3 Things I Love about Filipino Culture Today

Focusing on the light –

At a dinner gathering with Filipino American teachers last night, someone pointed out our community’s lack of representation in the national news – until something shocking happens. (I am paraphrasing the convo.) So, as a counter-balance, I’d like to share 3 things I love about my Filipino culture that make me happy. They may not make the national news, but they make a difference:

🌺 Filipino nurses. Everywhere in hospitals, every day carrying on the tradition of healers. Making America (and many other countries) healthier and helping heal wounds and illnesses.

🌺 Kapwa spirit. The spirit that people are in it together, that we help each other out, that life is not just about yourself but about all of us together. I see this especially in extended families, in the way people help with whatever little money they may have, help in childcare and child-raising, help relatives move, build up homes. I see this in community projects to help the poorest in the community afford wheelchairs, help for victims of typhoons, help empower girls with scholarships, belief, and confidence, help the hungry by providing food.

🌺 OFW’s. Overseas Filipino Workers: the Filipinos on working visas who contribute to the world’s computer industries, software development, medical field, domestic services, and hospitality industries. They sacrifice to send money back to their families, often at great personal risk, with tremendous work-ethic.

🌺 All right, a 4th: I don’t know the name for it but my friend Denise Nacu calls it “welcoming”. There’s a Filipino way of welcoming people at the door, at its best a kind of warmth. You know you’ll be fed, brought into the fold, accepted. Yes, we ask you to take your shoes off at the door – and then we feed you as we all make kuwento, share stories and bask in laughter and the joy of togetherness (pakikisama).

– Mary Grace


Debt of Gratitude, Utang na Loob

What if the land did not belong to us? And we could not own it? What if we belonged to the land? In my family, we have this idea, a Filipino tradition, a value and a feeling: utang na loob. It’s been translated as a “debt of gratitude”. It is profound, inescapable, and there is no way to pay it back. It is also beautiful…because it binds people together. What if we felt this way about the land we live upon? The soil that provides nutrients, the seedlings which sprout from it, the vegetables and fruits who blossom and nourish us?

Even though I have a great love of nature, I don’t think I fully live this sense of utang na loob, this debt of gratitude, towards the Earth. Of course, this way of thinking, of being is not new. Sixteenth-century Filipinos did not “own” land, the land that the diwata, the nature gods and goddesses dwelled in, was sacred. It could not be owned by human beings. Nature was the temple of the Divine. We did, however, ask for permission to use it. To cut down trees, to plant fields…it was cultural ecology. It was ancient conservation before there was a need for the term.

I ponder my gratitude as many of the seeds we planted at the end of May have sprouted! Joy and delight! I wish I knew planting songs so that I could sing them with friends. It’s gorgeous to see fertility emerging.

New babies, cucumber seedlings!

My boy and I come out in the mornings to check on the lupa, the soil. We look at the patch and ask, “How are our babies doing?” And there’s always something new. To the left are cucumber seedlings. I love the smooth leaves and the fresh green, so tender.

To the right are tomato blossoms. TOMATO BLOSSOMS! In the market, at best I’ll see ripened tomatoes strung together on their vine. But to see the blossoms is a beautiful thing for a novice like me. The organic vegetable patch has become a sanctuary of sorts — yes, weeds and all (for another post).

See the pale, cheery yellow? Delicious summer color. 🙂


Beginner’s Mind – Organic Vegetable Gardening

They say that the beginning of wisdom is to know that you know nothing. Yes, friends & kababayan, given this definition — it’s official — I am wise. Starting this new adventure of putting together a small organic vegetable patch in my backyard has made me realize how much I don’t know. Like:

  • When do you harvest tomatoes? Sitaw (long beans)? Edamame (soy beans)?
  • Are there better times for planting than others? Morning? Moonlit nights?
  • How do you know when to harvest? When are the veggies ready?
  • Which veggies are better eaten young?

A bewildering array of questions bombarded me when I first decided to undertake creating this little 20 x 2 foot organic vegetable patch. It’s actually delicious to see how much I don’t know. I’m realizing how convenient everything is made for me at the market – all the tomatoes are the same size, same with the oranges and saging (bananas). Everything is uniform, a certain homogeneity because fruits and vegetables are sorted by size and then bagged, packaged, presented. Not so on an apple tree!

Also, someone else planted the veggies I usually eat. (Did they have health care? Can they afford to send their kids to school? I tutored a young woman at UCLA whose father, a migrant farm worker from Mexico, told her that she should return to working with the family because they needed the money more than she needed an education.) What I eat is not from the sweat of my own labor.

I’m realizing how disconnected from nature I am despite my love of the wilderness. I have no clue how the food I eat grows. If the whole transportation system of Chicago broke down for a month this summer, I would have no idea how to create my own healthy food. Of course, there’s a beauty to our society’s interdependence. I am thankful to the work that others have done, still do, growing, cultivating, and harvesting the fruits and vegetables and that keep my family fed — especially the small, local organic farmers and the farm workers who came to America hoping, like my own parents, to give their family better opportunities.

On the Filipino American history tip, check out Carlos Bulosan’s novel America is in the Heart. Bulosan was a writer who immigrated to America and did back-breaking work harvesting asparagus, lettuces, and grapes in the California fields. He was active in labor politics and union organizing, and wrote about the racism faced by Filipino migrant workers. A bad-ass  and a literary pioneer in the Asian American community. (And he’s from my lola’s home province, Pangasinan!)

One of the Chicago conservationists I interviewed said to me, “To save a river, first you need to know what a river is.” He went on to describe, quite poetically, the flow of the current, the peace of paddling, the fallen logs submerged. That’s how I’m starting to feel about the process of growing my own food…it’s as if I don’t what a tomato is, the bud of its flower, the timing of its growth, the season of its beauty, the hands who harvest it, the feel of the rain and sun which feed it. Maybe by the end of this summer, I’ll be a little less wise.