GENE DEMBY, HOST:
Buffalo, N.Y. - it's one of those bitterly cold places, like, right on the Great Lakes, where it's not unheard of for there to be a big snowfall, even, like, late into the spring, in May. But on Saturday, May 14, it was actually a proper, warm spring day. Pearl Young, who was a retired substitute teacher - she ran a local food pantry there - had just finished up lunch with her sister-in-law, who dropped her off at the Tops Friendly Market. The Tops Friendly Market is in a neighborhood called Masten Park in East Buffalo. That neighborhood is mostly poor, mostly black.
And just to situate us some more, Buffalo routinely ranks as one of the most racially segregated metro regions in the entire United States. That Tops Friendly Market is also in a food desert. There's no other supermarkets nearby, residents had been pushing for years to get that one built, so most of the people in the neighborhood - people like Miss Pearly - had to make trips there pretty regularly. People like Ruth Whitfield - she was 86. She had just been visiting her husband, who was living in a nursing home near the supermarket. She just dropped by to pick up a few items. Katherine Massey was also at the supermarket. She was 72. She was headstrong. Her family joked that she was a, quote, "committee of one." She was a community activist, and she regularly wrote letters about issues of the day to the local black press, including a letter to the editor about the need for tougher gun control laws.
Heyward Patterson was 67. He was a father of three. He was a taxi driver. He was waiting outside of the Tops supermarket for passengers. Celestine Chaney was 65. She was at the market with her sister. She was an avid bingo player, a grandmother of six. She was at Tops for some shrimp, for some strawberry shortcake. Roberta Drury was 32. She worked at her family's restaurant nearby. Andre Mackneil was 53. He was at Tops to pick up a surprise birthday cake for his son, who just turned three. Margus Morrison was 52. He was a school bus aide. His family said he was kind of a sneakerhead, and it was movie night with his wife, so he was at the Tops picking up snacks for the two of them.
Geraldine Talley was 62. She was grocery shopping with her fiance. Aaron Salter was 55. He, at one point, was a lieutenant in the Buffalo Police Force. On that day, he was working as a security guard at Tops when he tried to stop a white 18-year-old who walked into Tops with a rifle and started shooting people. The suspect is a self-avowed white supremacist from halfway across the state. The police say he targeted that Tops because it was in a Black neighborhood, in a Black zip code. Aaron Salter was killed, as were the nine other people whose names we just heard.
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DEMBY: So at this point, calling mass shootings like this one random is kind of like calling tornadoes in the Midwest random. Like, we might not be able to predict when they happen, but the conditions that make them inevitable are almost always present. We live in a country with more guns than people, where racism has always been both politically popular and legitimized in policy. We live in a country that has been the site of so, so many episodes just like this one - massacres of Indigenous people, pogroms of Asian laborers, spectacle lynchings and coups. For centuries now, almost all of it has gone unpunished or has been very thoroughly memory-holed.
Back to that Tops in East Buffalo. It's closed, at least for a little while, while this investigation unfolds. But as our colleague Adrian Florido reported this week, now the people in Masten Park are also scrambling to find food. This week's CODE SWITCH is not about that. There will be time for us to pull thread on all of these things - on so-called replacement theory, on online radicalization, on white supremacist violence, and, yes, housing segregation. But we felt, before we got into the episode we do have planned, that we have to acknowledge this calamity in Buffalo - to say the names of the people whose families and friends have now been conscripted into the grim work of trying to put their lives back together. As the Jewish saying goes, may their memory be a blessing.
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DEMBY: All right. Onto our show.
What's good, y'all? I'm Gene Demby, and this is CODE SWITCH from NPR, and I'm joined this week by my NPR colleague Malaka Gharib. She's an editor on NPR's Science Desk. She's guest hosting this episode with me. What's good, Malaka?
MALAKA GHARIB, BYLINE: Hi. I'm so excited to be here. It's like when bands go on Tiny Desk and say they can't believe they're here. That's me right now on CODE SWITCH.
DEMBY: You're gassing us. I appreciate that. We're very flattered, and we're glad that you could come through. So Malaka recently wrote and illustrated a graphic memoir about her experiences as a second-gen kid of Filipino and Egyptian immigrants. It's called "I Was Their American Dream." Malaka, I need to admit something to you. I still don't get the first-gen, second-gen thing. We've been doing this show for, like, a nice minute now, and I still get tripped up on which generation is which when we have these conversations.
GHARIB: Oh, my gosh. It's so confusing for me, too. When I was growing up, I referred to myself as first generation because we were the first generation of Americans born in the U.S. to our immigrant parents...
