There has been an overwhelming and varied response to the late Alex Tizon’s moving piece on how his family enslaved Eudocia Tomas “Lola” Pulido for decades — even after moving to and settling in the United States.
Most interesting of these responses is how some Filipino social media “influencers” are incensed with the way Americans are now judging this widespread Filipino reliance on indentured domestic servants. For Tizon who, in his youth, tried to fit into American society amidst the confusion surrounding his identity, this normalcy within his household came into conflict with values he learned as he assimilated into Western culture. Nowhere else in his story of Lola does Tizon neatly sum up this slow coming to terms with the reality about his Filipino heritage than in this poignant passage…
Having a slave gave me grave doubts about what kind of people we were, what kind of place we came from.
For Filipinos, of course, keeping indentured servants and paying them a pittance (if at all) to do hard back-breaking work 24/7 is normal. And this fact is the pillar used to hold up arguments now coming from some circles that Westerners’ harsh opinions on Lola’s story lack enough cultural context to be regarded as valid enough arguments. Blogger Marck Ronald Rimorin calls this framing of local issues within Western philosophical points of view “westjacking”. He defines the term in his piece, Some Notes on Westjacking, as “Western voices talking over non-Western cultural nuances”.
All the nuances and factors that build into the very idea of a katulong would frustrate even the most dedicated lover of personal freedom, because you also somehow have to figure the unique Filipino work ethic in.And to frame that on a Western point of view on the basis of historical parallels simply doesn’t work. Rather, it trains the conversation back to the Western view, back to Western conventions, back to Western ethics, back to Western ideas of freedom and progress. It ceases to become our story. It becomes Westjacked.
The cultural nuance most Filipinos refer to when waxing indignation over foreigners’ views, in this case, is in the way most Filipinos from the middle classes and up take their servant-enabled lifestyles for granted. Behind the leisure classes’ squeaky clean homes, well-pressed handwashed clothes, daily-washed and shined cars, manicured gardens, and their abundance of free time to spend with beshies in shopping malls is at least one indentured servant. It’s an entire way of life made possible by indentured cheap labour.
To be fair, most Filipinos who are fortunate enough to be able to spend days tapping tweets on iPads while sipping 200-peso lattes in Starbucks were raised with the help of such labourers. Even now, young Filipino parents continue to employ and rely on them. It is therefore not surprising that many are reluctant to defer to the “wisdom” of Western thinking on the matter.
Perhaps the important lesson to be learned here is just how inconsistent we are in our regard for the West and how utterly confused our relationship is with our former colonial masters. When it comes to cherished traditions like the maintenance of indentured servants, we prefer that the West butt out from what we consider to be an internal “cultural nuance”. Yet, on the other hand, many of these same loud voices are quick to throw Philippine society under the harsh judgment of Western opinion-shapers — even Western criminal courts — when it comes to, say, the unconventional approach applied by their government to fighting its War on Drugs.
Ano ba talaga?
Indeed, it is upon this foundation that I built the key message of my hit piece Duterte is turning the Philippines back into a REAL southeast Asian country. I wrote back then…
He is, in effect, attempting to address the root cause of a national identity crisis suffered by Filipinos over the last three decades. Southeast Asia is home to autocratic “democracies” — states that have, one way or another, found a balance between outwardly being what the West think the world’s nations ought to be and, from the inside, being what they really are.
…to be truly southeast Asian is to grow and develop according to one’s sovereign terms. This is how Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia did it. And this is how Vietnam and the other new Indochinese members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are doing it. Duterte is showing Filipinos an option that, in all ironies, never occurred to them — that it can be done the southeast Asian way. The American Way was a fun ride in Disneyland. But to prosper in the manner that only southeast Asia does, the Philippines needs to go back to the basics and start planting rice.
Judge the rightness of wrongness of a “cultural nuance” that predisposes us to enslave the poor, or to apply “unconventional” levels of violence to eradicate illegal drugs. But decide first which perspective to apply consistently when engaging in ethical debates of national consequence. Do we routinely allow the narratives behind our internal social issues to be westjacked? Or do we consistently regard these through the lens of who we really are as a people?