The first time my mother served us brown rice instead of white, I lost my appetite. I imagined the rice, brown like feces, infested by flies. It tasted all right, not sweet but still palatable. It was just the color that made me imagine disgusting things.
Later I realized that the rice we always ate was not harvested white. It had to be refined, separating the bran from the grain, stripping off its natural brown color and, unfortunately, its substance, until it comes out white—as though pure and clean and, in my six-year-old words, “pretty.” But it is no longer very healthy to eat.
Such is the Filipino’s fascination for anything white—from rice to snow to a fair complexion. Colonial mentality is the historian’s term for it, instilled in children’s minds, passed on through generations like a gene. It’s as if it can no longer be removed from our body composition, and can only be recessive. Even if we have raised our own flag and recited our vows for our country, Filipinos are still flat-nosed, fair-complexioned people speaking broken English.
Eighty percent of a Filipino woman’s expenses concern various whitening products. She continues to fall for the moneymaking scams involving these products that come in sets. For better results, use whitening soap together with lotion. For even better results, use lotion with cream. For best results, use with scrub. Even women who earn barely enough to feed a family of 12 back home would cut out a couple of hundreds to buy themselves the right to call themselves “beautiful.”
I would be a hypocrite if I said I haven’t been trying to look American. It started when I was in grade school. It was always worth the trouble to sneak into my mother’s room, make off with her foundation and compact powder, and bring these with me to school. If I wore the stuff daily and looked white, I would become one of the nominees for muse and get noticed by the class’ Prince Charming. But my hands, which were trained to hold crayons and make unruly and forceful strokes, merely made me look like a white kid, not an American.
It was only when I began to study at the Philippine High School for the Arts that I became aware of outstanding Filipino artists like Levi Celerio, Ramon Obusan, Jose Joya and Leandro Locsin.
With the perspective of a young student artist, I realized how much more amazing it is to listen to classical music than to pop songs by those who sound good only on auto-tune and whose repetitive lyrics scream only about partying, losing oneself, and making love tonight.
Yet, the media feature only the success of foreign artists who are 1/32 Filipino and don’t know a single Filipino word.
Being Filipino is more than just the race we belong to. We don’t need to have body tattoos like those of the lumad . But the culture that our ancestors have struggled to keep should be nurtured and seen in the way we talk and speak, in the things we are interested in. Whatever happened to the kundiman? Whatever happened to the novels about the silent protest of Filipinos under Spanish power? As in the eyes of high school students with short attention spans, “Noli Me Tangere” has turned from a handy novel to a textbook dreading to be read.
In a country whose economy depends on foreign tourists and investors and the false understanding of “development,” what are more accessible to a regular Filipino are malls that display overpriced goods from the West. The Filipiniana section of National Bookstore is heartbreaking, filled with Filipino teenagers’ erotic adventures and authors who are
driven to write only by their vanity. If these are what the bookstores can offer as the face of Philippine literature, then the Philippines would be such a flop!
Where are the books of our national artists? Or of my personal favorite, Ambeth Ocampo, who makes Philippine history easy to read but substantial? The rich invest in what’s “in” instead of supporting indigenous people whose embroidered art would make a heart skip a beat, with every woven pattern made with sweat and pure dedication to the Creator of all things in the universe. In what other country would you see a heart so pure reflected in the culture?
Manila boys and girls don’t need to live with our indigenous people to be considered Filipinos. That would be false nationalism. They were born and raised in the boisterous cacophony of car horns and traffic whistles and lulled to sleep by electropop music and strobe lights.
Not that I want the government to ban any foreign influence, because this influence can do us some good. Japan is one of the most developed countries in the world, yet it started small. During the Meiji empire, the members of the Japanese government were sent to the West to learn how to run a government. They listened well as they were taught, adapting the military reforms of the German, American and British governments, but they did not allow themselves to be dependent allies of these governments. They applied what they had learned to their own country, strengthening the military, until they were strong enough to conquer others. They defeated China and Russia, which were even bigger countries than they were at that time.
But the Japanese could not have done it without love for their then ailing country. When they were sent to the West to study, the comfort of an established government could lure them to never return. But they all returned home, and not only did Japan become as good as the countries that taught it, but it was also able to create something of its own.
When some of my classmates went to China to perform a Philippine folk dance, they laughed at the Chinese for their signs written in incorrect English, like “We Welcome To Come Back Again.” But did they ever see a beggar perform a folk story in the Philippines like the poor Chinese man they saw in the bus? Yes, in the Philippines, even drivers who have not been to college can speak better English than a Chinese businessman. But the richest company presidents in the Philippines are foreigners in their own country. They need their own drivers because they fear getting tricked by public utility drivers. They’d choose to be clad in American suits in this warm weather rather than a cool barong because they think it is for the bakya Filipinos.
The Chinese beggar performing in the bus had nothing but improvised music materials. But you know what else he had? He knew the story of two boastful crickets who were trying to see who between them was more powerful. In the end, a large toad silenced their argument by eating them both.
Despite the permanent scars of colonialism in Philippine history, it provides a privilege to our culture. For a culture which is a mix of many other cultures is as interesting as a new species bred from horse and zebra.
But more than imitation, there should be synergy between and among these cultures. We have learned enough after centuries of colonization. It is time we stood on our own feet. Let us patronize and create our own culture: poems, songs and dances that retell the stories of the Philippines’ oppression and its journey to freedom. Is that not something worth telling and listening to? Does that not make you more than proud to be Filipino?
Lora Noreen S. Domingo, 15, is in Grade 9 at the Philippine High School for the Arts.
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