To the American who wrote Filipinos a love letter

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(American expatriate David H. Harwell’s moving piece “Love letter to Filipinos” was published in the Inquirer on Feb. 17. This is a response.)

Dear Mr. Harwell,

Thank you for your letter, for insights that remind us why, despite all its problems, the Philippines has many things to offer the world.

You’re also critical of your homeland, the United States. In a way, I understand. I’ve lived in the US for nearly a quarter of a century. I’ve caught glimpses of the cold, heartless America you talked about.

But you also said, “In America, our hands are full, but our hearts are empty.”

That’s a stunning image. I must say, though, that I myself encountered a different America.

You spoke of people who fell into what you called the American Trap, who chose to “live only to work, and work only to buy more things that we don’t need.”

But not all Americans live that way.

To be sure, many are struggling now. Like Filipinos in the Philippines, they do so for their children. For there’s talk now of “Generation Screwed,” of young Americans in their 20s and 30s for whom the future is bleak, who may end up being the first generation to have less prosperous lives than the ones their parents enjoyed.

As the father of two young boys, I worry about that. But many things about the United States give me hope.

Maybe it’s because I live in the Bay Area, where people tend to be hopeful and open-minded. I wouldn’t even use the word “tolerant.” To “tolerate” suggests being told, “Okay, you’re a strange, even offensive, bunch, but I guess we’ll just have to live with you.”

In the Bay Area, the approach is more of to “engage,” to say, “Oh, you’re from the Philippines. So what’s life like where you’re from, and what of your country might we be able to use and learn from?” People here seem always eager to know what they learn from people from other lands.

Some dismiss that as “political correctness,” but that culture of engaged openness is a key reason my wife and I have enjoyed living here.

Actually, that culture even speaks to the good news that your letter underscored. Many Americans are not arrogant, clueless and narrow-minded as many believe. Many of them are like you: eager to learn from other peoples of the world. And as you explained in your letter, there is much to learn from the Philippines. On the other hand, there clearly are so many lessons the Philippines can learn from the American story.

I’m sharing this with you because I worry about sweeping portrayals of either the Philippines or the United States, of Filipinos and of Americans, or of any other group or country.

Many Filipinos now live outside the Philippines. Most of them, roughly four million, are in the United States. Most of them still love the Philippines, and hope to see the country succeed and prosper. But they also consider the United States home.

You painted a glowing, life-affirming portrait of our homeland. But I worry that, particularly for the young Filipino-Americans, who may not know much of the Philippines, but also want to be connected to the country of their parents, the picture you presented is incomplete.

This week, the Philippines will again celebrate the People Power Revolt that ended a dictatorship in 1986. Many of us took part in that historic uprising. And it was heartening for me to know, after I moved to the US, that many Americans helped wage that fight.

Eventually, I realized why that was so. For fighting for justice has been part of the American story. I must tell you how moved and inspired I’ve been by the Civil Rights struggles in this country in the 1960s.

Young Filipinos, in the Philippines and in the United States, can learn so much from those struggles. And I know many young Filipino-Americans want to know more about the Philippines.

Right now, many of them on college campuses across California and the entire US are preparing for an annual Filipino Spring ritual unique to the US. They call it PCN, Pilipino Cultural Night, when thousands of young FilAms hold a night of music and poetry and plays celebrating their Filipino-ness.

Some of them even take their commitment beyond those shows, travelling to the Philippines to work on social and political campaigns.

They can learn so much from the Philippines. But they also can also learn so much from the story of America, with its complex, painful, but sometimes also inspiring story.

Please don’t view this response as a rejection of your heartwarming insights into my homeland.

Instead, I hope you see this as an affirmation of the strengths and even beauty of yours.

This is, in many ways, my attempt to build on what you said.

For I really believe, Mr. Harwell, that there are many lessons and stories, powerful and uplifting, that we can find and celebrate both in the Philippines and in the United States.

Maraming salamat po.

On Twitter @boyingpimentel. On Facebook at www.facebook.com/boyingpimentel

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  • charlie_oscar

    There is a difference between admiration and subjugation!  This Expat is simply an “apple polisher” and as an American who has worked amongst Germans, Filipinos, Pakistanis, Australians and another 20 Nationalities in-between…I sadly see the Americans are more willing to trash their own country – while abroad amongst others…In some despertate way to seek approval!  Example – A German might complain to other Germans…but they will not bash their nation to an American. Many Americans will bash America to anyone who will listen.

  • NaUnsa

    The future is in Asia now because the USD is dying, and it will eventually collapse due endless printing of fiat money.

    • BIGButo

      Oh we’ll no big deal

  • jseesus

    buti nga sa iyo yan benjamin pimentel, an american lapdog… nakarating ka lang sa tate akala mo sino ka na, kung di ko lang alam isa ka rin diyan sa bay area na trying hard maging amerikano pero wala naman sa pagmumukha. mukhang “boy” pa rin kahit anong gawin mo third class citizen ka pa rin dyan sa tate….

