Why Christmas is a Bigger Deal to Filipinos Than It is to Me or You

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I am watching a Christmas light show. The Makati district of Manila has troubled itself to string up a bunch of LEDs in an Ayala plaza. After dark at every half-hour music comes on and the lights dance and blink in time to Christmas standards. It’s a major hit. The place is full of people. On a muggy weeknight like tonight, weeks before Christmas, there’s a new crowd for every showing. On weekends the plaza is so packed that it’s impossible to move.

Back home I have friends who would sneer at this kind of thing. It’s too simple, too sincere, too kitsch. It would deserve an eye roll. It certainly wouldn’t be worth a hour-and-a-half commute by jeepney, FX, light rail, and a long, sticky walk.

There was a time I might have agreed with them. But here, now, I can’t. The the crowd oohs, ahhhs, and takes pictures. And I join them.

Christmas is different here in the Philippines. It’s not just the palm trees, balmy weather, and the fiction of ever seeing a white Christmas. Christmas means more here than it could ever mean back home in the U.S. Continue reading

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Philippine Signs (pt 2)

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Tagalog is one of the official languages of the Philippines. The other is English. This means there’s a lot of fun crossover between the two. English words get Tagalog-ized and Tagalog words get English-ized. One example is above.

In Tagalog it’s easy to change a noun into a verb, a verb into a noun, and an adjective into whatever you want. All you have to do is change the prefix. This Tagalog convention is often applied to English words. Here, the adjective “checkout” (as in “checkout stand” or “checkout counter”) has been transmogrified into a noun. And we all know that when a noun refers to more than one of the same object it needs to be plural.

So next time you’re in the Philippines avoid confusion and tell your friends that when you’re done shopping you’ll meet them at the “checkouts.”

Seismic Events (The Origin of Cultural Shifts)

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When a Filipino hears I haven’t visited my mother’s family in the Philippines for almost 20 years they are aghast. Neglecting one’s blood for so long–to not even visit—is at best as puzzling as man nipples and at worst the equivalent of shoving your grandparents out of a plane. One does not neglect blood lightly.

My absence is even more surprising when you consider that the Visayas, the central islands of the Philippines, are gorgeous. Unlike metro Manila, my father’s home, the central Philippines is lush, green, and agricultural. The setting is expansive and outside the cities the countryside feels like a picture postcard of Asian agricultural scenes; it’s all rice fields, sugar cane, rolling hills, with the added twist of the occasional towering volcano. In other words, if you visit the Philippines, it’s easy to find an excuse to leave Manila for the mellower Visayas even if you family don’t live there.

But there’s a reason I haven’t been to this part of the Philippines in nearly two decades. Continue reading

Farm Living (Land of My Mother)

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A school on a farm on a hill

Outside a small town south of Bacolod is a dirt road near a dormant volcano. It winds out of a small town and across a tiny stream. It weaves through sugar cane fields taller than the van and past a tree my uncle and aunt remember as reportedly being the home of an aswang. Is an aswang a demon? A fairy? My uncle and and conflict on the translation. I do, however, remember that my mom called me an aswang when I was a kid when I was being a brat. Regardless the translation, aswang ain’t good. Continue reading