Why are you proud of being a Filipino?

This was an essay prompt for a college scholarship that I was applying for in high school, one specifically of for Americans with Filipino descent if it wasn’t obvious from the prompt. I thought it was a presumptuous question. I have no particular pride of being a Filipino. I haven’t taken the effort to learn the language(s), even though I have had many a good reason to do so. I don’t really like Filipino food that much (no, lumpia and chicken adobo is not what I think as every day Filipino food), and I make fun of Filipino culture and media all the time. Generally, I think of native Filipinos as a exceedingly gracious hosts, while somewhat contradictorily being persistent hustlers, which sounds nothing like me! 1 2. I wrote this much in that essay, and surprisingly, I was invited to the final round of interviews for the scholarship. I can only assume that there weren’t that many Filipino Americans applying in the first place. 3

But even if I’m not proud of being a Filipino, I’m proud of being my parent’s son. So when my mom plans her bi-yearly trip to the Philippines, I begrudingly tag along. Otherwise, she would just be grumpy the whole time.

But the trip was fun and relaxing as it always is. This time, I took a bunch of pictures since I now have a phone that’s not prone to dying in an hour. If you want to browse through the raw album (with lots of redundant photos), here’s a link. If you want some flavor, just keep reading.

A journey of five boxes

Philippine Airlines tickets each come with two pieces of check-in luggage that can weigh up to 50 pounds. With 3 passengers, my parents and I, that’s 6 whole pieces of luggage for free! That’s value we just can’t not take advantage of! My parents go to the 99-cent store and get mass amounts of consumables that are easily divisible and packable, such as coffee, hot chocolate, canned sausages, and soap. This is used to fill up 5 of those pieces of luggage. The remaining luggage item is used for our collective travel needs, but even that is filled up with clothes that we plan to just leave behind.

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My dad having fun lugging around all our boxes in Los Angeles Airport. In the background, you can see we’re not the only passengers taking advantage of the provided check-in baggage value.

The flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Manila (MNL) takes about 16 hours, and from there we still have to make a 5 hour drive from the city of Manila to my mom’s family home in the province of Nueva Ecija in Central Luzon 4. 2 of those hours are spent trying just to drive out of the Metro Manila area.

Traffic in Philippines is horrendous, and I say this as a daily commuter in Los Angeles. Manila and its surrounding cities (the Metro Manila area) are among the most densely populated cities in the world, with the capital city Manila itself holding the honor of being the top on that list. There’s so many cars on the road that the government restricts cars from being driven on certain days depending on their license plate numbers.

The density of cars is already by itself a problem, but the driving culture makes the traffic much worse. Drivers have no regard of road lanes, will cut you off in a moment’s notice, and will sometimes just ignore traffic signage in unpredictable ways. Some busy intersections don’t even have any traffic signage. The accepted way to handle these intersections is to just assert your dominance, inch your way through the intersection until you cut off enough cross traffic that you can make it through. I describe the driving culture in the Philippines as “might makes right”.

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Get used to seeing this if you’re a daily commuter in Manila.

Once we escape the Metro Manila area, we spend most of the rest of the driving time on the express highways. They cut through the farmlands of Central Luzon, which is the largest rice producing region in the Philippines. The vast majority of the scenery through this drive is just looking out at the endless vista of rice paddies.

Every so often, you’ll see random fires in the fields, which is people either burning their trash or burning down sugar cane to make it easier to harvest. There’s always something burning nearby in the Philippines. People ask me how do I handle being living close to the wildfires that Los Angeles gets every year. I tell them that it just reminds me of the Philippines. Fire/smoke (and diesel fuel exhaust) is the smell I associate with the country.

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Just hours of passing by fields. Here, you can see the smoke plumes of something being burned in them.

Once we get off the express highways, we make it onto the roads in the provinces. Here, the same driving culture still applies. But there’s less road lanes and signs to ignore, as most roads are just one lane each way, with an apron lane some of the time, and intersections are practically non-existent. There’s often construction on these roads, which can block off one of the lanes, forcing drivers in the opposing directions to take turns driving on the remaining lane.

There’s also so much slow-moving traffic, such as tractors, tricycles, or jeepneys, that to get anywhere fast, you have to play chicken with oncoming traffic to pass them. Suddenly facing a giant intercity bus barreling directly towards you is a unique experience of secondhand driving anxiety. Sometimes the bus driver has the courtesy to flash their headlights, reminding you to perhaps slow down or drive onto the apron lest you foil the bus driver’s calculations to not flatten you on the road.

