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The Mysteries of Being Filipino


From the very beginning, our history, our language, our land, and our personal stories have defied expectations. It’s time we celebrated our multitude of voices and, yes, identities.

Photography by
Videography by
Francisco Guerrero
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The Balangay

In the fringes of a residential subdivision in Butuan (park your car at the last sari-sari store, then walk through the makeshift bamboo gate, out past the rooster sheds and the goats), there lies at the bottom of a waterlogged pit an archaeological discovery that could potentially upend what we’d always been taught to believe about Philippine history and geopolitics.

What they’d found, in 2013, was a balangay—a wooden ship from pre-Hispanic times—but not one like the eight others found before. Though archaeologists are cautious about making any definitive pronouncements, the prevailing theory is that this was the mother balangay, around which the other, smaller balangay sailed as support and supply ships.

Think about that for a second and let this set fire to your imagination. The balangay of our original acquaintance were already wondrous vessels, clearly built for the open sea (and therefore for long-distance travel). They pre-dated the Iron Age, and so were made entirely of wood, including the dowels that held the entire structure together.

Filipino identity, culture, and even history resist all expectations of it.

We already knew that the Butuanons were already trading with far-away kingdoms—in ancient China, in (what is now) Vietnam. The discovery of this ship, ten times the size of any of the other balangay, meant that the ancient Butuanon were capable of far more sophisticated boatbuilding and seafaring than was previously believed; and therefore that they were likely to have reached much further than previously believed, perhaps well into India.

The balangay was central to one of the basic stories of Filipino history that we were taught as children: That the most basic unit of government was called the “barangay” after the ships, echoing the neat hierarchies within. It’s a comforting image—our noble ancestors, organizing themselves into compact, mobile communities and setting off to trade peaceably with neighboring kingdoms.

The discovery of the mother ship asks us to reimagine this history on a far bigger scale. Instead of a lone ship, we have an entire flotilla, and all that that entails in terms of power, skill, and complexity.

The point that I am trying to make isn’t simply that the Filipino is heir to “the glorious past” that Carlos P. Romulo wrote about; it’s that Filipino identity, Filipino culture, even Filipino history resists all expectations of it.

I am a Filipino

Even that self same essay by CPR, arguably his most famous written work, is a case in point. The piece, titled “I Am a Filipino,” was first published in 1941 in the pages of the The Philippine Herald. It’s a great piece of rhetoric, which every Filipino child must have come across around the same time we were being taught about the balangay: “I sprang from a hardy race, child of many generations removed of ancient Malayan pioneers. Across the centuries, the memory comes rushing back to me: of brown-skinned men putting out to sea in ships that were as frail as their hearts were stout.”

It bears noting that referring to the “Malay race” is hideously outdated, and was on its way out even in 1941. The term came from the old theory that humanity could be classified into five races (Malay, Caucasian, Mongolian, African, American), now obviously an oversimplification. Filipinos, however, were under the additional misconception that our indigenous peoples came over from the Malaysian and Indonesian mainland. That was clearly the image that Romulo had in mind in his piece: “Over the sea I see them come, borne upon the billowing wave and the whistling wind, carried upon the mighty swell of hope,” he wrote. “…hope in the free abundance of new land that was to be their home and their children’s forever.”

But the prevailing view has turned this image on its head. The general consensus among scientists is that the opposite is true: that the Austronesian peoples (a more complex ethnolinguistic classification that has obliterated the idea of a “Malay race”) may have come from the Philippines, and have sailed outward, to the south, to settle places as far away as Madagascar and the Polynesian islands. There might never have been any noble adventurers taking to sea against the odds; instead, there were skilled sailors, perhaps in fleets, setting their sights further than we’d thought.

The truth is never ideal, and the truth is certainly more complicated than that. Sometimes the truth is more grand.

The other thing is this: Being an archipelago of thousands of small islands, our borders have always been porous. Our lineage is rich with history: Chinese traders, Indian migrants, American travelers, British scholars— in my case, a researcher tells us, perhaps a French soldier from Napoleon’s army. I like to imagine my poor ancestor deserting during the terrible Russian Winter, throwing down his arms and finding his way to the tropics, in a story that is echoed time and time again throughout our personal histories. Through the decades, we have only added more of the world to our bloodlines. Which is to say: When have we collectively, and personally, felt an affinity to the idea?

Not to say that “I Am a Filipino” doesn’t deserve its place in our collective memory. It’s a mighty piece of literature, and every Filipino heart should beat a little faster after reading that stirring piece. But it isn’t history, any more than the Gettysburg Address could be counted on to provide a full accounting of the American Civil War. The hazy image of brave Malay pioneers setting out in little boats to lay claim to islands that promised freedom—it’s an idealized place for our minds to go to when we’re asked about being Filipino. The truth is never ideal, and the truth is certainly more complicated than that. Sometimes the truth is more grand.

The Mysteries of Being Filipino - Indigenous Tribeswoman
The Mysteries of Being Filipino - Indigenous Tribeswoman

The Exotic Islands

That said, the piece itself is an exercise in bucking expectations. I had always been blown away by the apparent mastery of the English language that the writer displays—especially since everything patriotic I had theretofore been exposed to was in Tagalog.

(Or, as it was back then, the language was more correctly referred to as “Filipino” instead of “Tagalog”; either because: a) “Tagalog” refers to a specific cultural region and an ethnolinguistic group, and it would be inviting unrest to force the label upon the entire nation; or b) the Filipino language is but a descendant of Tagalog.)

