The Philippines: Country of Many Islands

Can you imagine what it would be like to live on an island, surrounded by the lapping blue waves of the Pacific? What if you lived in a country made up of thousands of islands, spreading out to the horizon? All your friends and family would live on islands, some on your island and others on neighboring islands or islands located several days away by boat.
A country of islands brings up many puzzling questions. What would make these islands into a country at all? Wouldn’t each island feel more like its own community than part of a bigger country? How would you travel? Would you have to own your own boat? How would you talk with other people on other islands? Do families live on the same island? If not, how do they keep in touch with family members on different islands? How would the government have any control over so many islands?

The Philippines is a great example of the country you are imagining. It is a country spread across an estimated 7,107 different islands. The way the Filipinos handle all of these questions of day-today life on islands is one thing that makes  the Philippines unique. Throughout this article you will see the special role that islands have played in the Philippines.


If you lived in the Philippines, you would be on the opposite side of the world from the United States, in a region called Southeast Asia. Your closest neighboring countries would be China, VietnamIndonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia. The islands that make up the country of the Philippines are scattered over 780,000 square miles (2 million square kilometers) of the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. This total area is about the size of Arizona, New MexicoUtah, Nevada, Oregon, and California combined. If you pushed all of the Philippine islands together like puzzle pieces, though, the total land area would be the size of only one state, say Arizona or New Mexico. In this way, the Philippines is both large and small at the same time. Also, being a country of islands means that the Philippines is both near the Asian mainland and separate from it at the same time. The Philippine borders do not touch any other countries, and so the country is more affected by people who visit the islands than by its mainland Asian neighbors. In this way, the people of the Philippines are a cultural mix of both Asian and more-distant cultures.
The Philippine islands historically have offered an ideal resting place for immigrants looking for new lands to settle and for seafaring explorers seeking new lands for their countries.
Over the years, the Philippines has become host to many different cultural immigrants. Today, the country truly is a melting pot of cultures. If you lived there, you would notice that most of the Filipinos are from Asian cultures, including Malay, Chinese, Papuan, Indian, and Japanese. It might confuse you that there also was a lot about the Philippines that did not seem Asian at all. In every neighborhood or village, you are almost certain to see people playing basketball! Also, in addition to speaking local languages, people know English. There are also Filipino words like kumusta, peso, and Lunes, which sound a lot like Spanish. England, the United States, and Spain are not even close to the Philippines, so how did think English and Spanish words became so popular in the Filipino culture?


Because of the Philippines’ isolated, but central, location in Southeast Asia, it was a strategic choice for imperial countries (those that sought to govern other countries or territories in order to use their natural resources) from the West that sought a base for trade with Asia. Explorers from Spain were the first Western imperialists to land in the Philippines and to claim these islands as a colony of their own. Much of the Spanish culture remains in the Philippines today. When comparing the Philippines with other Southeast Asian countries, it is hard not to notice the distinctive Latin feeling that comes from the country having been a Spanish colony. This “Latin” (or Spanish) quality is evident especially in the language, which has a lot of Spanish mixed into the Filipino dialects. There are Spanish words for numbers, the time of day, and virtually everything in the kitchen. Spanish influences are present in other aspects of Filipino culture as well. Most Filipinos practice Catholicism, which was introduced by the Spanish. Also, if you lived there, some of your favorite things to do would come from the Spanish. You might enjoy playing guitar, going to neighborhood parties called fiestas, or watching cock fights (a fight between roosters).


After the Spanish, a second Western country recognized the strategic location of the Philippines in Asia and decided to Many imperialist countries targeted the Philippines because of its strategic location in Southeast Asia. Spain was the first country to colonize the Philippines, and its influence is still very evident today. For examples, most Filipinos practice Catholicism, introduced by the Spanish, and attend mass in churches like the one seen here. move in. In 1898, the United States fought Spain and won, thereby asserting its right also to colonize the Philippines. With
this new colonial power came a new set of Western influences. The Americans brought ideas of democracy, schools, roads, and electricity to the Philippines. English came with the Americans as well. This gave the Filipinos a common language that enabled them to communicate with one another for the first time. English was also a powerful tool for understanding the Americans, as well as for interacting internationally. Today, one of the most striking things about the Philippines is the fact that almost everybody speaks at least some English.
Although the Philippines has been an independent nation for more than 50 years, it maintains very close ties with the United States. This relationship has at its foundation the years of partnership between the two countries. Filipinos fought on the American side in World War II and the Vietnam War. In exchange, Filipinos received green cards for immigration to the United States.
Many families benefit greatly from having family members in the United States, and many households rely heavily on the regular income they receive from overseas relatives. Americans, on the other hand, have looked to the Philippines as a strategic location for military outposts. Up until 1991, the Philippines harbored the largest American overseas naval and air force bases, housing more than 40,000 permanent military employees. Although these facilities were closed in the early 1990s, there are still U.S. military operations in the Philippines. They are temporary arrangements, however, and on a much smaller scale. A second major relationship between the United States and the Philippines is a more commercial arrangement. Many American businesses have factories in the Philippines
and rely on Filipino factory workers to make their products at a lower cost.


