Why Filipinos Do the Things They Do? Philippines Cultural Psychology

 

 

Being strangers in a strange land, it is always advisable to have at least some understanding of the local cultural flow.  Most times, though, this is easier said than done.  Western culture – that many expats are accustomed to – is pretty straightforward: You’re born a squealing slimy mess, you’re raised by your family, you go to school, struggle through adolescence, secure some type of career path and along the way you worship (depending on your beliefs, usually passed down from family), confront life’s travails head on, and –for many – raise a family of your own.  Business and personal matters are addressed directly, societal expectations are pretty clear, and since everyone else is (mostly) going through life along a similar path, things just seem to happen with a certain level of normalcy and expectedness.

In the Philippines – as with many things – the cultural flow is quite a bit different….

The Philippines today is a conglomeration of all its yesteryears.  From the initial Indo-Malay tribal settlements to the strong influence of the Chinese mercantile empires followed by three hundred plus years of Spanish colonialization and another fifty years of American “Hollywood” rule, the culture of the Philippines today seems to be is a mish-mash of values carried over from generations of external influence.  The Philippines is also a “young” nation – having only had its independence for about 65 years, and as such it still seems to be striving for some sort of national identity. 

Now, with that in mind, let’s take a moment to briefly examine six aspects of Filipino culture that were influenced by Indo-Malay settlement, Asian influences and the centuries of Spanish occupation.  For our immediate purposes, I will refer to them as the Six Pillars of Filipino Culture.  They are (in no specific order):

1. Family
2. Pakikisama (smooth interaction)
3. Amor propio (self esteem)
4.  Hiya (shame)
5.  Utang na loob (debt of obligation)
6. Bahala na (what will be, will be…)

Keep in mind that this is just a collection of information that I have gained through online research, in speaking with locals and with a good amount of cause-and-effect reflection:  Seeking to understand why Filipinos do (or not do) some things that – to the average Westerner – seem rather odd. 

What behaviors, you ask, seeking an example or two.  Well, here’s just a few of many:

Why do they say yes when they actually mean no? 
Why do they invite total strangers passing by their gates into their homes for a fiesta celebration? 
Why do they have such a hard time saying that they don’t know the answer to something? 
Why can Filipinos be so sensitive at times?
Why this obsession to have the most up-to-date fashions and gadgets?
Why do they take so many selfies?
Why is corruption so hard to root out here?
Why are they always asking so many questions when they first meet? 
Why do they prefer foreign “name brand” goods over anything made in the Philippines?
Why do they voluntarily ship themselves off to work for decades in foreign lands and send all the money back to their families?

The list of questions goes on and on.  Hopefully, by the time we are done, we’ll be able to uncover at least some answers as we feel our way through the aforementioned Six Pillars.  Also, keep in mind that this is not an authoritative etched-in-stone assessment – I am certainly no expert on Filipino culture (or anything else for that matter), and it’s simply my own personal musings as I continue to stumble along in my never-ending quest for personal edification.

Yeah, the thesaurus helped in that last bit…

Now, we’ve covered some of the Six Pillars in previous posts, and I will give links to them below.  There is quite a bit to actually note about each aspect, but in this post, we’re just going to give a brief description of each and note how most – if not all – of the Six Pillars are interrelated. 

Family:  Like many other Asian nations, family is THE singular backbone of Filipino culture.  Nothing is more important to them, and the needs of the family typically outweigh the needs of the individual family member.  Unlike tighter (and smaller) Western nuclear families, Filipino families include aunts, uncles, and even first, second and third cousins.  Family get-togethers are important events and no expense is spared when it comes to laying in a total “blow out” party replete with caterers, tents, live music, karaoke, parlor games and freshly roasted pigs (lechon baboy).  Ageism isn’t an issue here as it is in most of the West.  Older family members are usually treated with the highest respect by younger members, with even younger siblings deferring to their older brothers (kuya) and sisters (ate).

