There is a world of difference between (1) making a quick visit to the Philippines, and beholding all the usual stock-standard confronting sights of impoverished Filipinos “bravely” scraping together a living and (2) growing up in the Philippines, and experiencing that poverty (either as a part of it or as an observer) everyday for many years fester irreversibly.
The way a visitor regards Philippine poverty is vastly different from how a resident regards it. The way a typical visitor to the islands takes in Philippine poverty has become pretty banal — shock followed by admiration for (and here is where the script starts) the Filipino’s “resilience” and “courage”. A long-time resident, on the other hand, carries with her a different narrative about Pinoy-style poverty — one that is rationalised to the point of desensitisation.There is a lot of lip service and emo material paid to the way short-stay foreigners digest Pinoy-style poverty. The much-anticipated papal visit is one. Catholic handlers and PR artists are already spinning that familiar narrative for Pope Francis who is (following that expected script) likely to say the usual prayer, commend Filipino “resilience”, then fly back to Rome to attend to the rest of his impoverished flock elsewhere. Recently it was a bunch of Fil-Am youth leaders who “immersed” themselves in all that poverty for all of a week or two within which, they say, the Philippines “reveal[ed]” to them “indelible images and thoughts that will sit with [them] long beyond the airplanes carrying [them] have touched down back on American soil”.
That’s all nice of course. But I liken that “high” such types of observers take with them after their poverty porn fix to the difference between the experience of playing with someone else’s baby and coming out of that experience gushing about how cute it is and the experience its parents are faced with everyday — the joy of its cooing and playfulness and the backbreaking character-building task of wiping crap off its bottom and putting up with its shrieking in those real times largely unseen to the rest.
We need not look too far for a case-study of the less-trumpeted manner with which most Filipinos regard the poverty in their backyards. Just in our daily commutes to work on Manila’s steaming streets, we see what Filipinos, rich or poor, really think of the poor and their poverty respectively. The rich, all comfy in their airconditioned cars, hardly give a second look to 5-year-old drug-dazed beggars knocking at the other side of their car windows at most intersections. The poor, for their part, see all that as just another day at the office for their kids.
In short, Filipinos don’t really see their own impoverishment as anything special. Certainly for the average Pinoy, seeing the poor is not the “humbling” experience those Fil-Am youth leaders gushed about after coming home from their “immersion”. Pope Francis will certainly say a prayer when he visits Haiyan-ravaged Tacloban next year. But, really now, is the Pope’s prayer any more special than anybody else’s? Perhaps so, if we are to believe the expected throng of people who will greet His Eminence there and the thousands more who will follow him to Ground Zero. Indeed, the Philippine government is reportedly spending what is likely a million-odd pesos widening the road from the airport to the Tacloban city centre for the occasion. In any case, what happens after the Pope visits Tacloban and all those prayers are said remains to be seen.
Perhaps this is the reason why what foreigners say about Philippine poverty is so newsworthy — because what they say is the sort of stuff one ought to feel about poverty. But the more in-your-face reality is that what one ought to say about poverty is rarely ever the same as what one actually feels about poverty.
When you’ve seen — no, experienced and lived through — how all that poverty came about to begin with and then understand (in that profound way that only a local can) why it persists like the incurable cancer that it is, you begin to see all those feel-good platitudes about Philippine poverty dished out by these visitors as mere insults to the Filipino’s already meagre intelligence.[Photo courtesy Telegraph.co.uk.]
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