‘Debt of the soul’: NPR episode breaks down the age-old Filipino belief of ‘utang na loob’

June 16, 2022 - 1:54 PM
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Image by Rodnae Productions via Pixabay

The traditional Filipino belief of indebtedness or “utang na loob” was tackled in a podcast episode of the National Public Radio, an American-based public radio, last May 18.

The episode titled “The Utang Clan” was released on NPR’s Code Switch, a podcast about how race affects every part of the society hosted by journalists of color.

The podcast episode was hosted by Malaka Gharib, Gene Demby, Leah Donnella and Christina Cala.

Gharib was the one who introduced the topic of “utang na loob” based on her experiences as an immigrant with Filipino and Egyptian parents.

She also shared stories about familial indebtedness from other Filipinos born from immigrant families.

In the overview via NPR’s website, the word “utang na loob” is defined as “the Filipino concept of an eternal debt to others, be it family or friends, who do a favor for you.”

This belief is then compared to the Americans’ culture of independence.

“It goes back to pre-colonial times in the Philippines, and can pass from one generation to another. And some Filipino-Americans want to do away with utang all together, especially when it butts up against ‘American’ values of independence and self-reliance,” the description reads.

What ‘utang na loob’ means

When asked for the meaning of the phrase, Gharib shared a rough translation of “utang na loob” from Tagalog to English.

“It literally means debt of your inner self – your soul – in Tagalog,” she said.

Gharib further expounded that this sense of obligation does not just involve owing people money.

“Maybe it takes the form of you helping someone pay their bills, babysitting their kids, helping them fix their car – it could be many different things. And the reason why you’re doing this is maybe, at some earlier point, they gave you money or helped you get a job or let you crash at their place for a while,” she said.

The “debt” could also be anything “meaningful”, including being a parent of that individual.

Gharib also expounded how this sense of obligation differs from merely returning the favor.

“I would say that what makes utang different is that it’s not really about the favors. It’s about the relationship between the person who owes and the person who is owed,” she said.

Brief history

Even scholars are not certain when this age-old concept started in the Philippines, according to Gharib.

What she knew was that it is “a core precolonial value” of the indigenous peoples before, according to a study by an anthropology professor named Charles Kaut of the University of Chicago in the 1950s.

“It’s a way for people to take care of each other, to protect each other from poverty, danger, outsiders, and to hold each other accountable. By upholding your end of the exchange, that’s how you show care to people in your community,” Gharib said.

During the Spanish colonization, however, this practice was used to manipulate and exploit Filipinos into Catholicism.

“Some scholars argue that Spanish colonizers may have even taken advantage of utang na loob to convert so many of the native people to Catholicism because Filipinos felt this need to give back to the Spaniards for, quote, unquote, ‘civilizing” them, enlightening them, teaching them,” Gharib said.

This “warped” or toxic view of “utang na loob” eventually manifested into the present Filipino culture.

A Filipino-American author named E.J. David of the University of Alaska Anchorage, also joined in to share his own insights on the topic.

“People can definitely take advantage of this cultural value to manipulate other people, to bully them or pressure them, you know, to get them to comply or to obey or – you know, or do things that they might not want to do or are difficult for them to do,” he said.

David pointed out that “utang na loob” should be more on acknowledging the favor rather than repaying the favor itself.

“So it’s not the payment that matters. It’s acknowledging that you are indebted to somebody, he said.