Pakikisama: (Pah-kee-kee-sama) From Tagalog, this refers to the avoidance of conflict in day-to-day life.  A 1970’s sociologist actually referred to is as SIR (Smooth Interpersonal Relations) which is ironic considering the ubiquitous usage of “Sir” and “Mum” in daily parlance.  Maintaining smooth relations means Filipinos will generally try to avoid confrontation by giving offense.  Best witnessed in the way Filipinos will directly avoid declining requests (saying “no”).  Pakikisama can also be seen in the way Filipinos will generally avoid arguments, rude language (verbal or physical), public disagreement and direct negotiation of what they see as delicate matters.  Generally, it has to do with “going with the flow” and “not making waves.”  As a result, Filipino culture is generally very conservative and very traditional.  “We do things the way we do them because that is the way we do them.”  Recognize also that pakikisama is all about conformity and is the base opposite of individualism.

Amor Propio: Also taken from Tagalog and literally translated as “love of self,” this is best described to us clueless por-en-yares as self-esteem.  Amor propio is developed by behaving properly, obeying one’s parents, maintaining smooth relations with others (pakikisama), extending hospitality, giving selflessly of oneself and the like. When amor propio is violated by another person, Filipinos will typically feel embarrassment or shame (hiya). This is generally a state that that will always seek to avoid. (Note that Filipinos can also violate their own amor propio by cheating on their wives, stealing, or refusing to help others.)  Usually shame will result in Filipinos shutting down while they internalize all the stress caused by actual or perceived transgressions.  In extreme cases, violent reactions can ensue.  Amor propio can also be compared to the greater Asian concept of “face,” with those losing face experiencing the embarrassment of hiya.  And although it has much to do with specific expected behaviors, what you have (material objects) also plays a role in amor propio, thus a seemingly borderline obsession with “branded” clothing and “gadgets” (iPhones, tablets and the like) – even if they are bootlegged replicas which are VERY common here. Amor propio seems to be a combination of Spanish and more hardcore Asian (“face”) influences.

Hiya: Hiya is best described as shame, but some forms of it can also be seen as shyness.  Hiya occurs when a Filipino’s amor propio is violated (actual violation or perceived violation). Probably another carryover from Asian influences (commonly referred to as “losing face”), Filipinos will usually do everything they can to avoid unpleasant emotion, up to an including saying “yes” when they mean no and denying that they were a part of any wrongdoing even when directly confronted with the evidence.   Hiya can also come about when Filipinos are not obeying their parents and fulfilling the numerous expectations of pakikisama whist maintaining amor propio.
As I previously noted, hiya can also be seen in Filipino “shyness.”  Part of this shyness is a result of “colonial mentality” in the Philippines, where things from away (typically the West) are seen as superior to local commodities, up to and including some Filipinos thinking themselves inferior to Western foreigners.

Utang Na Loob: Best described as “debt of gratitude,” utang na loob is all about favors asked and favors returned.  Utang na loob is experienced in the workplace, the community but most of all in the family – where obeying and taking care of one’s parents is the number one Filipino filial duty.  The asking of favors is very common in the Philippines and the reciprocity of asking for favors in return is also quite common.  Filipinos venturing overseas for decades to support their families is one example they will make in the face of utang na loob, and when one considers that there are approximately 2.4 million Filipino working overseas, it’s pretty easy to see the effect that utang na loob has on the entire Philippine population.  SIDE NOT: Anthony Bourdain actuall did an excellent “Parts Unknown” episode on Aurora, a woman who had worked 35 years overseas and was now back with her (grown) Philippines family.  You can read more about that episode here:  http://cnnphilippines.com/lifestyle/2016/04/27/Manila-Philippines-food-travel-Anthony-Bourdain-Parts-Unknown.html

Bahala na:  Literally translated as “God willing” (similar to the Arabic inshallah) it is more commonly described as “what will be will be” (Spanish Que sera, sera).  Incorporating a sort of fatalism in the face of adversity, bahala na comes in handy when faced by the devastation of natural disasters, deaths of family members or simply just having to deal with the grind of day-to-day poverty that millions of Filipinos have to deal with. 

Now, when one takes the time to actually absorb the six individual pillars and then carries it over to a macro level, some of the mysteries that foreigners are bewildered by everyday Philippines life become a bit more understandable. 

