What (Missing) National Identity?

In celebration of this special time of the year,* we delve into a meditation on basketball and the Filipino national identity.

I’ve previously posted about Rafe Bartholomew’s excellent book on Philippine hoops, “Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball.” Sometimes, we need to see ourselves through a foreigner’s fresh eyes** to recognize what is uniquely ours.

People have always struggled to define their essence, their soul, or whatever one wishes to call it. For Filipinos, basketball is part of that evanescent core.

(Emphasis mine.) I am tired of hearing that we do not have a national identity— of course, we do! Would the same people claim that there is no such thing as Filipino food, either? Bartholomew aptly quotes Filipino novelist and cultural critic Nick Joaquin:

If you tell the Pinoy-on-the-street that adobo and pan de sal are but a thin veneer of Westernization, the removal of which will reveal the “true” Filipino… the Pinoy may retort that, as far as he is concerned, adobo and pan de sal are as Filipino as his very own guts; and indeed one could travel the world and nowhere find… anything quite like Philippine adobo and pan de sal.

(Emphasis mine.) As Bartholomew perceptively points out, “Basketball, another colonial import, has also become as Filipino as the Pinoy’s guts.”

Our history is a colonial one, so it only follows that our identity will be too. Perhaps it is time to stop rejecting that (admittedly) hard truth; time to stop looking for a non-existent purely Filipino core. Heck, even “Filipino” itself is a colonial name.

Capturing our identity is extremely difficult and frustrating— I sometimes even lose sleep over it. But instead of denouncing the lack of it— or worse— disowning it (“No, I don’t have a Filipino accent— I’m educated!” or “That’s so masa!”), I humbly invoke— this Holy Week— the Serenity Prayer:

May we be granted
the serenity to accept who we are,
the wisdom to know who we can be,
and the courage to change who we will be.


(*the NBA playoffs, of course!)

(**Not of a parachutist-journalist, but a “connected critic”— one intimately involved in the lives of his subjects, but also able to observe from somewhat detached vantage point. [from Mary Pipher’s “Writing to Change the World”])


Americanized? Look again.

I am wildly enjoying Pacific Rims, Rafe Bartholomew‘s account of his immersion into Philippine basketball, and inevitably, Philippine society and culture. Early in the book, he lays down a spot-on observation of the difference between what the Philippines appears to be (in foreign eyes) and what lies beneath:

On my way home I looked out the window at the steady procession of McDonald’s franchises, KFCs, and 7-Elevens. Many foreign visitors to the Philippines saw Manila’s ubiquitous chain restaurants as a sign of the country’s extreme Americanization, but there was another side to the city. For every American restaurant, there were a dozen roadside barbecue stalls selling grilled skewers of isaw (pork intestines), helmet (chicken heads), and betamax (cubes of coagulated pork blood that resemble the ancient video format’s tapes). The hard wooden benches of buses were crammed with breast-feding mothers and construction workers who had washcloths tucked into the backs of their shirts to soak up sweat. This wasn’t a country where one foreign culture simply dominated its native counterpart, but a place where Spanish and American colonial influences mixed with the imprints of Chinese and Malay merchants who had been trading in the Philippines since before the archipelago even existed in the eyes of the West. A dizzying array of ingredients made up the Philippines’ cultural brew, and they blended over time to form something uniquely Filipino.

On the flip side, when I first moved to “America” (five years ago), what struck me most was how familiar everything seemed to be, yet how different everything was. The dissonance remains.


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A Poem for Friday: “The Nobodies”

“The Nobodies” by Eduardo Galeano

Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream
of escaping poverty: that one magical day good luck will
suddenly rain down on them- will rain down in buckets. But
good luck doesn’t even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter
how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand is
tickling, or if they begin the new day with their right foot, or
start the new year with a change of brooms.
The nobodies: nobody’s children, owners of nothing. The
nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits,
dying through life, screwed every which way.
Who don’t speak languages, but dialects.
Who don’t have religions, but superstitions.
Who don’t create art, but handicrafts.
Who don’t have culture, but folklore.
Who are not human beings, but human resources.
Who do not have names, but numbers.
Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the
police blotter of the local paper.
The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them

(Emphasis mine.)

Eduardo Hughes Galeano (born September 3, 1940) is a Uruguayan journalist, writer and novelist. This poem hits home. I am reminded that our collective experience is unique, and universal, at the same time.

(Hat tip: Herbert Docena)