GHARIB: ...Who were born back in the home country, but there are some people who think our immigrant parents are the first generation, making us the second generation. So I don't know. I've heard both. Weirdly, I use both interchangeably.
DEMBY: Oh, so you switch back and forth, OK.
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DEMBY: So, Malaka, I'm assuming the story you brought to us today has something to do with immigrant identity?
GHARIB: Yes, as a matter of fact, although it's kind of a story about a house...
GHARIB: ...Or some family drama over a house.
DEMBY: Man, houses are for shelter and for family drama - like, that's why they're there.
GHARIB: (Laughter) Yeah, and that's the case here. This house is in a small town just south of Los Angeles.
LEEZEL: A one-story house that has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, in a not-so-quiet cul-de-sac. It's right off of the 405 freeway, in a blue-collar town called Carson, Calif.
GHARIB: You know, a typical American home.
LEEZEL: It has a small backyard, small front yard, with a big tree in the front.
DEMBY: All right, real quick, who is that that we're hearing from right now?
GHARIB: That's Leezel, and we're only going to use her first name since we're only able to tell her side of her family's story. So she says this modest house represented her parents' ambitions.
LEEZEL: My parents immigrated from the Philippines to the U.S., I would say the late 50s, early 60s, and, you know, they were chasing the American dream, just like a lot of other Filipinos that immigrated to America.
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GHARIB: So after her parents got married, they bought this house. And in 1983, they had little Leezel.
DEMBY: This all sounds so wholesome, but we know there's drama.
GHARIB: Well, when Leezel was a teenager, her parents got divorced. And as part of the divorce, Leezel's parents were supposed to sell the family house and split the funds equally. But, for whatever reasons, they never got around to selling it. So Leezel and her mom kept living in the house. Leezel's dad moved back to the Philippines.
DEMBY: So he moved back to the Philippines. I'm assuming that he wasn't sending money to the United States to pay for this house that they have in California.
GHARIB: Right. Her mom was paying the mortgage on her own. And once Leezel got her first job out of college, an entry-level job at a newspaper, she started helping out with the mortgage, too. So the two of them are living in this house and paying it off. Fast-forward a decade. Leezel is in her mid-20s. She hadn't heard from her dad in years, when suddenly she gets this phone call from him.
DEMBY: Oh, Lord.
LEEZEL: I always knew, at the back of my mind, at some point he was going to come back because he was entitled to that house, and at some point, you know, he's probably going to need the money.
GHARIB: And the first thing he said was that he wanted his share of the house. He didn't ask how she'd been, how she was doing - didn't consider where Leezel and her mom would live if they sold the house. And Leezel told me he said he was entitled to the house because it was her debt to him as a daughter.
DEMBY: Her father said that it was her debt - it was Leezel's debt?
LEEZEL: He uttered these, like, 10 words I'll never forget in my entire life - if it wasn't for me, you wouldn't be here. And I basically made a decision at that point. I'm like, you know what? Let's just buy him out. He's not going to stop until he gets his share of the house. So eventually, that's what we did.
GHARIB: Leezel says she didn't even think twice about it. She decided, for her mom's sake, to buy out her dad's share of the house.
LEEZEL: It still infuriates me sometimes, but as an only child - felt like this was the right thing to do. It was a no-brainer.
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DEMBY: All right. So Leezel is trying to get her own adult life off the ground. She's got her college, she's got her - starting her career as a reporter, and suddenly she gets pulled into this mess, where now she has to buy out her dad's share of the house. Like, how much are we talking? How much was that share?
GHARIB: The value of the house at that time he was asking was $400,000.
DEMBY: Oh, my - so Leezel had to buy out his 200 G's? She had to do what?
GHARIB: Two hundred thousand dollars.
DEMBY: Oh, my God.
GHARIB: So, Gene, this is what I wanted to talk to you about in this episode.
DEMBY: Oh, yes. I'm very interested. OK.
GHARIB: This sense of obligation Leezel's dad expected from her - it's not just because he's a jerk or she's rolling in money. It actually stems from a deeply held, very old Filipino value - utang na loob.
DEMBY: Utang na loob - did I say that right?
GHARIB: Utang na loob is kind of a tricky topic for a lot of Filipino Americans. On the surface, it feels like an issue about boundaries and obligations. But when you dig a little deeper, it becomes more existential.
DEMBY: So let's start with the, like, basic - the most fundamental parts of this idea, utang na loob. Like, what does it mean?
GHARIB: It literally means debt of your inner self - your soul - in Tagalog.
DEMBY: That's a lot of pressure. That's a lot of pressure.
