The Two Faces of Utang Na Loob
One of the Filipino core values according to the work of Virgilio Enriquez (1992) is utang na loob.
Defined as debt of gratitude. Debt of reciprocity.
I’ve been asked a few times,
When does utang na loob ends? And
Why do I have to pay such a steep price for something I didn’t asked for?
It’s true, the sense of utang na loob can be a heavy burden to carry especially for Filipinos raised abroad.
If someone asks for money for something you didn’t purchased, anyone will be pissed just for the asking.
But utang na loob can be better understood by leaning on the concept- KAPWA.
Pagsanib ng AKO at IKAW (Virgilio, 1978) .
The merging of the I and the you to WE (translation).
In the Filipino culture, this symbiotic relationship of togetherness had served as our protective factor for many threats in our history, in our current socio-political atmosphere and even in the ecological threat of being one of the most typhoon-visited country in the world.
According to the study of tight and loose culture by Psychologist, Michelle Gelfand-
When you experience a lot of threat in life, being in sync with others feel safe.
Cohesion, one essence of Kapwa aligns to the needs of many Filipinos in the Philippines.
- The need to know that you can rely on your neighbor because relying in government seem more a gamble.
- The need to know that children will be cared for, if not by their own parents but by other informal ties called comprazzados (ninongs, godparents).
- The need to know that elders will be cared because senior homes are as rare as a gem in the islands and reserved to the abandoned.
- The need to know that good deeds do come back to the giver, either in this lifetime, to the next of kin or at least sketched in memory-TANAW.
Tanaw is the word associated with Utang Na Loob.
It means to glimpse, to remember, to look back.
Growing up in the Philippines, bayaran (to pay) is used for debts that are quantifiable, such as money.
Bayaran mo ang utang mo.
Pay your debt (translation).
Tanaw is the word associated with Utang Na Loob.
Growing up in the Philippines, this is not an unusual reminder from our elders-
Huwag mong kalimutan tumanaw ng Utang na Loob.
A message that conveys- Don’t forget who has helped you. Look back on them especially in times of their need(s).
Watch this video to lean more on the Lighter Side of Utang Na Loob.
Dark side of Utang Na Loob
As beautiful as Utang na Loob may seem, it’s dark side-how its misused is as rampant as mosquitos in the Islands.
Politicians may use their position to hold an ordinary citizen indebted for simply performing what politicians ought to be doing-serving the community.
In the guise of being generous, utang na loob can be misused to patronize brands, people and positions leading to nepotism, corruption or non-disclosure of abuses.
Walang Utang Na Loob
As I have shared previously, Filipinos are naturally endowed with a generous heart.
At a young age, children are encouraged and rewarded for sharing.
It almost seemed like the only word that Filipino parents can utter to disband two children fighting over one toy is -
Uy, maghati kayo diyan, or
To coax that the toy be given to a particular child (usually the younger one).
Negative feedback is given to the stingy child (madamot) and praises to the “good sharer.”
“ Mabait na bata.” (good child/kind child)
As to the parent-child relationship, children are expected to tend to their parents as the latter to the former.
Walang Utang na Loob ( You have no shame. You don’t know how to remember those that helped you -contextual translation.)
A term used not for someone who didn’t pay their Utang (debt) but for someone who bit someone’s hand after being fed by the same hand.
This is a Filipino saying-
Huwag mong kagatin ang kamay na nagpakain sayo.
(don’t bite the hand that fed you).
As this can provide a beautiful cycle of giving and receiving, it can also lead repression of self-expression with the feeling that someone always has the upper hand.
Any cultural core values have a dark and lighter side to it. Human behaviors can be better understood by how we adapt to our surroundings to survive.
In the Philippine setting, cohesion and togetherness serve as a protective factor for many constant inconsistencies that have barged into our history: foreign invasion, colonialization, threats of ecological nature and insecure socio-political atmosphere that leads the ordinary Juan to rely on other resources.
Leaning on the cycle of giving & receiving, and utang na loob can sometimes provide that refuge, and the dignity to save face.
Roanne has been a Psychotherapist for more than 12 years. She has frequented at least 400 Filipino homes and counting. She is the author of the Ebook: 5 Pinoy Love Languages and the creator of the presentation entitled: Filipino Core Values & Considerations in Culturally Responsive Care.