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The first time I set foot in the Philippines, I didn’t quite have the feeling that I was in Asia.
People there look more similar to Polinesians than to those who live on the Asian mainland and the landscape also resembles that of the Pacific Islands because, from a strictly geographical point of view, the Philippines is situated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and actually lies between the Asian mainland and Micronesia.
When I think of Asia the very first mental picture I have is the far East, namely places like China, Japan or Korea. Then I broaden the picture and what also comes to mind is places like India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and, of course, the Middle East.
The Philippines is none of these things but at the same time it includes some elements of other Asian countries.
There is an expression that encapsulates rather nicely what the Philippines looks like and the expressions is: Filipinos are Malay in family, Chinese in business, Spanish in love and American in ambition.
Another expression, pointing to the Western colonization of the country is:
Filipinos lived 300 years in a convent (under Spanish domination) and 50 years in Hollywood (under American domination).
Filipinos are Malay in family
The ancestors of the population of the Philippines, at least the vast majority of it, came from Malaysia and, under this aspect, Filipinos are much more akin to Pacific Islanders than they are to Asians.
That’s why Filipinos look closer to Hawaiians, Maori etc., since they came from the same Malay-polynesian group.
Many smaller groups of indigenous peoples and immigrants constitute the remainder of the Philippines’ population.
They are Austronesian
Tagalog is an Austronesian language like the languages spoken in the Pacific Islands.
Chinese in business
This expression reveals that Filipinos have had a lot of connections with the Asian Mainland, and particularly with China, while Pacific Islanders are, by and large, culturally and socio-economically cut off from Asia.
Not only are Filipinos Chinese in business, in the sense that Chinese business people are very active in the Philippines, they have also been strongly influenced by China in such areas as cooking (Filipinos eat noodles and spring rolls) and family relationships (such Tagalog expressions like ate and kuya, or “older sister” and “older brother” come from Chinese).
Not only have Filipinos been exposed to Chinese immigration, the country has also been exposed to Arabic immigration, to the point that part of Mindanao (the Southernmost island group of the Philippines) is a Muslim area.
The “Culture Shock Philippines” book by Alfredo and Grace Roces says
“At about the same time as the Chinese, the Arabs had also come to the Philippines to trade. In the Southeast Asian region the founding of Malacca, followed by the conversion of its leader in 1414, spread the influence of Islam among the Malay peoples, reaching southern Philippine shores in the 14th century. Islam remains a dominant influence in the southern Philippines, a factor that unified the kinship groups in the area to resist colonisation by Spain effectively and strongly for 400 years, and put up a strong resistance to American colonisation. Although only a small minority within the Philippine population—about 5 per cent—the Muslims have added cultural character to the nation. The Filipino Christian majority today express pride and admiration”
Spanish in love and American in ambition
The fact that the Philippines have been exposed to 300 years of Spanish colonization and 50 years of American colonization sets them apart from both the rest of Asia and Polinesia and gives the Philippines a strong Western veneer to the point that a Westerner like me really feels like having landed in a Western country when he first sets foot in the Philippines.
In the Philippines you can find Spanish architecture as well as American-style skyscrapers.
Actually the Philippines was not even directly controlled by Spain, rather it was ruled by the Spanish via Mexico so, in this respect, the Philippines could also be viewed as a slice of Latin America situated between Asia and Polinesia but, at the same time millions of Filipinos speak English rather fluently and the American impact on the country can easily be observed by a tourist who sets foot in the Philippines.
So, yes, the Philippines is a very unique place: it’s a mixture of Asia, Polinesia, U.S.A. and Latin America.
From a selfish point of view I should encourage you to visit Italy, because my country will badly need tourists after this Coronavirus crisis but I must honestly tell you that I would rather encourage you to visit the Philippines than to come to Italy.
It’s geografic position as well as its exposure to all kinds of cultures and its incredible mixed architecture make the Philippines a place like none!