Is the Philippines even an Asian country? (And what would it be if it weren’t?)


“What’s your name?” the friendly white Australian academic asks me, and I tell her.

“What’s your Asian name?” she persists. Mine is a name that turns up in Google attached to Latin American women, a minor actress numbered among them. This is the second time I’ve been asked this question during my first month in Australia.

No one ever asks that in the Philippines, an archipelago shaped like a sitting puppy surrounded by contested islands and waters in the part of the world now called Southeast Asia. In the Philippines, you can have a Chinese professor with an Anglo first name and a Spanish family name, or someone with none of the physical features commonly attributed to Spanish or Latin American people, yet possessing a name that sounds like it belongs in the roll call of a Hispanic classroom. If we are Asian, then this is what Asian looks like, and these, too, are Asian names.

Former Spanish colony. Former American colony. The only majority-Christian country in Asia. They speak English there. They love Americans there. No, they don’t speak Spanish. Didn’t they once have a first lady with 3,000 pairs of shoes?

To say that the Philippines is a cultural oddball in the region is something of an understatement. In a 1968 Foreign Affairs article, the late Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. wrote: “Filipinos are bewildered about their identity. They are an Asian people not Asian in the eyes of their fellow Asians and not Western in the eyes of the West. They are in Asia, but they know more about the Statue of Liberty than about Angkor Wat in Cambodia; more of the lyrics of Whitman than of Tagore or of their own Nick Joaquin; more of Patrick Henry’s soul-stirring liberty- or-death oratory than of the ageless wisdom of Confucius or Lao-tze. Lately, they have taken to insisting they are Asian, but they are so American-oriented that-by reflex-they still react and respond like little brown Americans”. Much of this identification confusion still lingers amongst Filipinos today, if you substitute literary Americana with Hollywood and other pop culture references. For a more nuanced, contemporary take on the “little brown American” tendency, check out this Manila Review essay by historian Leloy Claudio.

In his book Authentic Though Not Exotic: Essays on Filipino Cultural Identity, University of Hawaii-trained Filipino cultural anthropologist Fernando Nakpil Zialcita writes that Philippine cuisine seems “out of place” in dominant notions of what Southeast Asian cuisine should be, lacking as it is in liberal amounts of spice. He shares that “in Amsterdam, a Filipino restaurant uses plenty of chilli to cater to this preconceived notion of [Asian cuisine] by Dutch customers.” One of my favourite spots for sit-down Filipino food in Melbourne is a Vietnamese hole in the wall in Footscray, where one of the staff is Filipino and a couple of items on the menu are Filipino – but only a Vietnamese or Filipino customer would be able to tell the difference. Indeed, when I first moved to Melbourne, my Southeast Asian house mates made much of how food I cooked wasn’t as colourful as theirs, or how “Westernised” my palate was. In these cases, it would appear that “being Asian” carried similar meanings for those Dutch customers who expected intensely spicy food from the Amsterdam Filipino eatery, as well as some Southeast Asian international students in Melbourne. For both groups, Southeast Asian flavours had to be fiery, striking, and exotic, and Filipino fare, that bastard child of Spanish, Chinese and Malay flavours, just wasn’t exotic enough, not “other” enough.

In 2008, I was research assistant to a German architect who was researching Manila houses and structures that survived from the pre-World War II times. During one of our long walks around Manila, a local told me, “Why do you even bother with this project? Our real cultural achievements are those straw houses (nipa hut) from before the Spaniards came.” To this fellow, we were most culturally “ourselves” in our moments of precolonial innocence, and were now forever damaged goods because of our colonial history. Still, to some, to be culturally “oneself” was linked exclusively to discourses of resistance against foreigners, where to repel, rather than to create or to transform, appears to be the highest expression of selfhood. A glance at the history of the Philippine Army Reserve Command on its official website shows that the army traces the history of the reserve forces to Mactan chief Lapu-lapu’s defeat of the Christianisation efforts of Ferdinand Magellan (Fernando Magallanes), a Portuguese sailor loyal to the Spanish king, who had ended up in the Philippines whilst seeking Southeast Asian spices, then highly valued commodities in Europe. For the army, the defeat of Magellan in 1521 was “the first recorded and successful defense of Filipino reservists against foreign subjugation… when Lapu-lapu and his men defeated the superior Spanish military forces led by Magellan in the historic battle of Mactan”. Never mind that, the Philippines as a somewhat unified political community, only came into being under Spanish colonial rule; before then, each island had its own locality, leadership, and trade networks with societies all over what we now know as Southeast Asia. Quoting Filipino National Artist Awardee Nick Joaquin, “How can we say we are being nationalist when… to recapture our pre-1521 identity, we would first have to abolish this nation called the Philippines?”

