First published on What Magazine, March 2021, as an interview about "Filipinas: Islands Abridged," an interactive map of the Philippines.
It was the fourth leg of the year-long 2019 Foreign Service Entrance Exams, a day-long Psychological Evaluation with one half-hour round with a Psychologist. It was the only question from that entire ordeal I remember: “What makes a Good Filipino.” As a Christian, we understand “Good” as something tied to the nature of God and our role as His image-bearers. “Only God is Good” Jesus Himself once said; goodness for humans, I imagine, is less something you are than something you participate in. A Good Filipino is a Filipino who aligns with and participates in the reality of their moral obligations.
As for being a Good Filipino— well, that was the difficult part. Must a Filipino be Christian, or Muslim, or Pagan? Must they be born here? Must their parents? Is it more Filipino to be browner than fair, more provincial than urbane, more Chinito than Mestizo? Some will cry “Not Suits but Barongs!” and others will counter “Colonial Mentality! Bahags, not Barongs!”
Being graded – presumably – for our ability to feign serenity, I gave the interviewer the simplest answer I could live with. The question lingered in the back of my head though. I was taking an exam to be a Filipino Diplomat. I was preparing to represent the Filipino People to the world. I needed that question answered just in case I pass the examination.
I passed the examination by the Grace of God. By the time I learned though, it was 2020 and the Plague has ground the gears of government into a pace even slower than usual. It would be a full year until our work actually began. Just as well: there was still the matter of the question.
By that point, the question had evolved into a general curiosity about the country. I was involved with setting up the 75th Anniversary celebrations of the MacArthur Landings in Palo, Leyte back in 2019 and that had been an incredibly eye-opening experience: all those local customs and delicacies, historic sites and shrines of pilgrimage. Palo, Leyte wasn’t Manila or Cebu or Davao or Baguio but it was most certainly Filipino. Surely Abra has towns like that. Surely Zamboanga Sibugay has towns like that. Given that Lockdown gave me day after day after day of identically sunless, windless nothing, I figured that it wouldn’t hurt to master my Philippine geography. Given my background as a graphic designer, I decided to make infographics out of what I was learning.
The first infographic I made was a series of bar graphs comparing how large the Philippine regions were compared to each other. When the bar graphs began feeling a bit boring, I decided to cut the bars up into squares and arrange them into shapes that resembled their real-world borders. When static images of shapes began feeling boring, I decided to lay them out as grassy terrain tiles on a game-making tool called RPG Maker MV. Then I started putting mountains on the map. Then plants. Then paths that corresponded to major highways and sea ways. Then I marked provincial capitals with tiny animated town markers. Then I thought maybe you could start entering the towns too…
Full disclosure, I didn’t get to do as much studying as I probably should have. There must be easier, faster, more efficient ways to memorize the chief exports of Bicol Region than having to design pixel-art pili nuts and programming a short informational skit around them. It probably still counted as research though. At least I think I was starting to answer the question.
“What makes a Good Filipino?” We have 7,640 islands and even more answers to that question. In my home province of Cavite, a Good Filipino remembers the heroic sacrifice and struggle for freedom in the War for Philippine Independence while fully accepting the crass humanity and moral failures of many of its central figures. In Batanes, Catanduanes, and Leyte, a Good Filipino is one who is mindful of the rising challenge of Climate Change and who pursues to face it through good urban planning, sustainable energy, and natural conservation. In Cotabato, a Good Filipino helps preserve the ancient T’boli art of T’nalak weaving and in Apayao, a Good Filipino secures the rights of indigenous peoples to their homelands. On the other hand, these aren’t supposed to be one answer per island or region or ethnic group. These are ALL facets of what makes a Good Filipino. These are the stories and treasures and values we could be sharing if only we were reminded that they exist. There are so many ways to be a Good Filipino that a two minute answer in a day-long test was never going to be enough. To answer it – to truly, truly, truly answer it – maybe I could illustrate everything that made the Philippines good.
Sometime last year, when all of time had dissolved into a haze of anxious fatigue, I found myself with something new. It was a map of the Philippines – each of the 3000 tiles being 100km2 of land—but it was also a working demo of a game where all you do is wander around and learn things. Realizing that I just created a game that summarized everything I ever wanted to do in life, I uploaded it free for everyone to check out. When people started realizing they can use it to teach their kids Araling Panlipunan (Social Studies) while in quarantine, I made a version of the game map in Filipino.
Is that an answer to the question? I’d like to think it is. I’d like to think making art inspired by Japanese video games, American internet culture, and European museums can count as being a Good Filipino. In any case, given that the game only has five out of our 81 provinces explorable, it’s an answer I’ve barely begun to give. I think it’s an important question though: “What makes a Good Filipino.” As a game designer, writer, or diplomat, I’m fine figuring that one out for the rest of my life.
Filipinas: Islands Abridged is playable now at martholemylabs.it.io/Filipinas