In the 1970s, at the University of the Philippines, firebrand nationalists invented Philippinology with the purpose of stripping the nation of centuries of colonial accretions in order to discover the pristine Filipino while turning against the culturally corrupted ways of the country's leading class. In their quest for authenticity, they radically reinterpreted history, psychology, anthropology, etc., invented the pre-colonial state, a role for ‘the masses', and the ideal community as the goal of the course of the nation. Through creating this mythology, they tried to shed the Hispanic and American elements of their identity, and so they were in for trouble.
Subsequent to my studies in Java and Thailand, I started on comparative research in the Philippines in the 1980s. Soon, I was impressed by an apparent absence of nationalism, the currency of American English, the popularity of fast food, basket ball, Coca Cola and visor caps, the symbols of Catholicism, and a seeming ease with western ways. At the same time, in church people touched statues to tap sacred power, faith healing was widely popular, miracles were accepted as a matter-of-course, vis-à-vis a visitor people were friendly yet kept their distance, while I couldn't understand their conversations. It was a mixture of recognizable foreign features and familiar Southeast-Asian behaviour, and so I knew I, as a cultural anthropologist, was in for trouble, too.
With his collection of essays, Professor Zialcita tries to find a way out of this dilemma by addressing the question why lowland Christian Filipinos experience unease when they reflect on their identity. Are they truly Asian or part of western civilization? Did the Spaniards destroy their original religion and are the Filipinos culturally corrupted? If adobo, caldereta, lechon, pan de sal, menudo, etc., are favourite dishes, what is truly Filipino about their food?
Popularly, the colonial experience is the whipping boy for all frustration, but is it justified? Was the pre-Spanish period a time of peace, freedom and egalitarianism? Was there a sense of Filipino identity before the land was colonized? Were Filipinos subsequently more exploited than non-conquered people elsewhere?
The author demolishes many nationalist myths through placing events in their cultural and historical contexts while drawing attention to the evolution societies, states and cultures experience over time. It simply is unfair to impose present ideas on the past and to blame actors for operating in a dynastic instead of a democratic state. Another device to put an end to unease is to reflect on the contrast Asia versus the West. Whereas a western oikumene can be argued, the idea of Asia or Asianness is no more than a chimera of the western mind. Besides, among the many clusters of culture in the vast expanse of Asia, the Filipinos decidedly belong to the Austronesian one.
The number of myth to tackle is impressive, and people who argue that the Spanish heritage in many ways defines the country and its people are not popular and often execrated as traitors to the nation. Yet, was there any experience of belonging together before the Spaniards imposed their state? Is it true that private property was a Spanish introduction that subsequently tore the pristine community asunder? Is there any solid evidence that the native intellectual and economic elites turned their back on the struggle to liberate the nation from Spanish rule? Is there any historical and/or economic basis for the claim to pre-colonial egalitarianism, and is the latter idea compatible with the nationalist yearning for court- and state-centered pasts?
In dealing with these and other tricky problems-e.g., what's wrong with being culturally and racially mestizo?-Professor Zialcita knows that he enters territory where even angels fear to tread, and although those familiar with the representatives of fanatical nationalism can readily identify his targets, he most elegantly avoids adding insult to injury by rarely referring to its protagonists. His method is didactic and professorial, advancing step by step with carefully reasoned arguments that sufficiently prove his points while separating fact from propaganda.
Fine comparative anthropology
Because of his careful reasoning and the catholicity with which he tackles the issues, the author created an exceptionally fine work of comparative anthropology that is of much wider interest than the refutation of nationalist idiosyncrasies. Although he clearly addresses ‘we', ‘us', and ‘our' identity problems, the general reader will be charmed by the many playful asides and anecdotes of personal experiences and opinion, such as when Zialcita assures the reader that he feels at home among all sorts of Indonesians. Yet it is precisely at this point that I would have liked to see him more firmly grounding Filipino culture and identity in the Southeast-Asian and Austronesian contexts.
Granted that the book's leading question is why lowland Christian Filipinos experience unease when reflecting on their Hispanized heritage, the author could have strengthened his arguments by demonstrating that the culture of Filipino everyday life, its western veneer notwithstanding, is very comparable to that of the country's Southeast Asian neighbours (Mulder, 2000a); by drawing more attention to the fact that all High Culture in the region has been imported from China, India, the Middle-East and the West; and by giving more emphasis to the fact that all culture exists in the give-and-take of ‘original' and ‘alien' elements.
Two other factors contributing to unease and insecurity of identity could also have been elaborated. Firstly, the persistent ‘Philippines bashing' or ‘self-flagellation' going on in the English language quality press (Mulder, 1997: ch. 7), and, more perniciously, in school where pupils are fed nonsense about ‘lack of identity', their being ‘imitative', and given to corruption (Mulder, 2000b: chs. 3, 4; 2003: chs. 2, 5). The second fact that may well reinforce the prevailing negative self-image, or the difficulty of building a positive one, may lie in the nation's dysfunctional political system whose main achievement seems to be to mire the country in an ever aggravating mess with which it is hard to wholeheartedly identify.
Mulder, Niels. 1997. Inside Philippine Society. Quezon City: New Day Publishers.
-. 2000a. Inside Southeast Asia. Religion. Everyday Life. Cultural Change. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.
-. 2000b. Filipino Images; Culture of the Public World. Quezon City: New Day Publishers.
-. 2003. Southeast Asian Images; Towards Civil Society? Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.
Niels Mulder is a retired independent researcher of Filipino, Javanese and Thai culture, and is currently working on his field biography, such as Doing Java; an anthropological detective story. Yogyakarta: Kanisius, 2006, and Doing Thailand; the anthropologist as a young dog in Bangkok in the 1960s. Bangkok: White Lotus, 2007.