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

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

Seeing Family (Hellos and Farewells in Pangasinan)

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Facebook and other social networks have changed the game for Filipinos. It allows far flung families to keep up like never before. Whether it’s Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Singapore, or  back in the homeland, Filipino families can be present in each others’ lives so long as there’s an internet connection.

That doesn’t negate the importance of meeting face-to-face, though. That’s why, despite having made internet connections, my cousins have come to a small barangay in Pangasinan, the province north of Manila. They’re here to visit their cousins for the first and, perhaps, last time. This is an out-of-the-way place. The barangay isn’t a vacation spot so it won’t be easy convincing spouses and kids to make this trip. For many of the cousins there’s also a language barrier, so that makes a trip that much more difficult. Without the help and urging of first generation family, it’s hard to see how this meet up will happen again. Continue reading

Extended Family (Who’s in Your Clan?)

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An airpot pickup shows just how deep Filipino families run.

It’s difficult to capture the scope of a Filipino family. Here, though, is one illustration. I am spending my time in Manila with my father’s family—his brothers, sisters, and cousins. I am staying at their houses, eating their food, and enjoying their company and hospitality. Probably nothing that unusual there. But wait, there’s more. Continue reading