Thursday, November 03, 2005

Explaining the U.S. Family to Filipinos

Soon after I started school here, I began to realize how distorted the Filipino point of view is of the American family. My sociology teacher, within the first week of school, began to make one silly assertion about us after another. At first, I thought she was just pulling my leg because she would make a statement about Americans, look at me challengingly, and then ask, “Isn’t that true Mr. Spear?” When I realized she wasn’t actually interested in my answers, I began to say, “Well, not exactly…” When her eyes glazed over, I simply wrapped up my weak explanation as my voice trailed off.

One of her favorite stories is that we are kicked out of the house when we turn 18 years old. Another is that we dump our parents into nursing homes when they become too old to care for themselves. These and other oversimplifications are fiction, but most certainly based on kernels of fact. Many American students like myself find ourselves trying to explain in class to our teachers and classmates the basis of the culture behind the typical U.S. family unit, and at times it seems like the more we attempt to enlighten them the more confused they get.

Perhaps the Filipino perplexity concerning our half-baked familial elucidations is that the American lifestyle is SO alien to the average Filipino, that the more we endeavor to describe how U.S. families operate, the more mystified our local listeners become. Excluding rich Filipinos, of which I know none, most of the differences between our two cultural constructs come down to economics. A fellow classmate, Danny, who has been here a few years longer than me, first pointed this out to me behind his hand as we listened to yet another myth about us being spouted by another teacher. Enough is enough! It’s time we had our say.

In the States unemployment is about 5% of the working population, while here it is probably upwards of 50%. This difference in our financial circumstances drives the disparity in our cultures. The average American home is absolutely bereft of people in the day, because everyone is either working or in school; whereas a Filipino home is NEVER empty of individuals. It’s this sort of societal difference that makes it almost impossible to make clear the “how and the why” to people who haven’t been a part of the American experience. It’s like trying to explain to people who have never driven a car how to drive one without ever showing them an actual car.

So, let’s talk about the myth that we are forced to leave home when we reach 18. Admittedly, most of us do leave when we reach this age—including myself. I turned 18 on June 23 and I left home permanently on June 28. It took me less than a week to go, but leave I did. The truth is that we aren’t kicked out; no, the reality is that we can’t WAIT to get out! Americans are inculcated to strive for independence. We want to get out on our own and start our lives, and that means dropping out of the nest and trying out young wings. We wouldn’t have this option in a mostly jobless society, but if one wants to work in the United States then there is employment to be had. In the U.S. even an 18 year old can find work, buy a car, share an apartment, and be mostly independent. I believe many Filipino 18 year olds would do the same if they could, but most don’t have the opportunity. This American striving for self-reliance continues through out our entire life and applies to other Filipino myths about us.

Speaking of self-reliance, quite the reverse, many Filipinos won’t hesitate to go to a more prosperous relative for help. Indeed, most consider it quite appropriate. After all, they think—‘what good is it to have a rich uncle, if you can’t reap the rewards now and again?’ On the other hand, an American would rather gnaw off a foot before putting himself through the shame of asking family members for financial aid. When I first married a Filipina and experienced her family’s limitless capacity to ask for money, I was floored. I couldn’t believe they didn’t shrivel up in disgrace. Again, this attitudinal difference is based more on the differences in our economic realities than on our societal differences. It follows that our more vibrant economy makes possible and drives the American insistence on self-sufficiency.

It is this same self-sufficiency that underlies the myth that we consign our parents to nursing homes because we are too selfish or lazy to care for them ourselves. This invention is completely ridiculous. The American system of caring for our elderly is different first of all, because we HAVE a system. There is NO system in the Philippines. In America we have Medicare, Social Security and health insurance, whereas the Philippines has virtually nothing, no institutional systems of elderly care whatsoever. It’s ironic that the very reason the aged and infirm are able to be cared for at home is because so many family members are there due to rampant unemployment.

Filipinos clump together in extended families mainly because they have no choice, they cannot afford NOT to; thus there is always someone around to take care of grandpa or grandma. I don’t have to take care of my parents, because due to their long range planning and investments they are set for the rest of their lives. And if one or both need continuous care for any reason, they can afford to live in a full-care facility with access to all the therapy, medication, or medical procedures that they will ever need.

The point is my parents would hate to burden their children, and they’d consider it a personal failure if they had to. We don’t look at our kids as parental retirement insurance, and our ability to provide for ourselves is a blessing of the U.S. economy (more than being attributable to our society). I don’t negatively judge Filipinos because their institutions don’t allow them the same luxury, and I hope they will give us “quirky” Americans the same kind of open-minded understanding. The fact is that both our systems work within their own context.


PhilippinesPhil said...

I enjoyed your article.

Many Americans here complain and I do not see that as a problem. I see it more as "I care." I noticed that when I was on active duty that those who complained the most almost always were the ones who remained in service. The other ones who did not complain quickly moved on. Again I feel people complain more when they care as compared to those don't.

Obviously Americans live at a higher social level then our Filipinos friends. We strive for what Covey calls Interdependence. To do that, we work through what he calls a Public Victory using the rules of win-win, seeking first to understand...then to be understood--Synergism. This happens only after one reaches Independence, which, it seems, is something most Filipinos have no concept of.

Sadly, I must agree with you that the very high unemployment level in the Philippines places these people in a highly dependent mode. People who are dependent are reactive and do not know how to be proactive (Covey's very first rule is to be Proactive). It is not possible to become Independent if you are reactive.... I see this everywhere.

An example...Last semester in my Cisco class we were falling behind in finishing the required tests to pass the class. One Saturday an instructor popped his head in and said something. I was reading Cisco on line and never heard him. But suddenly students were grabbing their things and scrambling for the door. My first thought was "Did someone just announce that there is a Bomb?” I never saw a class empty so fast. There was only one student left with me and she was deciding on what to do. I asked her what happened and she told me that the other teacher had just announced that our teacher would not be able to make it today. This other student was the only one besides me was passing the class.

My point is that all the students in the class acted like animals. They all reacted without thinking about consequences. Because they ran, the class was extended for one week after the semester was supposed to be over. It never dawned on them that ‘if I stay and study, I can actually pass the on-line exam next week’ (I was the only one who passed that exam). I use the term “animals” because as rational humans we have the ability to pause between stimulus and reaction. In that pause we have the opportunity to choose how to react.

Sadly, when you think about it, a culture that is highly dependent becomes animalistic in nature. I used to question why this culture is so reactive in nature, and now, from your observations, I can see that it is driven by the high local unemployment rate. It seems to me that the only way people in this country are ever going to be independent is when unemployment drops to a much lower level.

But, nothing will change because the people who run this country are from the richest families. They make laws that empower themselves, make them richer, and make the poor poorer. These people are way out of touch with the majority of the common folk. The majority could care less how the legislature spends their money. And because they (the common folk) are highly reactive, they only care about what lies in their unique circle. If it is outside their circle, they really could not care less.... And the average Filipino appears to be happy and sometimes proud of this fact.

Thanks Phil, at least now I have a better understanding about why things are the way they are.


Duane k said...

I'm so glad I found your blog. I need to have my wife read this so she can begin to understand my mother! HA!

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hey Duane, better for your wife to read it than your mom. Sometimes my attempt to enlighten also causes people to take offense. Pope Benedict is finding this to be painfully true right now, after making some purely academic remarks about other remarks made by another pope hundreds of years ago. Of course the very fact that all these Muslims are now rioting and calling for Benedict's head only seems to make the case of the original, long-dead pope! What a clueless bunch of brainwashed children.