GHARIB: Right. So it's this feeling of needing to pay somebody back for something they did for you. Maybe it takes the form of you helping someone pay their bills, babysitting their kids, helping them fix their car - it could be many different things. And the reason why you're doing this is maybe, at some earlier point, they gave you money or helped you get a job or let you crash at their place for a while. And this relationship could be with anyone - a friend, a family member, a colleague, a parent - anyone who did something meaningful for you. Maybe, like in Leezel's case, they gave birth to you or impregnated the person who gave birth to you.
GHARIB: But the thing is, unlike a regular loan or debt, there's no way to pay back that debt. It's up to each individual person to figure out how to appropriately reciprocate that favor based on their relationship with the person they owe and the favor. And so it becomes this kind of squishy...
GHARIB: ...Emotional, personal choice of how to pay someone back. And there's never, ever going to be a point where you feel like you've squared up.
DEMBY: Yeah, I mean, when you said, you know, debt of your soul, that whole soul thing underlines that this debt is kind of permanent. Although, to be fair, I feel like a lot of people with student loan debt probably feel like that debt might outlast the heat death of the universe, too.
GHARIB: Yeah. And, I mean, it doesn't feel good to be in debt. As you can imagine, a lot of Filipino Americans like Leezel, like me, feel some type of way about this arrangement, in part because it can infringe on your sense that you're making your own way - that your money is yours or even that your life is your life.
DEMBY: OK. But, Malaka, like, earlier today, I was listening to this song by Deante Hitchcock, and he has this line, like, if my momma's still working, I cannot relax, right? And that will sound really familiar to a lot of people, right? Like, first-generation college students - the first people in their families to go to college - maybe they've moved into the middle class. They have to send money back home - right? - to pay for light bills and the - to, you know, to pay for a cousin's clothes and stuff like that. And of course, more broadly, people who work in America send billions of dollars back home to their families overseas - like in remittances - like, it's a giant part of the economy in some places.
GHARIB: Including the Philippines.
DEMBY: Yeah, including the Philippines. But we know that family obligations, like financial and otherwise - like caretaking, like, you know, child - like babysitting and stuff like that. We know that that's, like, a really big thing that lots of people just do 'cause that's what families do. So, like, how is this different from that?
GHARIB: That's a good question. I would say that what makes utang different is that it's not really about the favors. It's about the relationship between the person who owes and the person who is owed. So let me give you a personal example. I have a relative who, decades ago, told her 20-something brother-in-law that he couldn't live in her house anymore. Now, this relative had kids of her own and had already taken in two older family members.
GHARIB: But because she asked him to move out of her home, she was seen as turning her back on the family. And for that, it seemed like the rest of the family more or less shunned her, and she became a black sheep.
DEMBY: Hmm. So you were watching all this play out. Like, how did you feel about that?
GHARIB: Back then, I felt like it was really unfair. And now, as an adult, I understand what she was trying to do. She was trying to create some boundaries between her immediate family and her in-laws.
DEMBY: Yeah, that's real. OK.
GHARIB: Yeah. And as a married person myself now, I completely understand why she felt like she had to do that. But seeing what happened to her when she tried to draw what seemed like a reasonable line - that helped me get how utang works in my family and what might happen to me if I didn't uphold my end of the deal.
DEMBY: Can you say more about that?
GHARIB: So I'll share another example from my life. When I was growing up, I had a really close relationship with my aunts and uncles. My mom was single, she worked two jobs, and my titos and titas made sure my mom had enough money to pay for me and my sister's Catholic school tuition, our school uniforms. They picked us up from school and babysat us.
DEMBY: So this is, like, regular family stuff.
GHARIB: Yes. And these things were kindness done out of love and duty for the family. And now it is me and my sister's duty to remember that and honor that.
GHARIB: So out of respect for our uncles and aunts, we make ourselves available to them. Luckily, my uncles and aunts don't ask for much, but there is an expectation that we should be there for them if we are ever needed. Like, there was one time one of my uncles needed a little help to pay for his house, and so I wrote a check. And when an aunt had a 60th birthday party, I bought a plane ticket to fly back home for a night to surprise her.
GHARIB: I do these things because I love them and because they have done so much for me, but also I low-key worry about what would happen if I didn't.
DEMBY: Hmm. Like, you love them, but there's a little or else implied.
DEMBY: There's no point at which you could have cleared the ledger with your aunts and your uncles, like, where you could be like, OK, we're good. We're all squared away.
