September 2005
The Presidents and the (Jueteng) Lords
Focus on the Filipino youth: The Lost Generation

Finding spaces

They are the hi-tech generation, at ease with technology but otherwise lost when it comes to dealing with the complexities of a globalized world.

DEFYING THEIR ELDERS. Today’s youth confound their parents because they enjoy more freedom and are so at home with technology. [photos by Sonny Yabao]

TOO OFTEN the Filipino youth is viewed with the conventional eyes of our elders: we are the future of the nation, we are the agents of change. The government counts on us to help save the country, civil society exhorts us to be vigilant, the media remind us often enough that we are the hope of the nation. For the most part, however, they are disappointed. Especially when it’s convenient, we remain incomprehensible to our elders, and it’s easy to see why.

We are the high-tech generation, adept at computers and cellphones, but unable to communicate well without a keypad or a clicking mouse. Our relationships are characterized by, even built on, text messages and electronic mail, impersonal as these may be. We conspire with piracy and free Internet downloads with gleefully open eyes, morality and ethics aside. We sit before our computers to find ourselves, if not in writing, then in creating websites, or in looking for jobs, friends, a community we might belong to. For many of us, our computers are our best friends, personal extensions where our work, our studies, our lives are conducted — if not created and re-created — as frequently as we find the need for it, which is quite often.

Our dependence on computers and cellphones is not only an indication of our aptitude for high-tech tasks and processes, it’s also an indication of our need for something we can hold on to, something that somehow defines us, and only us. We love being incomprehensible to our elders because of this technology, and we revel in it. Unfortunately, a lot of the time we also reveal our incapability at discernment, as we unthinkingly forward ill-informed text messages or emails, upload pictures on the Internet without realizing the probability of its distribution, take stolen videos with our phones and think nothing of it. We have a hard time deciding whether something is right or wrong, dangerous or not; worse, we are unable to discern just what role technology is playing in our lives, or why it has become so important to us.

This lack of clarity about the things that define us may be the only thing that we of this generation have in common. Born in the late 1970s to early 80s to possibly activist or hippie parents, or to the straight conservative ones who stayed aloof of either extreme, ours is a generation that can’t seem to find a reason for its existence. At least our activist parents had the Left to believe in and the Marcos regime to struggle against; our hippie parents had the liberation of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll to live up; our conservative parents had the Church and the institution of family to hold on to. By comparison, we are faced with nothing but the dregs of these institutions, now all unstable, often unintelligible, usually in the process of compromise. It’s practically a nonspace of resistance and liberation, with uncertain enemies and even less certain ideologies to back us up.

Not that all of us are having a difficult time finding the right spaces within which we may exist, if only to survive. Cheap labor and globalization have brought us the call centers where half our youth are employed, changing their biological clocks, messing up relationships, and creating demand for 24-hour McDonalds and Jollibees in the strangest street corners. A small percentage of the other half are selfemployed, given rich parents who are only too happy to put up seed money and get their kids started on the capitalist course. Others with moneyed parents have the luxury of doing volunteer and NGO work, moved as they seem by a need to “give something back to the country” without necessarily seeing the big picture in which rich (probably their) families are the oppressors. Many are still part of the Philippine Left, confusing as that label has become, in all its denominations. At least those of us who are part of the different leftist movements have a better sense of what ails this country, even when we have to go from simple terms like poverty and corruption to the abstract levels and jargon of imperialism, bureaucrat capitalism, and fascism.

But so many more of the youth have left, or are set to leave. Our prospective teachers, doctors, nurses are on a constant exodus to different parts of the world, with a small middle to upper class percentage leaving in disgust what they think is a sinking boat. The bigger chunk of those who say goodbye though are of the lower classes, and they’re the ones who say that they shall return, when they’ve ensured their futures with the dollars they will earn.

BUT MOST, if not all of us, are at a loss. It’s not clear why we’re living our lives the way we do, doing the things that occupy us. There’s always a sense of uncertainty, not about the future, but about the present: What exactly are we doing? Why is this what we do? Whereas the generation before us always had a sense of a future — with family, with career, with house and lot and what-have-you — we are always looking at a future that’s closer to the present, where we may finish our studies, find a job, write a book, or just simply see the month’s end and decide then what’s next.

AT A LOSS. For all their worldliness, young people are not clear about where they want to go and the sort of future they should aspire for.

