Page last updated at 11:14 Asia/Manila, Saturday, 19 November 2011 PH
It is only a slight exaggeration to refer to Filipinos, especially the ten million of them who are spread out all over the world as overseas workers, as the Chosen People (as former Secretary of Finance Roberto de Ocampo did in a column he wrote for The Inquirer). In more than one hundred countries in both the developed and developing world, Filipino workers and professionals are making an important impact on homes, offices, factories, schools, hospitals, ocean going vessels, hotels and restaurants, business establishments, and Churches. Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) are usually a cut above most other foreign workers in terms of quality of service and work attitudes. In 2009, the worst year of the Great Recession that hit the global economy, the foreign exchange remittances from OFWs to their home country continued to increase. These OFWs were usually the first to be hired and the last to be fired in all the economic sectors in which they were employed.
As a longtime student of the phenomenon of OFWs, I have maintained that Filipinos are among the most desirable of workers from the developing world to fill the gap in the labor forces of countries suffering from demographic winter, especially in Europe and Northeast Asia, because of their unique culture that is a product of the last five hundred years of its close encounters with cultures from the West (Spain and the United States) and its neighboring countries in North and Southeast Asia. What are the characteristics that endear the Filipinos to the host countries in which they work? In more than a dozen countries where I have personally observed the OFWs in Europe, Northeast and Southeast Asia and North America, the first quality that stands out is the perennial cheerfulness and optimism of the typical Filipino. It is easy for him to smile. In fact, this propensity to smile can get him into trouble from time to time when he smiles at the wrong time. All in all, though, this characteristic is a distinct asset in such service-oriented occupations and professions as medicine, nursing and other health services; restaurant, hotel, and other hospitality industries; entertainment; caregiving; retailing and customer services, including the Business Process Outsourcing sector, etc. This cultural which he imbibes from his upbringing can be attributed to a happy combination of being Malay (which he shares with the equally cheerful Indonesians) and Christian (which can partly account for his being as happy-go-lucky as the Italians).
The innate cheerfulness of the Filipino can explain why in most comparative studies of the "happiest peoples in the world", the Philippines is usually among the first four or five. It has a high Happiness Index. This index is highly correlated with other data like low rates of suicide, of marriage breakups, of psychologically disturbed adolescents, etc. What is baffling to outsiders is that smiling faces can be found even in the most economically depressed communities. Only Christian hope can explain joy in the midst of physical deprivation and suffering. In contrast, there are very developed countries that also rank high in the Happiness Index, such as Norway and other Scandinavian countries. What is puzzling is the high rate of suicides in these womb-to-tomb countries. As the whole world watched in horror, a country whose per capita income exceeds $40,000 per annum saw more than 90 persons killed in cold blood by a religious fundamentalist. It is clear that neither material wealth nor religion alone can prevent extreme errant behaviour if other cultural elements are absent.
Another cultural advantage of the Filipino in moving from one country to another is the ease with which he can adapt to different cultures. Unlike many ethnic groups working overseas, the Filipino does not need to be surrounded by other Filipinos to be comfortable in any city of the world. They stand out because they do not generally live in ghettos or enclaves as many other immigrant groups do. They rarely have their own restaurants, laundries, groceries, etc. Filipinos are among the most multiculturally enabled people in the world, thanks to centuries of close interactions with Spaniards, Americans, Chinese, Indians, Japanese, South Koreans, Mexicans, and others. As one of the most brilliant Filipino writers of the last century, Nick Joaquin, wrote in Culture and History, the last five hundred years of a colonial past, intermingled with close contacts with the neighboring Asian countries, developed a Filipino culture that is distinct from the rest of Asia. The resulting culture was both Asian and Western.
To understand better this interaction between history and culture, let me quote Nick Joaquin: "The Philippine condition in pre-West Asia (before 1521 and 1565) can be summed up in two words: unknown and unknowing; while the attitude of our neighbors to us can likewise be summed up in two words: ignorant and indifferent: and these ignorance and indifference are exemplified by their supposed maps of us. We were a veritable terra incognita. Certainly, with the Spanish epoch, what a change in Asian attitudes towards us! Suddenly we are no longer terra icognita. Suddenly this land fit only for snakes and savages becomes, for the Chinese and Japanese, a good place to visit, to settle in, even to covet. Suddenly this land so ignored by Asian progress finds its neighbors come crowding with their produce and manufactures, for the galleon trade dealt not only in Chinese silks but with the entire gamut of Asian commodity, from the stuffs of jewels of India and Cambodia to the pearls and herbs of Japan and the Indies; and Manila, which gathers in all the wealth of the East for export to the world, becomes, as the port of Asia, an Asian city at last!"
The most obvious cultural advantage of the OFW is his working knowledge of English and his knowing many Spanish words incorporated into Tagalog and other Philippine languages. Whatever valid criticisms we may have against certain colonial practices of the Americans during their four decades of rule here, it cannot be denied that the English language they left with us is one of our greatest assets in deploying our workers abroad. There are many other poor countries that have larger populations like the Philippines. But, with the exception of China and India, these more populous countries are unable to capitalize on their surplus labor by sending them abroad because of their language handicap. Moreover, the multilingual environment with which our colonial past endowed us makes it relatively easier for Filipinos to learn other non-English languages. In fact, in the hospitality industry in Spain, where I was able to observe more closely the work of Filipinos, their learning of the language is almost instant in their trade because they already have as part of their vocabulary such "Tagalog" words as baso, silya, lamesa, kutsilyo, tenedor, kutsara, servilleta, and botella; and not to mention dishes like camaron rebosado, paella, tortilla de patata, etc.
What struck me most in Barcelona, that has some of the best restaurants in the world (like El Bulli), was the predominance of Filipino waiters. In fact, in some of these restaurants, the policy is to hire only Filipinos as waiters. The explanation that I received opened my eyes to another trait that we take granted among Filipinos, even among the poorest of the poor. This has to do with a habit that we share with most islanders as those who live in the South Pacific. I am referring to the almost compulsive custom of taking a bath every day or more than once a day. This great hygienic advantage can partly explain why Filipinos are preferred in personal services that require close physical contact. Through no fault of theirs, workers from countries that are land-locked or are surrounded by desserts hardly acquire the habit of showering daily. For obvious reasons, this poses a handicap for them in the personal services that are in greatest demand in the aging countries of the West. They usually find themselves in manufacturing, construction work and janitorial services.
Culture is defined as a distinct way of living, acting, and behaving of a group of people. Enshrined in culture are traditions, customs, values and virtues that have been products of the physical environment and common historical experiences of the group. As we have seen above, Filipinos have in common certain traditions, customs, values and virtues that have resulted from the archipelagic nature of their geography and the historical events of at least the last 500 years. It is up to the present and future generations to preserve whatever cultural traits can help Philippine society attain the integral human development of each Filipino. For comments, my new email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.