To visit the Philippines is to become engulfed by a kaleidoscope of culture and tradition unlike any other. This is due to the varied blend of races that have influenced this group of islands for thousands of years. Learn more about the fascinating Filipino culture in a variety of areas including historical influences, celebrations, family and cuisine.
The eminent Filipino sociologist and journalist Prof. Randolf S. David stated that Filipinos do not consciously feel part of a nation. One significant cause of this is the mixed heritage that makes up the national psyche. According to Dr. Lourdes R. Quisumbing, the first woman Secretary of Education, Culture and Sports of the Republic of the Philippines, Filipino values are a blend of trust in divine providence and self-reliance.
The Philippines is located in an archipelago, or group of islands, constituting over 7,000 islands. The history of the country is that of immigration and occupation, and gives clues to the peoples' identity:
- Before the Spanish invasion in 1521, the inhabitants were descended from Malays, Indonesians, Chinese, Muslims, and Negritos (people of dark skin and short stature from southeast Asia).
- The first Spanish arrived in 1521.
- Miguel Lopez de Legazpi amalgamated Spanish power in 1564.
- Spanish occupation and Catholicism unified the country.
- During the 1890s, José Rizal inspired Filipinos to seek independence.
- The U.S. ruled in the Philippines in two phases: first from 1898 to 1935 and second from 1936 to 1946.
- The islands were given commonwealth status in 1933.
- The Philippines gained independence from the U.S. on July 4, 1946.
'Taglish' is something you hear a lot in the Philippines, especially in Manila, Luzon, Mindoro and Marinduque. As the word suggests, it combines Tagalog, the most widely spoken language, and English. In 1987, a variant of Tagalog became the base for the official language of the Philippines. Tagalog and English are used profusely for education and business, and Tagalog has the most literature of all the Filipino languages. However, you would be wrong to suppose that these were the only languages. In fact, according to the SEAsite project at Northern Illinois University, scholars estimate there are 75 to 150 different languages and dialects in the Philippines.
Family bonds are important to Filipinos. The elderly are honored and respected. From an early age, children are taught to say 'po' and 'opo' to address their elders both within their communities as well as their families. There is a special greeting to show veneration, 'mano po,' whereby you take the hand of an elderly person and place it on your forehead as if receiving his blessing.
Extended families in the Philippines live together, and even distant members are given the title of cousin. Children have several sets of godparents so that the support system is strong. There may be a few houses grouped on the same piece of land, or in the same neighborhood so that children from different parents are part of one household. Single aunts, uncles, or grandparents look after them while their parents work. The major festivals are also celebrated together. If a family originates outside the city, they journey back to the rural area where they have their roots, to celebrate.
Courtship and Marriage
Close-knit relationships between relatives and friends mean that young people often marry others already known to their families. Whether this is still the case or not, it is traditional that 'pamanhikan' occurs, and the suitor's parents visit the bride's family to ask for her hand in marriage. From this point on, the prospective groom expects to make himself as useful as possible to his fiance's family.
Marriage is a serious affair, and engagements often last for several years while the couple works, saves for a home, and if necessary, pays for their siblings' education. Friends and relatives may help sponsor the marriage to reduce expenses.
There are various kinds of weddings according to family wishes, religion, or whether the geographical location is rural or urban. Over the last century, it has become fashionable for brides to wear white, imitating the Western style of dress. However, if a couple has a tribal wedding, they will wear traditional attire.
Festivals and National Holidays
Filipinos know how to party. No matter when you travel, there is bound to be a holiday or festival. If you're visiting the Philippines, Filipino Travel Center has a useful calendar of festivals. Every municipality has a patron saint whose day is celebrated extravagantly in the homes and streets. Residents anticipate the event for months in advance. A feast is prepared and they go from one house to another tasting dishes. The church and plaza are decorated with lights and bunting, and a procession is held with dancing and music. According to the festival, Filipinos dress up in vivid costumes, sporting masks and headdresses. Fireworks and firecrackers complete the excitement.
Other holidays include Easter, All Saints Eve, and secular holidays like Bataan Death March, Labor Day, Independence Day (June 12), and Christmas. Rizal Day takes place on December 30, making it part of the New Year's Day celebrations. Sino-Filipinos (or Chinese Filipinos) celebrate the Chinese New Year in Chinatown, Manila, and Muslims enjoy the Islamic Feasts for the end of Ramadan and the Hajj.
Much of the etiquette of the Philippines stems from the desire to save face. A person might agree to an action even though they have no intention of doing it; when it is not carried through, it is understood that the act would have been embarrassing. This is all perfectly comprehensible to Filipinos, although confusing to Westerners. By understanding certain social and business etiquette, you avert frustration or embarrassment. Commisceo Global offers tips to prevent social blunders. Some of these are:
- Wait to be asked more than once before accepting food.
- Give sweets or flowers as gifts, but not chrysanthemums or white lilies.
- Introduce people from oldest to youngest.
- Refer to Filipinos by their full title.
- Dress formally and compliment the hostess of the house.
- Women should not drink alcohol or cross their legs in public.
You are certain to be greeted with a smile as you travel around the Philippines. Personal relations are important, and Filipinos are sensitive to the feelings of others. If you are conducting business in the Philippines, you should be aware of how professional relationships work. According to the translation company Kwintessential, there are important factors to take into account:
- The business relationship is with you rather than your business or company. Therefore, if you leave, the relationship breaks and needs to be rebuilt by your replacement.
- Try to build extended networks.
- Arrange interviews face-to-face and don't rely on fax, email, or telephone.
- Accept food or drink, so you don't offend.
- Socialize after the meeting.
- Be aware that the people you meet might not be those making the final decision.
Geographical location and ethnicity correlate to cuisine that varies from area to area. Food is spicy but not eye-watering hot. There is one staple true to all; when in the Philippines you will always see plain steamed rice on the menu.
Fish is eaten daily and may be salted or fried. Chicken is popular, as is pork, although it is not eaten by the Muslim population. Much of the food is served cold. Vegetables are prepared in soups or stews and there is plenty of fruit. If you enjoy desserts, you will relish the coconut milk with fruit salad.
Etiquette When Eating
Here's a hint of what is considered good manners at the Filipino dining table:
- Don't be the first to enter.
- Wait to be seated.
- Hold the fork in your left hand and use it to place food on your spoon.
- Knives are not used.
There is a wealth of traditional Filipino arts, from carved images to musical instruments such as nose flutes, Jew's harps ("kubing"), gongs, and drums. The indigenous art movement was on the wane until recent years. Now it has been revived, both at street festivals and theater productions. Ballet Philippines, Bayanihan Dance Company (Filipino national folk dance company), and the Ramon Obusan Folkloric Group are all important performing arts companies promoting local culture.
Since Independence, writers have been publishing in Tagalog, and there have been a number of internationally acclaimed films including: Himala (1982), Oro, Plata, Mata (1982), and Small Voices (2002).
A Fascinating Culture
The Philippines is a tropical country that boasts volcanic islands, forests, and sandy beaches. Filipino people are rightfully proud of their surroundings. This locale is a place worth visiting, whether for business or leisure, and by understanding more about the Filipino culture, you are sure to get the most out of your stay.