Let’s hop back and take a look at some of the original questions we were asking towards the beginning of the article and applying some of the concepts of the Six Pillars. Again, this is just supposition and amateur cultural psychology on my part.

Q: Why do they say yes when they actually mean no?
A:  Pakikisama (smooth interpersonal relations) and not wanting to violate their own (or the other persons!) amor propio.

Q:Why do they invite total strangers passing by their gates into their homes for a fiesta celebration?
A: Hospitality and kindness to others is an integral part of amor propioPakikisama also plays a part as sacrificing/giving to others (even at one’s own expense or detriment) is relevant here.

Q: Why do they have such a hard time saying that they don’t know the answer to something? 
A:  Probably has something to do with avoiding hiya – shame in admitting that they don’t know something.

Q: Why are Filipinos be so sensitive at times?
A:  There’s actually a Tagalog term for this sensitivity – balat sibuyas or literally, “onion skin.”  Maintaining self-esteem (amor propio) in the face of all the vagaries of Philippine life isn’t an easy thing to do.  This results in a good deal of self-doubt which seems to make many Filipinos rather sensitive.  Another influencer – colonial mentality – also seems to be at work here.  The onion skin of Filipino seems to become wear even thinner when confronted by foreigners, especially when faced with “power rangers” of the Caucasian persuasion (Notice I didn’t say “white” cuz that would have been racist!)  

Q: Why this obsession to have the most up-to-date fashions and gadgets?
A:  Strengthening of personal amor propio. To not have the latest clothing or gadgets (or shiny new Toyota Fortuner) is shameful and could possibly bring on hiya. 

Q: Why do Filipinos take so many selfies? (Makati was the selfie capital of the world in 2006.)
A:  Amor propio and a smidgen of pakikisama-centric conformity (everyone else is doing it) seems to play a part in this national obsession.   

Q: Why is corruption so hard to root out here?
A:  Utang na loob seems to be the primary culprit in local and national corruption.  Favors given and favors received. Ironically enough (there’s a lot of unintentional irony in the Philippines) pakikisama (not rocking the boat) also seems to play a role.

Q: Why are they always asking (us) foreigners so many questions when we first meet?
A:  Although some jaded expats thinks it has to do with “they’re trying to gather intelligence in order to scam us,” I think it has more to do with maintaining good amor propio and pakikisama by extending hospitality. 

Q: Why do Filipinos prefer foreign “name brand” goods over anything made in the Philippines?
A:  Colonial mentality (a subset of amor propio/hiya).  This flies in the face of “Pinoy pride” and is definitely a stumbling block as the Philippines seeks to secure some form of solid national identity.

Q: Why do Filipinos voluntarily ship themselves off to work for decades in foreign lands and send all the money back to their families?
A:  Family/Utang na loob (the “debt of obligation” that they owe their parents), pakikisama (conformity and doing what millions of other Filipinos are doing) and amor propio (not obeying the needs/directives of family is a direct violation of amor propio.  This sacrifice can also be seen in a more local level in the way young and attractive Filipinas will be with much older (and less attractive) foreigners in order to secure an allowance in order to take care of their families. 

Beyond anything else here, the willingness of Filipinos to spend years/decades away from their home to take care of their families totally humbles me.  I don’t think I fully realized just how much of an effect in had until I watched the Anthony Bourdain “Parts Unknown” episode about the Filipina OFW who had spent over 30 years in foreign lands as an OFW while she took care of her family.  Un-frikken-believable but it’s something that happens here more often than not.

Sacrifice on a level that expat foreigners can never appreciate.

Truly humbling.

So – I got a bit long-winded, but I hope this rather decidedly amateur cultural psychology piece has been of some help.

Want to add to the discussion?  Feel free to leave a comment below.

Safe travels!

 

Comments 34

  1. Hi Ned .. having just last week moved in with the love of my life of 4 years .. I can see so much of this already. If I may offer you some advice … don’t doubt yourself or do yourself a diservice … you have been so much help to me giving me an unbiased understanding of what I’m likely to face and I would venture that 99% of what you have written about over the past few years (That, that I have read and watched)… had been spot on. I hope you continue to contribute in the manner for which you are now famed. Cheers to you and Michel. Barry Rose ( the fat man from the UK)

    1. I find myself when I’m looking for an answer and a Philipino is just looking forward and not responding I would just rephrase it. If he continues do the same thing, looking forward and not responding I keep on him until I wear him down. Sometimes I get an answer and when I do I give him a whole hearted thank you.

