Why is choosing your passion for your career a difficult conversation in Filipino households?

by Marianne Blando


Our world has some kind of obsession with what we plan to be in the future. It begins with an inquiry from a tita or a tito at a family gathering asking what you want to be when you grow up. You say, “I want to be the next Olivia Rodrigo”  and they’d humor you with statements like “You better get started on that then!” 

We, then, go into high school with our school counselor asking, “Which career path are you willing to commit to?” and list an array of schools and majors that would fit your SAT scores, GPA, the school’s distance from home, and your interests. 

Or we decide to immediately go out into the world and apply to every job opening we see. While applying for a job, the interviewer asks, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

This is a constant question in life that we get asked over and over and over and over. It’s just worded differently! And when we try to answer the question, we usually think about whether we choose the one we’ve secretly held onto or the one that pays the bills upfront. Of course, our responsibilities increase as well as with our maturity. And of course, our passions differ from one person to another. 

But how come when we choose our passion that may not be the “ideal” answer, we bear the brunt of becoming a pahiya (embarrassment/shame) to the family?

The quickest answer I can give right now is we have elements in the Filipino culture that make it extra challenging to have this conversation. But don’t worry, here are 4 possible explanations to help summarize and understand the roots of this difficulty.

  • Because your experiences are not identical to your parents, titos, titas, lolos, or lolas.

  • You might have been in situations where your relatives compared you with themselves or other relatives. And there’s a high chance that you’ve felt defeated, discouraged, or even shamed for wanting and choosing something they don’t want for themselves. Instead of the conversation being about your career path, it becomes a reminder of the power dynamics in the traditional Filipino adult-child relationship. 

    Usually, no matter how old the child is, the relationship remains to be between a figure of authority (the parent or tita/tito) and a subordinate (the child). Despite the power dynamic, it’s actually static in the sense that the relationship does not evolve into being a relationship between two well-rounded adults with unique experiences. So what happens is the figure of authority tends to persuade the subordinate (you)  into taking on the same path they went through. They try to give “options” but they give off a vibe that you must choose the same path they went through. Statements like “papunta palang kayo, pabalik na kami (been there, done that)” are reflections of this ~vibe~ and it makes you feel like your reality and your choice is not valid just because they think of their own experience as the only credible and valid experience. Unfortunately, this is common in our culture and a form of gaslighting.

  • Because your family might have high (and maybe unrealistic) expectations from you.

  • Cultures are studied according to the categories they fit in with and their characteristics. The Filipino culture, for one, is a collectivistic culture wherein the decisions and reactions of the whole group are more valuable than one’s desires. We tend to do what’s best for the family and/or the family’s reputation, and we do what we can to put our family first. But if we do something out of the family’s norms, we become the cause of hiya (embarrassment /shame).

    To pursue a path that you want or a path that you think is your calling might in itself be considered selfish because it might not be something your family agreed with. If it’s not because your relatives want you to be exactly like them, then it might be because they want something specific for you to take on. There is a difference, though, between the collectivistic nature of a culture and a parent’s absolute control over their children’s lives. But what I’m trying to say is that we are so used to functioning as a unit, rather than diverse individuals in the same household and culture, that our identity and our collective identity gets blurred.

    It might even be true for some that the reason they chose their current path is that it used to be their parents’ unfulfilled dreams. Extremely difficult? Yes. Understandable? Also yes. You might be thinking, “Wow that’s too much,” but it is a reality for some and it holds an explanation as to why this is. Read along to know a possible explanation. 

  • Because you have utang na loob to pay back.

  • The Western culture has this concept of paying it forward in which you pass along the goodness to someone else instead of paying it back to someone who gave it to you in the first place.

    The Filipino culture, on the other hand, has the value of utang na loob (debt of gratitude/good). Utang na loob is basically giving back to those who helped you. And in the context of deciding which path you’re willing to commit to, it sometimes plays a crucial role in your decision-making process. 

    There are families that hold utang na loob against their children and make it a point that their children pay back the sacrifices that the elders of the family have made. While it genuinely is important that we acknowledge and be grateful for the support and dedication of the elders of the family, it’s also essential that we reflect on and challenge the reason why they had and nurtured you in the first place. Utang na loob has been one of the markers of the Filipino culture, and it’s sad to say that some see their children only as investments despite the potential trauma that goes along with this mindset.

    This is not to say that every Filipino household sees utang na loob this way, but it’s one of the things that we rarely talk about. As mentioned earlier, it’s also seen as a debt of gratitude in which the way we say “thank you” is to sincerely give back for everything our elders have done for us. The difference between the former view of utang na loob with the latter is the degree of a nurturing relationship versus a utilitarian relationship.

  • Because your parents, titas, titos, lolas, and/or lolos only want a secure future for you. 

  • There have been several studies and articles that analyzed the Filipino parents’ involvement in their children’s academic or professional career. And one of the common conclusions is that parents want their children to succeed, so they tend to encourage you or convince you to choose the path that may help you be assured of economic/financial security.

    But then it raises the question of how you define success. Is success a fulfillment of your personal goal? Does success equate to financial wealth? Is success a thriving of your advocacy? 

    And lastly, does your definition match your parents’ definition?

    So what now?

    You might have had a fair share of conflicts and struggles with your relationship with your parents, lolos/lolas or titos/titas, but we also have to remember that they’ve had their fair share of similar struggles with their parents and the demands of society in their time. They can’t expect us to live entirely according to their preferences, just as how we can’t expect them to be understanding overnight.

    Not all the time the “papunta palang kayo, pabalik na kami” saying means “I’m waaaay better than you, so you better do as I say.” It also means that with enough experiences, they can impart wisdom. They can be our guide. Maybe our relatives or parents just forget that we are not them and that times have changed, but definitely, no relative would want another loved one to go through obstacles so they try to prevent and control what they can. They just might’ve not been equipped with the right tools to express their intentions. After all, this concern has been long withstanding in our culture that they might have been stunted to initiate this conversation on passion and career.

    At the end of the day, it’s gonna be you who’ll have to show up every day and apply your kasipagan (diligence) to the path you committed to. And at the end of the day, your relatives genuinely care about you and your future. 

    Chances are the current path you’re on now is not set in stone. Maybe along the way, you might feel that your passion has changed and eventually decide to switch career paths --- and that’s okay!

    Have you had this conversation with yourself or in your home?

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