GHARIB: Right. And I wouldn't want that to happen with my aunts and uncles because I have a great relationship with them. But the problem is - and why I wanted to do this episode - is that having a debt can be very stressful. And having a forever debt? You can just imagine. So some Filipino Americans want to do away with utang na laoob completely to find a way to end their utang relationships. I put a call-out on Twitter asking other Filipino Americans about utang na loob in their lives, and I got, like, 70 people in my DMs telling me their stories - these long threads.
DEMBY: It's always wild to me how much people want to talk about these things. Like, they want to unpack them with somebody. Whenever I've done a call-out like this, like, people have been waiting to be asked - like, to get some of this shit off their chest.
OK. So that being said, you got all this family gossip from all these strangers on the internet. Like, what did they tell you? I'm curious. Spill.
GHARIB: So I will spill the tea - the ube-flavored boba tea, if you will.
GHARIB: A lot of the examples I heard sounded really, really difficult - not like the utang I had experienced in my own life, which, again, wasn't that bad, comparatively. And a lot of the people who messaged me seemed kind of resentful of their utang na loob relationships.
DOROTHY SANTOS: Hello. My name is Dorothy Santos. I'm 43 years old. I am based in San Francisco, Calif.
JASON TANAMOR: I am Jason Tanamor. I'm 47 years old. I live in Portland, Ore., and I am the middle of three boys.
NIKKI PALAFOX: Hi. My name is Nikki Palafox. I am 32 years old, and I live in San Diego, Calif. So some short backstory - my dad lost his job close to retirement when I was in my early 20s, so he started to ask me for money for gas or cigarettes, basically reminding me that he was always giving me money whenever I asked. And it started to become longer stories of what he had done for us when the amount of money he needed was starting to get higher. So soon, the money started to become in the hundreds every several weeks, and I started to feel very trapped. And the guilt I had for how my dad made me feel - you know, continuing to give him money. My dad needed the money. I just felt guilt and, honestly, embarrassment. I texted my dad. I told him that I couldn't keep giving him money anymore, and he got pretty angry at first because, for him - and I might butcher this, but (speaking Filipino) - you will lift us up out of this trouble that we're in. Like, I was solely responsible for bringing our families out of poverty, and I couldn't.
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TANAMOR: I seemed to be the black sheep in the family. I went to college to get a degree in accounting like my mother has, but then I quit to pursue my true passion, writing. One of the ways I distanced myself was never accepting any money, favors, or anything like my siblings, who still do. I had to remove the scratch-my-back mentality with them, and it was difficult to do. But now we're on a respectful level where they don't ask me for any favors or money. This has allowed me to now help out when I want to, instead of being guilt-tripped into doing it.
SANTOS: Ask someone who has identified - and I still do identify as a queer, gender-non-conforming Filipino person - utang na loob does not just factor in money. It's all about the other things that I feel that I owed my mom or I owed my parents - to be partnered, to have children, to have a good job with benefits. And I remember my mom suggesting beneficiaries, Goddess forbid something happened to me, and, you know, she recommended, you know, a couple of family members. And my response to her was, I don't even have a relationship with these people that you named. Why would I want to give money to people just because they're a part of my bloodline, but they care very little or they don't know much about me, or they never actually fostered a relationship with me? That's another aspect of defying utang na loob. To some extent, utang na loob doesn't - it's almost boundaryless.
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DEMBY: Malaka, it seems like there's a lot of stuff to get into, a lot of stuff to unpack about all this utang stuff, including how this stuff played out for Leezel and her family.
LEEZEL: You know, that money - man, if I had that money now, like, my 401(k) would be doing much better. I could've had a different outcome, I would say.
DEMBY: And we're going to get into all that after the break. Stay with us.
DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.
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DEMBY: So on this episode, we're talking about this notion called utang na loob. It's a Filipino virtue, value, ideal that literally translates to debt of the inner self - so soul, basically. And Malaka is here because she feels some type of way about this perpetual inner debt and its implications for her life, and it turns out a lot of young Filipinos like her feel the same way.
GHARIB: I do. But let's go back to Leezel's story for a second. So you'll remember - last we heard, Leezel's dad had called her up out of the blue and demanded that she pay him out for what he considered his share of the house that Leezel and her mom were living in.
DEMBY: So, I mean, side note - it's kind of wild to me that this cat called up Leezel and not his ex-wife. And that speaks volumes about a lot of stuff, including, like, who this cat is, but I digress.
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GHARIB: Absolutely. It really does. But anyway, Leezel decided right away that she was going to do everything in her power to get her dad off her back and keep the house.
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LEEZEL: My family's life pretty much started in that house. And it was - in many ways, symbolized that American dream. And to see it just go away would have been kind of the death of that dream in many ways.
GHARIB: To Leezel, letting go of the house would have meant letting go of everything that her mom had worked for.