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  2. Great article Ned. As a westener many of the topics that you covered seem opposite of what we are used to.
    The whole OFW experience is SO foreign to most of us and really is friggin unbelievable, especially when these hard working people are mistreated and all alone.
    Bless them all.

  3. Ned from 83 to 86 was my first tour of duty in Philippines I was stationed at the Subic Bay Base Olongapo I had a very close Filipino friend On Friday nights I would stop by His house for a few beers and chat He would always break out a bottle of crown royal and one glass and say to me come on Bob we make Pakikisama for him it meant good conversation and drinking from one glass in friendship. Unfortunately a few years back i received word that he past I will never forget my time with his family his wife and kids were so fantastic to me.

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  4. Good insight. You have learned more in the last few years than I may have in 25 years of marriage. All cultures have their strong points. (Also some less than desirable traits ) The Philippines is top when it comes to caring for ones family. It is a huge attraction to me. Even when they have so very little they will share it with another. I think we all could benefit from their example. Things in life are not nearly as important as we tend to make them in the west. It’s the relationships that really define us. I really enjoyed your well spoken article. Thanks for taking a lot of your time to put it together.

  5. Great insight, thank you for sharing and thank you for the time you put into this article.
    I am just starting the journey with a beautiful Filipina.
    Please keep doing what you’re doing.

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  6. Wow.
    After reading this article I wonder how many Expats stopped and looked at their Filipino partner and thought to themselves does she/he really love me or are they just sacrificing themselves for their family?
    Is that why you took so long before proposing to Michel?
    Is Henry just fooling himself that Lyn is happy to sacrifice having children of her own for her families sake?
    How can you tell?
    May be it would be worth asking a rich old Filipino married to a younger Filipina how it works for Filipinos and then extrapolate the answer for cross cultural relationships or even ask Bud Brown and Gloria?
    (JOKE) Gloria might say she married Bud for his money. (JOKE)
    May be it is just a case of ‘Suck it and see’ and hope that love grows if it was not there at the start of the relationship.

    1. Very good questions. Does she really love me for the reasons I wish to be loved, or is she doing loving things because of some greater ulterior motivation(i.e. for the sake of helping herself or family)? In my experience, it’s probably best not to delve too deeply here, just accept her for who she is….and sleep with one eye open ;).

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  7. The fact is that they don’t speak English at home, they don’t speak it at work, they don’t think in English, and generally English is kinda a hobby language for them. So when encountering foreigners they don’t just have a language problem but also an accent problem. So they will just say ‘yes’ , ‘yes’ – meaning ‘Bugger off and ask somebody else’.

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  8. Great job Ned: that took some work!
    My first shocking encounter with Pakikisama, as a young lad, was in the USA Peace Corp Volunteer program in TRUK LAGOON, MICRONESIA, next door to the Philippines. I just got off a 50 foot passenger boat full of locals (young and old) heading back to their tiny island of about 1500 people: three families of around 500 in each family on an island measuring one half mile by one mile long.
    All of a sudden a crazed teen boy on shore, next to boat, started flinging a number of coral stones through the crowd, coming off the boat. Stones were large enough to kill or seriously injure.
    As a witness to this, I was 40 feet off to the side watching, as nobody was stopping this crazed kid from throwing stones at mothers, babies, grandpa’s.. with reckless abandon. As an American, my reaction was ….I wanted to kill him with my fists.
    20 seconds later, which seemed like a lifetime, some local middle aged man wrapped his arms around this teen’s waist, holding his arms to side for 15 seconds, then let go and walked away. The teen stopped for a moment and then started screaming again, throwing stones through crowd…AGAIN!. What the hell! I thought. And again, the same man walked back and wrapped his arms around this idiot. The teen broke down crying, as the crowd in boat just walked pass the crying teen, as if nothing happened. No jail, no police, no nothing?

