Written by: Rome Lim
Image Courtesy of “Soul” Barbershop Disney/Pixar
So I’m sitting in my barber’s chair and we’re talking about love, romantic partnerships, getting older - not the usual shop talk that he’s probably used to. But I guess that’s what happens when you go to a barbershop where everyone who works there is Filipino. It gets really emotional - really fast. Oh! And the music is always good.
“Yeah, I just like dating Filipinos 'cause I don’t feel like I have to explain myself,” is what I said as the clippers were buzzing around my ear. “They understand my culture and why I am the way I am.”
My barber nods and chuckles in agreement. “Man, that’s so true. And the thing I really like about our culture is that we don’t really get divorced. It’s nice to see.”
I chuckle and nod as well, but instead of agreeing with him, I do it to mask how uncomfortable I feel.
My mom is divorced and has been for almost half my life.
I don’t know if what I was feeling is because I grew up seeing the kind of microaggressions my Filipino community would engage in when my Mom left my Dad, and translating the phrase “we don’t really get divorced” into “you’re a bad Filipino”, which brought up a lot of old emotions and memories from that part of my life.
I really don’t know what I was feeling, but clearly, there is a lot to unpack there.
Within our culture, there is an almost insurmountable amount of stigma against divorce and divorcees - a majority of which are comprised of women/femme people. The crux of it relates back to religion, and how intertwined it is in our very being as Filipinos. But our views on gender roles and the hushed tones surrounding abuse, also contribute to how we demonize and treat divorced individuals.
At the beginning of my Mom’s departure from my Dad, I remember seeing an almost immediate social shunning from the most diverse group of people. People back in our hometown were distancing themselves from her; whenever my Mom went out in public, there would be chismis and certain looks thrown her way from complete strangers”.
I could not believe how many people were willingly making her business theirs as well.
When I was interviewing her for this post, she had mentioned that people had personally messaged her from back home and asked her when she was going to get back with my Dad.
“Maybe you guys are ok now. Maybe it’s better for you to get back together. Anyway, you have children,” is what my Mom claimed this relative had said to her through Facebook.
Society as a whole attaches a woman’s femininity, personhood, and morality to motherhood and how they serve men; a woman is always a mother even when she isn’t one yet. These ideals, even in the West, are rooted in Catholic/colonial beliefs.
Once a woman becomes divorced, she has tarnished the sanctity of marriage, thus disobeying God and being labeled a “sinner”.
My Mom has had many people in her life call her a sinner just for leaving my Dad. No one should ever be demonized for choosing themselves, especially by people who don’t know what is happening to them in the slightest.
Chismis is paramount to the ways in which spouses contemplating divorce feel trapped inside unhappy marriages. But imagine how much more debilitating the lack of understanding and communal support feels to an individual in an abusive partnership. (Shame is also a part of this as well)
When we exist in a culture so heavily centered around the ideals of a religious institution - so much so that it seems to embolden us to judge the choices of others and place morality on things that are more or less neutral - we have to recognize that shame is also a part of our cultural makeup.
“Utang na loob”, for example, is an ideal that places a lot of us in a gridlock between doing what is best for us and what others expect of us. We have yet to pay our debt, so we must persevere.
Something like leaving an abusive partner might embarrass our family and tarnish their name. It would come off as disrespectful to those who have worked so hard to get you to where you are, despite it maybe having nothing to do with your relationship with your partner.
Maybe they introduced you to him, or maybe he’s helped your family out financially - utang na loob and the social shaming that divorce brings is what roots people in cement.
I want to make it very clear that I love the way Filipinos express love to one another. It’s that teleserye-type love; the one that fights and perseveres for a shot at forever with the only person you could ever imagine being with. That sunshine in the rain/Tylenol when I’m in pain-kind of corny love. I love and believe every single bit of it.
But we definitely need to start criticizing and analyzing our own perceptions of not only marriage but our views on religion and just exactly how much we believe in our community when push comes to shove.
I ended up leaving the barbershop with a fresh cut and an even fresher perspective on how we as a community need to do better for our kapwa.