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The Filipino Happy Spirit

With keener set of eyes and a heart more passionate for history, culture and travel, I scanned the surroundings of Plaza Miranda in Quiapo. I had been in the surrounding areas many times but only once in this square. Aside from seeing the famous Quiapo Church, I can’t remember what else I saw back then. [...]

With keener set of eyes and a heart more passionate for history, culture and travel, I scanned the surroundings of Plaza Miranda in Quiapo. I had been in the surrounding areas many times but only once in this square. Aside from seeing the famous Quiapo Church, I can’t remember what else I saw back then.

Quiapo used to be one of the centers of trade during the glory days of Manila. It was where the social elites of the city conducted their activities. Plaza Miranda, the town square in front of Quiapo Church, used to be and is still a venue for political rallies. This was where the 1971 bombing happened that urged the president, Ferdinand Marcos, to declare martial law. The plaza was renovated in 2000 after years of neglect and deterioration that came along with Manila’s gradual decay.

The place was bustling with people. Shoppers taking advantage of the bargains. Vendors, kids, and adults are everywhere selling plastic bags, shoes, balloons, fruits, vegetables, fish, flowers, toys, shoes and clothes. I could see the fortune-tellers too.


As I walked around looking for something to buy, a vendor called out from behind me, “From where are you madam?”

It must have been the camera hanging on my neck. I ignored him at first to avoid being touted. Then he said, “I want you to take a photo of me.”


So here’s a demanding man asking me to take his photo. I turned to him and smiled. I wasn’t annoyed. He was charming and funny. So I took photos of him. Recognizing my chance to have a short chat, I asked him questions.

His name is Vir, short for Virgilio. He sells smoked milkfish in the plaza. He and his wife buy the fish, clean and debone them for the smoking process.

“What time do you get to go home everyday?” I asked.

“Around 7PM. A lot of people are still here by that time,” he shared.

“Do you get to sell these out everyday?”

He answered yes. At ₱40 each, he can earn around ₱500 a day, which is a little over the minimum wage.

As we continued our lively chat, the kids who sell plastic bags began to surround us to listen in.

Kuya Vir is 33 years old, and he has a 12-year old son who goes to an elementary school near their house.

“Are your earnings enough for your family?” I asked.

“Yes, we get by,” he answered smiling.

philippines-milkfish-vendorThen a man behind me was telling Kuya Vir that he saw him on a TV commercial. Surprised, I joked that he was more famous than us. He then explained that he appeared in an election campaign series of one of the TV channels in the country that encourages the people to always do what is right, but I haven’t yet seen it.

I bought 3 pieces of smoked milkfish from him. I was already tired from hours of walking in Binondo from the Chinese New Year celebration but Kuya Vir was able to make me smile with his camera poses, and I couldn’t resist buying from him. Our chat was quite short but what really appealed to me were his seemingly happy disposition and his cheerful, though toothless, face.

Filipinos are Happy People


How I love being Filipino. The Philippines is considered as one of the happiest places in the world. Google it and you’ll see the study results.

Being happy despite poverty and adversity is the Filipino trait I am most proud of. We are devastated by typhoons, floods, and other calamities yearly but we can smile our way through them and survive. Filipinos definitely know how to dance in the rain, figuratively and literally.

Kuya Vir brought me back to that very moment when I was watching the news on TV. The news anchor was reporting about a flood and I saw the people, the flood victims, smiling and waving to the camera. I could only smile and nod, Filipinos indeed. Despite the calamity, the sadness, the loss of lives, the miserable situation, we can afford to smile.

“The Filipino spirit is waterproof” is one mantra that has recently become famous due to the typhoons and floods. Pictures of people having fun, playing basketball, drinking, taking pictures in the middle of calamity regularly spread through social media and news networks, demonstrating a remarkable spirit and resolve.

We may be a third-world country constantly battered by political problems, poverty, typhoons, floods, and terrorism but we, as a people, always get by with a smile.

Filed under: Culture and Society, Philippines, Travel Stories

About the Author:

Apol Danganan is a Filipino travel blogger whose biggest dream is to set foot in the Serengeti in Tanzania and witness the amazing wildlife migration — especially of elephants. She started travelling with her husband in 2011 but only began documenting their adventures in 2012. She’s been to Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. She has a cubicle job and writes for Vagabond Journey to fulfill her travel dreams. Read her blog at Wanderful Together and connect with her on Twitter. has written 12 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • Vagabond Journey February 18, 2013, 8:38 pm

    This is an amazing aspect of your culture, Apol. I suppose it’s common to think of poor people who are constantly at the edge of natural and social catastrophe as being depressed and bitter about life, but it’s often the opposite. I remember when I went to Haiti after the earthquake how many of the major international news networks were having problems trying to get video and photos of people looking morose, as the people tended to smile, laugh, wave, and make funny poses each time a camera was pointed at them. Images of happy poor people don’t sell where I come from, and the Western media and NGOs trample and misrepresent many cultures to serve their own ends. Thanks for showing us this glimpse into where you come from.

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  • Jack@GETPESOS February 21, 2013, 9:37 am

    (Let me preface this by saying that I’m married to a Filipina, have lived in the Philippines, am in the Philippines right now and I like the Philippines.) 
    No doubt that Filipinos are happy people, but there is a negative side to it. They accept what BS(the media, government, and church) has been shoved down their throats by the oligarchy who runs things without putting up a fuss. Filipinos would be better served by being a little less happy that the oligarchy is screwing them over.
    That said, there is a good reason why they are happy in spite of the difficulties. The general attitude of Filipinos could be best said as “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die.”

