So I have to leave the Philippines after a wonderful rich six months. I would have liked to stay longer… but it is always good to leave somewhere wanting more!! I think it might be a joy of the Jesuit vocation – in the last 10 months I have lived in London, Tanzania, The Outer Hebrides and the Philippines and have been sad to leave all these places. Anyway I am on my way to India for three months and am excited about the prospect of visiting Fr Eric in Manvi and seeing how the school for ‘untouchables’ has developed over that last 6 years (since I lasted visited). All the experiences give a sense of how magnificent the universal church is …. and how privileged we are to be able to live and be inserted into the local communities. In Manila I had a strong sense of what an ex-pat bubble most of the foreigners lived in. They couldn’t believe it when I told them of living in the shanty towns, mountain villages, and leper colony islands!! And in each place receiving a beautiful welcome, eating and sleeping in the peoples homes, sharing a little of their joys and worries.
So to summarize a few thoughts on my time here.
1) Philippines is the friendliest country I have visited. Everywhere smiles, wether it be children playing in th estreets, or pedicab drivers, or even soldiers and police. Big grins, obvious delight when you share greetings, unparalleled glee when you share a karaoke song, or pull a ‘Mr Bean’ face. And this isn’t just me getting carried away. A recent survey by HSBC of expats living in 31 countries listed Philippines as top in feeling welcome at work and second in social life, work-life balance, and making friends. It is no coincidence that the Philippines is the text capital of the world.
2) A ‘Catholic’ Country more sacramentalised than evangelized. This is an intriguing comment I read in a report written by the Philippine Bishops conference. Signs of devotion are everywhere – masses in the shopping walls, the black nazarene, the santa nino, longest Christmas season in the world…. but there is still a question about how much the ‘Gospel Values’ have penetrated day to day life. For me the biggest sign of these would be corruption and graft, a disappointing political class (many educated by the Jesuits), a certain turbo-consumerism manifested in an incredible array of shopping malls and the popularity of what I would refer to as ‘feudal’ day time TV shows (where a big-time host dishes out cash prizes whilst humiliating many guests). What is the solution? Maybe a reform of the clergy could be a good starting point – someone told me that some priest are being leftbehind by a better-educated laity, and there persists the stereotype of the lazy priest – mahjong before mass instead of preparing a good homily and cockfighting after mass…..
3) Craziest Names … There is an interesting culture of names. With large familes – kids are often given nicknames at a young age which stick. So the president is Ninoy, the Jesuit in charge of the Ateneo is Jet. It is not unusual to be invited for dinner and find out that the Guy called ‘Bong’ is actually the CEO of a large company. Or to be in a meeting with a guy, obviously rich and powerful, dressed in suit who introduces himself as ‘Baby’ with a big grin on his face…..
4) Social strength – Power of the Family and Barkada. The way people look after each other and families care for each other is impressive … including the ‘barkada’ …. the friendship group. There is a balancing act here – as too much social pressure can be stifling and have its dark side. At first it was puzzling to see how young people were prepared to sacrifice personal dreams for the sake of the family – particular in terms of educational goals. it is not ideal – but what is impressive is the desire to look after each other. It was’t unusual to be sitting with a family and have one or two children from the local area wander in, join the table and be fed no questions asked! The phenomenon of OFW (Overseas foreign workers) is honoured at a level I have not seen elsewhere. They even have their own dedicated lanes and lounges at the airport. It is easy to see why they are valued – the huge amount of remittances they send back keeps the country afloat! From a western perspective I have a growing feeling that the social isolation and fragmentation that is not worth our promotion of a culture of hyper-individualism. The Philippines is now the only country in the world where divorce is illegal (although unfortunately annulments are too expensive and out of reach for many).
5)Disaster Prone but not yet Disaster Resiliant. Recently reported as the most disaster prone in South East Asia - whilst I have been here there have been two major typhoons, earthquakes, landslides, flooding…. The response from ‘civil society’ is very impressive – a generous and rich diaspora, dedicated volunteers, often coordinated by the church. But the real question has to be why are the structures not in place on a local and national political level….another lamentable example of corrupt politicians at a local and national level. Of course a mitigating factor is that we live at a time where the urban populations is out stripping the rural population for the first time all over the world. I think this urban migration is deadly – for quality of life but also it is those in the shanty towns hit the hardest when the typhoon sweeps in.
All in all I will miss this wonderful country!