Blood is Thicker than Water: The Importance of Family in the Pilipino Culture


A thin bar of plastic had descend on my shoulder. A hanger and my older sister wielding it.


My sister was crying. My clenched fist had just collided with her stomach.

I was not quite ten and she not quite fourteen.

If you have siblings then you probably are, I venture to say, familiar with this type of experience. Growing up with two sisters – who were more like brothers when they were angry – I have experienced, and inflicted, my fair share of emotional and physical blows. I cannot count how many times I’ve been hit, punched, bitten or screamed at. How often I heard the words, “I hate you!" or felt the sting of a cold shoulder is beyond me. When we fought—and we fought A LOT—no feelings were spared, no insult was unused and at least one of us walked away with a bruise.

My sister and I during a childhood Christmas.

When I reminisce about all the childhood clashes that classified my sisters as enemies, two things happen. One, I realize that my sisters and I were little barbarians when we were younger. I mean when you resort to biting an adversary, you've regressed a few evolutionary steps.  Two, I look at us now and wonder how did three people who could so easily "hate"  each other become three people who could not live without one another? I suppose some of it has to do with getting older. As the number on our birthday cakes increased, the petty differences that pitted us against one another dwindled in importance. But was it really just time that changed us? Definitely not.

A blur of flying fists and ugly words — especially now, more than a decade later— I remember very few details about our fights. What I do remember is my father saying this:

"Love your sisters. At the end of the world, your family is all you have."

Repeated each time I ran to my room in tears, my dad's advice became tradition. No argument felt complete unless it ended in his voice and these words. There seems nothing abnormal about this; just a father trying to mediate between his bickering children.  However, there was strange and remarkable about this advice: I didn't have to fling a toy at my sisters to hear it. Any situation in which my dad had my attention, he found some way to remind me how essential my family is (the man could turn conversation about Christmas dinner into a sermon about family!). But however much fun I like to poke at my father's lessons, they worked. There is no one I trust more than my little sister, no one I can joke around with like my Ate. And as I became older, I began to understand these values were not exclusive to just my family. Like the eight-rayed sun, close family bonds are indicative of the Pilipino culture.

The family stands at the center of the Pilipino culture. A beautiful feature that only adds to the richness of our culture, many Pilipinos - myself included - do not often ask why. Why is family such a crucial part of life for Pilipinos?  According to Ador Vincent Mayol in the Global Nation Inquirer, religion is the driving force behind this mentality. Mayol asserts that the family is a gift from God and as a cohesive unit it is a representation of the Lord. It is no surprise, then, that the arduously Catholic Pilipinos feel the need to strengthen family ties as another means of showing reverence to God. No doubt, the family, my family,  is a great blessing. However, I would like to share a different possibility.

The Philippines is a poor country. Yes, it houses the very modernized, very affluent Manila, but the greater majority of this island nation is in a state of seemingly perpetual poverty; its poverty level have remained stagnant for the past six years.  So impoverished is the Philippines that the goal of many of its younger residents is to leave the country, unwilling to raise a family in these dire conditions. This is a disheartening fact, but it is one that, I believe, encourages Pilipino families to develop such unshakable relationships. When you have  no financial stability and very few material possessions, and when you live in fear that at any moment you could be removed from school because of insufficient funds, the only constant thing is your family. In a country whose economic state is constantly testing the physical and emotional resilience of its people, the family in the Pilipino culture is a gold mine of strength.  It is the cushion for when one falls and the holler of joy when one succeeds. The family provides, for Pilipinos, a sense of togetherness and emotional stability vital in a situation earmarked by toil and inconsistency.

Am I glad that my parents, my titos and titas, my grandparents faced such hardship? Never. No one should have to wonder if they'll have enough money to buy a decent meal or suitable clothes. However, I do consider myself lucky having been born to Pilipino parents, born into a culture defined by endurance and a clear understanding about the importance of family.

"We never had a lot, but we always had each other." -Glenn Estavillo, my dad

My Fil-Am Identity Abroad: "You Look Like Thai People"

When I introduce myself to my students, teachers, administrators and important guests here at the school where I'm teaching in Thailand, the conversation, without fail, proceeds in the following manner:

“Chan chuu Ryann. Pen khon American,” I say. Translation: My name is Ryann. I’m American.

I am usually faced by blank stares of confusion.

“Meh ka Paw maa jaak prathet Philippine, ” I add, just to clarify why I have black hair and dark skin. Translation: My mother and father come from the Philippines.

“You look like Thai people,” they offer.

I have mixed feelings when I hear this response. I am flattered to know that I have been able to blend into the northwest Thai/hill tribe culture I’ve been thrust into. However, I am certainly not “Thai people.” I’m Pilipino American. Thus, I am also internally disappointed that my heritage and nationality aren’t as obvious to those around me.


As Fil-Ams, we are at an interesting identity crossroads. We are too American to be Pilipino. We are too Pilipino to be American. We moved from the Philippines. We grew up in the States. Or, we were born in the States, and have yet to dig our feet into Philippine soil.

What does it even mean to be “Pilipino”? How can we understand our Fil-Am identity, especially while abroad? Sometimes, I despise this question. I hate the cliché answers that I come up with. Yes, I do love pan de sal, Kodakan, and a victorious round of mahjong. But there are other facts surrounding my identity that percolate in my mind. I am guilty that I never learned to speak Tagalog. I am ashamed that I’ve only been to the Philippines on two occasions, both of which were not long enough to feel like I belonged there. Am I truly Pilipino?

On some occasions, I’ve even found myself too afraid to introduce myself as an American. Overseas, Americans are perceived as ignorant, lazy and obnoxious individuals. And being in Northwest Thailand over the past six months, I’ve been criticized simply based on the fact that I’m American. I’ve heard the excuse that I don’t understand Thai culture enough to appreciate and value it, as I come from the States. I’m offended by this assumption, because I come from a Pilipino household and culture that certainly values family and religious faith, just like here in Thailand. I’ve been told that my reactions and comments are attributed to me being from the Land of the Free; the fact that I’m a college graduate with an array of experience under my belt is not even considered. All of these insensitive assumptions are unfair, but to take another persons’ criticism to heart would only prove that I’m accepting their claims.

Whether or not this is an identity crisis, I know one thing to be certain: I am a resilient and driven Fil-Am in the global society. Fil-Ams are unique, and crucial, to the larger Pilipino community. We should embrace the various facets that make up who we are, not fear them.