First, I was really ecstatic. I was both honored and humbled to be part of a cultural exchange program that aims to promote friendship and mutual understanding among the young people of ten Southeast Asian countries and Japan. I really thought it would be an easy thing for me to introduce them to my country, to tell them about my family and to share with them my culture.
On the contrary, what actually lies behind being a young ambassador of goodwill to the 32nd Ship for Southeast Asian Youth Program (SSEAYP)? I realized that more than just the honor, SSEAYP is a responsibility, much more than an opportunity for me to learn, understand and experience things. It is a responsibility to best exhibit our country, our culture, our heritage and our people.
We had a pre-departure training to prepare us before we board the ship. One activity happened which drastically changed my view of the whole event. That event was an individual presentation of our own region’s culture. And since I was the representative of the Cordillera, I had to present the Cordilleran culture.
Almost all the other regions had common cultural practices. I guess that was because of the very strong infiltration of the Spanish culture in their lives. Most presentations showed the typical Filipino’s love for fiestas. Fiestas could be feasts for the saints where people may dance out in the street parade. Also, almost all of them had the “mano” as the sign of respect to elders.
On the other hand, since settlement was not extended to the Cordillera’s, Igorots are known to be proud and independence-loving people. But although we do not practice the “pag-mamano”, we give high respect to our elders in ways which the other regions do not. In the Cordilleran community, the people whom everyone listens to, reveres and takes care of are the wise old men or the “am-ama”, I told audience before I performed.
Also, I wanted to share that people in my community, treat each others as “agkakabsat” (brothers and sisters) as they are “ag-kakailiyan” (town mates) too. Our rich cultural past is deeply embedded in our way of living. We are also very friendly and hospitable to visitors. Inviting strangers or even sharing food with them (especially the “pinikpikan”(chicken delicacy) and “tapuy”(rice wine) ) symbolize our close relationship and acceptance to them.
After imitating the eagle as it soars, in my “pat-patong” dance presentation, and after a question and answer portion, I knew I was into serious work. SSEAYP wasn’t all fun after all, it was work. I found out that my colleagues had a lot of wrong perceptions of the Igorots or the Cordillerans.
“Tourists who have images of primitive looking people in their heads will be surprised to see fair-skinned and rosy-cheeked Kankana-ey who sometimes speaks English better than Manila folk. This is due to the influence of American missionaries who first opened Anglican mission centers there…” Debbie Salcedo said in an article “Sa Lupa ng Mga Ninuno (Into the Land of the Ancestors)” posted in the website “Travel and Visit Beautiful Philippines Today.
The typical knowledge of non-Igorots about Igorots (today or even in the 1970’s) is practically the same: people from the mountains, known for headhunting, weaponry and paganism. It is really quite frustrating because they look at some Cordilleran practices in the bad light as something unreligious and unethical. It took me several hours explaining that these traditions aren’t just made for the sake of art, entertainment or survival but for something spiritually deeper. The Cordilleran people are strongly connected with the environment that they have a great respect for nature. Besides, not all practices in the past still happen up to present. Honestly, the full explanation was slipping off my head.
A big realization struck me. I had to make a difference! Why was I chosen as the Cordilleran representative in the first place? I had to make a difference in other’s perception of the Cordilleran people, for that’s that least I can do. But that’s where the problem starts. I only know a tiny bit more than what my colleagues and convincing or arguing with them without enough facts and details would make me appear like a fool.
Also, it is quite difficult to convince everyone that “ethnic minority” is not an ethical term to use to call the Igorots since it could imply inferiority. Just as William Henry Scott said, Filipinos born and raised in an independent republic (highlanders or lowlanders as they may be) should be more interested in discovering their own national identity than distinguishing cultural minorities from cultural majorities.
That was when I realized that I only knew the tip of the iceberg; the tip of the iceberg which is on top of my culture that could be seen by anyone. Unlike them however, I know there is a whole larger block of ice under the water but I never noticed or bothered to fully know or understand it.
I feel really frustrated with myself as a big question now lies in front of me. Am I prepared to take the responsibility of educating them with the little things I know or will I take the back seat and leave them with what they believe in? The answer lies in my hand.
Instead of the snow, why didn’t I ever marvel at the fog beneath the pine trees or the dew drops on the grass? Instead of the castle or the palace, why didn’t I Indeed an explanation of the Igorot’s lives lies beneath the Banawe Rice Terraces, a mystery is laid at Sagada’s hanging coffins, a myth is told at the top of Mt. Pulag, (second highest mountain in the Philippines), a question is set at the Halsema Highway (the highest mountain highway system in the country) and other stories are hidden with each breathtaking scenery found in the Cordilleras. If I should have only bothered to appreciate the world class views and dig into each one’s account, perhaps I would be more efficient by now.
Why didn’t I just listen to the words these mountains say?
“So how many oceans do I have to cross or skies to fly, to get to the place worth dreaming of? None, because I never realized, I’m stepping on it right now.”