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Article

It's a Lovely Evening Here in Pampanga, Philippines

Time to Think About What's Good Here

It's a lovely evening here in Pampanga. The dewpoint has been down the past few days, as relatively dry air has been pouring in from the South China Sea to the west of here. This air also drove the latest typhoon, Lupit (known locally as Ramil) away from the Philippines before it could make landfall here, and toward Japan. The next potential typhoon sits out there near Guam somewhere; we should know in a few days whether it will cause a problem here.

Just as you can't sit around in California thinking about earthquakes all day long, or sit in my native Illinois and think about tornadoes, you can't obsess about typhoons in the Philippines.

Human nature has many quirks, one of them being a continuous alternation between apathy and over-reaction. I attribute it to the fight-or-flight reaction that's still wired into our lizard brains and which drives so much of our behavior.

So, here in the Philippines, which sees about 20 typhoons per year, everyone fell asleep as Ondoy approached, including the national weather service. I had been chagrined a month earlier when a typhoon that passed close by dragged enormous volumes of water from the south into what the weather service blithely called an "enhanced monsoonal flow." There was probably 15 inches of rain over the course of the week, with much flooding and some misery.

But it had been years, decades really, since a typhoon had caused a calamity worthy of the front pages of newspapers and lead stories of TV networks. So, everyone seemd to be asleep at the switch when Ondoy flared suddenly and tried to drown Manila's 12 million residents (give or take a few million). When Pepeng roared into the country, northeast of the capital city, and wrought similar devastation, the world woke up. Pictures of desolation traveled around the world. Aid poured in. Fingerpointing became all the rage.

So now, as I sit here, 50 miles north of Manila near the old Clark Air Force base, the weather service issues updates throughout the day, and reports continue to be published about people "anxiously" awaiting the next storm.

But at this moment, as I said, it's lovely. Weather.com tells me it's 77 degrees with a dewpoint of 68. This qualifies as a warm summer evening in most of the US, but it feels cool to me. I think I've finally gotten used to the heat here. It's not so bad, really. Not as bad as India.

Stray cats wander around, as does the occasional stray dog. As with the people here, the cats and dogs are well-behaved. Most of them are very hungry, it's plain enough to see, but yet they are not aggressive and they don't seem to scare anyone. The Philippine culture is relentlessly unconfrontational and oriented around family and community. People strongly prefer things to go along smoothly, even as they experience the constant stress of trying to get their hands on enough money to feed and clothe their families.

Western observers have remarked through the ages about how the everyday serenity in say, Thailand, will suddenly be punctured by extreme violence. The serenity is often said to come from Buddhism, and the violence from the lack of the Cartesian logic and its step-by-step escalation that typifies Western anger. But most of Asia is like this, whether a Buddhist country, Hindu, Islamic, or largely Catholic as in the Philippines.

People have been settled here for thousands of years, and they live in a place where there is always fish in the ocean and fruits on the trees. Complex family and group dynamics run the show. An older brother is always "kuya" and to be respected at all times. The oldest brother, "manoy," even more so. A sister, cousin, or even neighbor who is even a few months older is an "ate" and her word is to be obeyed.

The death of grandparents is particularly traumatic to many Filipinos, and I swear that without their straightforward belief in a caring God they would go insane with grief, even decades after a beloved "lolo" has passed.

The relationship to parents seems a little more complex. Poverty is deeply ingrained here among the majority of the people; one of its manifestations is that parents must often travel far away to seek work, leaving the care of their children to grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, or even each other. Sickness often intervenes as well, rendering a father with tuberculosis, for example, unable to provide once he's reached a very young "old age."

I am writing here based on my experiences with families from a rural area in the country's central Visayan region. There are, in fact, millions of Filipinos in Manila and other cities who are doing well and are achieving the dream of middle-class tranquility, the same dream that Americans began to have in the years following World War II. Nevertheless, no one here would ever tell you that life is easy, because it is just not.

The reality is that millions of Filipinos depend on the monthly remittances from overseas workers (in the US and Canada, Hong Kong and other parts of Asia, the Middle East, Australia, and Europe.) Fully 10 percent of the world's Filipinos live overseas; they provide about 10% of the country's GDP.  This keeps the local currency stable as all of those dollars, euros, and other currencies are turned into Philippine pesos.

Stable, but not strong. A recent decline in the value of the US dollar suddenly dropped the exchange rate by almost 5 percent, causing massive stress and a reported serious intervention by the government to buy dollars and prop it back up.

This is a country where you can buy a nice, middle-class house for less than $20,000 USD, rent one for about $75 month, and buy a pair of jeans for $6. It is also one where what are still called "salesladies" make as little as $1.50 a day, apprentice construction workers $5 a day, and university professors about $400 a month. The official unemployment rate of 10-12% is as realistic as the spring-training hopes of Chicago Cubs fans.

The population here will reach 100 million in another four or five years. It's easy enough to blame the Catholic Church for such "overpopulation," but the faith here keeps everyone dressed conservatively, encourages stable marital relationships, and babies are always considered a blessing. The population density of the country is less than that of India, or The Netherlands and Belgium. In the Visayan region, it's about the same as Kentucky.

There was a recent scandal in which a high-ranking government official allegedly beat his wife severely--someone beat her severely in any case--when he found her with a boyfriend. The official did himself no favors when he boasted of this the next day and generally acted the fool. The case was met with a condemnation of outrage and shoulder-shrugging.

To me, the jarring thing was to read a long diatribe by a women's rights advocate that came straight from the playbook of the United States. Rather than focus on the allegedly appalling behavior of a single individual, the diatribe focused on trying to "clean up" this entire nation, to deracinate it of any male behavior that the spokesperson could find objectionable.

Just as there is a school of thought that finds Western aid programs to be counter-productive, it seems to me that the last thing the Philippines needs is a lot of Americans trying to "fix" the country quickly and comprehensively. I'm even a bit squeamish about writing my thoughts down, because I know I see things here through all of my own biases, known and unknown.

But it's clear that the government here could provide more services more consistently, that education should be easier and less expensive to acquire, and that someone has to do something the appalling amounts of sugar in the Philippine diet.

Some days, i feel as if I'm back in the US circa 1964 during my childhood: no air-conditioning, people burning trash in the open, people guzzling Coke and Mountain Dew and other "pop" as if it's going to be outlawed soon, pre-Vatican II, pre-EPA/OSHA, even pre-Equal Opportunity. When's the last time you saw an ad that specified height, sex, age, and a "pleasing personality" in the US? Such ads are commonplace and accepted without objection here. At least smoking levels seem to be inline with current levels in the US, and the only staggering drunks I've seen were all Americans or our European and Australian cousins.

I think the Philippines will slowly change over the coming decades, but only if income levels continue to improve, and if more people can earn a decent living here rather than thousands of miles from home. I won't try to change things all at once, though.

Jeez, I would hate to see the warmest, most congenial people in the world turn into loud, aggressive, Type-A, "no-nonsense" Americans. This thought threatens to ruin this perfectly good evening, which as I finish this piece, continues to be cool and tranquil.

More Stories By Roger Strukhoff

Roger Strukhoff (@IoT2040) is Executive Director of the Tau Institute for Global ICT Research, with offices in Illinois and Manila. He is Conference Chair of @CloudExpo & @ThingsExpo, and Editor of SYS-CON Media's CloudComputing BigData & IoT Journals. He holds a BA from Knox College & conducted MBA studies at CSU-East Bay.