April 09, 2014
Thoughts, Praises and Criticisms: A letter from a foreigner who fell in love with The Philippines @BrenontheRoad
I asked Travel Blogger friend Brendan to write a guest post about his honest views of the Philippines. This is a fitting letter to reflect on as we celebrate "Araw ng Kagitingan" (A Day of Valour). Brendan is an accountant turned full time traveler. He writes to inspire others to travel and discover their world. You can follow his adventures on his blog Bren on the Road.
Dear People of The Philippines,
Last year, I had the privilege of spending 6 months in your incredible country. It fascinated me. I had no idea what to expect when I landed, but you welcomed me with open arms and an endless stream of smiles. I made incredible friends in your country. I explored your islands. I ate your food. I even fell in love. I’ve set foot on six continents, but in your home I saw a different way of life, different to anything I’ve ever seen. Yet your country remains hidden from the world, and I’m still not quite sure why.
Many of you will read this letter thinking I intend to criticise. That is not my purpose. These are just thoughts, for you to take or leave. But before I share those, please allow me to tell you a little bit about my country.
I’m from a little place down south called New Zealand. We’re known for being good at rugby, having a lot of sheep and being home to Middle Earth. We have a relaxed culture, a lot like your own, and like you we pride ourselves on being a strong, independent, resilient small nation.
While in The Philippines, I noticed the large majority of you were excited by the idea of living in a country like mine. You have dreams to move to America, or Australia, or New Zealand. You feel like life will be a little more colorful there. Maybe it will be.
But please, don’t give up on your country just yet. You have more going for you than you realize. The west is glamorous on the surface, but in reality, it’s not. The Philippines is one of the most joyful nations I have experienced. Your families are strong and committed, they’re full of laughter, your children are polite and you’re grateful for the smallest pleasures in life. The west, on the other hand, is broken. In New Zealand, one third of our marriages end in divorce. We have the third highest youth suicide rate in the world. Our kids are raised by televisions and Instagram. Alcohol plagues our teenagers. Our careers often come before our children, and many families are broken and distant. I love my country, but we are far from perfect. And the worst part about it all is, we think this is normal.
If you aspire to be like us, you will become like us, and that would be an awful waste. I know you are a young country, still finding your identity after a turbulent past. But this gives you the chance to do things a little differently to the rest of us.
While I was in your country, I used to wonder, why doesn’t anybody come here? In the neighbouring countries the streets are crawling with tourists. The beaches in Thailand and Indonesia are so crowded you can barely walk, yet your beaches, which are far more beautiful, remain empty. People go crazy for Chinese and Thai food all around the world, while nobody even knows what Filipino food is. Thailand and Malaysia are amongst the most visited countries in Asia, while The Philippines isn’t even in the Top 10. Why does your country remain hidden from the world? Why is everybody afraid to set foot on your soil?
Searching for answers, I thought back to before I visited your country. What did I know about The Philippines back then? What did the rumors say?
Fair or not, that is your reputation. But why? Yes, there is poverty and danger and corruption, but that is true for almost every country in South East Asia. Yet other countries are famous for their food, their beaches, their weather, their festivals. Why not you?
You are an extremely humble country, and maybe this is why your reputation is so - because you are too humble to challenge it. I recently wrote an article which sang high praise of The Philippines and its people. To my surprise, it spread so fast my site crashed. Within days it got viewed hundreds of thousands of times by Filipinos all around the world, sending me tweets, emails, comments - hundreds of them, flooding my inbox to thank me for the kind words I had written. It almost felt like you had been waiting for someone to say those words, because you didn’t wish to say them yourself. Humility is admirable, but don’t be afraid to tell people how beautiful your country is. You have every reason to be proud of it.
Perhaps Anthony Bourdain said it perfectly when he suggested that maybe Filipinos are “just too damn nice.”
