02 December 2006

Split-Level Americanization: A Case Study of McDonaldized Philippines

If there is a place on earth that seems more American than the United States of America, that place is the Philippines.

A typical American city does not have a McDonalds on every street corner. There is a McDonalds or similar American fast-food outlet on every street corner in Metro Manila.

A typical American businessman wears a suit (or more likely, a sports jacket or even a blazer) to work and takes off the jacket when the room becomes too warm. A typical Filipino businessman wears a real suit to work (or even to parties) and never takes off the jacket even if the temperature in Manila ranges from 25°C to 28°C. In fact, a jacket is called by Filipinos an americana.

There are four national newspapers in the United States (Los Angeles Times, New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal). In the Philippines, there are nine national newspapers in English (Business Mirror, Business World, Daily Tribune, Malaya, Manila Bulletin, Manila Standard, Manila Times, Philippine Daily Inquirer, and Philippine Star).

A typical American buys 17 movies on DVD a year (as of 2004, according to USA Today). A typical Filipino probably buys 17 American movies on DVD a month. (Of course, DVDs in the Philippines are very much cheaper because they are pirated.)

The Philippines is the only country in its region with an American-type presidential form of government featuring a strong president. In fact, it has a stronger president than even George W. Bush. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo controls everything in the Philippines. According to the latest surveys, at least half of all Filipinos still residing in the Philippines say that she personally controls even the corruption (the Philippines is the 98th least corrupt nation on earth), but that impression is most likely only successful propaganda mounted against her by her political enemies. Coincidentally, in the last American elections, according to surveys conducted by CNN, corruption was the Number One issue against Bush.

The United States as a whole has not legislated English as its official language. English is one of only two official languages of the Philippines. In fact, Filipinos claim that the Philippines is the third largest English-speaking country in the world, next only to India and the United States.

On the surface, it looks like the neo-colonization or Macdonaldization of the Philippines is complete, at least in terms of food, fashion, media, government, and language.

But this is only all on the surface. Beneath the surface, in what cultural critics could call a deconstructive anti-hegemonic movement or, in older language, anticolonial subversion, there is no place as unlike the United States as the Philippines.

For example, in general, Americans obey the law, from the simplest traffic laws to their Constitution. In contrast, in general, Filipinos ignore all traffic laws and whoever is the Philippine President routinely issues executive orders that blatantly violate the Philippine Constitution.

In general, Americans go to school. In general, Filipinos do not go to school. Let me qualify that. More than 85% of Americans finish high school. Practically every Filipino enters the first grade of school, but only 62% finish elementary school, only 23% finish high school, and only 14% finish a four-year college course.

In general, both Americans and Filipinos speak English. It is true that 65% of Filipinos claim to speak English as a second language (the primary languages being Tagalog for 22M and Cebuano for 18.5M, among 171 living Philippine languages spoken by the 85-plus million Filipinos), but the English that they speak, which historically they learned from American teachers at the turn of the 20th century, is Philippine English, a variety of English that belongs, according to the usual linguistic classification, to the Outer Circle of English-speaking countries. Documented only partially by dictionaries such as the Anvil-Macquarie Dictionary of Philippine English for High School (2000), Philippine English is almost another language, almost unintelligible to speakers of American English. The second largest English-speaking country in the world, Australia, in fact, has deemed it fit to classify the Philippines as a “non-English-speaking country.” Note this classification from the government website of New South Wales: “The top five countries of birth in NSW (non-English speaking country) are: China, Vietnam, Italy, Lebanon and the Philippines (2001 ABS Census data).”

These anecdotal but purposive facts are meant only to introduce my thesis, which is that Americanization in the Philippines is split-level. I take the phrase “split-level” from a 1967 paper by Jaime Bulatao on “Split-Level Christianity,” in which he shows that the Christian religion is only skin-deep in the Philippines. The Philippines, by the way, is also unique among Pacific nations when it comes to religion, since it is one of only two countries – the other one being East Timor – whose population is overwhelmingly Christian, at least in name.

As far as definition of terms is concerned, my use of the term “split-level” is different from its use by Laurence A. Rickels to describe the kind of group psychology applicable to California (http://www.hydra.umn.edu/twd/cat1.html), which is the state with the biggest portion of the 2M Filipino population of the United States. As far as I know, no one has used the term “split-level” in discourses on cultural imperialism, American or otherwise.

