Returns of investment: Filipino children and the ‘utang na loob’ burden

Manila, Philippines

Franco L. Babasa
5 min readJul 24, 2020

Cornered by a disreputable perspective of the love for kin, John and Marie — two freshman college students of different career paths — do not consider academic workload and pressure as the heaviest burdens they would have to endure after obtaining their degrees.

John, not his real name, is the youngest of five children. Since his older sisters already have families of their own, no one can commit fully to focusing on his educational needs alone. To help ease their collective expenses, he successfully qualified for a scholarship as an Information Technology student from the Department of Science and Technology-Science Education Institute (DOST-SEI).

However, this aid has its drawbacks. John narrates, “Medyo complicated siya. Bale as a DOST-SEI Merit scholar, given na may monthly allowance ako, ‘yun na lang ginagamit ko sa mga expenses ko monthly talaga. Pero dahil sa delay ‘yun lagi, as in every 10th or 11th week [of the term] siya dumarating, lagi nang isang bagsakan, nagpapaluwal muna mga ate ko sa 11 weeks ko kada term. (It’s a bit complicated. Supposedly, I should be spending the allowance I get from being a DOST-SEI Merit scholar for my monthly expenses. But due to frequent delays of the allowance’s release, which usually arrives every 10th or 11th week of the term, my sisters would often lend me money for all the expenses during those 11 weeks.)

As of writing, he is already on the final term of his first year in Mapúa University-Makati, an institute which follows a quarter system, or four full terms a school year. Despite being a full academic scholar, his sisters still chip in to pay for miscellaneous dues which he still considers expensive on his part.

Despite all the support he can get, he cites moments of verbal expectations which he cannot particularly determine as humorous, imperative or both—expectations of giving back once he graduates from college. Even though he does have plans to complete the construction of the house which their late parents left them, he still acknowledges that there is an unsaid assumption that he gives back.

This notable Filipino trait of paying back called ‘utang na loob’ has been steadfastly prevalent, and John is not alone. A scholar herself, Marie—also an alias—expresses how she has consistently felt similar expectations.

She shares, “Pagkapasok ko pa lang talaga sa Benilde, ineexpect na talaga ng magulang ko na magkakaroon ako ng scholarship. As in hindi siya option; kailangan meron talaga. So ako naman, bilang mabuting anak, kailangan kong sumunod dito, at the same time para rin mapagaan yung gastusin ng pamilya ko. Kasi wala namang means of income yung mom ko, tas yung dad ko dapat retired na siya pero nagtatrabaho pa rin siya para sa amin. (When I qualified for Benilde, my parents were already expecting a scholarship from me. It was not an option; it was compelled. Of course, as an amenable child, I need to pursue that scholarship for me to lessen the financial burden on my family ass well. My mom doesn’t have means of income, and my dad — who is supposed to be retired by now — is still making ends meet for us.)

Being the eldest child, Marie felt how she has been conditioned to return the favor to her family once she graduates, to the point that those words just became normal to hear. Growing up, she always kept a stable and proper attitude towards studying, which is why she is expected to graduate on time for her to take over the breadwinner role. She also finds herself constrained by being the prospect manager of an advertising firm her uncle owns — a line of career she is not actually fond of.

Recently, netizens have started addressing what seems to be a particular part of Filipino culture where children are expected to give back to their families. A tweet which trended referred to it by how children are being treated as “retirement plans”. Another one even explicitly called out Filipinos for “[milking] money out of their breadwinning family members” just to show a family-oriented facade.

In a story written by Meg Magazine, this habit of “parents seeing children as trust funds” has been called out as a part of the notably toxic Filipino culture that appears to be too difficult to understand for the parental generations. Inevitably, children have been expected to alleviate their respective families from poverty. The article considers it contradictory towards the fact that families must have been financially stable before they were even formed in the first place.

Marie points out how the problem is not actually materialism, but how families perceive their children. The utang na loob culture seems to have lasting impressions among these families that it transforms as a responsibility. “Para bang ‘O, pinalaki at pinakain kita, tama lang na suklian mo ‘to’ imbes na isipin mo na responsibilidad talaga siya ng isang magulang. Tayo namang mga anak nagiging responsibilidad nating tumanaw ng utang na loob, kasi nakikita natin na nagpakahirap yung pamilya natin para lang mapalaki tayo, (It’s like, ‘Alright, I have raised you and fed you so it’s just right that you return the favor’ instead of looking at it as an actual responsibility of a parent. As children, it’s becoming our responsibility to give back because we’ve witnessed how our parents worked hard to raise us,) she explains.

Meanwhile, such indebtedness leans not on the negatives alone. John shares, “Sa situation ko pa, lalong mapapatanaw ka talaga ng utang na loob dahil lahat ng ate ko, may pamilya na. Lahat may mga anak na at nagpapa-aral. Tapos parang may times na I feel like burden sa kanila kasi dapat pamilya na lang nila yung iniisip nila pero they are still supporting me financially. (In my case, you would feel more compelled to reimburse since all my older sisters already have a family. Each already have children of their own who are already studying. There are even times when I feel like a burden since they should be focusing on their own lives, but they are still supporting me financially.) For John, this indebtedness can even serve as an inspiration alongside achieving his dreams, seeing no wrong in giving back as long as it is done genuinely.

The dominance of the ‘utang na loob’ culture may not easily diminish, but it can still be perceived in a different light. Filipinos are naturally altruistic people, more so if it concerns the people they cherish the most. A good step towards shifting such attitude would be by acknowledging the fact that children owe their success to themselves. If the obligatory undertones stop, no child would have to grow up beating themselves to work hard only to become mere returns of investment.

Written on June 24, 2019



Franco L. Babasa

22 · Multimedia Artist from Bulacan, PHL