A Sense of History and National Identity in Gideon Lasco’s ‘The Philippines is Not a Small Country’

“Only with a proper sense of history” can we truly understand and address the systemic ills, whether grand or quotidian, that continue to plague our country today. This is what Gideon Lasco attempts to tell us in his essay collection The Philippines is Not a Small Country, an intersectional and interdisciplinary examination of our identity as a nation, no matter how elusive it may seem.

Published by Bughaw—an imprint of Ateneo de Manila University Press—in 2020, Lasco’s corpus of work reflects his bold, well-considered takes on several issues drawn from his field experiences and personal encounters as a physician, anthropologist, writer, mountaineer, and traveler.

While a bulk of the essays, divided into seven palatable parts, are derived from the author’s weekly commentaries in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Lasco manages to offer fresh, worthy insights around these essays, steering us to a larger narrative of what it means to be Filipino, with a gnawing awareness that there is no one absolute answer.

Diverse perspectives

In the first chapter, “Country,” Lasco attempts to deconstruct the Philippines (and our views of the country in the course of this deconstruction) by exploring its vastness and the beauty that comes with it. Such deconstruction is aptly represented by the titular essay itself, refuting our perceptions of the supposed smallness of the Philippines. 

This part is engaging and unhypocritical because, as journalist Lourd de Veyra puts it best, the author “knows whereof he speaks”—which one might consider as a point of privilege and rightly so—but Lasco consistently remains grounded as he shatters the notion that everything he conveys is of intellectual and imaginative matters alone. 

“Nation” takes the premise of the first chapter a step further, problematizing the country’s seemingly endless hurdles to achieving nationhood and insisting on the value of empathy that Filipinos must possess to become a fully realized nation, however nebulous it may seem.

Lasco talks about the Pinoy concepts of pagkakanya-kanya, walang kamag-anak, and teleserye. One section is dedicated to his youth as a fan of the local sports team Ginebra. But while his anecdotes are often funny and engaging, he never fails to thread these accounts into a unifying message that speaks in a Rizalian tone. The author allows us to realize that these too-familiar concepts are always born out of politics, whether or not we admit it.

The third chapter, “Culture,” is a closer and more intimate gaze at the author’s heart as an anthropologist. This is where Lasco becomes more accessible while remaining articulate and committed to his points. He argues that our bodies and senses are social constructs with which we view the world, so he lets us (re)experience these senses in every sense of the word.

Lasco taps into the richness and complexities of Filipino customs and how it relates to having a more profound sensibility toward our own country and identity. He explores the topics that commonly exist in the Filipino psyche like tagay, pantawid-gutom, pasalubong, pabaon, utang na loob, and bawal umihi dito, then shifting into more serious ones like the Filipinos’ internalized racism and colorism. 

In “People,” the Palanca-winning essayist further ponders on the diversity of the Filipinos, underscoring the “othering” that exists in our homeland. This part is about our humanity above anything else. 

Lasco, free from any pretense of having a moral high ground, makes us confront our prejudices and flaws as human beings to foster a deeper understanding of our fellow Filipinos, particularly the likes of the tambay, the kasambahay, the drug user, and the street vendor. However, as the author suggests, this acknowledgment of ourselves will only be possible if we develop a sense of (local) history. 

In “Technology” and “Modernity,” Lasco reflects on the pros and cons of contemporary developments in Filipino society. The author touches on the performativity in our obsessive culture of capturing experiences through our cameras rather than precisely experiencing them — how we present ourselves, whether wittingly or unwittingly, before a virtual audience. 

Lasco also contemplates the adverse changes that we continue to grapple with within the face of technological progress: how the Philippines became a “mall country,” how we lost the “art of bedtime storytelling,” or how we became accustomed to reducing deaths to mere numbers.

The last chapter, “World,” harbors broad and broadened views of our place in the world, with the author’s keen consideration not to put the “global” and the “local” against each other. What makes this part a worthy reading experience is a knowledge that Lasco didn’t get his ideas out of thin air, recognizing that his travels around the world largely contribute to his essays’ meaning-making.

Lasco tells us that our connectedness with other countries, which unfortunately continues to be eroded over time, “should not only place us at the heart of the world; it should also give us a heart for the world: an empathy for the struggles and sufferings taking place beyond our shores.” 

A sense of history 

In the book’s entirety, Lasco claims no single answer toward achieving nationhood but hints at one: a sense of history. 

In one essay, Lasco states: “Local histories can liberate us from the grand historical narratives that engender feelings of exclusion, which populists then use to further divide our nation.” 

In “Memory as resistance,” Lasco asserts the weight of collective memory on our nation-in-the-making. He reminds us, minus the preachiness, that our natural tendency to forget the past allows impunity and permits the likes of the Marcoses and their cronies to remain in power. But through collective remembering and retelling of our history, we can remedy this detrimental amnesia, as the author imparts. 

The book attempts to convey that by recognizing the oppression that we have long endured and seeing our history with a renewed sense of appreciation, we begin to grasp a deep-rooted and critical understanding of what to make of our ever-elusive national identity. 

As Lasco articulates in his final essay: “Regardless of one’s peregrinations, however, one lesson is clear: only with a proper sense of history can a nation move from the tragedies of its past and pursue a better future.” 

The Philippines is Not a Small Country is beyond a culmination of Lasco’s personal experiences and ruminations from the different disciplines he continues to partake in, but an encompassing premise and a hopeful promise about our nation beyond what we imagine.

We need more writing doctors, anthropologists, and travelers like Gideon Lasco.

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