LEEZEL: She worked as an assembly line worker for a lot of the factories around the area. And towards the end, before she retired, she was working overnights. So that overnight job really helped pay for, like, going to Catholic school, for example, because she wanted to make sure I had a safe environment to go to school.
GHARIB: So Leezel and her mom decided to just give her dad his share of the house, even though they had been paying the mortgage for years. Leezel and her mom, with help from her uncle, applied for a mortgage to cover her father's half, and Leezel became a formal co-owner of the house with her mom. Side note - Leezel's mom and dad bought the house for about 50K in the 1970s, and Leezel says her dad never contributed to the mortgage.
DEMBY: OK. So - OK, so her dad probably put 25K into this house maybe...
GHARIB: No, actually, Leezel said that he didn't contribute to the original down payment for that, either.
DEMBY: So - OK, OK, OK. So you mean to tell me that this man did not put in any money for the house as a down payment, no money for the mortgage, but then he wanted to be cashed out at $200,000?
DEMBY: Are you for real?
GHARIB: Yes, I know.
DEMBY: Oh, my gosh. Like, I wish he would. Oh, my God.
GHARIB: The nerve.
LEEZEL: Yeah. So we took out a loan for 30 years to give him his share. And basically, that closed the chapter on that.
GHARIB: But another chapter of Leezel's life began. She was now a homeowner. She was paying for most of the $2,000 mortgage with her entry-level salary. Then a couple of years later, she moved to New York for work. She started paying an extra 1,600 a month for rent for her group apartment in the city on top of the mortgage in California.
DEMBY: Oh, my God.
GHARIB: Her budget was stretched to the limit. And eventually, she had to refinance the house back in California to lower her mortgage.
DEMBY: If her father has nothing, he has the audacity. Oh, my...
GHARIB: (Laughter) I know.
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LEEZEL: You know, there was a moment that I had to really think about, like, is this even actually feasible?
GHARIB: It was hard, and she felt resentful.
LEEZEL: It definitely put me in a situation that I was not expecting at that age. You know, this was, like, now moving towards my mid- to late 20s where, in many ways, it's like that's the time you explore. That's the time you have fun and do all that, whereas, you know, I got a crash course in homeownership and refi and, like, interest rates and keeping an eye on that and making sure, you know, you're filing all the necessary documents, whereas, you know, that money - if I had that money now, man...
EJ DAVID: Those of us here in the United States are forced many times to navigate contrasting and conflicting cultural values.
GHARIB: That's E.J. David at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He's Filipino American and the author of the book "Brown Skin, White Minds," about Filipino Americans' relationship with America and how that shapes their identity.
DAVID: We are forced to make decisions. Do we subscribe to Western values of individualism and independence? Or do we adhere to Filipino values of interdependence and connectedness?
GHARIB: E.J. was one of several people who brought up how utang na loob can be in tension with Western values.
DEMBY: I'm just going to time out here because we got to pause on Western values just for a second because when people say Western values, or they say American values - I'm doing air quotes; y'all can't see me do that - like, it tends to feel like a euphemism for a bunch of ideas, ideals that are, like, much more specific and maybe need to be interrogated but don't really get named as such.
GHARIB: That's right, Gene.
DAVID: These ideas of, you know, I'm a self-made man, you know, again, which is a reflection of this individualistic worldview, which is, you know, very different from the Filipino worldview and really the worldview the majority of the world - really the nonwhite worldview of collectivism and being connected to each other.
GHARIB: Even though this might not be a reality for a lot of people, there's still this perception that these values are something people need to conform to to become American.
DEMBY: Absolutely. I get it.
GHARIB: So let's look at the history of utang na loob.
GHARIB: Scholars aren't sure when it started, but they believe it's a core precolonial value of the Indigenous peoples of the lands now known as the Philippines. Back in the 1950s, Charles Kaut at the University of Chicago studied utang na loob. It's a way for people to take care of each other, to protect each other from poverty, danger, outsiders, and to hold each other accountable. By upholding your end of the exchange, that's how you show care to people in your community.
So, for example, if you have extra rice, you might give it to a neighbor who's struggling. If you have extra land, you might let a family member farm on it. And those people who are given these gifts or favors - they now have a tie to the person who shared them. And they're now connected to them forever.
DEMBY: I mean, it sounds in some ways like a mutual aid network where, like, people are working together to, like, get their needs met in ways that they might not be getting met, like, in formal ways. You know what I mean?
