Exploring Culture: Dissecting Kilig

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“It’s like this feeling of warmth, and you feel butterflies in your stomach, but there’s also this chill, and it’s sort of like a shiver, only...basta.”

Anyone who has tried explaining what kilig is knows it’s tough to pinpoint. This long-running Filipino cultural concept has succeeded in evading strict definition. Though Filipino dictionaries have listed the word “kilig” as a shudder or a tremble, this doesn’t capture everything it means for Pinoys.

So what is kilig, and why does it matter? Filipinos know it amounts to more than what the books say, but there may be even more that this concept is hiding behind a coy, pa-cute smile.

Blurred clarity

Photo by Ean L. Dacay

Photo by Ean L. Dacay

Kilig is often described as a flutter of excitement caused by romance. It can be triggered by a wide range of stimuli, from the trivial (making eye contact with your crush) to the grand (watching someone propose to his beloved in public).  Filipinos are familiar with the feeling, though the sensation itself may vary from person to person. One common denominator is that it manifests as a quick shiver. “I call it fairy dust. It’s a momentary high,” says Bardo Wu, a fresh information design graduate, of the feeling.

The term has no precise equivalent in other languages, setting it apart as uniquely Filipino. But some non-Filipinos may have concepts similar to kilig. First coined in the 1942 Disney movie Bambi, the word “twitterpated” was used to describe the feeling that overcomes everyone in spring—a kind of rush caused by love.

What distinguishes kilig is how it is simultaneously specific and nebulous.  Most Filipinos know exactly what it is, yet few can state outright what defines it. As a cultural concept, kilig is made of and characterized by feeling rather than the objective confines of language.

Kilig is tied to the element of surprise. “It’s usually felt during the first phase of romance, during the courtship and honeymoon stage of a relationship,” says Sociology and Anthropology Department faculty member Skilty Labastilla.

After years of being together, familiarity may negate the surprise essential to kilig. But according to Bea*, an Atenean who has been in a relationship for nearly five years, the intense initial kilig can lead to a relationship that’s worth working on every day. She notes, “Kilig doesn’t necessitate love all the time. Attraction isn’t really voluntary, but love is something you decide.”

The tight cultural interweaving of kilig and love causes confusion. It is as common as mistaking attraction for love itself. Love can be many things, but kilig is a nice supplement.

The complete package

Photo by Ean L. Dacay

Photo by Ean L. Dacay

Everyone knows that famous scene in One More Chance: Bea Alonzo’s Basha and John Lloyd Cruz’ Popoy stand in the middle of a restaurant, surrounded by their friends, ready to confront the growing animosity between them. John Lloyd cemented the movie’s place in Philippine film history as this generation’s cult hit, with the line, “Mahal na mahal kita, at ang sakit-sakit na.” (“I love you so much, and it just hurts.”)

With its “love teams” and unrealistic plot settings for finding true love, Philippine media has re-written the “sex sells” formula of its Western counterparts into one that works in the conservative Philippines: kilig sells. Happy endings are pervasive; anything to the contrary is like throwing the mainstream audience a curveball.

What the incredible thing is, however, that even a small flicker of hope is enough. In the abovementioned One More Chance, the star-crossed lovers meet again after all the drama has subsided, and Popoy asks Basha out to dinner—an open ending, yet it was enough to push the movie to P152 million in the box office.

Kilig is able to bridge the gaps between generations and social classes alike simply because it is a universal emotion—and when used in media, kilig is especially powerful. Immediate past Communication Department Chair Severino Sarmenta agrees on the strong marketability of kilig, saying “[it] can sell anything from movies to magazines, badly sung records to souvenirs.”

This is exactly what food chains such as McDonald’s and Max’s bank on, in producing numerous commercials on this premise. Consider one McDonald’s commercial: It was created to sell their hot fudge sundae and French fries combo, but instead their product offering was positioned as the convergence point of a short story on first love, set to the Eraserheads’ iconic “Ang Huling El Bimbo.”

New nuances

Photo by Ean L. Dacay

Photo by Ean L. Dacay

Owing to its usage in popular culture, the definition of kilig is evolving. It’s beginning to be identified with experiences outside the realm of romance. More and more often, it’s being used as a colloquial term for a general feeling of happiness, maintaining its innocent, pseudo-conservative nature.

The updated treatment of kilig assumes the motive of kindness. It has become akin to accepting a compliment but without the necessity of context. For example, a professor’s praise over work well done could induce kilig. Tsina Zamora, a sophomore, shares that even simply meeting up with her friends for lunch gets her kilig, because it gives her something to look forward to amidst all the stress.

But this expression of fondness is also no longer confined to human interaction. Kilig can strike when one is genuinely elated by something he or she is fond of. In a mix of English and Filipino, sophomore Harvey Parafina explains that “[if] you love reading about philosophical stuff or creating your own music, that’s where it comes from—especially if you make something amazing. You have an intellectual orgasm!”

A people of celebration

Whatever it may be, kilig shows that we Filipinos are expressive as a people. We celebrate the smallest joys—it makes sense that momentary elation is captured in a single, unvitary feeling. Kilig is in itself a representation of the light happiness associated with the Filipino: it can go from referencing the quintessential “butterflies in the stomach” feeling usually associated with romance to being, as junior Samuel Liquete puts it, “that feeling when you need to pee.”

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