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What does it mean to be Filipino? An American takes a stab, while awaiting his Pinoy citizenship

What's a Filipino? Whether you agree with him or not, broadcaster Arnold Clavio's "They're-not real-Filipinos" criticism of Azkals players following a sexual harassment suit brought against some members of the national football team, appears to have hit a raw nerve - and raised an important question. This article is one of a series exploring the very notion of "being Filipino". Follow @interaksyon on our #WhatsaFilipino discussion on Twitter, and on this special coverage on InterAksyon.com.

Filipinos feel a sense of national pride whenever Manny Pacquiao fights before an international audience, someone with even a minimal number of ethnic Filipino genes - or seems to have - is a contestant on American Idol, or a Filipino-American wins a local mayoral or city council election in the United States. Patriotism is provoked by the conviction that Filipinos are world class. At least until they become an obstacle to someone else’s job, or dreams.

Somewhere between 10 and 11 million Filipinos work overseas. In Asia, they are mostly former school teachers who live miserable lives as domestic helpers in Hong Kong or Singapore. Or they are "entertainers" in Japan's shadowy nightclubs. In North America they are nurses, teachers, scientists, high-tech entrepreneurs, lawyers, investment bankers, doctors, and professors.

Filipinos in Europe work in multilateral financial institutions, banks, and academia. There are also construction workers and domestic helpers, often without proper documentation. In each of these places Filipinos work in many other jobs, too. They are invariably and deeply admired.

If 10 million overseas Filipino workers (OFW) send home $20 billion this year, as some expect them to do, that will be an average of $2,000 annually per OFW, or about $170 a month. If that money dried up, the Philippine economy would, too. That’s why OFWs are called heroes. They keep the country afloat financially, powering its consumer-driven economy and its thirst for gadgets and condominiums.

Sadly, if they could find well-paying jobs at home, their contributions would be much, much greater.

When I applied for Filipino citizenship in the early 90s, intending to be a dual US-Philippine citizen, without exception people I told would ask - only half-jokingly, it seemed - if we could trade citizenship. It mattered little what station in life they had attained. They all wanted to go abroad "and earn". Almost two decades later, I'm still without Filipino citizenship, and more Filipinos than ever work abroad, more than one tenth of the population.

There are more than 100 million Filipinos today with a median age of about 23. That means I've lived in the Philippines longer than most Filipinos born here. I think it’s reasonable to suggest I know a little about the place, although not as much as I could.

The most united quality of Filipinos is their imported religion, Catholicism. More than 80% of Filipinos say they are Roman Catholic. No single ethnic group accounts for even one third of the population, according to data gathered in the course of the 2000 census. Tagalogs are the largest at 28.1%, followed by Cebuanos at 13.1%. Ilocanos account for 9%, Hiligaynon Ilonggos 7.5%, Bicolanos 6%, Waray 3.4% and “others” 25.3%. There are eight major dialects aside from the official Filipino and English.

About a hundred years after the Spaniards began colonizing the Philippines in 1521, Tokugawa Ieyasu closed off Japan to the outside world. From 1600 until 1868 and the Meiji Restoration, the Tokugawa shogunate oversaw the cultural, political, and linguistic coalescence of Japan, which had been ruled by local warlords called daimyo. The daimyo fought and jockeyed for power by constantly shifting alliances with each other, keeping the “country” fragmented. Tokugawa put an end to those theatrics.

The Tokugawa shogunate also severely limited access to Japan by Western powers, which acquiesced mostly because they had their hands full in China. It outlawed Christianity. Almost completely isolated from the world, Japan incubated, emerging as a reasonably modern state at the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, and began to assert its interests in Asia and elsewhere, which, sadly, relatively quickly led to some major global confrontations.

My point is that the Philippines never incubated. It never coalesced. It never united. It's anybody's guess whether it ever will. I suppose that increasing prosperity could have a unifying effect on the country, as it has to some degree in South Korea. But increasing prosperity has done little to unite Malaysia's multiethnic population. Instead, it's raised questions about economic, academic, and political entitlements reserved exclusively for ethnic Malays.

I suppose Filipinos can also be said to unite momentarily in the face of insults from foreigners. When actress Claire Danes famously described Manila as a "ghastly and weird city" in a Vogue magazine article in 2009, former president Joseph Estrada said she should be banned from the country, stoking emotional—and unproductive—outrage across the nation. It's doubtful that the star was planning a return, in any event, and the public scandal only served to focus attention on some of Manila's negative attributes.

But while Ms. Danes' exposure to the city was limited and her remarks callously exaggerated, the fact is many - if not a wide majority - of Filipinos seldom describe Manila - the Pearl of the Orient before World War II - in glowing terms themselves today.

That's interesting. Mr. Pacquiao brings the nation together regularly in a celebration of world-class Filipino excellence. Ms. Danes and other foreigners who criticize the Philippines bring the nation together inexorably to rage over an international insult. Yet here at home they acknowledge that Mr. Pacquiao's flamboyant lifestyle and ill-advised entrance into politics is inappropriate, and that there was some truth in Ms. Danes' unpopular assessment.

Is this a sign of insecurity? Of a lack of confidence rooted in shame that Filipinos ran the second-largest economy in Asia into the ground and kept it there for the entire second half of the last century? That Asia's center of culture and education shrank, and virtually disappeared? That the once ubiquitous Hong Kong nannies caring for the children of the rich and powerful are long gone, and instead Filipino school teachers are caring for the children of Hong Kong people and sleeping on their kitchen floors?

If so, that sense of insecurity or lack of confidence is misplaced. It's true that Filipino leaders for many years failed their people miserably, and criminally. But Filipinos distinguished themselves during that time nevertheless. One boy who once walked to school barefoot invented the chipset that made the PC clone a reality. Dado Banatao went on to make many other revolutionary breakthroughs and today provides the capital to help others—including Filipinos—do the same thing.

Mr. Banatao, and others, changed the world. But 10 million overseas Filipino workers change lives every single day. Millions more are here at home, rebuilding the Philippines’ economy, finally, and making their country, not just its celebrities, proud again. But the Philippines is never going to be uniquely Filipino ethnically, culturally, or even linguistically. So is it genes, birthright, or heart and mind that makes one Filipino?

To me, a Filipino is anyone who wears his citizenship proudly—or wants to—and is doing his or her best to bring prosperity, transparency, and equal opportunity to this country.

Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com.

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