Why I Will Never Be a “Self-Made Man”


My uncles, aunts, and cousins in the Philippines are, for the most part, solidly middle class. They own their own homes and cars. They have laptops, wifi, and smartphones. Labor is cheap here so most have a live-in helper who cleans, cooks, does laundry, and tends to the house. This is all quite comfortable by Philippine standards. Arriving at any of their houses after a long trip is a relief.

After 25 hours of international travel the first thing I want to do is get clean. Rinsing off the grime of a journey feels like being reborn. It’s the first thing I do once I get a chance.

Which brings us to this: no matter how middle-class you are in the Philippines there’s one thing that quickly separates this status from its U.S. equivalent: taking a shower. 

Water pressure here is meager. There’s rarely ever enough to work a typical shower head. This is where the traditional tabo comes in. The little bucket with the handle is a staple of the Philippines.


Here’s how it works. You flip open the faucet and fill a large bucket with water. If the person before you was polite, they’ll have left the bucket mostly full, so by the time you’ve stripped out of your cloths it’s full. Then you grab the tabo by the handle, dip it into the water, and dump it over your head. You do this for the rest of your body and enjoy the shock of cold water. The sound of the heavy splashes from your ladelling mix with the water tumbling into the bucket. As you soap up, the bucket refills. If you take too long, you’ll have to flip the water off so the bucks doesn’t overflow. As you step out of the bath you leave the water running to refill the big bucket. Wouldn’t want to be rude, of course.

And that’s how you use a tabo.

Whenever I do this I’m reminded of how little I have to do with my own success or wealth. How, you ask?

No matter how hard my middle class relatives in the Philippines work, no matter how ambitious they are or how many hours they pour into their jobs, they cannot change much of their circumstances.

In the Philippines, the roads are rough, Manila is heavy with diesel pollution, and you have to live behind walls because you gotta protect what you have when so much of the population is poor. You have to pay for your education quarterly, in cash. You’re very unlikely to get accepted at a U.S. grad school or meet a firm partner willing to hire you stateside.

And, you can’t change the water pressure.

Whereas American me bathes daily in heated drinking water that pours out with fire hose force, Filipino me—the one that visits and is tied inexorably to his relatives—tabos cold water from a bucket.

I didn’t earn my hot shower. I didn’t earn my smooth roads or my financed graduate education. I didn’t earn my citizenship. I didn’t earn any of the things that could get me a fancy job at a fancy firm in the U.S. and help me make fancy money.

Whenever I tabo I am forced to see the advantages that have nothing to do with my effort, ambition, or drive. I can claim some of my success, but really, I’ve been carried up the mountain, set down, and all I’ve done is take the last step. I owe so much to things out of my control that to claim I’m somehow “self made” seems selfish. It would also feel like an indictment of my Philippine family, as if their lives were all their own, too; that seems a heavy price to pay to placate my ego. I must, therefore, admit I am not my own man; I am a man who owes so much to so many.

Whenever I tabo, therefore, I have to come clean.


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