons, which does not include Filipino Americans because the anecdotal, if not empirical evidence, is that Filipinos, especially recent immigrants, found subprime loans to be manna from heaven, their shot at the home ownership they coveted ever since they were in the Philippines.

While the economic backdrop is getting worse, the foreclosure problem is the biggest issue in the Filipino community now. I know many, however, who appear unconcerned. They reason that even if they purchased their homes with bigger down payments and obtained a more conservative loan program, like other Asian immigrants do, they still would have been foreclosed on because of increasing unemployment. Sayang lang.

Weird logic?

Erma Brombeck, a US humorist, was famously quoted as saying, “Just think of all those women on the Titanic who said ‘No, thank you’ to dessert that night. And for what?”

A Filipino farmer in an island barrio may well ask, "What's the point of saving for a rainy day when that rainy day typhoon will wipe out your home and everything you worked so hard to save for anyway?"

Happy Thanksgiving. (Take it easy on the lechon).

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