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Just a casual strolling down the wrong side of the road. That tricycle and jeepney in the distance we’re trying to pass deserve it for going so slowly.

After an arduous 21 hours of continuous travel, we finally make it to my mom’s family home and unload our boxes. 4 of them will remain here with my mom, the last box will go with my dad as he goes to his family home. The boxes arrive mostly intact, except that a couple of boxes have been opened by the time we got them in Manila and one of the boxes is missing soap. We suspect that the TSA confiscated the soap because it might have mixed with the other chemicals in the box and exploded on the plane. However, one of the other boxes still had its soap intact, so we should consider ourselves lucky our plane arrived safely.

The next day, my mom unpacks the goodies from the boxes and distributes them into several baggies to give to several families in the area. It only contains consumables that would last a week or so (plus a surplus of extra hot chocolate packets), but this is just one of many deliveries my mom sends over the year.

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The front of my mom’s family home as we arrive. The metal gate is a new addition in the last 2 years, as new internal road alongside the home just popped up that leads to the new neighborhood hall and clinic.

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My mom with the completed baggies. The boxes have completed their journey.

A country of progress

When I was young, I had the misconception that roosters were nature’s alarm clocks, crowing at the crack of dawn to wake up their farmer masters. The truth is that roosters just crow all the time. One just doesn’t notice it as much in the hustle and bustle of daily life. When you pass out in the middle of the day after almost 24 hours of travel, it’s much more noticeable when you wake up well before dawn to a cacophony of rooster crows. It’s around this time when the first rooster wakes up and just starts crowing. Then a couple of other roosters start crowing too, probably yelling at the first rooster to be quiet. Soon, you get the entire neighborhood of roosters up at the same time all crowing at each other.

It’s all for the best as the farmer’s day starts well before the sun gets up anyway. The sun here gets unbearably hot by 9am, so if you’re going to work in the fields, you would want to be done by then. Even for non-farmers, daily life out in the provinces is relatively easy-going. Kids go to the school as usual in the morning. Most adults here don’t work a typical 9-5 job. Some do odd jobs such as fixing up various machines and vehicles, make items to sell, or going to the markets and walking around the neighborhood reselling them. Many people run convenience stores out of the front of their own homes. One time, a couple of people with a trombone and bass drum randomly came around and played some music (not well I might add), and my mom couldn’t help but give them money for the trouble. People around here just find ways to make things work.

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The “front yard” of my mom’s family home. There’s another house there, since back before land titles were a thing, people just made homes wherever there was space. There’s a pump well where people come to get water, wash their clothes and dishes, or even bathe if they don’t have access to their own bathing area. To the right, people are making brooms out of reeds from a nearby river. The yellow building in the background is the newly constructed neighborhood hall.

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The inside of my mom’s family home, which is just this kitchen, the living room and bedrooms to the right. In the left, you see a door to the “bathing room”, which is just a tiled room with a faucet, a bucket, and a water scooper. The annoying part is dealing with all the mosquitos flying around in the room.

There are signs of modernization though. When I first started coming to the Philippines into my adulthood, I avoided going to the bathroom. My only memory of it was from a decade earlier, where the bathroom was just a concrete room with a hole in the floor and the stench was horrid. Now, there’s a toilet! It’s just the toilet bowl with no seat and flushing system (it was only after looking at this minimal wonder of technology that I finally figured out how flushing a toilet actually works), but it sure beats a hole in the ground.

That’s a small thing, but there are signs of continuous development and modernization throughout. Many of the people around have nice, new cars. To my surprise, I actually had consistent cell coverage, and everyone has a smart phone. New homes are popping up, many of which are much nicer than my home in Los Angeles. Kids get educated and then go off to college (many of them funded by my mom), and then get cushy jobs (most of them being in Manila, which just contributes to Manila’s overpopulation problems). Over time, the area will get closer to more modern standards. I think it’s more obvious with the easy stuff (e.g. buying gadgets). It just takes much more of an investment to, for example, build a new bathroom with flushing toilets.

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A basketball court newly made in the last couple years. Every neighborhood in the Philippines will have some form of a basketball court, even if it’s just a wooden backboard hanging on a tree. It’s truly the sport of the common man here. I can’t wait for the time when the Philippines becomes a basketball powerhouse.

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One of the nicest new houses in the area. It’s always jarring to see one of these when you just have to turn around to see houses just made of sheet metal.

A Christmas wonderland

People in the Philippines are 90% christian, most of them are roman catholics. This dates back to the time when the country was a Spanish colony, the country is literally named after the Spanish king at the time. So you can imagine that people here take Christmas really seriously. Without the filler holidays of Halloween and Thanksgiving, Christmas decorations go up in September. The traditional decoration are stars called “Parols”, representing the star the three kings followed to baby Jesus. You’ll see them in the streets of Manila to the roads out in the provinces.