American cultural imperialism may be very much alive and well in other countries, but in the Philippines, it is not what it is reputed to be. I do not mean to generalize from the case study that is the Philippines, not only because the Philippines is indeed unique in many ways nor only because I am definitely not an expert on any other country except my own. What I merely want to do is to use the Philippines today as the exceptional case study that might prove the rule.

In order to have a focus, I will speak primarily of media – print, film, and television. Since the pervasiveness of media in today’s global culture is a given, media might be a good way to enter the split-level world of American cultural imperialism in the Philippines. In addition, media is a hot topic in Philippine academic circles. Just last week, for example, on 18 November, the American Studies Association of the Philippines devoted its annual general assembly to the topic of “Philippine and American Media: Critical Interaction and Transformation,” with a concept paper that started this way:

In the present era of globalization, it is undeniable that Philippine media has been and continues to be influenced by foreign media. We get our foreign news from satellite feeds from CNN and BBC. Many of the shows aired on local free TV are canned shows from American networks or Pinoy [Filipino] adaptations of some foreign shows. These shows, such as Amazing Race, Fear Factor, American Idol, MTV, or even dubbed Korean telenovelas have become the nightly fare of many Filipino families. American influences on our media and consequently its influence on our culture are here to stay.

This conference aims to present a critical view of the dynamics of Philippine and American media and culture. How has our media and culture been affected by the dominance of American culture throughout the world? How do we adapt to this? As American influences transform our culture, how do we view the interrelation between Philippine and American media and culture critically?

Will we simply follow the way set out by American television, music, food, clothes and films? Is there a way to resist? Must we resist? How?

If you check into an upscale hotel anywhere in the Philippines, when you wake up, you will be given a daily newspaper. That daily newspaper will be in English. This will give you the impression that Philippine print media is in English. That is a wrong impression. In reality, the circulation of the biggest English-language daily newspaper is less than 250,000 a day. (I know that the figure looks silly compared to that of Yomiuri Shimbun with its 14.5M copies a day, but indulge Filipino publishers a bit.) The circulation of the most popular daily newspaper in Filipino is over 450,000 a day. The total circulation of all English-language newspapers is only 1.5M copies a day. The total circulation of all Filipino-language newspapers is over 3.5M a day (Abante, Abante Tonite, Bulgar, People’s Journal, People’s Journal Tonight, and People’s Taliba).

If you go to a shopping mall in Metro Manila, or in fact, anywhere in the Philippines, you will most likely see a number of movie screens (“screens” is usually used rather than “theater”) showing American films. If you were to go only by the number of billboards or posters advertising American movies, you would think that Filipinos watch a lot of American movies. What you should do, however, is to enter the moviehouse to see how many people are actually inside. You might be amazed to find out that a lot more moviegoers see a movie in Filipino per day, than watch an American movie. Because movie attendance records are kept secret by distributors and exhibitors for fear of the right taxes being imposed on them, I do not have hard data about this impression. It can, however, be easily verified by merely entering a moviehouse showing an American movie in Metro Manila.

If you have cable television in the Philippines, you can catch not only CCN but also Fox, CBS, and just about every network Americans watch in their own bedrooms. But the television ratings do not lie. Programs in Filipino have an almost total market share of the viewing public. In fact, foreign television series and movies are dubbed into Filipino in order to be shown on free or non-cable stations.

It is not just the language that is not American in Philippine media, but the content. The New York Times will fire a reporter who manufactures data or copies from other sources. Philippine daily newspapers sometimes, though not often, print unverified news or rumors, with the intention of printing an erratum or even an apology the next day in case the report turns out not to be true. “Print first, deny later” is a popular practice of some, perhaps many, Philippine newspapers.

Philippine movies may look like derivatives of American movies, with a proliferation of fantastic characters and plagiarized storylines, but if we look closely at the structure of the movies, they do not follow the Hollywood three-act structure as promulgated and popularized by Syd Field. The mindset of the Philippine audience is not a carbon copy of that of the American audience, but is qualitatively different. For example, the Philippine plagiarized version of Wonder Woman, named Darna, adds a distinctly Filipino characterization of Narda, the woman who turns into a superwoman. Narda typifies the ordinary Filipino, in contrast to the atypical character of the woman behind Wonder Woman. I am not the first scholar to say this, but it is worth saying again: Filipino superheroes are qualitatively different from American superheroes because the former relies on forces outside her or him (such as a magic stone or clever relatives), unlike the latter, who generally have the powers bestowed upon them either by virtue of birth (such as Superman) or by wealth (such as Batman).

