Debt of Gratitude

by B.J. Stolbov 

The family, after doing without and saving for years and years, had finally bought a small farm of less than a hectare for 900,000 pesos. They had negotiated the price with the owner, an absentee landlord. He had wanted 1,000,000 pesos; the family had only 800,000 pesos. After long and difficult discussions, they agreed to a price of 900,000 pesos, not in installments, but paid as one sum. A retired judge officially wrote up the paperwork.  Both parties signed the bill of sale. 900,000 pesos were paid in full.

[Note: the currency exchange rate is 1 US $ = 43 Philippine pesos.  So, for a house and a hectare, less than 2.5 acres, the price is almost $21,000.]

As is necessary in such transactions, there are additional local fees: a Documentary Stamp, a Certification for the Bureau of Internal Revenue, and, finally, the largest, a Sales Tax.

In charge of the family finances is Maria, a pharmacist, who is good with numbers and knows how to run a business.  With Jerold, her brother-in-law, a large, friendly man, a mechanic and driver, who works for the local government and knows how it works, Maria goes to the Municipal Office to register the land.  At the Assessor’s, the land is again assessed.  It is from this assessed value that the sales tax to pay to the government is determined.

After the usual long, but necessary, wait, they are ushered into the Assessor’s office.  It is a corner office with no windows, a small, private, paper-filled office with a noisy air-conditioner, a large wooden desk, and a prominent nameplate of an important official.

After slowly and silently looking over the bill of sale, the official looks up and, with an experienced and indiscernible expression on his face and in his voice, advises, “Why don’t you have the bill of sale changed from 900,000 pesos to,” he pauses as he considers, “300,000 pesos.”  He smiles, a wide, trained, official, artificial smile, and adds calmly, “If you do this, you will be thankful,” he smiles knowingly, “and you will never forget me for the rest of your life.” 

This is, to Maria, a pleasantly presented, but clear, threat.  It is subtle, and yet, vulgar.  This simple practiced statement, she knows, contains within it a haunting danger.

This is called “utang na loob” in the Philippines.  It means to get something by way of a favor or a “debt of gratitude.”  With a sales tax of 6%, a reduction, on paper, of the sale price would mean a reduction of the sales tax from 54,000 pesos to 18,000 pesos.  That is 36,000 pesos!  For a family carefully counting every peso, this is very tempting!  It would mean money for tilling the land, for seeds for the corn, maybe even enough money to bring in their first crop.  But it would also mean that this “debt of gratitude” would have to be repaid somehow (“never forget me”), someday (“for the rest of your life”) . . . 

Maria is shocked, but she tries not to show it.  As is proper in the Philippines, one does not express unpleasant emotions in public, especially a young woman in front of a public official.

Corruption in the Philippines is a huge, nation-wide problem.  The President, a Senator, or a Governor may be corrupt, but corruption is, primarily, a local problem.  Most often, a favor (a debt of gratitude) is offered by a local official, often from an official whom you know, to whom you may be related, with whom you socialize or go to church.  It is widely accepted that this is how the system works, that this is how the system is meant to be.  Someone does you a favor, and that favor will probably, or definitely, require a repayment of some kind, and that person will be someone you must never forget “for the rest of your life.”

Maria tells the official that she will consider his offer.  She graciously thanks him, and then she and her brother-in-law leaves.  Maria is disgusted.  But underneath her disgust, her anger is growing.  By the time she is safely at home, her public courteousness has disappeared and she is furious.  She stomps through the sala (the living room), and then throws the paperwork down on the dining room table.

That evening, after dinner, the family meets together around the dining room table.  In attendance are Maria and her husband, Maria’s brother-in-law and sister, and Nanay, their mother.  Everyone speaks about the offer.  To be honest, they talk long and hard about the offer: to change the bill of sale, to take the reduction of the taxes, to keep the extra money, and to use it for the betterment of their new farm.

Corruption in the Philippines, and everywhere else, is always a personal problem and a personal decision.  Corruption is easy to decry when it’s someone else’s problem, and when nothing is being offered to you.  It’s easy to complain about corruption publicly and to accept it privately.  It’s easy to accept corruption privately and to take that “debt of gratitude” when only you and one other person knows.  It is tough, much tougher, to turn down corruption when it is handed to you, especially, when the offer is so pleasant, available, and easy.

It’s a tempting offer: short-term gain vs. long-term debt.  But, they all agree, none of them want the threat of “never forget me” hanging over them “for the rest of your life.”  It’s a difficult decision, as so many right decisions are.  At the end, they all decide to do what is right: to pay all the taxes on the full correct value of their farm. 

Here, for today, honesty has won.

B.J. Stolbov is a writer, poet, essayist, novelist, short story writer, travel writer, and technical writer/editor. He lives and works in, travels and explores the islands of the Philippines. B.J. teaches writing and English, and is available for writing and teaching positions. Please feel free to contact him at

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