The socioeconomic structure of the Philippines may be as fixed as the stars in the heavens, but its substructure is amazingly fluid.
Filipinos have a more casual attitude to names than most. The other day I met someone called Grace. At least that is what everyone calls her but it turns out her name is really Sophia, nickname Pia. So where did Grace come from? “When I came to my Manila everyone called me Grace, I don’t know why!” Perhaps in a few years, Grace/Sophia/Pia will add an “h” to her one of her names to give it that little bit of class.
Has any other country had a head of state with a stage name? President Estrada/Ejercito/Erap (two of whose charmless sons carry the name “Estrada”, with the lovely JV bearing his dad’s natural name “Ejercito”) with his famously hazy family boundaries and interrupted presidency is a good example of impermanence in Philippine life.
The fluidity of familial life here is partly a consequence of the wanderings of the priapic Filipino male. Last week, for example, a friend told us that he was startled on a visit to his family home by a reference to his bunso (youngest sibling). “But I am the youngest”, he protested. Well, it turns out he wasn’t the bunso of the family, although it must have been a bit traumatic for him in his forties to discover he had a younger half-brother.
Traumatic but not at all unusual; I am sure almost all Filipino readers will know of similar tales.
Families are loosely structured in other ways too. A few years ago I noticed a new photo of a baby on my assistant’s desk. Since she had not manifested any of the usual physical changes to that precede the birth of a child I assumed the baby must have been a niece or a nephew, but it turned out that a younger and poorer relative had had got herself in trouble and my henceforth my assistant would be bringing up the child as one of her own.
Only yesterday, Frayed and I were offered a baby! There was even a “viewing”!
The reasons for all this are quite varied, and, include the generosity of Filipino families; the notion that wealthier families have a responsibility to their poorer kin; the balikbayan (overseas worker) experience; the prevalence of intense poverty that makes it impossible for some mothers to bring up their children; the discouragement of contraceptives by the Catholic Church and politicians like former Manila Mayor Atienza; and, as mentioned, the habitual infidelity of many husbands.
Nor are the consequences necessarily bad. The famous adaptability of Filipinos, which enables them to blend into apparently radically different societies with relative ease, probably has its roots in the shifting tides of family life. From an early age Philippine children experience change more frequently and have to learn to accommodate it.
* One of the best discussions of Philippine names is Matthew Sutherland’s “Rhose, by Any Other Name”, 10 years old now but as relevant as ever.