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Filipino Traits and Customs

It is difficult, if not impossible, to define what a Filipino is. All that can be done is to pick out some traits common to the average Filipinos and to separate those that are obviously Spanish or American. The common traits are probably basically Malay and characterize the Filipinos as a people. One patent Filipino trait that immediately commends itself to the foreigner is his hospitality. All peoples the world over are hospitable in their own way, but Filipino hospitality is something that is almost a fault. Are you a stranger who has lost your way? Knock at the door of even the humblest rustic and he offers you his home. In other climes you might be suspected of being a hoodlum or a poseur. Consequently you might be looked upon with suspicion. Call it naivete but the Filipino opens his heart to you, a complete stranger, and offers you the best in his kitchen and bed chamber. He makes the bed for you and asks you, usually with a profusion of apologies, to make yourself feel "at home", while he, the host, sleeps on the cold floor. He prepares water for your morning ablution, waits upon you at the table, and makes life worth living for you.

The Filipino has very close family ties. The family has been the unit of society and everything revolves around it. The Filipino family ordinarily consists of grandparents, the parents, and the children. The father is the head of the family, but while he rules, the mother governs. For it is the mother that reigns in the home: she is the educator, the financial officer, the accountant, the censor, the laundrywoman, and the cook. But over and above the "ruler" and the "governor" are the grandparents, whose opinions and decision on all important matters are sought. Respect for the elders is one Filipino trait that has remained in the book of unwritten laws. The Filipino parent exercises almost absolute powers over the children. It is unthinkable for a Filipino to do an important thing without consulting his parents. The latter do not condone children talking back not only to them, but to those older than they are. The particle "po" may look innocent to you, but that little word shows respect for another. In no other language is respect for another carried to higher point than in the Philippine languages. Are you speaking to an older man or woman? Then use the second person plural - kayo, inyo or ninyo. You are branded disrespectful and impolite if you use the second person singular: ka, mo, or ikaw.

The Filipino is naturally fatalistic. No amount if expostulation on the virtues of science or logic can dislodge him from his idea of fatalism. He believes that whatever happens to him is the work of Fate. This fatalism is best symbolized in the phrase "Bahala na," a phrase that defies translation but which may be rendered loosely as "come what may." Can you go through that wall of fire? Bahala na. This is the last morsel we have; where do we get tomorrow's food? Bahala na. Don't gamble your last money: you might go home with pockets inside out. Bahala na. Such fatalism has bred in the Filipino a sense of resignation. He appears indifferent in the face of graft and corruption. He appears impassive in the face of personal misfortune. Yet this "Bahala na" attitude prevents him from being a crackpot. Loyalty to a friend or to a benefactor is one trait that is very strong in the Filipino. Do him a little favor and he remembers you to the end of his days. For a Filipino, friendship is sacred and implies mutual help under any circumstances. A friend is expected to come to the aid not only of a personal friend, but also of the latter's family. A man's friend is considered a member of the family and is expected to share its tribulations as well as its prosperity and happiness.

It is almost unthinkable for the Filipino to betray his friend, and if there be such one, he becomes a marked man: ostracism is the lightest punishment that can be meted out to him. This concept of loyalty to a friend explains why the Filipino sulks at the thought of not receiving enough aid from the United States. Maintaining that he, as soldier or as civilian during the last World War, fought side by side with the US, the Filipino believes, rightly or wrongly, that he deserves more generous aid from the US than, say the Japanese, who was a former common enemy. To the Filipino, it is hardly conceivable that the US should turn out to be an "ingrate", knowing as she does that he stood by her in the darkest hour. This attitude, on the other hand, is beyond the comprehension of the American, for the latter's understanding of friendship is different from that of the Filipino. The American is ruthlessly businesslike and will not allow sentimentalism to stand in the way of fulfilling his destiny or objective. This "ruthlessness" the Filipino does not understand. Hence the continued misunderstanding between the Filipino and the American with respect to material aid. The American, then, suspects that the Filipino is sensitive. He is. He would not tolerate anyone berating his countryman. He is easily piqued when a foreigner, for instance, makes a sweeping generalization that is not flattering to the Filipinos, no matter how true the observation may be. It takes skillful diplomacy, tact, or, in more sophisticated language, a great deal of good public relations, to talk to an erring Filipino employee or worker, for a good-intentioned rebuke by a superior might be taken as a slight on his character or integrity.

