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Theres The Rub
‘Filipino resilience’

By Conrado de Quiros
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 03:36:00 10/20/2009

Filed Under: Disasters (general), Ondoy, Pepeng

That?s the one phrase I?ve been hearing in the wake of Storm ?Ondoy? and Supertyphoon ?Pepeng,? the ?resilience of the Filipino.? TV in particular has been full of it, singing paeans to the capacity of the Filipino to overcome adversity with no small amount of grace. Indeed, to his capacity to overcome himself and rise to his finest hour in times of the greatest peril, showing courage beyond the call of self-preservation, showing bayanihan beyond the call of self-sacrifice.

The suggestion is the indomitability of the human spirit. And true enough, you find it resident in the Filipino, particularly in the way he handles disaster. It?s not just how the community galvanizes into action to come to the aid of the victims, it?s how the victims themselves respond to their ravaging.

I too shared the reaction of the American soldiers who were amazed at the sight of kids grinning from ear to ear when they came to give relief. A picture of it appeared on our front page a couple of weeks ago. Granted they were kids, and kids have a different take on war and flood, and granted they were about to become recipients of goods, and goodies not just from ABS-CBN but from Uncle Sam, the sight was still incongruous. Certainly that was not the sight that greeted the relief-givers in New Orleans in the aftermath of ?Katrina.? Gratefulness, much less cheerfulness, was not the emotion the victims registered on their faces, or gave the relief-givers to understand. That was true for men, women, and children.

A great deal of the Filipino?s response, I guess, owes to his sense of humor. Notably of the gallows kind, as seen in the text jokes about the most horrific things, like coups, 9/11, the many scandals that have rocked government, the death of Corazon Aquino (the last though at Arroyo?s expense, not Cory?s), and so on. The Filipino is not beyond looking death in the face, and laughing.

And a great deal of the Filipino?s response, I guess, owes as well to his creativity. My favorite example there is the barong Tagalog. That originated in the Americans forcing the indios at the beginning of their occupation to wear transparent shirts so they could not hide their bolos underneath them. Eventually, by dint of refashioning and embroidery, the indios turned the thing into their national costume. The badge of national shame became the badge of national honor. That?s a pretty brilliant way to respond to adversity.

You see that as well in the wondrous works dirt-poor artists have fashioned from garbage items, particularly wires and scrap metal. You see that in the way the folk of Pampanga made mini sculptures out of lahar. It is indomitability of the human spirit.

There is, however, also a downside to the ?resilience of the Filipino.?

The Filipino is able to take in the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune because that is his natural lot in life. He is poor, he is abject, he has nothing. He has learned to fend off the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune because those slings and arrows have been coming at him every day of his life. Practice makes perfect, a lifetime of handling adversity makes for skill and ability.

I almost fell off my seat laughing when Malacańang boasted early this year that the Philippines had escaped the effects of the global recession, thanks to a resilient economy and a resilient people. Resilience, my ass. The only reason we have been spared the effects of global recession is that we are already recessive. We have been recessive for as long as I can remember, given a slight break during Cory?s time, when the goodwill the country earned with People Power produced record growths, and during Fidel Ramos? time, when capitalism surged with the fall of socialism, until the Asian financial crisis of 1997 which fell on the country like Ondoy.

Not quite incidentally, we too were the least harmed by that financial crisis compared to our Asian neighbors, who were bitterly ravaged by it. The reason being that we were too backward to be so harmed. Not unlike kerosene-using folk in the hinterlands who manage to ?survive? brownouts.

The other face of resilience is a long-suffering people. Or worse, the other face of resilience is an uncomplaining people. Religion may have to do with it, with its promises of a better berth in heaven in exchange for a poorer one on earth. Colonialism may have to do with it, the experience of being oppressed imbedded deep in the national psyche, making people think it is their natural lot in life. But that?s the part where I get bothered by that phrase, ?Filipino resilience,? especially when chanted by government and the media like a mantra, or platitude. It sounds like humoring the people: Never mind the pain, you?ll always get by.

That is so particularly for the poor. Because except for certain calamities like Ondoy, which ravage both rich and poor, typhoons and floods tend to ravage largely the poor: the ones protected only by the frailest of roofs from the howling winds; the ones who lie in the path of mudslides and lahar, having nowhere else to go; the ones who huddle in along creeks and esteros, where they?ve strayed after having been driven away from every available empty space beside government buildings.

That?s when the phrase ?the resilience of the Filipino,? uttered with gushing awe by public official and TV announcer alike, takes on mocking tones. What I hear in the interstices of those words is: ?It?s okay. You?ve precious little to lose anyway, you can always build again. Not least from the aluminum cutouts and tarpaulins of the candidates. You?ve done it before, you can do it again. You?re resilient.?

Maybe it?s time the Filipino stopped being resilient. Maybe it?s time he got bloody furious.

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