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/BXPFY2NP3KNS6XLFTXA47GIKMQ Rodolfo

       Tsk.. tsk… tsk… typical Filipino mentality ! walang pagbabago . naiinggit ka lang sino pa ba ang sisira sa kapwa pnoy kundi pnoy din ? nakakahiya ka pare ko !

    • Dhagun

      Ikaw, boy, ano ka? hanggang sa panaginip ka lang cguro pwedeng mkapasok sa tate kaya sa mga gaya nya ang pinag-iinitan mo ano? 

  • FitzIan

    “And I know many young Filipino-Americans want to know more about the Philippines” – hindi cguro, ni hindi nga marunong magtagalog ang karamihan sa mga yan, at may kayabangan din kung nagbabakasyon/bumibisita sa pinas.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/NJ542RXECN2ASM6EED6DHVWJUA Yucca

    only a fil-am would react like that to the american teacher. i am filipino but i tend to agree more with what the teacher has said, especially with regard to attachment to families. my sister, who’s married to an american, stopped sending us money because her american husband said so. as to acquiring things on credit, i’ve read somewhere that some banks in europe did ask for government support because their investments in american banks turned sour. this indicates that many americans are using their credit lines too much but are paying the banks less or even declaring themselves insolvent.

  • plarpneda

    I think we should just go back to the original “love letter” and take it face value.  Having lived in the US longer than in the Philippines, I can see where Mr. Harwell is coming from when he wrote what he wrote.  Of course like everything else there’s always an exception.  He was generalizing in his descriptions and that’s OK, after all he didn’t write about a single individual.  While it might be true that his own culture appeared more on the negative on ink, if you really look at it, his thoughtfulness and contemplativeness and his courage to speak from his heart is the hallmark of his “American-ness” that is admirable–and that he doesn’t have to talk about.  For those of us who think that he’s only trying to get attention by saying something nice, let’s be gracious.  Typical Americans are direct and are not used to sugar coating things–they’ll tell you to your face if you suck.  So, if they complement you, just say, “thank you.”

  • http://www.bardiness.com/ Bar

    Whilst I found Harwell’s “love letter” astonishingly patronising, I find this reply by Pimental cringeworthy. Harwell is enraptured by the simplistic friendly nature and family nucleus of the Filipino, and laments the lack of such qualities in his homeland of the USA. 

    He waxes lyrical about “the international reputation” of Filipino employees, who “work hard, don’t complain, and are very capable.” He is under the illusion that if all Filipinos made a mass exodus from the Middle East, then “the world would stop” that “oil would not leave the ground, nor be loaded onto the ships and the ships will not sail.” He goes further, suggesting that “the schools will have no teachers, and the hospitals no staff.”

    And on and on he goes, bemoaning how Filipinos are mistreated and misunderstood, exploited, breaking their backs to send money back to their families, and at the same time decrying his own country, implying that Americans are suffering too in their own materialistic way, and that most of their belongings are built on credit. “You must realise this” he implies “those Filipinos in America are suffering to, but they are sacrificing for the ones they have left behind”. 

    “We live only to work” he says “and we work only to buy more things that we don’t need. We lose our lives in the process.”

    Yes, Mr Harwell is the life and soul of the party. “In America, our hands are full, but our hearts are empty”. My heart bleeds for him. 

    Nevertheless, his “letter” was nothing more than a grossly sentimental, patronising self-indulgent diatribe of self pity masquerading as a lecture in condescension – “Do not envy us, because we should learn something from you…when your hands are empty, your hearts remain full.” 

    Meanwhile Benjamin Pimentel replies with unrestrained sycophantic tribute, and in the process has rewritten the history books. “It was heartening for me to know, after I moved to the US, that many Americans helped wage that fight” he says – referring to the People Power Revolt of 1986. 

    Well, that’s news – my recollection was that Marcos’s position was untenable and a US helicopter swept him up and away. The last thing the US would have wanted was a change which impacted on her strategic bases, and it was only when they realised that it wouldn’t be expedient to support him that they capitulated.

    Whilst Pimentel has a misguided interpretation of history, Harwell is simply misguided.

    • BIGButo

      This Harwell is nuts

  • atila_1212

    To Benjamin Pimentel who commented To The American Who Wrote Filipinos A Love Letter: You’re english was excellent but if you cant say anything good… just SHUT UP and keep your opinion to yourself. There are millions of Filipinos who need to read the inspiring LOVE LETTER than to take a glimpse of your “Colonial Mentality” opinion trying hard to capture a piece of publicity.

  • atila_1212

    To Bar de Ness and Benjamin Pimentel… both comments i found came from both intellectuals who tried too much to capture their share of publicity from the American who wrote the piece of love letter. Both comments were just a regular case of “Colonial Mentality” and conventional opinion of people who still living and flatterred in the so called American Dream. Open your eyes gentlemen and think outside the box. Do your opinion represents the experience of the majority? Think before you speak.

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