By Coco Lim
As a Filipina-American, I grew up torn between the individualist American narrative and collectivist Filipino culture. Today with the spread of COVID-19, it feels like collectivist practices are finally confronting individualist mentality. Individualist ideas like, “It won’t matter if I don’t wear a face mask” or “I need all the toilet paper” will not help us survive right now.
As the child of two immigrants from the Philippines, I was raised with this community, collective mentality. A collectivist culture means valuing the needs of a group or a community over the individual and recognizing that all individuals are connected and interdependent. I grew up constantly conscious of how my actions would affect my family. Sticking together as a family meant survival. Now, it feels like the rest of the U.S. is finally recognizing the merits of and adopting collective practices. Yet, while it may seem revolutionary, the collectivist mindset is nothing new. In fact, for many cultures, collectivist strategies mean survival, and a collectivist approach is how we will survive during and after this global pandemic.
My parents emigrated from the Philippines before my sisters or I were born. As they planned to support a family that had yet to actualize, they continued to support their family members who remained in the Philippines through money transfers, otherwise known as remittances. Those aspects of my family history are common in Filipino culture. Throughout several waves of Filipino migration, beginning in 1587 through the 1980’s when there was a surge in overseas Filipino workers, remittances have made up a significant percentage of GDP in the Philippines. According to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), cash sent home by overseas Filipinos totaled $33.47 billion for 2019 — approximately 10% of the country’s GDP. “Remittances are a big source of disposable income among Filipino families, as the dollars that Filipinos send support food, daily expenses, and even luxuries of their loved ones in the Philippines” (Lopez).
The magnitude of remittances indicates a cultural tendency to continuously care for one’s family, especially during times of economic hardship. Since remittances are expected to decline sharply during and after COVID-19 and poor communities will be hit the hardest, individuals are even more likely to rely on their community networks. Although one could argue that people who rely on others become more vulnerable in times of hardship, the country’s lack of stable economic opportunities in conjunction with lack of government support and resources make it near impossible to be entirely self sufficient on an individual and national level. The circumstances prior to COVID-19 forced communities to utilize collective measures, and the current crisis will only exacerbate the need for a collective approach. Local civil society organizations in the Philippines such as Action for Economic Reforms (AER) have redirected their workstreams toward appealing for social amelioration measures, including deploying financial assistance to the most vulnerable populations and utilizing multi-channel money delivery methods. While Filipino-Americans demonstrate collective behavior, collectivist cultures are not limited to the immigrant narrative.
The Haudenosaunee are a northeast Native American Confederacy whose family structure also exemplifies collectivism and whose expansive definition of family is grounded in non-western networks of care. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy includes the Mohawk, Onodaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca Nations. In addition to caring for blood-related family members, the Haudenosaunee follow a clan system of caregiving and relationality. Clans are traced back to one common female ancestor. Each member of a clan is considered a relative, regardless of which nation they belong to. According to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the “system is especially helpful when traveling from nation to nation as people search out members of their same clan who then provide food and shelter and care for them as part of their family.” With an expanded definition of family, the Haudenosaunee create extended systems and networks of support. Rather than restricting care and support for those immediately within our bloodline, this structure demonstrates the power and resourcefulness in expanding our understanding and definitions of who we are responsible for. Especially today, considering the vulnerability of Native populations, Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians states that “having partnerships and having friendships and alliances is going to be the key to saving the lives of each and every one of us within Indian country and in our surrounding communities” (Keene).
Queer folx also have a legacy of blurring (or queering) definitions of family. In the 1980s during the AIDS epidemic, this concept of a queer chosen family came into widespread focus. At a time when many queer folx were rejected from immediate family members, the law did not recognize same-sex unions, and HIV was referred to as a “gay disease”, queer folx turned to other individuals in the queer community. With over 200,000 reported deaths between 1981 and 1992, constant burials became common. President Reagan cut spending for the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention while congressional appropriations for AIDS-related programs were blocked. All of those effects, combined with prevalent social stigma and homophobia, led to the formation of what is today known as the queer chosen family. In the absence of government funding and resources and family support, queer folx created their own collective support systems. The queer community, at that time and to today, utilize collective attitudes and practices as a form of survival.
This is not to say that individualism has no place in the world. As a second-generation Filipino-American, I have always struggled between individualist and collectivist culture. I have been challenged by, but also see the merits of both approaches. I believe in individualism and caring for myself in order to better care for others, but individualism is not the end in itself. Similar to those instructional videos on airplanes, I’ll put on my oxygen mask first, so that I can help you put on yours. However, it is the extreme thinking of individualism that has led to some of the issues we are seeing today. Whether it is failing to practice social distancing, hoarding inordinate amounts of wealth, or purchasing unreasonable amounts of toilet paper, people are beginning to recognize the interconnectedness of our health, financial, and social systems. Every individual is part of a larger system, and right now, prioritizing one’s own desires puts our collective well-being at risk. If our practice of individualism does not better serve others and our communities, what purpose does it serve?
We know that collective, community measures are how we will survive COVID-19 (Monroe). What if we began consistently extending that type of collective effort into other areas of our lives after COVID-19? What if instead of maximizing individual wealth, we maximized collective wealth? What if our healthcare system was constructed with the understanding that individual health concerns are often symptomatic of community health concerns? What if our actions were directed towards a collective well-being everyday? For those eager to cry out “Socialism!”, this global pandemic has clearly shown that whether we like it or not, our health and financial systems are interconnected and we have all witnessed its ripple effects. Therefore, how can we expect to solve these interconnected issues without a collective approach?
The queer community practices the collective mindset through the queer chosen family. Fellow Wagner student Savannah Romero of the Eastern Shoshone tribe taught me the Lakota phrase “mitakuye oyasin,” or “all my relations,” which describes a worldview of interconnectedness and oneness. I recently learned about the Filipino concept of Kapwa, which is the concept of a shared identity and the tendency to see the world with all its beings as a holistic system where things operate interdependently. I believe that I am alive today because my ancestors had these beliefs and practices of the queer chosen family and Kapwa. I like to believe that the generations after me will be alive and thriving because we, as a society today, were able to prioritize our collective well-being.
Coco Lim is in her second year at NYU Wagner, specializing in International Policy. She is Co-Chair of the International Public Service Association, and she is passionate about issues related to financial inclusion and economic equity.
“An Appeal for the Immediate Delivery of Social Amelioration Measures Amid the Enhanced Community Quarantine”. Action for Economic Reforms. April 2020. https://aer.ph/an-appeal-for-the-immediate-delivery-of-social-amelioration-measures-amid-the-enhanced-community-quarantine/
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy. “Clan System”. https://www.haudenosauneeconfederacy.com/clan-system/
Haudenosaunee Guide for Educators. https://americanindian.si.edu/sites/1/files/pdf/education/HaudenosauneeGuide.pdf
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Keene, Adrienne and Matika Wilbur. “Bonus Episode: All Our (Socially Distanced) Relations”. All My Relations Podcast. April 2020.
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