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    • Vagabond Journey February 21, 2013, 8:09 pm

      @Jack@GETPESOS This is an interesting point. What do you think of this yuhum_yuhum ?

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      • yuhum_yuhum February 22, 2013, 11:55 am

        @Vagabond Journey  @Jack@GETPESOS  yuhum_yuhum  @GETPESOS I agree, that is one negative side.. we tend to be just contented & happy with what we have, not pursuing better options or bigger dreams..but there are rich countries out there whose people are well-informed, well-educated, get the newest technologies and the conveniences of modern life, who believe they need more than they have and be more important than they are at present…but they are way way down the list of the happiest countries.. some even have high suicidal rates. I think Filipinos are more bonded because of our being poor, we tend to help each other out and stay together…we create closer relationships. I think this is truer happiness. 😀
        Where are you staying in the Philippines Jack? 🙂

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        • Jack@GETPESOS February 22, 2013, 6:53 pm

          @yuhum_yuhum  I disagree with your statement that Filipinos are happy and content with that they have. How much of the economy is supported by OFWs? These are the countless millions of Filipinos who have left the Philippines in order to pursue a better life and pursue bigger dreams. They leave in their wake broken families and children growing up without mothers and fathers. 
          I also disagree with your statement that they are not trying to get the newest technologies and they are content with that they have. The largest malls in the world, the icons of capitalism and materialism, are in the Philippines…and they are packed full even on weekdays. , Look how many of them would rather have a cellphone than have food. Look at how many young women sell their bodies to buy cellphones and other gadgets. 
          Never in all my travels have I heard so many people complain about how hard their life is as in the Philippines. Scratch just a little beneath the surface and they will tell you about their trials and their financial problems. The never ending financial problems and how they need your pesos. You will talk to women who are abused by their husbands who do nothing but sit around and drink(and smile). You will find women who have been bruised by their husbands affairs and children born out of wedlock. Men not content with their wives…..always looking for something better. 
          As a foreign man, I’m inundated by countless women who want me. If they think I’m single, they will beg me to marry them so that I can take them away so they can have a better life. Is that a people content with their life? 
          I’ve been traveling in the Philippines for 15 years, from one end of the Philippines to the other, from the cities to the provinces. I see the same thing wherever I go. I love the Philippines for what it is, not some fake ideal. 
          One more thing: Corruption. The corruption is in our face here, unlike in most other corrupt countries. Case in point, you deal with corruption just to mail a letter at the post office. I long ago realized that it will never change. We do what we can not to participate in the corruption. 
          As a Filipino, you should know that Filipinos don’t just smile because they are happy, they smile because also because they are embarrassed by a situation or really don’t know what to say about a situation. 
          Yesterday, we were in a jeepney and passed by a sign(I wasn’t fast enough with my camera) a Barangay sign that that said “We love XXXXXX” (the name of the barnagay). In front of the sign were piles and piles of rotting trash. In front of the sign were little kids laughing and playing. 
          All we could do was laugh and smile. That dichotomy is what makes the Philippines what it is…and why we love it.

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        • yuhum_yuhum February 22, 2013, 8:17 pm

          @Jack@GETPESOS maybe i cant lay my ideas as better as u… Or i have not observed the country with a high level of awareness like you have.. But i’d like to stick with knowing that despite all these hardships, we still get to smile a lot.

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        • Vagabond Journey February 22, 2013, 8:59 pm

          @yuhum_yuhum  @GETPESOS This is an incredibly interesting discussion. I haven’t yet been to the Philippines, so I can’t really offer too much, but I have been in many cultures that see to display the similar attributes. On the one hand, accepting the things that you cannot change and sitting back and just enjoying your time on this planet is one of the best qualities the people of a culture can have. On the other hand, when this worldview is mixed with apathy, many other social problems tend to arise and a “downward spiral” effect often occurs. Staying happy and positive when faced with calamity is a powerful perspective for a culture to have, but the feeling of powerlessness that seems to accompany this perspective seems to lead to complacency that spirals into a lack of social responsibility.

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        • yuhum_yuhum February 22, 2013, 10:52 pm

          @Vagabond Journey complacent, the right word instead of contented!! How do you explain so well!! 🙂

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        • Jack@GETPESOS February 22, 2013, 11:09 pm

          @yuhum_yuhum  I think Wade would agree with this. It’s very difficult to objectively look at your own country. For me, I can’t objectively talk about my own country because of how I have viewed it through the lens of growing up and living in it. It’s much easier to observe another country and its peoples. It’s just the way of traveling….as crazy as it all is. 
          Wade used the word complacent. I wouldn’t use that word either. Probably a Filipino word would work best for this because it is something innately Filipino. The people aren’t completely complacent and aren’t completely contented. It’s more of a , let’s enjoy the day and get through this day any way we can and worry about tomorrow when tomorrow comes. It allows them smile through all the BS and difficulties because tomorrow is a new day with new joys and even if there isn’t, at least they made it through the day. I probably haven’t even described it well. It’s the Filipino spirit that exudes from almost every Filipino….except call center workers. 🙂 
          I think the Philippines is truly at a crossroads in its culture now. I think the people like our Kuya in the photos above are on there way out and are being replaced by something more sanitized and unreal. I’ve seen this over my last 15 years of traveling to the Philippines. It sure is more developed during that time, but that hasn’t been all good. 
          It truly isn’t the same….but I hope I’ll find people who smile through it all and always look forward to loving today…and letting tomorrow worry about itself.

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