What, with all this, does it mean to be “Asian” anymore? Who gets to be called Asian these days? If the Asian Cup lineup is to be believed, any country that isn’t in Europe, Latin America, or Africa is Asian – which means that Oman, Kuwait, Yemen, Iran, Palestine, and yes, Australia, too, are Asian. Two years ago, I met a Turkish woman in Berlin whose Jamaican boyfriend who took out on her all his rage against his white ex-girlfriend; she told me, frustrated, “I don’t even know why he thinks I am anything like her. I am not white. I am Asian!” And to be seen as Asian, or not, or a particular type of Asian, can result in one occupying space, and in others taking up space around one, so differently. Despite the ease of travel for many, and the spread of Western, especially Anglo-American cultural forms, all over the globe, Asia, for many Westerners and Asians alike, still tends to represent an exotic destination prized for its presumed difference from a modern but decadent, corrupt Western referent. A case like the Philippines defies easy typecasting and contains infinitely exciting multitudes. This place we call Asia is far more complex, and indeed, worthy of attentiveness, than so many of us give it credit for. We were not at our most interesting during our moments of precolonial innocence, and we need not be “exotic” to have something worth saying to the world.

Angela Serrano

Author: Angela Serrano

Angela Serrano is a Manila-born and -bred, Melbourne-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Peril, the Melbourne Writers Festival Reviewers blog, and Writers Victoria. She is one amongst 10 participants in Lee Kofman's six-month memoir workshop; her project is about gender and physical labour as an art model in Melbourne and as a national military service cadet officer in Manila. She is also a member of the Footscray Community Arts Centre's West Writers Group. Follow her on Twitter: @angelita_serra and read longer work on her blog:

11 thoughts on “Is the Philippines even an Asian country? (And what would it be if it weren’t?)”

  1. Australia is not part of Asia… Just because the damn soccer team is classified under the Asian league doesn’t mean that country is apart of Asia… FYI

  2. Just because the damn soccer team is classified under the Asian league doesn’t mean that country is apart of Asia… Australia is not part of Asia…

  3. The main failing of many conversations about the Filipino identity crisis is that people always assume there is a singular, homogeneous Filipino identity. It simply does not exist. We should embrace and accept the diversity in our islands. While Tagalog food might seem out of place in a South East Asian context, Bicolano food would fit right in with its use of “liberal amounts of spice” and coconut milk. Same with the local cuisines of other provinces. My main issue is that I believe Manila itself suffers from an identity crisis while many provinces have a better grasp of their own cultural identities. However, Manila imposes its own lack of identity on the rest of the country. Take Indonesia for example, they freely accept the vast differences in food (and culture) between Java, Bali. Sumatra etc. It’s high time we did the same.

  4. My father side is from India. My mother from China. I have a Spanish name. Yet I was born, grew up and still live in the Philippines and you may definitely say that I’m a Filipino. It’s the attitude of the Filipinos that matters. People do mistake me as Japanese.

  5. The demographic used as basis for ones identity was kind of big on its own. The question of “Are we still Filipino?”, is actually fair enough.

    Anyway, you have an insightful article. Well written!

  6. What is essential is invisible to the eye (Little Prince).

    To truly reflect our history, this should be our mix:

    900 AD – 1565 – Era of PH Kingdoms (600 yrs) 60% Asian/SE Asian
    1565-1898- Spanish Period (333 yrs.) 33% Spanish/Mexican
    1901-1946- US Period (45 yrs.) 5-7 % American

    Our model should be Rizal, who embraced the best of Spain and the Filipino/Asian, yet spoke and taught English–even if he despised USA, calling it a country with many defects—it had no genuine civil liberties. We really should be taught Spanish first, English later, as all the great literature from our founding fathers are written in Spanish, and our greatest generation of Filipino geniuses was produced under Spain, and not under USA.

    The Bahay Kubo is not the highest achievement of pre-colonial Philippines, in contrast to what is implied in this article. Spanish records reveal that the palacial houses that Miguel Lopez Legazpi found when they entered the Kingdom of Manila were:… long houses made of wood, with many rooms and comforts (Morga). Pigafetta, Magellan`s chronicler even described the King`s house as having embellishments made of gold.

  7. This article was really well written and made me think more about my Filipino identity. It’s hard for me to say I have a strong affiliation, since even though both my parents are Filipino, I was born in Australia, and have only been to Philippines for holidays. So when it comes to exploring the definition of being a ‘Filipino’ it instantly starts becoming something very complex for me. I love conversations like this which open up the historical and cultural questions regarding influences of all the other cultures that have come into contact with Philippines. It’s just so interesting to consider. Anyway I just wanted to say that I loved reading this article and it’s really made me think, so good job!

  8. Tittering Langs – Regarding any white person being called “American” by the locals, as an early 30s person living in the Philippines, I notice that practice has already begun to die out among Filipinos (who are becoming increasingly aware that Americans are not the only “white people” on earth due to the increasing presence of Westerners of other nationalities in the country – whether as tourists, expats, students, etc). I only hear that kind of statement from people who are above a certain age (approximately in their 40s and above, and/or those living in really far-flung villages with hardly any foreign visitors or residents). 😀

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