(Part 2 — Filipino Values in Democratic Exercises)

Pilipino pa rin tayo! Di mawawala sa atin yong utang na loob kahit dito sa Canada (We’re still Filipinos! Debt of gratitude will always be part of who we are).

The statement above suggests that the debt of gratitude remains among Filipinos in Canada. The same claim resonates with a study done with Filipinos in Canada, citing the first-generation immigrants still adhering to the value of utang na loob — a cultural norm regarded as uniquely Filipino (Alama, 2010).

In a Filipino family setting, utang na loob is a familial expectation. Parents provide lifetime support to their children and anticipate them returning respect, love and care – an expectation that may also extend to siblings and kin. While caring for the elderly in a family home (also called filial piety) is a widespread practice in Asia, it aligns with the value of utang na loob –reciprocity of care and gratitude to the love and kindness of parents or adults providing care to children in the family.

In a Filipino community context, utang na loob is an extended social norm or social expectation of giving back gratitude to a person or group supporting the community. It is a social obligation to return the favour or kindness. Often, it translates into gifts and favours; however, sometimes, these are not enough as the expectation of “giving back” denotes a lifetime commitment.

Sadly, the value of utang na loob is exposed openly to control and exploitation. In the Philippines, the “trapos” (a colloquial term to mean “dirty politicians”) exploit the value by giving favours before the election and using persuasive but bogus promises. When someone or family owes a favour from a politician or a community leader running for public office, there is an expectation of support that translates into a vote on the ballot. It is one of the factors that influence decision-making in voting.

There is no hierarchy of Filipino values to show that one is more important than the other. But the truth of the matter is, utang na loob can stand side-by-side with reason, patriotism, or even martyrdom. It plays a significant role in the political franchise.

Among Filipino second generations, the value of utang na loob has been diluted with the Canadian mainstream values of free-thinking, moderation, and tolerance. The gaps and familial conflicts between the first-generation immigrants and the Canadian-born or grown Filipinos centre on differing worldviews, expectations, and values. Younger generations expect their parents or family elders to be more mainstream in perspectives, while the latter expect their children to embrace (almost faithfully) the Filipino values. Misunderstandings within the Filipino households because of conflicting worldviews, in some cases, resulted in breakups and dysfunctional families. Among the community priority agenda of youth representatives at the Filipino leadership in Alberta conference held on November 20 and 21, 2021 in Calgary was the urgent need for intergenerational dialogues.

In a democratic and liberal country like Canada, Filipino family-centrism still plays a role in decision-making on leadership choice in political elections.

An independent group of Filipino professionals called the Pulse Movement conducted a poll survey with the Filipino community in Calgary before the election in 2021. The poll suggested the extent of family and community centeredness and collectivism of many Calgarians of Filipino descent. Of the 300 respondents, about 44% indicated that their family and friends still influence their choices on who should be in the municipal public office. About 33% of the respondents indicated that community-based groups could likewise influence their voting choices. Interestingly, social media only accounted for 11% of the responses. Of particular interest, the social agenda put forward by the majority (74%) of the respondents was the representation of Filipino Canadians in local and national governance.

The discussion of the Filipino version of social reciprocity through utang na loob will always be a relevant ethnic identity and familial topic as long as first-generation Filipinos will continue to immigrate to Canada. As suggested earlier, it is an entrenched value lived by Filipino families and communities and will continue to be an embraced or debated value in Filipino households. It is a value founded on parental and familial compassion and care. It is about reciprocity and collectivism that stand in contrast with the culture of individualism. It is also a social norm that enhances or thickens the community fibre of relationships, akin to the social theorist Robert Putnam’s (2000) criteria on social capital.

Conversely, utang na loob is an ethnic value with layers of vulnerability and malleability. Time and again, it has been taken advantage of in political franchises. It also shows its malleability in the liberalist social milieu, where it is being challenged daily in the dynamics between generations within a Filipino household. For some first-generation Filipino parents and elderly, a realization has started to lurk in, that is, the estrangement of utang na loob and filial piety from among their children.

(To be continued in Part 3).