Their Campus: Understanding my privilege in The Philippines

I was born in Canada to Filipino immigrants. My parents took me back to the Motherland once when I was a pre-teen, where I met family, friends, and mildly understood the nature of the country they emigrated from. This year, I thought it would be an interesting experience to return as an ‘adult’ – specifically, as an exchange student at the University of the Philippines, Los Banos.

The country hasn’t really missed me. In fact, it’s gotten on splendidly without me. Within the span of 10 years, it’s gone through two presidents, survived numerous typhoons, launched a ‘war on drugs,’ and declared martial law. So coming here as a Canadian citizen, as a Filipino-faced foreigner, feels like watching a fire blaze before my eyes and not knowing if I should dive in first to put it out or call for help – or just walk away.

This flag was hung at the university by student activists protesting potential campus militarization by the government.
This flag was hung at the university by student activists protesting potential campus militarization by the government. Allison Gacad

I’m sure any third-culture kid feels the same way. It’s strange to be back in a country that culturally, I have many ties to, but am now feeling quite frustrated to return to.

Part of this frustration stems from my recent understanding of the history of the country. The Philippines was colonized for most of modern history: first by Spain for about 300 years, followed by the United States for about 30 years. I have found myself particularly frustrated in trying to navigate Filipino culture as a product of this colonization.

Take food, for example. Cattle was brought to the Philippines by Spain, and in later years, imported American canned meat such as SPAM was seen as a luxury commodity. Despite the country holding some of the most fertile soils for growing indigenous vegetables, take a look at any restaurant menu today and you’re faced with different shades of brown fried, processed meats (Admittedly, I am biased here because I come from a primarily vegetarian diet which has been near to impossible to keep up here).

As for language, my Tagalog is broken and choppy, so part of my hope was to come here to fully immerse myself in it for improvement, but everyone responds to me in English or Taglish, a hybrid of Tagalog and English. Because, no one really speaks pure Tagalog, which I learned is likely a product of American colonization as well.

I feel a sense of empathy for Indigenous youth in Canada who must feel the same way: who feel lost navigating their culture and identity, after it was wiped away, reshaped and given a new definition by settlers who came from oceans away. Filipinos were too, likened to be ‘barbaric’ and ‘savages’ by American settlers – a justification for them to ‘civilize’ the people.

Nonetheless, I’ve found that making local friends in my classes is the best gateway to understanding the traditions and heritage here in a manner that’s unobstructed by the lens of colonization. I’ve picked up a traditional martial art called arnis and met peers whose families are descended from generations of arnis fighters. In my agronomy class, my friends speak of the farms they grew up on – the wild plants and herbs they ate growing up, added to soups and stews. My friends teach me swear words and phrases of slang – recent products of culture, affirming what it means to be a Gen Z Filipina.

Admittedly, I also have a lot of privilege as a Filipino-faced foreigner here. I can authentically explore these elements of my heritage and at the same time join other tourists in exploring the spoils of beaches, mountains, and jungle across the 7000+ islands that this country has to offer. As a Canadian, the cost of living is also ridiculously favourable – an average meal on campus costs about 40-60 pesos (around a dollar), which happens to be the same price as a bottle of beer.

Some days it is still challenging to navigate through a place that feels 10 years behind from what I’m used to. The local form of transport is rooted in a vehicle called the jeepney, which was not comfortably made for people over five feet tall and comes with no schedule regarding when it will arrive and/or leave. Internet and data can get quite laggy, but I guess it’s forcing me to be a more intimate traveler, to stop relying on Google Maps and Lonely Planet and to actually talk to people to find out where to go and how to get there.

Thankfully, I still have three more months to soak up the humidity, sunshine and days filled with ice cream – safe to say I’m going to be very cold and confused when I return to a rainy Vancouver, but hopefully with an easy-going, slower-paced island attitude.