GHARIB: Right. So Kaut, the researcher, also spent time in the barrio of Kapitangan in the Philippines. There were 900 people in the barrio, and they lived in these kinship networks - family members, extended family members, friends, friends of friends. And they were all bound by these intricate webs of relationships built on utang na loob. And if one person failed to make good on their utang, it threatened all the people tied together in this way. Kaut writes that kids in Kapitangan were taught really early on that the world is hostile to the individual, and as long as he remains in a strong in-group will he be sure of relative comfort and safety.
DEMBY: I guess that makes sense - right? - because, like, any social arrangement like this, like, with enough people involved that's, like, kind of informal - it requires maintenance. You need reward. In this case, it's, like, people will help take care of you, making your life easier to live. But maintenance isn't just about rewards. It's also about, like, sanction, right? There have to be consequences because the gamble that everyone is making is that everyone that's participating is rowing in the same direction. And if you don't, you might get shunned. But also, if you don't, someone else might not be protected. Like, this doesn't sound that horrible or bananas.
GHARIB: I know, right? That's what E.J. said.
DAVID: The good part about this is, despite hundreds of years of colonialism and systematic attempts to not just erase these indigenous values but to distort them - right? - and demonize them, the fact that it's still around, that it still exists within us despite the fact that many of us may not even speak the languages anymore. We still feel it inside of us. I think that speaks to the power of these values.
DEMBY: All right. But, Malaka, how do we get from, OK, we're all in the same gang; we're all in this together, you know, protected by the group, by family and friends and friends of family to Leezel's dad calling her up out the blue and telling her, I need a couple hundred thousand dollars or else. Like, what?
GHARIB: Great question. E.J. says that, over time, the concept of utang na loob became warped. Some scholars argue that Spanish colonizers may have even taken advantage of utang na loob to convert so many of the native people to Catholicism because Filipinos felt this need to give back to the Spaniards for, quote, unquote, "civilizing" them, enlightening them, teaching them.
DEMBY: Oh, my God.
GHARIB: And so here we see that utang could be used as something that you could abuse, holding a debt over someone's head to get what you want. And that exploitation, he says, has crept into our modern understanding of utang na loob.
DAVID: Unfortunately, that's how utang na loob is often expressed or manifested in everyday Filipino life. People can definitely take advantage of this cultural value to manipulate other people, to bully them or pressure them, you know, to get them to comply or to obey or - you know, or do things that they might not want to do or are difficult for them to do.
DEMBY: Like - I don't know - taking out a mortgage so you can give your father $200,000.
GHARIB: Right. And when distortions like these come up, it's understandable that some Filipino Americans want to draw the line. But it's easier said than done. That's something that Roanne de Guia-Samuels helps out with. She's Filipino and a psychotherapist in California who works with Filipino and Filipino American clients. She says people might say...
ROANNE DE GUIA-SAMUELS: (Speaking Tagalog), meaning you have no shame. You don't know how to reciprocate a good deed or a favor. And sometimes it's used a lot with black sheep, so someone who is deviating from the cultural group.
DEMBY: I mean, this idea that you're somewhat - like, the black sheep thing - that's not specifically a Filipino thing. Like, all groups have some kind of policing, right? Like, it's a very powerful and probably necessary thing for, like, group cohesion. In order for there to be a group, there have to be boundaries. There have to be people who are not in the group, right? And things that are seen as a threat to the group have to be exposed or punished. Like, other social scientists have come on this show to talk about, like, Black Republicans, right? Like, Black people don't like Republicans, but they really don't like Black Republicans because they're seen as a part of the group that has opted for treachery, you know?
GHARIB: Yeah. So when people try to end utang na loob relationships, even very exploitative ones, they're sometimes treated like Black Republicans, so to speak - as if they're betraying their whole communities. Roanne says that can be really painful.
GUIA-SAMUELS: Some people might have panic attacks of, oh, my gosh, you know, I have to make good.
GHARIB: Or people internalize it and say...
GUIA-SAMUELS: There's something wrong with me. I'm not doing enough. Yeah, I'm not good enough.
DEMBY: I'm just thinking out loud here, but that I'm not good enough feeling has come up a few times on CODE SWITCH, specifically our Ask CODE SWITCH episodes. We had a conversation about the way that Asian American college students often frame their immigrant parents' experiences, like, through the lens of sacrifice and how that feeling of having to do right by that sacrifice and grinding to achieve - air quotes - using these very meritocratic metrics for achievement stresses people out.
And it does a lot of damage to their, like, self-concepts and to their mental health. And actually thinking about how you've explained utang na loob some, I wonder how much, like, that idea of parental sacrifice if your parents are immigrants is also, like, complicating this feeling of setting boundaries with your parents and this sense of duty to them on top of the utang that already exists.
