Saturday, December 16, 2017
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To know and appreciate Asia better

It is probably no great leap to say that many Filipinos lack knowledge of and appreciation for Asian societies, save perhaps their own. More knowledgeable about and oriented toward the United States and Europe, they arguably find the French Revolution more familiar than, say, the Meiji Restoration. Filipinos probably feel more at home with Zeus, Hera and the other occupants of Mount Olympus than with Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

I wish that a lot more Filipinos know and appreciate Asia. But I am not just speaking here of loving Japanese animation, listening to Korean pop music and watching Korean movies, or traveling to other Asean countries during long weekends. Studying Asia is not just about entertainment, tourism, or memorizing facts, dates and the details of famous personalities in school. More importantly, it is also about moral education and nation-building.

To serve its moral purpose, Asian Studies must be seen as a means to develop a sensitivity to and appreciation for the alien, the foreign, and the exotic. Of course, what we Filipinos initially count as such says a lot more about us than who our fellow Asians actually are. At any rate, to many Filipinos, Asia is tragically unfamiliar terrain.

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I bring up the ethical dimension of Asian Studies mainly because Filipinos, though said to be hospitable and accommodating, are also accused of being racist. This racism partly springs from our unfamiliarity with Asian societies and the Philippines’ colonial history; we learned from our colonial masters that the non-West is inferior. As part of a liberal education, Asian Studies is about overcoming ignorance, intolerance, insensitivity and racism; it is also about developing respect and appreciation for the histories, cultures, and traditions of our fellow Asians.

This process entails, among other things, doing away with Eurocentric ways of seeing Asia; we have to realize, for instance, that Asia plays a much larger role in world history than is commonly taught. One only needs to look at China and India to grasp the significance of Asia today.

Inculcating an openness to and appreciation for Asian societies is more essential than ever, especially as globalization connects the Philippines more deeply to the rest of the world, and Filipinos continue to migrate elsewhere and interact with non-Filipinos.

One friend who works abroad remarked that non-Filipinos appreciate it and reciprocate when Filipinos make the effort to learn about a foreign culture. Another speaks of this adjustment as part of our values of pakikisama and pakikibagay, which can be practiced in something as simple as not eating in public during Ramadan, or not serving pork-based meals when entertaining Muslim visitors.

Of course, there’s more to achieving intercultural harmony than studying other cultures, since racism and discrimination primarily have political and economic roots. Also, it is naive to ask Filipinos to be tolerant and respectful when they themselves are victims of racism and discrimination abroad; respect is a two-way street. At any rate, others’ xenophobia does not erase the need for us to do away with our own.

But what of Asian Studies for those who will not or cannot migrate? Filipinos’ alleged racism, ignorance and insensitivity are also directed at our fellow Filipinos, including our Muslim brothers and sisters, and our lumad brethren, who have been exploited and marginalized in many ways. Filipinos mistakenly perceive Islam as an inherently violent religion, the relationship between Christians and Muslims is marked by suspicion and distrust, and the provinces in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao are among the poorest in the country.

This marginalization was one of the root causes of rebellion in Mindanao. And although the Philippines has come a long way with a peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, such gains will only be undermined if the majority of Filipinos know so little about the histories and traditions of the diverse populations of Mindanao.

Of course, the complex issues in Mindanao certainly will never be resolved just by educating Filipinos about Islam and the history of the island. But the solutions will never come to fruition, or will be harder to come by, without such education either. In this sense, Islamic Studies, as part of Asian Studies, is a vital component of creating a nation that justly integrates Mindanao to the benefit of all its residents—Christians, Muslims and indigenous peoples alike.

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The idea—so simple and complex at the same time—is that if we truly respect our fellow Filipinos in Mindanao, we would not support or implement policies that are detrimental to their welfare.

By studying more closely the histories of our Asian neighbors, Filipinos can gain fresh insights on governance, politics, development, discipline, urban planning, education and mass transportation, among others. These will inevitably entail comparisons with the Philippines, some of which may be unfair, but the point is that such comparisons hold up a mirror not just to how bad or good some things are at home, but also to how better they can be.

Certainly, Filipinos have a long way to go before we become as advanced as, say, Japan, but as an Asian philosopher wisely put it, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Janus Isaac V. Nolasco (jvnolasco@up.edu.ph) is university researcher at the Asian Center, University of the Philippines Diliman. This essay is adapted from his commentary published in the journal Asian Studies.

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TAGS: Asia, Asian Studies, education, History, racism, Sensitivity
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