Filipino culture

[New School] ‘Papunta ka pa lang, pabalik na ako’: The problem with ‘respecting your elders’

Juztin Banac
[New School] ‘Papunta ka pa lang, pabalik na ako’: The problem with ‘respecting your elders’

David Castuciano/Rappler

'Why is it so easy for young Filipinos to be dismissed on the basis of their age?'

I am 18. I am Filipino. 

These are two concepts of identity that define me, no matter how much I try to move past their boundaries. When these labels intersect to create me, it inherently places me at a crossroads, and I don’t know which direction to take. As with all crossroads, if I take one path, I can no longer take any of the others without walking backwards. 

A quote often attributed to Dr. Jose Rizal is, “Ang kabataan ang pag-asa ng bayan.” The youth are the hope of the future. But many young Filipinos, including myself, feel unseen and unheard. And yet our voices are prominent and arguably the most important, with 56% of Filipino voters between the ages of 18-41. 

Why is it so easy, then, for young Filipinos to be dismissed on the basis of their age? 

It’s a question that many of us continue to ponder, and the answers lie deeply ingrained within our cultural identity. 

Take the 2022 Philippine elections as an example. Regardless of which candidate they supported, friends and acquaintances would end up exasperated whenever they would try and bring up their points of view to those older than they were. 

A friend from Cavite recounted to me how such political discussions with their mother would always devolve into pointless arguments. This friend supported the former vice president Leni Robredo, but was too young to vote. He firmly believed that to secure a better future for himself, it was essential for the former vice president to win the election. He advocated for this perspective, but was always met with stark opposition on the basis of his age. 

Ang kapal ng mukha mo…. Mag-isip [ka] kahit wala kang utak,” A message from his mother read. A follow-up text ended the conversation, stating:

Wala kang respeto at kunsinsya [sic]…alam mong mas matanda ako kesa [sic] sayo. Makinig ka na lang sa akin.” 

An online acquaintance, meanwhile, recounted to me how political discussions had cost him his friendships. This friend supported the current President of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. He had just turned old enough to vote, and as such, didn’t have to convince others to attempt to secure what he believed was a better future for himself. In the few discussions he did have with friends about his voting preferences, however, he was almost immediately shut down by those older than he was and told not to speak. 

This acquaintance ended up becoming ostracized from the online community we were both part of, and his points of view were dismissed in the same manner. 

“Close-minded ka lang,” read a message targeted towards this acquaintance. “May pinagaralan ka ba?

Blatant dismissal when attempting to spark constructive and civil conversations constitutes a shared experience that young Filipinos know too well. With my own parents, squabbles over relatively insignificant matters such as what kind of rice to purchase or the correct way to assemble furniture would be met with phrases that young Filipinos could recite by heart: “Papunta ka pa lang, pabalik na ‘ko!” or “Wala ka bang respeto sa mas matanda sa ‘yo?

It would be disingenuous to assert that this experience is one only felt by my generation. My parents, my ates and kuyas, and my ninangs and ninongs were told these phrases by their parents, their ates and kuyas, and their ninangs and ninongs. 

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Our culture prides itself on valuing respect for our elders. It’s a concept that’s been ingrained in us since the pre-colonial era. 

The veneration of anito, our ancestral spirits, forms a core part of pre-colonial Filipino culture – one of the few pieces of our past that’s survived colonialism and its atrocities. And it is logical to value the wisdom and knowledge of our elders and those who came before us. Their lived experiences far surpass our own. We trust that those older than us would act in our best interests in line with their lived experiences. 

But many young Filipinos feel this trust has been eroded over time. An attempt at providing one’s own opinion will almost always be misconstrued. Phrases like “Wag ka nang sumabat,” or “Sumunod ka na lang,” have genuine intentions behind them, but are more often than not weaponized to suppress dissent. 

Many young Filipinos, especially those in the diaspora, would confer this to be a “toxic Filipino trait.” But I see it more as a generational defense mechanism. We Filipinos have been through trial after trial. From Spanish colonialism, to American and Japanese occupation, to the horrors of Martial Law, to the massacres and extrajudicial killings that have plagued every government since, the Filipino people have been repeatedly punished for dissenting.

Learning to obey and learning not to question what you are told has kept us safe for centuries. To this day, protests and activism is a grave and dangerous action to undertake. It is still an expectation that as we grow older, we will learn to be more complacent, that eventually, “matututo ka nang hindi sumabat.” It is logical. It is rational. It has kept us alive. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists recently published figures showing a 50% increase in deaths among journalists from 2021 to 2022. Journalism is a profession that is built upon the foundations of asking questions and seeking truth. If even this is dismissed as dissent and met with violence, how do we expect the Filipino youth to respond in any other way than “matutong hindi sumabat?”

I am a first generation immigrant, a member of the Filipino diaspora in Melbourne. My family holds many opposing points of view from my own. We are in conflict on matters of politics, of identity, of history, and of religion. I have recognized it to be a futile effort to try and spark conversations with them. As far as they are concerned, things should remain the way they are, and that eventually I would come to the same conclusions as they have. 

Until then, they are comfortable keeping me at arm’s length, distancing me from what they perceive to be a threat upon Filipino tradition. 

Only time will tell if they are correct. As for now, I am still 18. And as a member of the youth, I am faced with a crossroads that has two signs pointing opposite ways. One sign reads “Sumunod ka na lang,” and the other reads “Pero bakit?–

Juztin Banac, 18, is a university student at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. He is studying to become an investigative journalist who is passionate about transparency and fighting disinformation in the Asia-Pacific region. 

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