The upside of being tambay

Who are the tambays?

If we are to profile them based on those killed and arrested in its anti-tambay operations, a tambay

– lives in a poor area

– idles before a sari-sari store

– enjoys a good joke with friends

– is probably shirtless while hanging out

– drinks

– is presumably unemployed

– hates the police

– smokes

The notion of tambay that is impressed in our culture has a degrading and even discriminatory ring to it. The middle classes and the idle rich that are way more extravagant in their talent for tambay are excluded from classification. I have nothing against the well-to-do classes that are idling or loitering in their own fashion. What ticks one’s nerves is the utter idiocy and the political motivation of this anti-loitering campaign that is as unconstitutional, as great a breach of peace, as gross infringement of civil liberties as the repulsive war on drugs.

Photo from Anakbayan Baguio Facebook page.

And yet when the well-to-do speak of tambay the tone is hypocritical. When the well-to-do idle in spectacular cafes our culture calls it leisure, when the poor idle in sari-sari stores our society calls it loitering. The pulse of this anti-loitering campaign is an artifact of the colonial mentality which tends to blame the underdog for its vices. What is considered loitering or idleness today was considered indolence in the colonial period. In fact Rizal wrote a brilliant polemic against that colonial superstition: On The Indolence of The Filipinos. Yet Rizal wrote a very strong argument for inaction:

“A hot climate requires of the individual quiet and rest, just as cold incites to labor and action… The fact is that in tropical countries violent work is not a good thing… do we not see the active European… abandon his labors during the few days of his variable summer… sit in the cafes or stroll about? What wonder then that the inhabitant of tropical countries, worn out and with his blood thinned by the continuous and excessive heat, is reduced to inaction?…We find, then, the tendency to indolence very natural, and have to admit and bless it, for we cannot alter natural laws, and without it the race would have disappeared.”

Filipinos are not machines nor brutes. Tambay is a natural, persistent course to sociality. Tambay or inaction is an integral part of our culture; it is something organic in the life of a Filipino. It is a form of intimation which opens individuals to community feeling. The spirit of solidarity, pakikisama, is manifested in the simplicity, spontaneity, and affability of this shared moment of idleness. To criminalize tambay is to deprive the Filipino one of his natural and legal joys.

To tambay is one thing, to become a tambay is another; especially if the latter is the result of a government that is incapable of terminating contractualization, impotent in enacting a national minimum wage, and cowardly in the face of agrarian reform is the same government that puts behind bars the so-called tambay!

It is not loitering or idling that is threatening our society but power and greed of those on top. An active or non-tambay person is as susceptible to committing crimes as a loiterer or an idler. Take the police who are becoming more and more unbearable and uncivilized as the traffic in EDSA; or the mining companies that are threatening the very existence of our indigenous brothers and sisters. They are far more deadly than a tambay who, after being fired unjustifiably by a despicable company, stupors himself in cheap alcohol with friends. Tambay has a lower degree of dangerousness, and thus doesn’t require such policing as is happening now.

We are living in a corporate capitalist world in which the life-destroying practices of production and consumption are irreparably destroying the natural environment on which we depend for human life. The notion of tambay needs a careful definition in this context. The wonderful American anthropologist David Graeber remarks on the non-industrious or the tambay:

“At least they are not hurting anyone. Insofar as the time they are taking off from work is being spent with friends and family, enjoying and caring for those they love, they’re probably improving the world more than we acknowledge. Maybe we should think of them as pioneers of a new economic order that would not share our current one’s penchant for self-annihilation.”

A tambay is environmental friendly insofar as his idleness involves little or nothing in the act of corporate production and mindless consumption. A tambay who spends his time freely with his friends or loved ones withdraws from the harm industrial work is inflicting on the environment. A tambay is immune to the illnesses produced by corporate capitalism: depression, dyspepsia, weariness, exhaustion, isolation, alienation, etc.. He benefits more from the simple happiness of doing less or nothing at all. A tambay is saved from the demoralization of overwork and from the vanity of ambition which turns men into wolves and scoundrels.

Oscar Wilde, an advocate of socialism, condemned this obsession with profit-making:

“The industry necessary for the making money is also very demoralizing… Man will kill himself by overwork in order to secure property… One’s regret is that society should be constructed on such a basis that man has been forced into a groove in which he cannot freely develop what is wonderful, and fascinating, and delightful in him – in which, in fact, he misses the true pleasure and joy of living.”

The tragic fact in the whole of this episode is the mental process of those who thought of the campaign. One hardly believes that such a thing merits one’s attention until the police is around your throat. We have learned from the brutal war on drugs that force (the police) is not a solution to our social ills but wisdom, love, and culture are. Unfortunately they are things in which our public officials are little versed and the connotations attached to tambay by the well-off are hypocritical. What we need in these desperate times is a profound redefinition and wise use of tambay. We should come up with a form of tambay that is more creative, more pleasurable, more healthy, and more productive not in terms of profits but of intelligence and love.

Carlo Rey Lacsamana is a Filipino, born and raised in Manila, Philippines. Since 2005, he has been living and working in the Tuscan town of Lucca, Italy.