Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Honestly, I don’t know what counts as wasted time anymore. I just spent most of the past week on Youtube watching “foreigners react” videos, which have become impossible to miss. But in case you have experienced the impossibility of missing them, these videos feature foreign — and often white — Youtubers reacting to various elements of Philippine life: celebrities, singers, malls, Jollibee, the dolomite sand in Manila Bay. Sometimes it feels like junk food. I’m not entirely sure what I take away from these idle hours listening to exaggerated responses to Xian Lim’s jawline, but I suppose it was oddly interesting — like watching various world cultures poured into a single container and crushed with a hydraulic press.
I guess the videos reminded me of college, where I worked with my school’s student exchange council. We welcomed exchange students — French and Bangladeshi and Kyrgyz — among many other nationalities. We asked them what they thought of Jolly Spaghetti. We taught them to say “isang bucket ng Red Horse.” I told the Japanese students that Shibuya means “onion” in Filipino. They reciprocated these cultural-themed kindnesses. I was treated to Dunhill brand Kyrgyz vodka, to a Japanese sake named “illusory waterfall,” and, naturally, their nations’ dirty words.
At times, these reaction videos feel like the best parts of travel, which has become near impossible for many of us these days. They feel like getting to know someone much different from you. If we cannot discover new and foreign cities, then we at least have new and foreign people on our screens. They allow more Filipinos to have the cultural exchange that was once only possible if one studied or worked in international settings. The proposition is appealing: You watch these videos, and you can feel good about your country, which is not the easiest thing to do for many Filipinos. You can feel good about your culture. Maybe you can feel like you made friends. The internet is a wonderful place.
But there is also some cause for worry. Do we believe that some things can be too perfect? These videos, after all, capture only the best parts of these international interactions. It is pure, video-edited positivity, and no grit. It is all cross-cultural ass kissing, and no intense arguments over vodka. No misunderstandings. It is all frosting and no cake. It’s sex without tension, without romance, only orgasms.
At times, these reaction videos feel like the best parts of travel, which has become near impossible for many of us these days.
Massaging the Pinoy ego has always been an effective strategy to get clicks. Just look at how many people share articles about Fil-foreigners dominating singing competitions in Europe, or which new celebrity revealed that they had a Pinoy “nanny.” On the flipside, assailing the Pinoy ego is a no-no. We revisit the list of unofficial personas-non-grata in the Philippines — those who made the mistake of talking a bit too critically about our nation: Claire Danes complaining about cockroaches, Justin Bieber posting a Manny Pacquiao meme, Dan Brown who called Manila “the gates of hell” — all of which garnered a response from some indignant congressman or mayor.
It shouldn’t surprise us that many of these reaction videos have more than a million views. Even the ones with poor production can garner more than 100,000. It’s the formula that is troubling: a clickbaity headline, all caps, a thumbnail with some outrageous text, and a 100% positive review of the Philippines, although sometimes you can say you hate balut, because that’s funny.
Naturally, the format has attracted a fair share of critics. There have been tweets and blog entries about how they prey on our desire to be recognized. A Youtuber, Finding Tom, even released a video called “The PINOYBAITING Needs To STOP,” where he poses important questions, such as: How many videos can we really have about Filipino shopping malls? How can foreign creators make videos about the Filipino people while also being a real ally? Why do Filipinos keep clicking on these damn things?
These critiques always circle around a single word: validation — and to be completely honest, the videos do feel validating. “Wow,” Filipinos must think. “We exist? These people are paying attention to little ol’ me?” It is praise, after all, from people who look like our colonizers — those who treated us like savages to be civilized, who called us their “little brown brothers.” To see them liking our food, being attracted to our celebrities, and being SHOCKED by our shopping malls must send our neural reward systems into overdrive. It can’t be too dissimilar to the hunger for foreign validation that influenced Gawad Kalinga Founder Tony Meloto’s infamous speech, where he said that “the greatest asset of the Philippines is our beautiful women,” because they could be used to entice “the best and brightest” men from the West to invest here — even joking that Filipinas and their husbands should produce “cappuccino” offspring.
