Are we embarrassed to be us?
This question certainly came to mind when I remembered an incident that happened in the not too distant past.
My dad was engaged in business talks with some Koreans, and as part of their reconnaissance (to see if their business venture would be viable in the Philippines) they had to take several trips to our country. On one such visit, my dad invited me to have lunch with them so I could get acquainted with his (future) business partners.
We met at a Chinese restaurant in Greenhills, the name escapes me now, but the entrance was shaped like a tube (circular and long). I'm sure people who frequent Chinese restaurants in that area would know instantly the name of that establishment. (Let's chalk that up as a guessing game. No prize.) As is customary in such settings, we had a rather large round table (if I remember correctly, around 10 to 12 people), with a lazy Susan to serve the dishes.
My dad sat me down beside one of the businessmen, let's call him Mr. Cheung. The usual pleasantries were exchanged, and as I am not too keen on lugging around a big bag in these situations, I just brought my phone and car keys with me by hand. (Anyone who knows me knows that I often have a utility bag in tow - much like Batman has a utility belt.) He immediately glanced at my phone, a glance that I caught, albeit made surreptitiously. I didn't have to find a way to work it in the conversation, because, as it turned out, he would make a huge commentary about it later in the meal.
When the cold cuts came out (the "standard" appetizer in Chinese lauriats), he asked where I studied.
"I've studied in the Philippines all my life."
"Even for university?"
"Yes. I studied in UP, the University of the Philippines."
"Well...I know some Filipinos in Korea. Some of them are professionals, some of them are domestic helpers. Most of them do not have the fluency with which you command the English language."
"Thank you...I guess. Although, in general, most Filipinos would have more than a basic grasp of English."
"I didn't mean to offend you. You see, Koreans also have difficulty with English. In fact, we are hiring many, many teachers into our country to teach us. Many of us are also going abroad to get further studies in the English language."
"No offense taken. Can I then assume that you also went abroad to study?"
"You are correct. I studied in an Ivy League school in the United States."
"That's great. You know, I remember when I was still in university, I had many, many classmates who were from Korea. They said that aside from getting great English training, education costs here are peanuts compared to how much they cost in Korea."
"Quite true. Education is one of the biggest expenses a family has, especially if the children are in university level. Sometimes the cost of living abroad and studying can be cheaper than studying at home."
More dishes came out. We made rudimentary talk about the business venture they planned to set up. After he finished his noodles, he then turned to me and asked me about my phone, and what brand it was.
"Oh, this is a Nokia phone."
"From Finland, yes? Hmm."
I looked at him and smiled. "Okay, now you have to tell me what's on your mind. This is the second time your attention has been diverted to my phone."
He laughs gingerly. "This is something I have observed here, in the trips we have made. Foreign brands are huge in this country. I mean, you are carrying a foreign phone. So is your dad." We both glanced at my dad's phones on the table - both of them were Nokias. (He was engaged with the other businessmen at the time.)
"It is odd, especially where I come from. I noticed that the biggest cellular brands here are Nokia and Sony Ericsson. You know, in Korea, they are having a hard time selling those brands. The local market dominates the cellular market. We have Samsung and LG, and these brands are all the rage. Whenever a new model comes out, Koreans troop to the stores and they sell out in our own country. If there's one thing I can say, it's that Koreans are fiercely loyal about patronizing the local or national brands."
"Does this hold true for all goods in Korea?"
"Yes! Take appliances and cars. As you know, Samsung and LG also have appliances, and these are the top brands in our country. I have been to several homes, and we all sport the same brands. Even if it isn't these 2, it would still be another Korean brand. Washing machines, microwave ovens, televisions - we love our own brands. When you drive down the road, all you will see are different models of Hyundai and Kia. And in fact, some Hollywood stars are sporting Korean cars. I know, I know, there's probably only a handful - for now. But we're getting the word out."
"Mr. Cheung, you have made an accurate assessment. It is the reason that foreign brands should be loving us. There is a national predisposition to equate anything imported as "better". Whether in clothing, cars, appliances, softdrinks, phones...when we go to the stores, there is a mentality that automatically comes to Pinoys, and that mentality is that "foreign brands are superior, local brands are somehow inferior". It doesn't help that there are very few homegrown brands that we can support at all, two that stick out in my mind right now are Jollibee and Condura. But in terms of global competitiveness, I have yet to see the day when Filipino brands are touted as "world class". We have that label covered in terms of our artists - but not in our goods and products."
He mulls my words, then looks at me with a rather questionable expression.
"That is so sad, honestly. Who else should support a brand the most, than the local populace? Don't people here trust your own manufacturers? Isn't quality control one of the pillars of your industries? If a product is good, it will sell itself, regardless of origin. But people should make an effort to support their own - it is a duty each citizen has, or should have."
"Ah, Mr. Cheung, again, you have hit another nail. People here have observed that when something is "made in the Philippines", it doesn't tend to have a long shelf life. If it's clothing, it gets faded right away, or shrinks after 2 washes. If it's gold, it turns out to be impure, and mixed with other things. Whatever product you can think of, chances are, it's been given more than just "a try", and quality has been lacking. It's a rarity to see a product Filipinos are proud of that is purely home grown."
He shakes his head. "This is wrong. Filipinos should buy Filipino first. Not last."
"Look at the bright side, Mr. Cheung. If your business should push through here, your chances of success are automatically a step up, since you are a foreign brand."
I'm not one of those Filipinos who will sugarcoat things just so we can appear "good" to foreigners. Things suck in this country, and we all know it. We just aren't - excuse the mysogynistic expression - man enough to own up to it, and admit it.
And I'm not saying these things on a whim. These observations are borne out from my own personal experience. I bought a pair of shoes from a very well known local clothing and apparel store, a pair of espadrilles. (Perfect for summer walking.) I haven't used them much, but with each use, I noticed that the soles kept "erasing", as if with every foot strike on the ground, a little piece of its' "soul" (sole) was being fused with the asphalt I walked on. True enough, after 6 months of infrequent use, I couldn't use the pair anymore because they were uneven at the bottom. And this is from a well-known and celebrated local brand! (Clue? They certainly have a lot of money for hiring big-name celebrity endorsers.)
Why are standards not higher for the things we manufacture ourselves? Is this all tied in with out cultural and national psyche? We have all heard of the expressions "bahala na" (let's leave it to chance") and "pwede na yan" (we can accept that). Have we ingrained this thinking so much that this is how it translates in the quality of our work? That because we have this pervading notion that we can get away with it, we automatically stop past a certain level of effort and exertion, because "that's the way things have been done"? And even if autonomous steps can be made for quality control, what about people in government who allow shoddy items to be be allowed for sale in the marketplace?
I ask these questions, not in an effort to make anyone embarrased - well, not the only reason, anyway - but because I have lived for more than three decades and I still don't have any answers to these questions.
Why do we have such low standards for ourselves?
How did we get to this point?
Is our self respect as a nation and as a people ultimately tied to this level of work?
Is this kind of thinking also responsible for why we demand so little of our national and local leaders? Why we settle for anything else, and not the best?
Is poverty the main culprit for all the shortcuts we take in our lives, as a nation?
Why we deface and debase our own country, and have little to no discipline, and have a general disregard for following the law? You see this everyday, people parked in "No Parking" spaces, going against a one-way flow - just the other day, I saw a Makati police car doing exactly that, using the car's siren, when all they needed to do was get to a gas station, and not because they were in some emergency - or people crossing on "No Crossing" signs.
It really begs the question: Are we just embarrassed to be...us?