(revised from ”Cultural Origin of Dualism?”)
When I took a class on Southeast Asian history as a freshman in college, I felt like a veil had been lifted from my eyes. Up until that point, I felt that all Filipino culture was was the food and the language, and that we didn’t really have a culture outside of that derived from the waves of imperial and economic colonization by the Chinese, the Spanish, and the Americans.
All of the sudden, I felt the vast tragedy of the sundering and destruction of cultures that is inherent of conquest. We are quite closely related to Indonesians and Malaysians, and even to Madagascarians, and I knew nothing of these cultures. It was a little like when I discovered, after 18 years, that I had a half-brother that we never talked about. Or like meeting my cousins in the Philippines for the first time in 20 years.
And a lot of weird cultural idiosyncracies totally clicked into place.
For example, I was always puzzled by the tendency of those in the generation before me to dichotomize everything. To label and categorize. To place ideas and people into various cubbyholes, and making the illusion that life was neat and tidy.
Then I learned about the importance of boundaries in Southeast Asian culture.
While you might easily lay blame on the Spanish and American colonizers, who brought along their own tradition of Manichaeistic dualism, however deeply repressed, there are precedents in our substrate culture.
The animistic beliefs of our ancestors (beliefs which were common throughout all of Southeast Asia before the advent of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Catholicism. They are also similar to beliefs of Native Americans and of the Celts, beliefs which are often referred to as paganism) were based on the notion of boundaries. To have security and safety, you had to categorize all things properly, and you had to avoid crossing boundaries. On the flip side, those things that existed where boundaries merged and became ambiguous were, while dangerous, things of great power. (Some simple examples are the tide, where sea and land meet, and the horizon, where sea and sky meet.) And we also come to the notion of the babaylan. While some theorize that the babaylan was typically a woman, and was basically the spiritual center of the a community, akin to the witch doctor or the medicine man, another version I’ve heard is that the babaylan tended to be of ambiguous gender (and that, supposedly, bakla is a corrupted form of the word babaylan.)Another related anecdote, which I have no way of verifying, is that supposedly only women and gay men are traditionally allowed to play the kulintang, implying some sort of sacredness inherent in the kulintang.) Needless to say, the babaylan were expunged by the Spanish, and we easily thereafter succumbed to alien ways of thinking.
It is sort of interesting to try to rationalize what sort of impact colonization had on our ancestors’ collective psyche, of how they might have tried to fit it into this cosmogeny of the importance of creating distinct boundaries and categories. One might theorize that the fact that many of us are stuck with binary thinking is merely a manifestation of our feelings of powerlessness. Maybe some of us are resigned to the inability to tap the energy inherent in things which are ambiguous, in places where the boundaries fall apart. But, on the other hand, this could just be revisionist mythology and wishful thinking.