Television news in the Philippines is nothing at all like American television news. There is no such thing as television news in the Philippines in the American sense. All Philippine television news is either advertising for products or entertaining for ratings or both. For example, 24 Oras, Saksi, and TV Patrol, the three highest-rated television news shows, focus not on news that the public has to know, but on insignificant news that looks good on the screen because it is either sexy or violent or both.

Speaking of ratings, among cable viewers, that is, those with access to American shows, the highest rating shows are Filipino free channel game shows using only a little English and having little American content. The audience that comes out of the economic A and B classes comprise less than three percent of the television market, and media being an industry more than a public service, media networks have deemed it wise simply to ignore the rich and to target the poor.

The ratings, in fact, paint a portrait of the Filipino television viewer as interested only in shows either originally or dubbed in vernacular languages. Examples of highly-rated shows (figures as of 23 October 2006) are Eat Bulaga (24.8%) and Wowowee (19.4%) on the same time slot, together eating up 44.7% of the viewing public. 24 Oras (29.6%) and TV Patrol (26.2%) on the same time slot take up an even larger 55.8%. Primetime shows show the same pattern: Captain Barbell (34.5%) with Deal or No Deal (31.6%), Atlantika (30%) with Super Inggo (29%), and Bakekang (31%) with Maging Sino Ka Man (25.2%). Clearly, American shows are non-existent and uninteresting as far as the majority of Filipino viewers are concerned.

If in reality the language used in media is not English and Filipinos overwhelmingly prefer their news and entertainment in their own languages and if in reality the content of the media is significantly different, why is there an appearance of Americanization in Philippine media?

The phenomenon of split-level cultural imperialism cannot be fully understood if we stick only to the Raymond Williams model of residual-dominant-emergent culture. To think of something Filipino as residual, of American or Western culture as dominant, and perhaps deliberately subversive sub- or anti-culture as emergent glosses over the lack of clear distinctions between types of culture in the country. Someone driving a Japanese car with the CD player or iPod blasting out a pirated American song may strike European critics as postmodern, but if we look at old Philippine houses, we will realize that eclecticism is the rule rather than the exception in Philippine culture. Even the typical modern building in the business center of Makati City is based on the Asian model of a house on stilts, with the ground floor being used merely as a holding area for visitors. The cell phone is a way not to accelerate communication, but to spread tsismis (a blend of gossip and censored news), the main preoccupation of Filipinos of whatever social standing.

Nor can Americanization be understood fully within postcolonial theory, since the Philippines is twice-removed from the Empire, the United States being itself a postcolonial country. I like to call the Philippines the Other Other, since it hardly ever appears in discussions of postcoloniality. If I may be forgiven for quoting myself, in a paragraph that I have used repeatedly in various international conferences, I like to think that, although contemporary Filipino theorists presumably work in decolonized space, Philippine culture is still heavily undertheorized. At first glance, this undertheorization appears due either to the decentering of critical theory within the Philippine academic community or to the marginalization of cultural orientalism within Anglo-American academic discourse. Upon closer examination, however, this undertheorization may be shown to stem from the internalization of a hegemonic universalization of culturally imperialistic, pre- or anti- theoretical, quasi-formalistic, mechanically reflectionist, white patriarchy. The abstract nature of that paragraph can be grasped more easily if we turn to its objective correlative – boxer Manny Pacquiao beating up a Mexican, since the Philippines was ruled by Spain through Mexico for three hundred years. It is no coincidence that Pacquiao is known as “The National Fist,” since the closed fist is the accepted symbol of the New People’s Army, the communist armed force that has been waging war against the Philippine government for decades, as well as the symbol of the successful civilian-backed coup d’etat against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

Nor can the phenomenon of split-level Americanization be understood fully even with the familiar indigenization-subversion duality. Falling into an essentialist trap is too difficult to avoid for those insisting on a nativist past reacting to or against a foreign invader. In certain areas of culture, notably food, there is clear evidence that no foreign food gets cooked exactly the same way that it is cooked in its country of origin (in the Philippines, spaghetti is sweet, paella is full of ingredients other than rice, Chinese noodles have no relationship to their Chinese ancestors; even McDonald’s serves rice and very salty hamburgers). Gemino Abad and other critics have even claimed that Filipinos have colonized the English language. Clodualdo del Mundo Jr. says the same of film, calling the phenomenon “native resistance.” But in general, it is impossible to say what has been indigenized, whether deliberately or by inertia, and what is being subverted, whether because of ideology in the vulgar Marxist sense or ideology in the way Marx understood the term.