GHARIB: Yeah. I mean, honestly, that was certainly a factor for me. And Roanne's been working with Filipino Americans with these same feelings. She teaches them what utang na loob is, how to manage it and how to know when it's not serving you. She starts by asking her clients to think about whether this debt of gratitude is giving them anxiety or distress. She pointed to Leezel's situation. Even though it was hard, Leezel said she didn't think twice about helping her mom.
GUIA-SAMUELS: If that is something that makes her feel good; she doesn't see a sense of internal conflict - then I think the ecosystem of utang na loob is working for that family system unless, otherwise, Leezel is saying, oh, this sucks, right?
DEMBY: OK, so what if it sucks? Like, don't obligations suck sometimes? Like, isn't that kind of the deal? Like, that's a big part of obligations - is that they're not always fun.
GHARIB: Yeah, well, there's sucks because you'd rather not do it and there's sucks because the ask is exploitative. I asked E.J. David about that.
DAVID: Here's an important part again, you know, that I want to emphasize. It's a two-way street. The people who are using utang na loob to exploit others and to manipulate others - that's a sign that perhaps, you know, they're not behaving according to kapwa. In the Filipino worldview, being called walang kapwa is a lot worse than being called walang utang na loob.
DEMBY: OK, so for those of us who don't speak Tagalog, what does E.J. mean there, walang utang na loob?
GHARIB: Well, the person who is owed this utang also has a responsibility to the person who owes the debt, and part of that responsibility means not taking advantage of them. It means you're both looking out for each other. So kapwa is the connection that Filipinos have to each other, a kinship that you and me are equal. And in Tagalog, walang kapwa means you don't have that.
DAVID: That's the worst person in the Filipino worldview because once you're walang kapwa or you're accused of having walang kapwa, then you really - that means that you're - you cease being a person. You cease being a human.
DEMBY: Cease being a human is kind of strong.
GHARIB: I know. I was actually talking to Leezel about this and asked her whether she'd consider her dad walang kapwa.
DEMBY: That's a good question.
GHARIB: And she said absolutely. When mutual friends on both her mom and dad's side heard the house story, most people sided with Leezel's mom. He has this reputation of being even more shameless now. And before this whole thing, some of Leezel's family, including Leezel, talked to her dad sometimes.
GHARIB: Not a lot. But, you know, he'd send a birthday card to Leezel every now and then.
GHARIB: But after the house drama, they stopped talking to him completely. And still to this day, even though it's been years, when Leezel's dad comes up in conversation, Leezel says it's often followed by a string of profanity in Filipino.
DEMBY: I mean, so he's, you know, an outcast. But I'm curious if he was - if he wanted to, could he ever get his kapwa back? Like, is he stuck as an outcast forever?
GHARIB: That's a really good question. And it's complicated because, as we've been talking about, it wouldn't just involve making amends with the individual you've mistreated or exploited. It could potentially involve trying to win over an entire community that you've alienated.
DEMBY: OK. So - right - like, any relationship, you know, you mess up. Maybe your partner, you know, or your mom or whoever you did wrong by - they forgive you, but you still have to get right with everyone else that they told about what you did.
GHARIB: Right. Right. And I want to point out a part of utang na loob that E.J. David says is really, really important.
DAVID: The more important piece of it is the inner part, loob. Loob is connected to each other, so my loob is connected to you. You know, that's the whole idea of kapwa. Like, I, for example, was sending money home to my family in the Philippines. While I was in college, I had a full-time college job while I was a full-time college student. You know, part of that was to help me survive here, but a big part of that was being sent home to the Philippines to also help my family there with their daily, you know, living costs but also to put my nieces to school. You know, sure, you know, was it a burden on my end? And did I wish that, oh, I wish I could just keep all that money to myself? Sure. But to me, it was a connection to them.
We can talk all we want about, well, maybe we can do both. We can - yeah, sure, we can. You know, it's possible. There are many bicultural, you know - multiculturally competent people out there. You can. But those are context to context, right? Eventually, you will find yourself in a situation where those values are in opposition of each other, and you will have to decide whether you go one way or the other. If you decide that, oh, I'm going to go toward the independent side on this one, as painful and as difficult as that might be, to protect yourself and protect your well-being, that's good for you. But I hope you also understand the consequence of that - right? - that it might mean - I'm not saying it automatically means it, but it might mean that you are losing your connection to other people. And therefore, you might be losing a little part of your Filipino-ness too.
DEMBY: Like, if your Filipino family is your primary conduit for your Filipino-ness, then cutting them off or just deciding to keep them at arm's length - that might leave you adrift from, like, a broader Filipino community.