In New Zealand, we’re well known to suffer from something called “Tall Poppy Syndrome”. Some even say we invented it. It basically means high achievers are resented and made to feel like outsiders. As a result our ‘tall poppies’ are cut down; everybody is afraid to succeed and stand out, and instead we all just end up trying to be mediocre and fit in. Collectively this mentality has been very damaging, and is probably the reason many high achieving Kiwis move overseas. Interestingly, I noticed this mindset in The Philippines too. Many people were afraid to outshine others, to be successful and to stand out. Some Filipino friends of mine were even afraid to speak English with me, because they thought others would scoff at us and think we were ‘showing off’.
This is a shame, because your country has so much potential to shine. And there is nothing wrong with standing out, as long as it is for the right reasons. You are by far and away the friendliest people I’ve ever met. You speak the best English in all of Asia. Your country is littered with stunning natural beauty, and your unique food and culture is a wonder just waiting to be discovered. So why is your country slow to move forward? Why can’t it break its damaged reputation? If Tall Poppy Syndrome is alive in your country, please, kill it. Such mentality is good for nobody, especially in a country like yours that has so much to share with the world.
While in your country, I repeatedly heard the words “be grateful”. If I was complaining about waiting in the taxi line, I’d be told “just be grateful you don’t have to walk”. If I didn’t enjoy my meal, I’d be told “just be grateful you have something to eat”.
There is a saying that goes something like, “to have everything we’ve always wanted, we must first learn to appreciate what we already have” and I saw you embody that principle every day. It was a potent lesson for me to be grateful for the full and happy life I have been blessed with, and such a stark contrast to the “I want” entitlement mentality we have in the west. Even I myself am guilty of that, and I truly hope you never end up going down that path.
However, there was a flipside to this. My Filipino friends would always talk about their big dreams and aspirations, but when we started talking seriously about them they would frown and say things like, “No, it’s too much trouble, I’m just going to be grateful for the job I have” or “I’m not concerned with achieving more, I’m just grateful for where I am”. I share the sentiment, but are you confusing gratitude with complacency? Is it just an excuse? There is nothing ungrateful about striving to be more. It is your dreams and aspirations that will move the country forward.
Corruption. After my many conversations with people, what really stood out was the utter frustration about the country’s leadership. Everyone I met had lost all faith in the government. They begrudgingly pay taxes. They laugh with ridicule at the thought of the government achieving anything. I was in the country when the Bohol earthquake hit and I was shocked how many people refused to donate, convinced it would end up in corrupt officials’ pockets. I was still around when Typhoon Yolanda hit, and it was the same thing all over again. I’m not saying you’re wrong to think this way. In fact, I support you. But I do hope that you will not let this dishearten you from moving forward. I’m not qualified to tell you how to solve your country’s problems, and corruption has rarely been an issue in New Zealand so I could never imagine the frustration you must feel. But my belief has always been that the power is in the people. If you empower each other and lift each other up, you can only move forward together.
I know life is not easy for many in the Philippines. I saw things there that I wouldn’t wish on anybody. But, you should know you are also an inspiration to many, including myself. Your reputation in the media is dull, but those who actually visit your country never fail to praise your resilience and your spirit. I learned many humbling lessons in your country, all changing me for the better, and the backpacker grapevine is slowly hearing tales of your smiles. I really believe special things are ahead for you. Keep moving forward with your beautiful culture intact, and I’m certain it won’t be long before people start discovering what a magical place The Philippines really is.
“The most beautiful people I've known are those who have known trials, have known struggles, have known loss, and have found their way out of the depths.”
― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
This has not been easy to write. When Our Awesome Planet asked me to write this letter, I almost said no. I literally had no idea what to say, nor did I feel qualified to say it. But with some struggle and encouragement, I’ve finally managed to put my thoughts on paper. It’s been difficult, but it is honest and from the heart, and I hope you will appreciate it.
Nothing but love,
(Brendan is an accountant turned full time traveler. He writes to inspire others to travel and discover their world. You can follow his adventures on his blog Bren on the Road.)
P.S. What is the Philippines that you see? What do you want it to be? The current generation of Filipinos will have the chance to turn this into a truly great country, no longer hidden from the world. Will you be a part of it?