Well, it has been a few days, so it seems to be time for another installment in my SIR series. What is SIR? If you are asking that, you must have missed my earlier articles! SIR stands for Smooth Interpersonal Relations, and it is the foundation of Philippine Culture. In case you did miss my earlier articles in the series, you should check them out:
For today, we will move on to a new tenet of SIR, Debt of Gratitude. In Bisaya, this is called Utang Kabubut-on. In Tagalog is is known as Utang na loob. Here is how my study materials define this important part of Filipino Culture:
Utang Kabubut-on – “A Debt of Gratitude”
Every Filipino is aware of his sense of duty to those from whom he has received favors. He is compelled to act in a grateful manner to honor what is considered an important obligation. The finest compliment one can pay a Filipino is to say that he totally fulfills his obligations.
I believe that in the Western World, we also hold a value very similar to this. It is just human nature that if somebody does a favor for us, we naturally owe them something in return. I do not mean that we owe money to the person who helped us, but it is natural that when the day comes when our friend needs a favor, or some help that we could offer, we would do that in return to the person, as a sort of “pay back” for the debt, or the appreciation for what was done for us.
In the Philippines it goes a step, or many steps, beyond that, though. Utang na loob is very serious, and must be fulfilled. I have heard of cases in the past where even a small favor that was done years before was held over the head of a person, and the payback was very large. I have also heard from people here that they don’t necessarily like to receive favors, simply because they never know what will be expected in return. Anyway, in the Philippines, and especially in more rural Provincial parts of the Philippines, to owe a debt to somebody is a huge responsibility, and it must be repaid at some point. I am not necessarily talking about a debt of money, even just a favor done, or a kindness can create utang na loob.
In some ways, I wonder, though, if this particular part of the culture is fading. Why? I often see signs that such indebtedness is not taken too seriously, or at least as seriously as it was 15 or 20 years ago. For example, if I give something to a person, often it does not seem to lead toward that person feeling indebted to me, or even to any graciousness from them. In fact, if often leads to requests for more in the future. For example, something that is often given here is load, the credit which can be used for using your cellular phone. They have something here called “Pass a load” in which you can send credit from your phone to somebody else’s phone. Often, if somebody in my extended family has no load, I will send them some load. Frankly, it is never repaid to me, and often I don’t even get a “thank you” for that. Even just giving me something simple in return would feel nice to me. For example, let’s say that I send somebody P50 load, and I do that from time to time for months on end. Would it be too much that they might bake me some cookies, buy me a cup of coffee or just go out of their way to visit me sometime? See, these simple things would feel nice to me. Some people do things like this, but there is also a significant number of people who do nothing in return, but do ask for more when it is needed. Hmm… is there no utang na loob?
Sending P50 worth of load is just a small thing, and if the kindness is not returned, it is frankly not a big deal, right? What about bigger things though? Let’s look at a big example. I have a niece that I will mention here. This niece is in her mid-20’s now. Basically, Feyma and I put her through school, starting from elementary school all the way through one of the better high schools in Davao City. After high school, we sent her to the best college in Davao for two years. After two years, she did some things that caused her to loose her free ride. Even though I offered her some options that would allow her to return to the University and complete her education, she elected not to do so. Now, after sending her to good schools for more than ten years, wouldn’t you expect that she would feel some debt to Feyma and I? I would. However, the only time I ever hear from this girl is if I contact her. In all of the years that we supported her, I never heard the words “thank you” come from her mouth, nor did I even see actions from her that would indicate that she felt any kind of thanks for what had been done for her. In fact, many of her actions toward Feyma and I were quite hostile.
This experience, and similar experiences with people here that I have helped make me wonder if utang na loob is considered applicable toward foreigners, or only to Filipinos? I ask that question very seriously, because in the vast majority of cases where I have helped people there is no indication that the help is even appreciated. I like helping people, but it does leave me feeling sad when such help seems to be taken for granted, or not appreciated.
What do you think about utang na loob? Is it a cultural tenet that is fading? Does it apply toward foreigners? Does the person who offers help have to “call in the check” before appreciation is given? Leave a comment and give me your thoughts, I would truly apreciate that.