Due to the homogeneity of religion, Filipinos don’t settle for just generic holiday trees. The nearby towns in the neighboring province of Tarlac compete on the best depiction of the nativity scene, called a “belenismo” or just “belen” for short. We took a night bouncing around the towns searching for the belens along the road.

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The belen at San Miguel, Tarlac. It’s the nativity scene of the three kings visiting baby Jesus in the manger, except that the manger has been represented by a gigantic crown.

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My personal vote would be for the belen in front of the town hall in Capas, Tarlac just due to the sheer effort that went into it. Here, we’ve replaced the manger with a gigantic bird’s nest with an angel overlooking in the background (which angel? I don’t know, I’m not a bible scholar). The angel’s wings are actually moving up and down too.

A tale as old as time

My dad and mom generally split up in our Philippine trips as they each go to their respective family homes. My dad’s family home is about 3-4 hours north of my mom’s family home, in the province of La Union. It’s far enough away that they speak a different “dialect” there, which to me might as well be a different language from Filipino/Tagalog. We do the round trip between Nueva Ecija and La Union several times to visit or pick up my dad to go somewhere else together.

My dad, like my mom, also was a farmer in his youth. He grew up in a small house with his 10 siblings. (My guess is that families may have been generally larger then, perhaps due to poverty and considerations for infant death rates. As a comparison, my mom has 5 siblings that lived to adulthood, which is also a relatively big family size by first world standards). Now all but one of his siblings have all moved to America, leaving the entire house to just the one sister that stayed behind and her family. The house is much nicer nowadays, gaining a second floor, and garages and back extensions to hold my uncle’s many cars. They still have farmland they harvest rice from, but they hire people to work the land now.

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My dad’s family home. This place even has a flushing toilet, which was newly added in the last couple of years. There’s still no shower heads or bathtubs though. I guess that that’s probably just a cultural difference.

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My dad spends his day in this shed outside. He’ll call out to people passing by on the streets, and they’ll have some chat as if they’re old pals. The thing is, I don’t actually know if they knew each other, or if they’re total strangers. You never really know with Filipinos.

So how does my mom end up with my dad so far away? After my mom got her degree in accounting, she ended up working in the nearby college, “Don Mariano Marcos Memorial State University” (DMMMSU). My mom typically visits her old workplace, where she’s treated like royalty by the administration (whether it’s because they actually know her, or whether Filipinos just treat every guest like royalty, I never really figured out).

They were set up from this interesting guy that I only know as “Romi” or “Romeo” 5, who knew my dad by living in the area and my mom by also working at DMMMSU. He spent some time making a fortune driving kings in Saudi Arabia, and now he’s just living the high life in the Philippines. He would tell me the story of how he got my mom and my dad together. The story goes something like this: “Girl wants to go to the United States. Boy is going to the United States. Hey, you two should get together.” It’s a rom-com that writes itself.

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Romi, in the body of his new home under construction. The home is looking to be ridiculous, with 4+ bedrooms which I can only assume is going to be for visiting guests.

Then my parents had me there, I was born in the clinic of DMMMSU. And we all moved to the states, leading to today. It’s a series of random events out of my control that change my life trajectory dramatically. I’m one that spouts platitudes about not worrying about things not in your control, but this is something that I always remind myself of to give me perspective on life.

Some touristy stuff

We don’t normally do typical tourist things in the Philippines, because we’re not really there as tourists and my mom has an aversion to spending money. At best, we’ll drive to somewhere nearby for a day trip. So you can imagine my surprise when my mom got her friend to book plane tickets for a multi-day trip to the province of Palawan in the southern side of Luzon.

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Hanging around the pool at our hotel in Puerto Princesa, Palawan. Not only does this room have a flushing toilet, it even has a showerhead for those pesky western tourists.

If you tell me you were going to the Philippines for pure tourism, then I would guess that you were coming for beaches, islands, or beaches on islands. Palawan, being on the southern coast of the Luzon island, has plenty of beaches on islands off the mainland. We spent some time taking boat rides hopping around various small islands and lounging around the beaches on those islands, kayaking through lagoons, and swimming above coral reefs.

Unfortunately, we didn’t actually know we were going to get that wet, coming dressed in jeans and having no extra dry clothes. So we took off our tops to keep them dry, and had to buy extra bottom wear afterward so we didn’t spend hours wet sitting in a packed van getting back to our hotel. The tours were still really enjoyable, especially the trip from El Nido. I recommend it for anyone who enjoys tropical waterstuffs. Just make sure you’re prepared for going to the beach.