The tendency to be indolent is, certainly, a trait of the Filipino. Rizal explained this tendency as the result of tropical climate which makes even the Westerner indolent in these parts of Paradise. But aside from the warm climate, indolence may be partly explained by the abundance with which Nature has endowed the country - a fact which makes the Filipino exert less effort in the belief that he does not have to work hard to make both ends meet. Then, too, because of the close family and personal ties, the Filipino is assured of three square meals every day if only he would have the nerve - he usually has - to go from on relative to another. He knows that no relative or friend would turn him out and so he imposes himself on his willing or unwilling victims. Side by side with indolence is lack of initiative. This trait is explained by a natural fear of competition. For a Filipino, society is cooperative, not competitive. The experiences of college and university professors reveal that sad fact that the average Filipino student has to be hammered and whipped into line in order to make him work hard. Not only the average student, but the average trader or businessman is saddled with this burden called lack of initiative. So afraid is the businessman of competition that he refuses to invest a huge sum in his business venture. He craves a huge profit out of a small investment, but he would not think of putting more capital to expand his business.

The Filipino, being childlike, is naturally curious. But his curiosity is tainted with sympathy. There certainly is nothing malicious in his inquiries about one's health, about one's children, about one's salary, and so forth. Not infrequently is a sophisticated Filipino embarrassed when asked, casually and with the air of innocent abandon, where he works and how much he earns. This "poking into one's pie" is easily misunderstood by a Westerner who, not accustomed to such kind of "inquisitorial" method, invariably suspects the Filipino of invading the privacy of one's life. No such thing is meant, however. The Filipino is solicitous and if ever he asks too many question about another's life and mode of living it is because, a man of abundant faith and sympathy, he wants - and is ready - to offer his unsolicited help. Jealousy is another trait of the Filipino. He does not look with favor on a woman who flirts with several men. To him the sweetheart's or the wife's eyes are meant only for him and for no other. Even his closest friend cannot kiss his wife with impunity on the pretext that it is a "brotherly" kiss. The Filipino, therefore, requires complete faith and loyalty of his wife or sweetheart. A deviation from this unwritten law often-times leads to a bloody mess. Bloody killings, often enough reported in the daily newspapers, are frequent and are usually the upshot of jealousy, for to a Filipino, blood is required to wash the stain on his honor. This may seem bloody enough to a Westerner, but to a Filipino in whose veins flows the Malay "hot" blood, to kill or be killed is an easy way to avenge his honor.

The Filipino, too, is regionalistic. He does not think in terms of national boundaries but in regional oneness. This feeling is an extension of the closeness of family ties. Invariably, the Filipino believes that the person known to him, no mater how bad, is better than the one unknown to him no mater how good. Thus one finds college or university students calling a meeting of all those who come from Ilocos, from Bulacan, form the Bicol region, from the Visayas, and so forth. Probably the most discussed trait of the Filipino, especially by the white foreigners and by some Filipino sociologists and psychologists who carry around their bags of esoteric terms, is the sense of "pakikisama". Simple as the term may appear to the merely learned, this Filipino trait has not been fully understood, especially in its connotations. In its original connotation, "pakikisama" may be translated loosely as the intensive signification of camaraderie or spirit of comradeship, the main elements of which are unselfishness and good faith. There is, therefore, no element of deceit, or dishonesty, or subversion of justice, attached to the term. Thus the terms "mabuting makisama" and its opposite, "masamang makisama", really refer to a person's way of dealing with his fellowmen: if he is selfish or he is incapable of empathy, or if he considers himself "an island entire of itself", he is described a "masamang makisama". But if he is an understanding man, unselfishly helpful, and participates cheerfully in any community work, he is described as "mabuting makisama".

Such is the profile of the Filipino. Like all men the world over, he has the weaknesses of the fallen Adam. But he, too, has his strengths and with these he finds his way in and about the society in which he lives and expects to die. These are the traits that make it difficult to define what a Filipino is. Taken together, they constitute a cross-section of the people whose character must be understood if their history is to be read correctly. Viewed subjectively, their traits are as a mirror in which every Filipino sees himself. The image in the mirror is a modest profile. A master painter is needed to execute the portrait.

"Maraming Salamat Po"