I first visited the Philippines all the way back in 1999, in the age where travelers only had a Lonely Planet book to guide them. Over the month I was there, I found the country to be incredibly exotic, mysterious, chaotic, puzzling, with jaw-dropping beauty and wonderful people in such stark contrast to the poverty and crumbling city infrastructure. Almost 20 years later, I now live in the Philippines (something I never would have anticipated!), and all of those characteristics still apply. In fact, the Philippines has one of the most complex, colorful, and fascinating cultures in the world, an anthropologist’s dream!
Let me guide you through some of the cultural high points of the country as I’ve found them.
Unlike all of its Southeast Asian neighbors that practice some form of Buddhism or Islam, the Philippines is predominantly a Christian nation. In fact, due to Spanish colonial influence, the country is about 90% Christian and 80% Roman Catholic these days. But in the southern island region called Mindanao, there is a much higher Muslim population. All religions are generally accepted, and Filipinos are tolerant.
When people ask me about living in the Philippines, as opposed to, say, Thailand or Vietnam, I report that there are a lot of pluses, but only several minuses. And one of those is the food. Filipino food, like their culture, is a diverse tapestry of ethnicities, influences from other nations, and even traces of military movements, all mixed in with regional specialties. Common dishes include a stew-like adobo, noodles called pancit, and plenty of grilled meats. In general, I find Filipino food to be oily, greasy, deep fried, and extremely unhealthy (if not a little tasteless). In fact, although you’ll find plenty of fruit outside the cities, vegetables are not a priority or a normal part of Filipino food. But rice is, as you’ll get it with every single meal. Depending on where you are, there might be fresh seafood, curries, and other local dishes. Also, try halo-halo (this crazy mixed ice cream dessert) and balut (semi0fertilized duck embryo right out of the shell!)
Due to the American colonial and military influence since the late 1800s, you’ll find a surprising love for American sports. In fact, Filipinos LOVE basketball and have their own leagues and games going in every single city, town, and village. While basketball is bay far the #1 favorite sport, boxing and volleyball are popular too. But you’ll even find some baseball and football these days, as well as the traditional Asian badminton and soccer, although no cricket. Filipinos absolutely love athletics and have a sporting culture, although much of it is to watch or bet! But you’ll also find that cockfighting is also a huge event throughout the country, with no conscience at all.
Art and music
I’m impressed how artistic and creative Filipinos are, and playing music and singing, visual arts, literature, poetry, theater, and just about every other form of expression is encouraged and respected. In fact, Filipinos sing like ANGELS and there are local bands, karaoke places, or just common people singing as they work or go about their day.
Festivals and holidays
If you took out a calendar and circled every day when there was a holiday, festival, fair, or event, literally every single day would be covered. Filipinos observe all regular Christian and Catholic holidays, but then a huge span of Saints days and other religious holidays, along with Islamic special days, and fairs, festivals, parades, and celebrations from every region, city, and town. It turns into one big party!
Believe it or not, there are 175 languages spoken in the Philippines! However, “only” 171 of those are living languages, which means that someone still speaks them. But the main languages are Filipino and Cebuano, although about 60% of the population and most younger people speak English to some degree.
There are a million other cultural differences in the Philippines. Although it appears like a very Americanized society on face values, there are plenty of subtle social norms. To name just a few, lines at the bank or an office or for public transport are just suggestions, as people cut and shift around endlessly, traffic follows seemingly no rules or regulations, too, and people often seem very shy and traditional on the surface but can be surprisingly modern and progressive at times.
The Philippines is a cultural puzzle –and that’s part of its charm and why I live here!