Pacquiao ‘insult’ a cultural misunderstanding

Kristine Sydney
 Pacquiao ‘insult’ a cultural misunderstanding
'Daniel Orton says Pacquiao's flirtation with professional basketball is a joke. This kind of honesty is not only American entertainment but also a virtue.'

When I read about how Daniel Orton was fired from a professional Philippine basketball team for insulting Manny Pacquiao, I rolled my eyes. There’s a whole lot of vitriol for something that’s right out of the TV show Mind Your English: same English language, different accents and definitions.

Many people (Filipinos included) might think that Pacquiao’s flirtation with professional basketball is, in his words, a “joke,” and netizens, who can enjoy some anonymity with a Twitter handle or a pseudonym, have commented on Pacquiao’s playing. But Orton became a persona non grata overnight for actually saying it in public.

I feel bad for Daniel Orton, who might not have received a lesson in hiya before he made the comment about Pacquiao’s basketball career. In the USA, it’s fine to make fun of Michael Jordan for trying baseball and morning radio sports commentators will pick apart even Tom Brady the morning after the Super Bowl. This kind of honesty is not only American entertainment but also a virtue. But in the Philippines, commenting on Pacquiao is not only a cultural taboo but also (inter)national news.

Brutal truth

“Brutal honesty” is not part of the Philippines’ lexicon, but I wish it were sometimes. I can think of one public official who says it as she sees it, and Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago’s brand of honesty is so rare that it is legendary.

Hiya, which translates loosely to “shame” but more accurately to “saving face,” informs much of the Philippines’ interpersonal relationships.

Hiya is the reason it’s polite to say “maybe,” instead of a straight-up “no,” if someone asks if you’re attending her party. A Filipino will not openly disagree with you to protect your sense of hiya. “Walang hiya” (“without shame”), one of the most damning things a Filipino can say about another, means that you have no sense of propriety. You have no sense of esteem.

“This office disapproves of and frowns upon the cavalier manner in which Mr Orton issued his comments and the unwarranted antics and liberties he has taken with the league and a fellow player,” PBA commissioner Chito Salud said. “This insulting behavior will never be condoned by the league.”

Though I have lived in the US for 20 years now, I think about hiya often. When I teach Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” every September, I think about how his assertion that one should “[s]peak what you think today in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today” would not resonate with the Philippines’ culture of hiya.

Orton was just doing what one does here in the States: he said what’s on his mind. It’s a kind of candor that initially shocked me when I arrived here in 1994 but that I now find refreshing, even dynamic. It is necessary. Orton might have misunderstood that, despite (American) English being widely used in the Philippines, the Philippines is still distinctly Filipino. I, too, have made cultural missteps, in the Philippines and the United States.

Everyone screws up once in a while, even when she’s home.

I’m not in the Philippines, so I don’t know how Filipinos have reacted to this “slight.” But from my vantage point, what I see is a lost-in-translation moment that could have been resolved with an adobo dinner, a karaoke machine, and maybe a book on Philippine norms.

I’ve read both the Philippines’ and USA’s sports network versions, and my sense of the story is the same: Orton said something critical and the truth stung. Those who are upset say that he insulted Pacquiao.

Fine. He was rude. But does it justify firing him and fining him almost $6,000? I’m frankly baffled by the drama.

Even sports official Rene Pardo’s comparison of Pacquiao to Dr Martin Luther King Jr was gross hyperbole.  Everyone is angry at him. It is like he went to the United States and insulted the name of Martin Luther King, the ABS-CBN news website quoted Pardo as saying.

Maybe he doesn’t know who Martin Luther King really is or, maybe, it’s because Martin Luther King is black and so is Orton and maybe that was the connection?  (When President Obama visited the Philippines, the local band played The Beverly Hills Cop theme song when he walked down the red carpet… because Obama and Eddie Murphy are black?)

Or maybe he was livid that anyone – particularly an American – dared insult Pacquiao, who is a celebrity, a congressman, and the country’s pride and joy. 

Perhaps it’s embarrassing on the basketball court, but it’s nowhere close to being in the same universe as Dr Martin Luther King to justify Pardo’s simile. But then again, he might have just meant that Pacquiao is the Philippines’ hero, just as King is the USA’s. Like Orton, maybe (and that’s my using the Filipino “maybe”), he didn’t know better.

Whatever went down behind those closed PBA doors, it’s disappointing for me to think about what a wasted opportunity it was, this lost east vs west lesson in basketball, language, and empathy.

We could have learned something about ourselves from having a mirror reflected back on us. –  

Kristine Sydney is a private high school English teacher in the United States, where she has lived for 20 years. Born in the Philippines and raised in Saudi Arabia, she attended boarding school and college in the US, where she practiced her Tagalog by reading Liwayway. She writes about immigration, Air Supply adoration, and her intercultural relationship on her blog Follow her on Twitter @kosheradobo.

Editors’ note: An earlier version of this piece originally appeared on Kristine’s website.


Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.