In any case, I imagined Romulo delivering this rousing speech to an enthralled General Assembly at the United Nations, which handily explains why “I Am a Filipino” is in English. That wasn’t the case, however: “I Am a Filipino” was published in 1941, in a Philippine newspaper, years before there was even a UN for Romulo to lead as secretary-general.

The English language was back then—and still is—common currency for any number of reasons both practical and philosophical. The call-center industry touts our easy relationship with English and our “neutral accent” as a selling point, though perhaps to the rest of the world it keeps on being a surprise (i.e., How come your English is so good?) Even among ourselves, we are sometimes surprised at how far English reaches: It goes where Tagalog does not, and is more acceptable and less threatening in some places.

Early last year, author and geopolitical analyst Robert D. Kaplan published a book called Asia’s Cauldron, a section of which was about the Philippines. As potentially important as Kaplan’s analysis of the region might be, there was this rebuttal from a Spanish academic that came hot on its heels: “What Kaplan misses and can’t stand is the fact that, in his mind and in the mind of many people, the Philippines is not so oriental as the western imagination wishes it to be: There are no pagodas, no spiritual Buddhism, no philosophical lessons from Confucius. The Philippines is not exotic enough for him,” Jorge Mojarro wrote for the online publication Interaksyon in June 2014. “Perhaps, he might be more contented to find people practicing shamanism, ignoring the English language, or keeping indigenous culture alive.”

Now, I haven’t read Kaplan’s latest book, and am therefore unable to comment either way on Mojarro’s counter-argument. In ardently defending his adopted country, however, Mojarro voices a nagging suspicion we might have all had at some point: That the Philippines has been so hard to explain to foreigners because we’re just not “exotic” enough.

The Mysteries of Being Filipino - Indigenous Tribeswoman
The Mysteries of Being Filipino - Indigenous Tribeswoman


About two years ago, I was asked to take care of a young woman who we shall call Josephine, who was either half-Filipino or wholly Filipino, or not Filipino at all, depending on how you look at it.

An old friend who lived in New York had written to ask me to take Josephine in for a few days, because it was her first time to visit the Philippines. Her father was a full-blooded Filipino, though he himself had been born in the United States to immigrant parents. And so Josephine is already twice removed from her Filipino roots: What she knows of being Filipino is limited to the fact that her looks favor her father’s side, and from her grandmother’s adobo, her grandfather’s hazy stories of the Philippines in the 1940s, and from The Filipino Channel.

The trip to the Philippines was Josephine wanting to get in touch with her Filipino blood, to see what it was that she was supposed to be. It was a successful trip, after which she started to join Filipino-American advocates’ groups in the United States; here she met another Fil-Am guy, with whom she returned to the Philippines and married a year or so later. The couple have just, last December, welcomed their firstborn, who they hope to raise with a strong connection to his Filipino side.

The Philippines has been so hard to explain to foreigners because we’re just not “exotic” enough.

The Filipino-American experience is long and rich with insight, and now, we are growing into a new phase in this shared history, as we now have a generation of Fil-Ams who are Filipino “only” by blood. They are, for all intents and purposes, foreigners; but they are foreigners with a vested interest in asking questions about Being Filipino.

And what do we tell them, what do we tell their sons and daughters? How do we tell them that being Filipino is not an easy question to answer, because being Filipino is a multitude of identities that shifts over time, because it is a multiplicity of identities that have to us over the past. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, of Buddhists and atheists. The Tagalog are Filipino, as are the Bisaya, the Tausug, the Sama, the Igorot, the Bajau, the T’boli. Our peoples are literally countless, because our ethnographists struggle to keep up—not with the population growth, but with the fluid cultural borders that only blur more with time.

The Mysteries of Being Filipino - Indigenous Tribeswoman
The Mysteries of Being Filipino - Indigenous Tribeswoman

Every Juan Flies

Something happened over the past couple of decades: We began to travel more, and to take over the conversation.

I went to a dinner where Pico Iyer was the guest and speaker for the evening, and the venerable travel writer spoke about the changing face of travel as a whole, and about travel writing as its commentary. He called attention to the great shifts in both realms: In short, Everyman travel used to be something Westerners do, which also meant that travel literature was something written by Westerners, for Westerners, and with a Western view on the world.

Remember how Southeast Asia used to be the Far East? Not only were we—geographically, spiritually, culturally—the opposite of the West, but we were the far opposite. We were the exotic, inscrutable, the Far East. (Note, for example, that Australia never belonged to the Far East, though it lies geographically further east of Europe than we do. And remember, most of all, that the world is round, which means that “far” doesn’t really mean anything unless you regard a fixed point—in this case, Europe—as the center of the world. Everything was relative to the European perspective.)

That legacy of conquerors has been erased, slowly, but definitively, over the past few years. In terms of global travel, the numbers are on the side of the Asians. The region is now mostly traveled by Asians, and Asians are seeing more of the world than ever before. The dominant traveler is now from the “Far East,” for whom the exotic is the mundane. Iyer, who is himself a straddler of cultures (Indian by heritage, American by birth, British by education, Japanese by marriage) is perhaps the harbinger of these tectonic shifts in perspective.

As we travel more of the world, and think more about the world, we shape the world.