Being a Filipino abroad in the time of Duterte
"Why is your president killing people? Why did he say this or that? How big of a problem is drugs in your country? Is it safe to go to the Philippines?"
These are questions I've memorized the answers to whenever I go out of the country after President Rodrigo Duterte was elected in May 2016. From friends in the academe and the development sector to cab drivers and waiters, all of them are curious about our tough-talking president. (READ: The many firsts of president-elect Duterte)
Whenever I go out of the country, I see myself as an ambassador of the Philippines. As much as I am learning about another culture through food and historic sites when I visit another country, it is also my job to act in a way that will not bring shame to my own country. For foreigners – some of whom are meeting a Filipino for the first time – my actions reflect what the Philippines is like. (READ: The anguish of the Fil-Am in the age of Digong Duterte)
But when the questions about extrajudicial killings (EJKs), Duterte's swear words, and his tirades against the West come, I must admit that I sometimes don't know how to answer. As a journalist, I know the facts and I know the truth on the ground. But at the same time, I know telling them what I know would paint the current situation of the Philippines in a very dark way. (READ: Where the drug war began)
'Is the Philippines safe?'
Gone are the days when the most frequent questions I get from foreigners are about how to visit Boracay or Palawan, or how true it is that there is a volcano within a lake within a volcano within a lake near Manila.
As a college student, I represented the Philippines a couple of times in youth and leadership conferences in Southeast Asia. Wearing the barong then and introducing myself as a Filipino would always be moments of pride. On the sidelines, participants would usually comment on how they love Filipino food or how they envy Filipinos for speaking English well.
Back then, my conversations with new foreign friends would always end up with me inviting them to come visit the Philippines – and a lot of them did. It was a time when all I had to worry about their visits would be the traffic along EDSA or the pickpockets in the streets.
Now, whenever the tough-talking president threatens the media or lashes out against the West, I get messages from my friends asking about my safety or looking for an explanation of his words and actions. When they ask whether it's safe to visit the Philippines, most of the time, I just fall silent. (READ: What were Duterte's favorite words in his speeches?)
It's been the same experience for many of my Filipino friends living temporarily abroad.
"I've been asked how I'm still alive, and been asked of who dies," said Mima Mendoza, a friend taking up her masters degree in Columbia University.
She added: "I always talk about economics and how money protects you. I talk about gated communities and the slums. To a lot of my classmates, it's unbelievable. But then here in the States it's an issue of color, ours is an issue of class."
"I usually get the normal ones – You have a crazy president? You're okay with the dead bodies? Is he really killing people? Why do Filipinos love him so much?" noted Carlos Quiapo, another friend who has been working in Tokyo for two years.
"It's tiring and sometimes I ask why I have to justify my being Filipino because of this guy. I feel like they see everyone as Duterte. Then my task to still be a Filipino somehow is to explain what's happening. Then I let them decide what's wrong or right," Carlos added.
He noted: "I tell them I don't support him killing people, making rape jokes. I tell them I am not in favor of any of his plans/goals."
Hot seat in pre-Trump America
During my fellowship with the US State Department's Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative in October 2016, I took classes on civic engagement and international relations at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. It was on one class day that Duterte, while in China, said the Philippines is distancing itself from its longtime ally, the US.
I was put on the spot in front of a class of a hundred undergrads to talk about what Duterte's words mean for international relations and power balance in Southeast Asia. The students asked about why propaganda and fake news are becoming rampant. Thankfully, this was the time when Rappler's series on online propaganda was published so I had some talking points.
In the same trip, I met then-US representative for Nebraska's 2nd district Brad Ashford. The first thing he asked me when he knew I was a Filipino was, "How did that happen? How did the Philippines elect someone like him?" (READ: Images from 2016: The day we elected Rodrigo Duterte and Leni Robredo)
My initial response was, "I don't know."
I think the class didn't know they'd be faced with a similar leader just a few weeks after our discussion. Congressman Ashford also lost his 2016 bid to Republican Don Bacon.
Asia vs the West
Traveling to 7 countries the past year though, I don't just get negative questions about Duterte.
During my recent trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in May 2017, whenever locals hear that I'm Filipino, they'd immediately praise our leader. They would remark how he's doing a good job standing up to developed countries, and how he's doing the right thing eliminating drugs. For once, some government officials may be right when they claim that in some ASEAN countries, Duterte is a "superstar."
"The only thing he's doing wrong is that he's killing his people. That should never happen. We've experienced that in our country in the past," the manager in our Siem Reap hotel told me. (READ: Shinzo Abe to Duterte: You're 'quite famous in Japan')
This was a sobering statement especially because my family and I just visited The Killing Fields and saw the horrors of genocide in the Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh.
In developed countries, it's a very different line of questioning. My friends from the US or Europe aren't as concerned about his tough talk as much as his human rights record.
In my first two weeks here in Australia, I've already been asked the same questions numerous times. People take particular interest when I tell them I'm a journalist in the Philippines. "I know it's hard to be in your position right now," one academic recently told me. (READ: Duterte and the media, from the perspective of a student journalist)
I've learned to give a sober answer whenever asked these questions about the Philippines now. No matter how embarrassing it is, I feel it is my responsibility to talk about the truth on the ground – of the drug addicts mercilessly killed without due process of law, of the persecution that happens when people give opposing opinions, of the lies being spread by government officials themselves, of the still-rampant problem of corruption.
What does it mean to be proud as a Filipino? Does it mean blindly following the country's leader? Or isn't being critical a part of the dynamics of a democracy? Since when did dissent become equal to destabilization?
I’m still proud to be a Filipino, of the heritage and natural beauty of my country. But I am not proud of our government and the way the country is being run right now. I am not proud of the gross human rights violations I believe Duterte is responsible for. I am not proud of the sexism, racism, and violence that's eating up our culture.
But while our president and our government are not doing a good job representing the Philippines, it is up to every Filipino abroad to make other countries realize that this is just a phase in our democracy. That deep down, Filipinos are still the hospitable, loving people they've come to know.
As my friend Mima said, "At the end of the day, my passport says 'Pilipinas' and not 'Duterte,' so I represent the values our heroes died for. I do not represent Duterte. And that's something I always make clear."
There is more to the Philippines and to being a Filipino than Duterte. As a Filipino abroad, the challenge is to rise above the new stereotype. – Rappler.com
David Lozada is an Australia Awards scholar taking up Master of Development Studies at the University of Melbourne. Prior to his scholarship, he was a reporter covering development and a community manager for Rappler's MovePH for 4 years.