You probably sense that the Philippines is a country of great diversity with surprising combinations of different cultures. Although it operates as a single country, there are many different cultural communities on the islands. These peoples are as diverse as the island areas where they live. There are islands where people grow their own food, but a few miles away other people buy all their food in grocery stores. On some islands, businesspeople take taxis, wear suits, and work in tall office buildings; just outside the city there are people wearing hand-woven cloth and growing rice in watery, terraced fields that reach to the sky It is not surprising that every island has fishing villages
near its beaches. The men in these villages fish for a living, and almost every family has its own fishing boat. When you visit a fishing village in the Philippines, the first thing you notice is that the beaches look like parking lots for hundreds of brightly colored boats! The families in the fishing villages often live in houses made of bamboo and woven leaves. Some fishing villages are built entirely above the water, with every house on wooden stilts.
You would think that in a country of islands, everybody would fish and live by the sea. On some of the largest islands, however, there are high mountains. The mountain tribes that live there may never have seen the ocean before, even though it is only a few dozen miles from their homes.
The people of the mountains do not fish; rather, they grow rice and vegetables, terracing the hillsides into giant green staircases of farm fields. In the far north, some islands lie closer to Taiwan than to the rest of the Philippines. On these islands the typhoon (hurricane-like storm) winds can be so strong that they are measured by the size of the animal that they would blow over. If the weather forecast is a “chicken typhoon,” it is a good idea to bring the laundry (and the chickens!) inside. If a “water buffalo” typhoon is on the way, families bring in all their belongings and pray that their houses will survive the storm. In fact, unlike the bamboo houses of Filipino fishing villages,the houses on these northern islands have walls of stone almost three feet (one meter) thick—built to withstand the howling winds of these seasonal storms! The southern islands of the Philippines are where many people practice Islam rather than Catholicism. In those areas, there are many mosques instead of churches. The cultural communities in this region are perhaps more similar to the neighboring Southeast Asian Muslim countries, Indonesia and Malaysia.


In addition to being culturally diverse, the Philippines is known for its great wealth of life forms (animals and plants), sometimes called biological diversity or biodiversity. In the Philippines you can see the world’s largest bats, as big as eagles with six-foot (two-meter) wingspans! They also have the world’s smallest buffalo, which is about the size of a big dog. There are wonderfully colorful birds of all shapes and sizes. Hornbills are birds with big horny beaks that are used to eat forest fruits and that make hornbills’ calls sound as if they have stuffed noses. Some of the Philippine forest frogs are so well camouflaged that you can be staring right at one and think it’s just a leaf.
The Philippines does not have big deadly animals like lions or grizzly bears. Instead, Filipinos walking in the forest tend to watch out for deadly snakes like the aggressive king cobra, which grows up to 30 feet (9 meters) long and stands up to 6 feet (2 meters) tall. On the other end of the deadly snake spectrum is the bamboo viper. This snake is only a foot (30 centimeters) long, but if it bites you, you may only have seconds to live before the venom kills you. For this reason, Filipinos call it the “two-second” snake. During the period of time when the plants and animals on the islands were developing, most of the islands were separate from one another. This meant that unique species of plants and animals, like the ones listed above, were forming on islands separated by only a few miles. After years of separation and the development of many different life forms, the Philippines is one of the smallest areas in the world where you can see many different kinds of animals and plants. We will explore these and many other aspects of the Philippines in the rest of the book, so take a moment, close your eyes, travel to the other side of the world in your mind, and Mabuhay sa Pilipinas! (Welcome to the Philippines!).

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