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. The short story is summed up in the three dates above. The long story. . .well, it’s long; the kind where, even after all these years, I’m not sure I’ve processed it all. I may tell it someday, but not quite yet.

I’ll say this, though, because this is a website about culture. Cultural anthropologists say that “[n]ational value systems should be considered given facts, as hard as a country’s geographic position or its weather.” That is because, as invisible as cultural systems are, they are just as difficult to change. Culture at the national level is like a mountain or a beach or like tropical or desert climate. Sure, change is possible, but it’s difficult and usually takes a traumatic event.

A similar process happens for cultural change at the family level. Cultural shifts don’t happen without a profound cost. The trauma of the H-bomb that transformed formerly militaristic Japan into a military-less country isn’t that different (on a much smaller scale) from the the kid who tells his immigrant, Chinese parents she wants to be a starving writer. Chucking cultural norms isn’t easy and often requires a seismic event.

Even if a family or nation experiences something traumatic or decides to purposefully shift, it’s difficult to predict how its culture will change. Will values entrench further or will they be replaced by something different? Imagine the U.S. during the Great Depression or a family whose child is killed by a drunk driver and you get the idea. There was nothing inevitable about the U.S. expanding government protection or whether a family breaks apart or stays together.

Shifting a family’s culture is, however, easier than changing a country’s value system. Families are smaller and more nimble than nations so they’re easier to affect. Even then, it’s very difficult. For example children of child abusers usually don’t want to become child abusers themselves. But the reality is the rate of child abuse amongst people who were formerly abused is much higher than the general population. If abandoning such a negative family value is difficult, how much more for those that are more defensible?

For now, ask yourself this. What would it take to change your value system? Is there some event or circumstance that changed your family’s values in this generation? If so, how did your family’s values change?

It’s a question I ask myself often when I think about what happened here in a house in the central Philippines almost 20 years ago. There is no doubt, however, that there were effects. What those might be, however, will have to be tackled at a later date.

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