Our remarkable neighbor

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Friday, July 4, 2014


ONE evening, I was watching CNN and an investment commercial came on. A white man in a business suit was in a taxi cab, which was on a traffic-filled street with cars that looked remarkably like the ones we see on our streets every day. Then the taxi driver turned to him to hand him a newspaper. The driver looked Filipino, so I thought to myself, “Oh, a commercial about the Philippines on an Asia-wide channel, this ought to be good.”

The words “sustainable GDP growth” flashed on screen. “True, our GDP is currently rising.” I thought. The scene then shifted to the same white man, now dressed in a casual collared shirt and pants, attending what looked like a fiesta where people were apparently playing palo sebo. “Oh this is definitely about the Philippines.” I thought. The words “maturing democracy” then flashed on screen. This was also true about our country.
The scene changed to a barbershop, where two Filipino-looking old men were playing chess with that distinctive wooden chess set that everyone’s grandfather seemed to own. The words “politically stable” flashed on screen. I went “Well, if you can call a Communist-Muslim insurgency politically stable, well…”

And then more typically Filipino scenes flashed, including a nighttime carnival like the ones we have during large fiestas like the Masskara, barbecue on a stick, and scenes of the white man from before talking to brown-skinned Austronesians… and then the words “Invest in Remarkable Indonesia” lit up the screen.

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This was intriguing. I actually thought I was watching an investment commercial about our own country. The cultural similarities were uncanny. That made me think – how similar are we to the Indonesians? It turns out, extremely similar. According to what I’ve read, travelling to Indonesia would be like going to just another Philippine province.

Like the Philippines, Indonesia has been host to numerous conquerors during its history. While we were under the Spanish, the Indonesians were under their sworn enemies the Portuguese and later the Dutch. The Moluccas Islands, the fabled “spice islands” that Magellan was searching for, are actually a part of Indonesia. Our independence days are about a year apart – with us having gained our freedom on July 4, 1946 from the United States, and with the Indonesians gaining independence from the same occupiers on August 17, 1945.

In the Philippines, the ruling elite are considered to be the mestizos and the Chinese. In Indonesia, it’s the Catholics (surprisingly) and the Chinese. The Indonesian Marcos (General Suharto) ruled at about the same time as the dictator and, just like Marcos, was responsible for killing lots of people.

Culturally, we have several similarities as well. The Indonesian society places a lot of importance on family, just as we do in the Philippines. They also eat with their hands like us, and don’t usually open gifts until after the giver has gone away.

Even our games are similar – I’ve already mentioned that the Indonesians play palo sebo. They also happen to play congkak, which is the exact same thing as the Philippine “sungka” which is played using a bunch of pebbles and a wooden board with ditches in it.

The languages Bahasa Indonesia and Filipino are also very close to each other. The words lumpat, sunog, sakit and many more have the same meaning in both languages.

And finally, our cuisines can be compared like two cousins. The Indonesians have puto (nasi timbel), kropek (krupuk), sate babi (which they invented), pancit (pangsit), and sometimes kerbau beef (carabao beef to us). We also share the tradition of eating with a spoon and fork.

So if you ever want to visit a country that won’t feel too alien to you, you might want to try Indonesia.

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on July 04, 2014.

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