Of course, we can’t discount the importance of validation, especially for a population that has major self-worth issues. It’s important to know we’re not invisible. I cried in 2013 when I heard a Japanese representative speaking fluent Taglish during post-Yolanda aid operations in Tacloban. It meant something. He took the time to learn a language that offered him almost no economic benefit — that simply allowed him to deepen his connection with our people. At the same time, we can’t stop asking ourselves where this desire for validation leads us — and the mindsets that it could nurture, where even one of our nation’s most renowned NGO leaders could so casually insult Filipinas simply to portray Westerners as saviors. “Are Filipinos racist?” a friend once asked. And I answered with a customary half-meant joke: “Yes. Filipinos are super racist. We think white people are better than everyone else.”
It does mean something that Youtube creators take the time to dive into our culture and make videos about it. This is generally a good thing. And who can blame them for making even more videos? Filipinos often flood their comments section, recommending the next viral Pinoyhood for them to react to. The only problem is that a transaction takes place, and influences the nature of the connection. The more the viewer likes, shares, and subscribes, the more money the content producer makes. And we are thus burdened with the lotto winner’s dilemma: Are these people really my friends? Or are they sucking up because they want money?
I want to trust these creators, the same way I want to trust every person I encounter. For the most part, they seem pleasant. They always say nice things about us. And I doubt any of them are purposely and deviously plotting to fool Filipinos into clicking on their videos. I’ve entertained this line of thought: Is too much validation really that bad? Isn’t it filling a need for a Filipino people that has for so long been insecure? Won’t we reach a point where we get sick of this content, and exhibit less predictable internet clicking behaviors? But the inauthenticity of these interactions still worries me: the purity of the praise, and how creators are disincentivized from covering the serious problems in our country.
Won’t we reach a point where we get sick of this content, and exhibit less predictable internet clicking behaviors? But the inauthenticity of these interactions still worries me: the purity of the praise, and how creators are disincentivized from covering the serious problems in our country.
Once, on work assignment in Siargao, I met a few white influencers who ran an extremely popular travel Instagram. Millions of followers. A grid of mediocre Windows XP wallpapers. They were nice enough, but I have also never met tourists more uninterested in the people and in the environment around them. They gravitated towards other travel vloggers (read: other white people) as if they had magnetic plates on their foreheads. Their interactions with their tour guide — the only actual local in their vicinity — were limited. Maybe they thought they had their content, and it was time to clock out. Who knows? We ended up in a lengthy chat with their tour guide outside one of their rooms in the resort. Inside, the creators drank with each other and Instagrammed their lives. It shattered the illusion a bit. When we weren’t there to promise them thousands of likes, their curiosity vanished. When it was time to pre-game for the bar, it was time for Filipinos to be invisible again.
Obviously, not all content creators are like that. But the more it becomes a source of income, the more people we’ll encounter who treat it like a job. In the era of the creator, it is terrifying that these business models might be herding us toward a future where we simply lie to each other’s faces to make money.
When I decided to finally spend hours sitting down and watch these foreigners react to our country, I remembered a trip I took to Ishinomaki — the city most seriously affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Tanaka-san, a small business owner we met at a bar, took us to his home and shouted at his kid: “Come down here! It’s time for some international relations!”
Slowly, we have come to live in a world where it is always time for international relations. Filipinos are a kind and hospitable people. We enjoy telling visitors what they want to hear, speaking honestly only after they leave. Perhaps we expect the same courtesy from them. But if we assign too heavy an influence to reaction videos that offer nothing but praise and other such “matatamis na salita,” we will end up being proud of only a caricature of the Philippines, while the real one continues languishing. The country needs work. Our people need work. Watching “foreigners react” videos is fine, but given what’s happening all around us, one can’t help but ask: When will Filipinos react?