    In that moment I realized… all the people on this tiny island, had no choice but to live with each other, every day of their lives. I sensed these people knew that burning bridges is not an option, as I wanted to kill the little bastard. That was SMOOTH INTERACTION and very stressful for me to watch. Nobody was injured. The crazy kid was just having a fit for whatever…done…over and out…..and my blood pressure was high.

  9. A very nice take on an interesting subject. Thank you, Ned.
    As an Asian living in Canada, I can truly empathize with the Filipinos traditional customs and usage such as amor propiya, hiya, respect for elders, care for both generations – ancestral and descendants. In many parts of India, people bend down to touch the feet of the elders and touch the hands to their foreheads. Not just the kids but adults too. The Japanese equivalent of amor propiya was emphatically brought out throughout history in stories describing corrupt generals killing themselves by running into naked swords. Or by the waves of young kamikaze pilots diving into the funnels of Allied ships, destroying themselves and their targets.
    Like you, Ned, I am curious to know about the traditions of Native Americans/ Canadians as well as those prevalent in nations of the Far East.
    There’s a lot of good traditions present today, not just in Asia and the Phillipines but also in America and the western nations. Kudos Ned on writing such an excellent article on this wondrous topic.
    God bless us all.

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  10. Another insightful commentary! In reply to Martin Agnew, I think most of us can tell if our Filipina wives really love us, or not, unless our head(s) are in the clouds, or looking at our colon! lol!
    I know when a Filipina loves you, it’s true love! These ladies fall in love with their hearts.
    Just think of the older man/younger woman relationships like a good arranged marriage. Many such unions blossom into love and respect, especially when friends and relatives perform the match making!
    My wife and I introduced my 66 y/o widower Uncle to her 35 y/o single mother best friend, and now we’re travelling to Pagadian city for a Christmas wedding. His several Filipino friends have questioned my Uncle, implying Utang na loob, or worse, scamming, but he replies his nephew’s wife is her lifelong friend. My wife’s friend is blown away that a decent man wants her, considering her 7 y/o out of wedlock son(the father is passed away)! She wants a man to love and accept her like I do her best friend, even if he’s 13 years my senior! My Uncle is saving her from being an “old maid”, and from leaving her son with family so she could sacrifice more of her life in Kuwait! I will be recommending your blog, and videos, as they have helped me in my relationship.

    1. Thanks mate, I’m the victim of a failed marriage; where you were spot on; my head was in the clouds or somewhere else and it ended with much bitterness and bad feeling.
      I asked my questions because marriage to a Filipina would be cross cultural and there are a lot of difficulties and misunderstandings about what is expected from both sides of the relationship and also a lot of different motivations driving peoples choices.
      Your Uncle was lucky to have someone make an introduction that he could trust the advise of and therefore could enter the relationship with no real qualms.
      As a foreigner coming to live in the Philippines I’m sure there will be a lot of Filipinos wanting to introduce me to their Sisters, Cousins or Aunts but I will always be questioning myself; are they doing it because of loyalty to family or because they are my friends.
      Suck it and See – May have to be the rule for all my relationships in the Philippines – Both Friendships and Love and I’m sure I will get burned making friends but marriage is a one off choice in the Philippines and therefore I don’t want to make any mistakes with that choice.

      1. Martin,
        All I can say is don’t let your past experience jade you! Check out all of Ned’s blogs/videos, and Reekay’s as well as several others that pop up on the right margin.
        If you trust your friends, at least get to know their cousin, sister, whomever!
        I believe ladies from the provinces are the best, as they likely haven’t been jaded by city life! YMMV! LOL! Hit me at: uptightbass@yahoo.com anytime!
        Al

      2. Martin I have to agree with Allen. I also am divorced. Took me years to get past it. When we’ve been through a traumatic divorce it can be easy for us to talk ourselves out of a good thing. There are so many fine women in the Philippines. Meeting women through people you know is a good way to go. I concur that women from the provinces are probably a bit less jaded and more traditional. Like anywhere else, just take your time and get to know them first. Take your time and I truly believe you can find the love of your life 🙂

    1. :–) May be I should have said ‘Give it a try and Hope for the Best’ but be prepared to cut my loses and move on if I find I am being used in a friendship or love relationship (treated as a sucker).
      When I move to the Philippines, I will be a newby with only a few short visits to guide my decisions but I have made numerous trips to other parts of Asia (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) where a lot of the cultural features do cross over with the Philippines culture but they only speak English in the tourist areas of those countries and the people seem to be even more uptight and money grubbing than the Filipino people.
      You never feel so lonely in those countries as when your in the rural areas and you and your girlfriend are the only English speakers around.