To understand split-level Americanization, let us use the concept of counterhegemonic struggle. I borrow the term from Antonio Gramsci, but the concept from Jose Rizal, the nineteenth-century writer who first realized that intellectuals from the ruling class were actually brainwashing the oppressed masses with scholarship that appeared to be reality-based but was actually only ideological propaganda. Ideology (in the Marxist sense) or hegemony or, as I call it in my own language, gahum is the reason we find split-leveling in the Americanization of the Philippines.

In particular, let me cite the issue of language. On paper, the official policy of the Philippine Constitution is that Filipino is the primary language of instruction in all classrooms at all levels. The traditional policy of the Department of Education, enacted before the present Constitution, is that both English and Filipino are the languages of instruction in public school classrooms. Arroyo has issued an executive order forcing public school teachers to use English as the primary language of instruction (thus violating the Constitution); until the Supreme Court slaps Arroyo on the wrist, as it has done a number of times to date, the Department of Education has no choice but to implement such an order.

In reality, however, despite the Constitution, the presidential order, and the Department orders, there is only one language of instruction in practically all classrooms in the country. It is Taglish, a non-language that is variously labeled as code-switching, pidgin, or a lingua franca, featuring a still-unsystematized mixture of Tagalog, English, and vernacular languages of various regions. The government’s own language body, the Commission on Philippine Languages, defines the official language Filipino as whatever language is spoken in the urban centers, especially Metro Manila (in the North), Metro Cebu (in the middle of the archipelago), and Metro Davao (in the South). Since there is no scientific documentation of Taglish, we can rely only on broad impression – the language or non-language spoken in the three urban centers is Taglish, and since this language is defined as Filipino, Filipino is really Taglish. The few academic sources on Filipino, such as the Filipino dictionary (UP Diksiyonaryong Filipino, 2001) prepared by the University of the Philippines (the first of only four Philippine universities listed in the latest world university rankings), strengthen the impression that Filipino is really Taglish.

Why is language so crucial in any study of media and culture? The answer should be obvious. Print media uses language extensively, and the periodicals in Filipino are outstripping the periodicals in English in circulation more than 2 to 1, yet the false impression remains that English is the language of print media. Television uses language also extensively, though less obviously than print; television programs in English are invisible in terms of ratings, yet the false impression remains that English is the language of television. Film as a whole has declined in theater attendance, due not only to the rising poverty in the country but also to the declining attractiveness of movie theaters worldwide, but Filipino has been and remains the language of all Philippine films. The gap between fact and impression contributes to the split-leveling of Americanization.

In 1946, the Filipino-American writer and dissident Carlos Bulosan published a novel entitled America is in the Heart. America today is not in the heart, if it ever was. It is in the cataract, in the blurred vision that keeps the rich and the influential from seeing what and who they really are.

The wartime Japanese Co-prosperity Sphere seems outrageously a bad idea on hindsight, particularly in an American base such as Okinawa, but most Filipino intellectuals thought it a very good idea in the late thirties and early forties of the last century. Most Filipino intellectuals and practically everybody that had any money or property collaborated with the Japanese invaders during the Pacific War. Then, as now, it was the masses of the Filipino people that saw through the propaganda of the rich and the powerful and actively resisted the onslaught of foreign culture. It was the poor and the powerless that took up the call of patriotism and ran the nationwide guerrilla movement that forced the Japanese military to overlook obvious signs of the American recovery from early defeat.

The Philippines today may look foreign even to some Filipinos, but beneath the surface and behind the Western walls, the country remains as inscrutable to foreigners, as exotic if you like, as pure, and as Filipino as it was when the first Filipinos, back in the first century before the Christian era, carved out from the northern mountainside a series of engineering marvels known as the rice terraces, the only ancient wonder of the world that up to today serves its original purpose, which was to give food and pride to a population that was much more advanced in technology and certainly very much more civilized than its future colonizers.

At the end of the day, in what might very well be true also of other postcolonial nations in the Asia-Pacific region, what we are witnessing in the Philippine case is a people – or if you wish an imagined community – constantly and unceasingly reimagining itself through the medium of media, reasserting its identity in the face of both the homogenizing power of external or global forces and the collaborating hegemony of internal or selfish elites, and redefining the nation on its own terms and in its own time.

(Paper read at the International Conference on the United States and the Pacific Islands: Culture, Science, Politics, held in Okinawa, Japan, on 25-26 November 2006)