Shakira Sison

The problem with Filipino resilience

Shakira Sison

The problem with our resilience is the speed by which we transform trauma into acceptance. Instead of solving problems, we simply cope or wait for the problem to pass. 

The problem with Filipino resilience

By Shakira Sison

Google “Filipino smile” and you will find stories of tourists, disaster volunteers, missionaries, non-profit workers and army personnel saying that through the most devastating events, the Filipino people will always smile.

Our people have repeatedly been touted as resilient, ever-happy, and even bulletproof. It isn’t unusual to see smiling people wading through waist-deep flood waters as if it were a day at the beach. Even in the poorest typhoon-hit areas, it only takes a day or two for people to start rebuilding their homes from scrap pieces of wood. We don’t wait for help. We help ourselves.

I’m proud that we’re a happy people. I’m proud that we are self-sufficient. But I don’t like that we’re immune to disasters. I am bothered that we’re used to the worst conditions. I am disturbed that the reason we help ourselves is that we know nobody is coming to help us.

The only ones laughing

I’m not glad that the only option in terrible situations is to laugh it off, as if pretending it’s a joke would make it less real. Eventually we’re the only ones laughing. That must mean the joke’s on us.

We rush past discomfort and onto acceptance as quickly as possible. We want to turn the negative into a positive all at once without much thought. This is an admirable trait to have, to be culturally independent and self-reliant, to focus on positive, productive actions. Pinoys do not dwell. We simply move on.

Except that we only do this because we know there are no solutions, and because the tasks needed for concrete change are either impossible or too much trouble to implement. We know that we cannot rely on anyone’s promises, so instead we get by on our own. We’re so used to it that we’ve even stopped asking.

We don’t ask why there’s a flood, or why this happens every single year, or how come there haven’t been any structural changes to prevent it from happening again. We don’t ask what happened to our politicians’ promises, but simply shrug when they start giving out goodie bags after a storm. It’s a great photo-op to be “helping.” 

When there is a flood, we simply build a raft, or wrap our legs in plastic bags, or go to elevated areas. We stock up on food and wait for the water to subside. To us, a city that is underwater is merely something to be tolerated, like the hassle of carrying an umbrella when there is rain. It’s almost a given.

We’ve learned as a people to stop seeking solutions. In short, we have given up. Instead of solving problems, we simply cope. Or we wait for the problem to pass.

Just the way it is

“Ganyan talaga e (It’s just the way it is),” we hear all the time. “Anong magagawa natin? (What can we really do?)” is a common expression we say when our hands are tied. We’ve resigned ourselves to powerlessness and to being completely on our own when it comes to help.

Independence and self-reliance are all fine and good, except that we all know how much we pay in taxes. And we also all know where that money really goes.

The good part is we make our way and even earn a living despite the government that’s given to us. We pay our dues regardless of the fact that this money only lines the pockets of our politicians and funds their spouses’ and children’s flashy Instagram posts.

We shrug when the same ten surnames do their rounds of being elected, getting arrested, and being elected again. We can only laugh when we realize that corruption charges seem to be a requirement to seek public office nowadays. We are content with sharing memes when the accused fake health issues to avoid prison – something that is now as predictable as their eventual pardon, release, and reelection.

The futility of hoping

How do we really survive? The state the country is in requires that we turn a blind eye to the enormity of our problems. When it takes a few minutes of rain to flood a metropolis and a forty minute commute turns into five hours, it is both pointless to whine and point fingers when the more immediate task is to get home. We know better than to complain when nothing good comes out of it.

Maba-badtrip ka lang. Pasensya na lang. Ganyan talaga e. 

(It will just ruin your mood. Just be patient. It’s the way it is)

But you know that without a solution it’s only going to get worse, right? With nothing in place to protect flood areas and the sea levels rising annually, climate change is expected to first devastate archipelagos like ours. You know it’s almost expected that large scale destruction (and not just a traffic jam) is going to be the new normal, right?

Oh, but I guess that’s okay. To our leaders and to the outside world, we’re a resilient people and we’ll take it all with a smile. Give us more rain, more storms, more corruption, and more massacres. We are a nation of martyr wives and forgiving mothers. Faced with severe corruption on a daily basis, we merely turn the other cheek, lick our wounds and forget.

We stay and hope for a better day, waiting for public officials to do their jobs the way we wait for shameless husbands to come home and suddenly love us.

But day after day, those who are supposed to support us steal our wallets instead. So we flash them our Filipino smile and say to ourselves, “Ganyan talaga e. Anong magagawa natin? (It is what it is. What else can we do?)”

We are a nation of resilience. Maybe we smile because that’s all we have.

Originally published in, October 2014.