“Halo halo” was the first Tagalog term I learned, some thirty minutes or so after I stepped off the plane into the heat of Manila two weeks ago. It means, literally, “mix mix”, and is commonly used here to describe a frozen milk dessert with banana, coconut and some garish, unidentified green and purple stuff mixed in. However, I think its an apt term for my first impressions of Manila, and of the Philippines in general so far – a mix, in all kinds of ways, of different cultural influences, lifestyles and people.
Take the language itself – Tagalog is the official language of the Philippines and has its roots in the Malayo-Polynesian languages spoken by early settlers. However, there are a large number of Spanish words in Tagalog, as well as English words, Chinese words and Arabic words. When Filipinos speak Tagalog, they never restrict themselves to the one language and they constantly switch in and out of English, the language of business. To speak just Tagalog, or just English, would be considered too formal, so a mixture of both is considered relaxed and friendly. The same is true of the other native languages of the Philippines, of which there are approximately 165, all spoken in specific regions, and often instead of Tagalog rather than as well as. English is therefore more universally spoken than the official language, although to varying degrees depending on how urban an area is.
The range of languages reveals the range of “distinct” cultural groups that make up the Filipino population. The range of words and phrases within Tagalog meanwhile are a legacy of the Philippine’s long history of colonialism and immigration. The earliest known human remains on the archipelago date to 45,000BC, Malay migrants began to arrive from AD100 and by AD1000 there was an established trade network between the Philippines and Japan, India, Thailand, Cambodia and China, the latter of whom set up numerous trading posts. At this point there was no overarching language, culture or religion that tied together the Philippines, although Islam was spreading rapidly through the islands from settlers in the south. Then the Spanish arrived under the command of the famous explorer Magellan and began converting the islanders to Catholicism. They largely succeeded and where they didn’t the Americans would when they took over the Philippines at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898. The Americans also overhauled the roads, bridges, education system and politics, installing a democracy that lasted until the Japanese invaded during WW2.
Today Filipino culture embraces a heady mix of these influences – American jeeps painted with bright images of manga characters and the Virgin Mary career round the streets of Chinatown, the golden arches of McDonalds compete with Chinese chain Chowking and local competitor Jollibee, and the hip kids follow Korean fashions, listen to classic 80s rock and attend mass on a Sunday. But there are other aspects of this fascinating melange that are more troubling for the observer – not least the massive contrast in this country between the very rich and the very poor. The giant, air-conditioned mega-malls full of every kind of modern gadget that sit next to desperate squats housing people who can barely afford to eat; the high prices of luxury goods held up against the fact that the majority of Filipinos earn less than $2 a day – this is another kind of mix, but just as pervasive here, and like Halo Halo, with a mixture there’s always some bit you don’t like so much (I think the purple stuff mings…)