The Myth of Asian Modesty
by Michael Tan
Phil Daily Inquirer, "Pinoy Kasi" 16 July 2002
"YABANG!" Filipinos often hurl that comment at Westerners. It can be a furious invective that translates, "You arrogant fool!"
We stereotype the Westerner as being "too aggressive" (and therefore arrogant). Conversely, we like to believe that we Asians are, by nature, modest.
I'd question those assumptions. Let's start by looking at instances when we label Westerners as being "yabang". I'm going to give a concrete example here, using a common story that comes from Filipinos new to the United States. They go into a store and ask the sales clerk for a certain item. The clerk checks the computer and goes, "Sorry, man, but I don't have that in stock right now, but hey, I can order one for you if you want."
Many Filipinos have told me variations of that story and cited them as "proof" that the Westerner is "yabang". "Imagine," they point out, "he's only a clerk and he talks like he owns the store. And calling me 'hey man' and offering to get me the item. Yabang."
What we see here is a misinterpretation of the clerk's self-confidence, and typical American go-getter business attitude. When they offer to order the item for you, it's because they know it makes good business sense, rather than have you buy from someone else.
Contrast all that with a local store, where the clerk will give you a blank look and say, "Wala po kami." She's being proper in saying "we" don't have it, rather than "I". She's also being polite, using the honorific "po". She's as respectful and as modest as Asians want her to be, but she's also a liability for the business. There's a chance the store actually has the item but she doesn't know it. And if the store doesn't have the item, she's not about to order it for you. She knows she's "only" a clerk and she's living up to what her defined role is: meek, modest and hopelessly helpless.
Let me give one more example to drive home my point. Your son comes home with his bride-to-be, a Westerner or an Asian-American. She walks up to you, offers to shake your hand and goes, "Pleased to meet you, Dad." Oops. You think, "Disrespectful. The nerve, this is the first time we're meeting and she wants to call me dad. Yabang."
Then you console yourself by remembering your neighbor's story about his first meeting with his American son-in-law. "Hi there, Es-tay-ban," the fool said and, not content, went on to ask, while chewing gum, "Gosh, Es-tay-ban's a mouthful. Can I call you Steve?"
Get the picture? The clash of values isn't really over modesty. It's a clash between Asian feudal values that emphasize rigid hierarchies and Western capitalism's emphasis on egalitarianism and individual worth.
In the West, you are what you make of yourself. In Asia, you are never "you" as an individual; instead you are defined by your class, caste, age or sex with strict behavioral norms attached to your ascribed station in life. Modesty is imposed on those who are deemed inferior. As for those who consider themselves above the unwashed masses, we see a terrible immodesty, many times more mayabang than that of the Westerner.
Asians flaunt wealth and power. For the Filipino, this is usually done by over-dressing, decking himself with what he thinks are the symbols of wealth: flashy jewelry, brand-name accessories.
We live on, and demand adulation. Think of the long introductions for an "honorable" and "esteemed" guest speaker, using biodata prepared by who else but the guest speaker. The introduction may as well be a eulogy, as you read out the guest's credentials and achievements, from graduating valedictorian in kindergarten to his having eight (official) children.
It is amazing how this training to be immodest starts early in life. You see it even in school among the children of the rich and powerful, in the way they dress, in the latest electronic gadgets they carry. These kids don't walk, they strut around. Neither do they talk; they boast, they order people around.
Our feudal values demand that we brag about who we are and what our achievements are, which is why politicians never let us forget that it is through their largesse (even if with our taxpayers' money) that you have a newly paved street, or a hospital, all named after the politician's grandfather or mother. The cult of the personality, so rampant in Asia, belies our claims to modesty. Don't think of North Korea. Think of how we allow ourselves to be tormented by the faces of incumbent presidents on mass rail transit cards, on postage stamps, on our currency.
The swagger, the insolent voice, the conspicuous consumption of wealth are all part of an assertion of privilege, a long-playing ritual to intimidate others into "modest'' silence. In countries where such a culture dominates, like the Philippines, progress is slow. There is little room for innovation or creativity since individual merit is rarely recognized. The only way up, besides being born into privilege, is to join the circle of sycophants that sing daily praise to those in power.
Our language says it all. We do not have words for "modest" and "modesty" in Tagalog, except in the sense of how a woman is supposed to behave. We do have a word for "humble" - mapagpakumbaba, which emphasizes the way we are supposed to lower, even prostrate ourselves, in relation to the powerful. Alas, we are a nation humbled and hobbled.