GHARIB: Right. I know for me, personally, my family is what keeps my Filipino traditions alive. If I didn't have relationships with them, would I be, quote-unquote, as Filipino as I am today? It's a scary question and it certainly adds pressure to keeping utang relationships intact.
DEMBY: I mean, it doesn't seem like E.J. is talking about disregarding boundaries with people, it seems more like he's saying that, if you really value your connection to people and you're in community with them, that their well-being is part of how you make decisions about your life. And on a really basic level, like, what does it mean to have a cultural identity? Like, in this case, it was about Filipinos, but we talk about this more broadly all the time. Like, if you're not in community, if you're not in fellowship with other Filipino people, like, it's kind of like, how is this identity not just, like, biographical trivia? Like, if you're not doing the thing of culture, which is being with people - because culture is people, for better and worse.
GHARIB: Absolutely. And that really, really makes me think about Leezel. You know, it's her dad who calls her and explicitly demands - you need to pay me for this house because you wouldn't be here without me. And Leezel does pay him, but it's not because of the utang she feels toward him. It's because of the utang she feels toward her mom, who seems like never brought up this debt of the inner self in the first place. Leezel says something great came out of it.
LEEZEL: In terms of my relationship with my mother, I think I would not have been as close. To me, it was a no-brainer. And I can just speak for my family. If somebody is in crisis, any one of us, we rally. And how do we rally? We pull the money together. We figure out a way to do it, no questions asked.
GHARIB: Honestly, Gene, I don't think I would have done what Leezel did.
DEMBY: You wouldn't have. OK. Can you say more about that?
GHARIB: Yeah. I mean, like, thinking about the burden and the debt it would've put on me and how I would've then had to probably borrow money from my other relatives that would create this whole new set of utang ties - that idea - it really stresses me out. But then again, E.J. told me that maybe I was thinking about utang and these debts, like, a little too literally.
DAVID: They say (speaking Tagalog) - (speaking Tagalog) means to acknowledge it, to see it. Then they don't really expect you to pay it back, you just need to acknowledge that you are indebted to them. The saying is not (speaking Tagalog), which is you need to learn how to pay. So it's not the payment that matters. It's acknowledging that you are indebted to somebody.
GHARIB: Roanne said something similar, and she gave me an example from her own life.
GUIA-SAMUELS: Yeah. My mom is in the Philippines, but for her to be able to help me and my siblings to immigrate, she had to go to America back and forth. So she worked odd jobs in America. Even though she was a business owner in the Philippines, she was, like, a caregiver here for like almost a year. So I have an alert on my phone that reminds me to call my mom. My debt to her is to remind her when I speak to her, to not forget her.
GHARIB: Roanne says that when she calls her mom and her mom hears all the good things that are happening in Roanne's life - she has a nice house, she has a great career - her mom feels good because she feels connected to the reason why Roanne can have this nice life.
GUIA-SAMUELS: She understands it's not everything, but I am the one who's not forgetting.
GHARIB: Here's E.J. again.
DAVID: At least the way that I understand utang na loob, it is this, you know, sense of connection and responsibility to other people, right? Understanding that I did not get to where I am - like, as successful as I might be, I did not get here by myself. I think that's important for many of us to understand. Like, you know, this country - we worship, quote-unquote, self-made millionaires or self-made billionaires. In the Filipino worldview, you cannot be self-made anything. The world is going to be a much better place if we stop seeing ourselves as these, you know, super-independent people because we are connected. We are interdependent.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DEMBY: All right, y'all, that's our show. Malaka, thank you for coming through and telling this story.
GHARIB: Thank you for having me.
DEMBY: You can also catch Episode 3 of School Colors in your CODE SWITCH feed. That'll drop on Friday. We're amped for the rest of the season, which will be dropping as bonus episodes for the next few weeks.
This episode was edited by Leah Donnella and me and produced by Christina Cala. And shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive - Karen Grigsby Bates, Steve Drummond, Kumari Devarajan, Alyssa Jeong Perry, Summer Thomad, Diba Mohtasham and Taylor Jennings-Brown. Our art director is LA Johnson. Our engineer is Stu Rushfield. You can follow us on Twitter @nprcodeswitch. You can follow us on Instagram at the same. I'm @geede215 in both those places. Malaka, what's your Twitter handle?
GHARIB: It's @malakagharib - M-A-L-A-K-A, G-H-A-R-I-B.
DEMBY: And, of course, we always want to hear from you. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And subscribe to our newsletter, which you can do by going to npr.org/newsletters with an S at the end. I'm Gene Demby.
GHARIB: I'm Malaka Gharib.
DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.
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