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Us wading through chest-high water in jeans to make our way to our tour boat in El Nido. This would be a common thing on this tour, since the boat can’t anchor close enough to the shore for us to get to land without jumping into the ocean.

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Just lounging around on the beach, enjoying some freshly cut coconuts. After we drink the water out, we just take it to the guy with a machete to hack it up some more for us to eat the insides.

Palawan is also home to the Puerto Princesa Underground River (PPUR), a certified new natural wonder of the world. Not sure how big of deal that really is, but I do think it’s a nice experience as long as you’re prepared to possibly get dunked on by bats.

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Entering the PPUR. The tour goes deep into the cavern structure, to places where the only light available is from tour guide headlights (and our gadgets). There’s a large room inside named the Cathedral, as the locals named the rock formations inside after religious figures.

We also did a river tour in complete darkness for firefly viewing, continuing on the theme of boat rides in the dark. We also did a general city tour that included a visit to an alligator conservatory. I didn’t internalize how big and scary alligators were until I saw one here. Overall, it was a fun side trip that just reminds me I should do more exploration back home.

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An alligator lounging looking for headpats. We’re up on a catwalk that goes over adult alligator enclosures. I was anxious the whole time thinking these alligators would just jump up and take a bite. But they just stood still the whole time cooling off. Perhaps it was too hot in the day for them to move around.

Coming back

There’s a lot of tiny little things we did over the trip that I didn’t really give flavor to here (such as my dad going around to several cities to get his birth certificate, only to realize that the official records have the wrong name and gender for him). Here’s a link to the full photo album.

Although I do grumble a bit every time I go, I always have great time during it. It’s the time I use to personally take a step back from the hustle and bustle of daily life and just check up on how I’m doing. I also loaded up my Kindle with lots of books I was planning to read since I didn’t plan on having internet access. I finished up books on set theory, the Riemann hypothesis, some science fiction books, and Orwell’s “1984”, which was more horrifying that I first thought it would be. I’ll probably be getting back to musing about more mathy topics related to my learnings from here.

As always, if you have any comments, questions, and just wanna hi, you can email me at me@lalaheadpats.com.


  1. Another word I would use to describe the native Filipino is “lazy”, or “unambitious”. Although this does describe me really well, I thought it would be mean and unfair to write. Filipino hero Jose Rizal wrote an essay “Sobre la indolencia de los filipinos” (translated “On the Indolence of the Filipinos”) on this very topic, saying that the apparent laziness of the Filipino is due to many other factors dating to the Spanish colonization of the Philippines. Although he wrote this in 1890, I can still see many of those factors alive today. You can read that essay here

  2. Here’s a fun example on this contradiction of being hustlers and generous hosts. In 2015, airport security in the Manila airport planted bullets into traveler’s bags for extortion. Travelers responded by plastic wrapping all of their luggage to prevent unwanted cargo being slipped in. We did the same when we went to the Philippines in 2015. On our way back through Manila airport, I saw the airport itself was nice enough to provide plastic wrapping services for guests that didn’t bring their own plastic wrap. 

  3. I didn’t end up getting the full prize, but I got a secondary prize that was enough for me to buy a new laptop. I think it had less to do with my lack of pride of being a Filipino, but rather that they heard from my dad that my college expenses were already being covered through other means. 

  4. There are 3 major regions of the Philippines. Luzon is the large northern island, which contains the capital city of Manila. Visayas is the middle region of many smaller islands. And there’s Mindanao, the large southern island of the Philippines. At this time, the area of Mindanao is in martial law due to the conflict with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and has a U.S. travel advisory suggesting not to go there due to kidnappings. Although, even Manila isn’t safe from kidnappings.. So…, be careful going to the Philippines in general. 

  5. It’s pretty common for Filipinos to not refer to each other by their legal names. My mom is always referred to as “Tasing” (legal name Anastacia), and my dad is always referred to as “Noel” (legal name Manuel). So there’s plenty of people I actually don’t even know the real names of. Even I don’t even get called by my legal name by anyone in my family.

    People ask me all the time how to pronounce my legal name (Is it “Man-yul”, “Man-u-elle”, or “Man-wel”), and they find it curious that even I don’t have a definitive answer to it. I just say “Man-yul” since it’s easiest for me to say, but I’m sure the proper way is closer to the Spanish “Man-oo-elle”. The real answer is that I barely associate my legal name with myself, and you can pronounce it any way you want.