Thursday, January 12, 2012

It's Complicated

What makes the Philippines, "The Philippines?" To be honest, I'm not quite sure. I only spent about 2 weeks there. Furthermore, my travels were limited to the greater Manila area and the tourist destination of Boracay. So maybe it's no wonder why I'm still left bewildered. But ever since I left, I've been left to ponder.

Is there a distinct "Filipino Identity?" What would it be?

I guess first I'll start with something easier to answer--how was it? Simply put, amazing. How would I describe it? What was it like?

I've never been more confused in my life. 

Dirty yet clean. Loud most of the time, but peacefully quiet at others. Budget friendly, but if you have money, you can burn through it quick. A melting pot of East meets West.

When I say dirty, I mean it, but not necessarily in the negative sense. Perhaps a better word is "real." The streets of Manila are as unapologetic as it comes, which can be refreshing from the strict social order found in Japan. Yes, there are things that are actually dirty--smog and pollution being two main environmental issues. But it also means a different kind of "dirty." Street stalls and small corner stores which remind me of Latin America or other parts of Southeast Asia. You can walk down the street, sit on a plastic chair, and order some great tasting food all while wondering if this is the dish that will finally do you in and make you sick.

Chinatown--also where a No Reservations episode was filmed!

Yet, this is not the whole representation of the Philippines. It's neat and clean too. The best example is the ever-present shopping mall. I lost track of how many malls I visited within the first 2 days I was in Manila. Out of all of them, the best by far was the Mall of Asia. If you forget about the security checkpoints at each door and the relative lack of ethnic diversity of the shoppers, you would never have guessed you were in the Philippines. It could rival any upscale mall in the US.

Christmas Decorations at the Mall of Asia... well after Christmas

Budget friendly? Breakfast of spam, eggs, and rice cost us about $1.50-$2... at a touristy restaurant. Beer at a nice bar was $4-5. A couple fried fish-balls from a street vendor: $.02! But to really put it in perspective, you have to talk about the service industry in the Philippines. I've never been in a salon my entire life. I'm much more of a $15 haircut kind of guy. At the MoA, I did better than that--at a salon, try $4 with tip.

Kinda off topic, but have you ever seen so many kinds of Spam in your life?!?

How expensive can it be? At the upper end, it's the same around the world, the Philippines included. But in the Philippines, there is a step in between. After seeing the crowds of people at every mall I visited, it would seem there is a considerable middle class, and with it, a strong demand for consumer goods. And this demand is not limited to just the latest fashions or electronics. Many of the restaurants we went to were comparable in price and quality to the US. Perhaps a bit cheaper, but definitely not for the budget traveler--a dinner and drinks around $15-20 a person.

Sisig from Gerry's... with beer, there's nothing better...

Loud? Don't get me started. Incessant honking meaning everything from a, "Hey, I'm here," to a "F-you and your family." Vendors shouting at you at every turn. People trying to get you to ride their bus, their Jeepney (separate story), try their product, or just shouting to shout. It was fun, but loud. Definitely loud.

But it made the peaceful moments even more so.  Take Makati, the business district of Manila. It's a city that never sleeps. Due to the amount of 24hr call centers, many people are up at weird times. However, the incessant horns cease. The vendors have mostly closed up. It's just people hanging out on their shift break. Or a quick (kinda) flight away, Boracay. The beaches there rival the best I've ever been to in my life. The main drag is loud, full of party-ers, but a walk a few extra blocks in either direction, and the beach is practically yours.

A rare, peaceful moment in Boracay

East meets West? Trite, I know, but never truer. One of the best representations of this is the language. The Philippines is home to many languages. The majority of the population speaks a different language. But in Manila, most, if not all, signs around me at a given time was in English. But everyone around me was speaking Tagalog. The best representation--the evening news. The announcer does his/her bit in English, but when it cuts to an on-the-ground footage, the interview is conducted in Tagalog.

But what about the food? Filipino food is a mix of everything. A bit of Malaysian, Chinese, and even Spanish at times. Yet, this doesn't even cover the vast kinds of food you can find in the Philippines from other countries. Fried chicken, gravy, and rice... at McDonalds? (Or Wendy's or Jollibee or... you get it.) Or a quick breakfast of pan de sal. Or lumpia as a snack (which look an awful lot like an eggroll...). Or getting Sio Mai (Shumai) or shwarma (kebab) as a drunk food? And wake up and have spam, eggs, and rice, and do it all over?

Actually, this is better. My vote for best food in the Philippines--Crispy Lechon

What exactly is the "Filipino Identity?" A friend told me that Filipinos have taken the best bits and pieces from various cultures, whether in history from colonizers or in this modern, global society, and made it their own unique identity. And maybe that's it--there really isn't one unique "identity." It's much more complicated than that. And it's not something that can be summed up with a tweet, status update, or even a blog post.


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