  11. An excellent article Ned. I can see so much of this in my Filipina wife of 4 years and now I understand her a little better. What I have to do now is perhaps be a little more tolerant and understanding of her behaviour given all this knowledge you have imparted. Doing a good job mate.

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  12. Utang na loob (debt of obligation) is something, I (an American expat) have struggled with, in relationship with Asian women. One good lady I was courting, was working her life away, knowing that she needed to help support her parents who lived on a farm. She wanted a family of her own, like her parents had, but her obligation to her parents overshadowed her own desires to have, what mom and dad was able to have.

    This is where I drew the line…her father was very rich on paper, owned a lot of land but was not willing to sell off a bit to retire on, so his daughter could be happy as they were. Through research, I found that her father’s reasoning for not selling a portion of his land was due to the fact…if he waited 10 more years , his daughter and son would have more money when he died. The father was stuck on money and less on his daughter’s happiness.

    She was a great woman, but I could not be part of this family, as her father appeared selfish to me. I was expected to pay her debts to honor the families needs, if I had married. She was giving her father 25,000 Thai baht a month for food and truck payments; (in pesos about 20% more, 30 to 35,000 pesos) Her father could not survive on rice and sugarcane crops which totaled 7500 baht per month. She made 30,000 baht per month total, at her hotel job of 72 hours per week. I left the potential relationship and asked her what will she do now. Her remark was, I am 35 years old, at 45 I will want to move back home to take care of my parents. I said, so your father gets a family but expects you to sacrifice your desires for your own family. Her comment ..I know what I have to do.

    I have discovered, some of the younger siblings in today’s Asian world are disconnecting away, from this cultural habit in place of western habits of more independence, growing beyond this circle of attachment. They will still send money back to elders, but they are slowly becoming westernized: more independent. Their children, the next generation of kids will be completely absorbed in western thinking…in my opinion.

    Those kids will be engineers, teachers, etc. in cultures that pay well. In Thailand and Philippines, the pay grade is far below other Asian countries close by. The rural farming communities will be managed by larger corporations or governments. As of now, rural communities in China and America are also being absorbed by large farming corporations.

    I’ve heard it said in documentaries on Chinese television: those newly rich Chinese suburbanites all want to be a Chinese style version of America. Same is true for most of South East Asia. The Philippine people want it more-so… my observations are generalized, opinionated in statement, but I’m guessing… it is a trend, unstoppable, in the light of western progress.

  13. Great job! I’m doing some research about the Filipino community and this has been very helpful, thank you!

    I just wanted to comment on the origin of the term ‘Amor Propio’ it is actually taken from the Spanish language (got the impression you said it is taken from Tagalog).

    I also wanted to comment that the concept of Utang Na Loob seems to be exactly the same as ‘Guanshi’ or ‘Guanxi’ within Chinese culture.

    Best!

    JN

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  14. I’m an American with Filipino descent. I refuse to be called a Filipino-American. I am just an American.

    I’ve experienced both American and Filipino cultures. I grew up in the United States and became disgruntled with Filipino culture. With a broad brushstroke, American culture is more organized, objective, and orderly compared to the chaos of Filipino nonsense such as some of what you mentioned in your article.

    I’m an agnostic atheist. I am libertarian-leaning. I’m an entrepreneur and a high school teacher. I’ve always clashed with my family because of my beliefs and way of life. I just feel so out of place when I visit my family. Most of my friends are white and latino who seek to optimize their lifestyles. My family always drains me of mental energy.

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      I agree, Sir Coconut – American culture is much more “organized, objective and orderly.” Philippines seems to be more along the lines of barely controlled chaos at times. Thanks for sharing that – I truly appreciate it.

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