This is not to say that we aren’t enjoying ourselves, uncertainties and all. Thanks to the fruits of our hippie and activist parents’ labors, we live at a time when there’s freedom in the music we hear, the books we read, the television shows and movies we watch. We are liberated from the strict rules of the Church and the institutions of family, school, and employment. Freed from the stereotypes our parents rebelled against, we think nothing of reconfiguring our roles to suit our needs. We are redefining relationships as often as we redefine ourselves — literally with vanity, or figuratively with spiritual or religious beliefs, and the next hip ideology. Homosexuality in all its dimensions has become our norm. Easily accessible organic herbs, designer drugs, and expensive alcohol are inanimate friends we can count on. And then there’s the sexual freedom we are heir to, which most of the time we abuse, misuse, and unthinkingly tie our lives around. Our liberation, handed down as it was, has become the freedom we can’t quite live up to. We wear what we want, we can be what we want, and do as we please. But that doesn’t mean we’re actually doing something.

For the most part, we are easily satisfied with ourselves, and that’s where the problem lies. We can do volunteer work for an NGO by day and party with abandon by night without feeling conflicted-we deserve it, we think, because we’re doing something for the country. We can sit at a café all day and talk about what ails our lives, our relationships, our country, and think that this is productive. We go to a token rally “for the truth to come out” and imagine ourselves socially relevant. We look at EDSA 2 and think: hah! that was my doing, without a sense of what it has truly brought this country, which isn’t much.

FOUR YEARS ago, tasked to teach critical thinking and the essay to college sophomores eight to 10 years my junior, I decided that the only way they could learn to think critically would be to show them where exactly they were coming from, and where they should speak from, given the state of the nation. I wanted to help them realize that in everything they said, did, or thought, they were speaking, doing, and thinking as Filipinos, whether they liked it or not. With that realization would come the responsibility not just to speak as Pinoys and Pinays, but to be Pinoys and Pinays in their analysis of everything from soap operas to foreign critical theories, from current events to the clothes they wear.

DOOMED GENERATION? Perhaps the young people of today are condemned to an endless process of searching for the truths that will lead them toward real freedom and genuine understanding.

Of course given that we all, young and old alike, continue to be messed up about our identity as a people, I could only ground them in certain realities about our country that we manage, consistently, not to confront. Realities that we keep in check because we can, since we are not directly burdened. The most basic of these that needs to be acknowledged, I found, is the fact that we are an impoverished country, never mind that we’re driving the newest cars, or that we have the latest cellphones, or that we are not the poor. It does not mean that everybody else is as well-off — because not a whole lot are. Only upon realizing this can we raise the question: Why are we poor? A question that can only be answered by history, hopefully a Constantino history, which tells of how we have been oppressed for centuries and by what, and how we have always fought back.

A SENSE OF history is a good beginning, I believe, for those of us in this generation, students and teachers alike, seeking a reason for our existence at this point in time. Because we may be hi-tech and all, free to make life choices, and liberated in the way we dress, think, and do things, but in truth, we are misplaced and displaced by a lack of consciousness about where we truly come from in the context of the country we irrevocably belong to. When the poverty is acknowledged, our enemies become obvious. Ours is a long history of governance that has not had the interests of the majority of this country in mind, allowing globalization to eat us alive, allowing the elite to continue owning more and more of this country’s money and natural resources for themselves, allowing booty capitalism to prosper at the expense of the poor and hungry majority. And then there’s us, the educated middle class, some of whom choose to remain complacently uncertain about what we may do, and some of whom choose to take off, in search of happier spaces.

But the space we search for can only be here, in the one country we are born to and can truly call ours. Whatever we do, whether we’re leaving or staying, taking to the streets for the masses or going to the countryside and joining the armed struggle, whether we’re writing in English or living up the Filipino language, teaching in a university or answering complaints at a call center, we make our decisions in the context of the state of this nation, as we know it. This is all the space we need, and the space where we are most needed. We only need to know enough to see it.

Meanwhile, we wander among the spaces we create and wonder what it will take to knock some sense into our heads about the changes we have the power to effect. Quite possibly, we are a generation doomed to an endless process of searching — in denial about this country’s truths, not ready to give up our lives for the bigger battles, uncertain of what exactly it is we can do. Probably, we are a transition generation, finding and making spaces in the strangest of places — be it in the technology we so love or in the bars of Malate, be it in waging war or in observing the peace, in writing or in taking to the streets — living out our contradictory lifestyles and values, creating an open space for the time when we may all agree on what we stand for, and find it in ourselves to fight the real struggle for country vs. poverty, enemies and all.

Hopefully we see that this time can be now.

The author is currently doing her thesis for an M.A. in Philippine Studies at the U.P. Departamento ng Filipino at Panitikan ng Pilipinas. She does freelance writing and editorial work on the side. Her passion is teaching.