Sometimes, more often than I care to admit, I realize I’m standing back in situations I’m not totally comfortable in. As events unfold, I try categorize the reasons why I don’t feel up to battling the challenges they present.
More often than not, I assign my discomfort as most likely a result of:
a) A difference in culture that I’m still learning to grow accustomed to.
b) My personal experience/education tells me something isn’t right.
c) Someone’s personality makes me uncomfortable , or lastly, the dumpster category
d) Everything about the situation is just plain weird.
Here’s an example of a category A or D situation - still parsing out which.
Sometimes I opt to walk the five minutes to work instead of riding my bike. It’s funny, on these days -without fail- at least one neighbor will ask me where my bike is and if it’s broken. Walking home, I stopped by the store near my old host-family’s house to buy some rice. I purchased a ½ kilo of ‘bigás’, prepared for the routine of explaining that, yes, I am only one person so “Only a ½ kilo will be perfect, yes thank you.” Every time I buy rice (not often) it’s gotten easier to reassure the salesman that the small amount of rice I ordered was exactly what I asked for and is quite enough for me. I bought my rice and trotted down the road.
I approached one of the more noisy family compounds and noticed an elderly woman walking on the same side as me and coming towards me. She was carrying a couple of half-full and half-wet plastic bags at each side. We were close to passing each other and she slowed down. I nodded saying “Magandang Hapon” (good afternoon) and gave her a hurried smile. My ‘friendly-I’ll-smile-and-wave-at-you-no-matter-who-you-are approach’ has worked, softening the skepticism of some of the hardest old ladies in my community, with few exceptions. More often than not, I am rewarded with eye contact of the kindest sort and a large toothy grin.
This lady presented me with a fake half-smile, and stuck out her hand, saying (in Tagalog) something along the lines of: “You just purchased a bag of rice, so you should give me 5 pesos.” I hadn’t anticipated an actual conversation following our general greeting, and had only slowed my gait a little bit as I approached her. By the time my brain realized what the old woman said, she was already a few feet behind me. I kept walking, brushing off her request as if I hadn’t understood. I have never given money to anyone with their hand out, and I most certainly knew I didn’t want to start in my community.
I decided a long time ago that instead of identifying and discriminating between people and neighbors in my community, I would treat everyone the same, sending out friendly greetings all over the place, but not slowing my pace or overall trajectory (my host-parents excepted) - If I stopped and chatted every time someone said ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’, I would be delayed literally hours trying to make it where I was going.
I arrived home a few minutes later quite bewildered. Was it some sort of custom to give people money if they found out you had just bought bigás (uncooked rice)? Filipinos are notorious for being incredibly generous (especially with food) and buying rice was such a rare occurrence for me, maybe I just made a big social taboo by not giving that Lola (grandmother) 5 pesos. This was the first time anyone had ever hit me up for money in my city, and the fact that she had said I should give it to her because of my purchase of rice, made me think I was ignorant of some unknown cultural practice.
While I pondered on which category this would fit into for a few minutes, I realized I had to refill my water jug. I set my rice down, grabbed the jug, and retraced my steps back to the house I buy water from. I was only a few feet from my house when I spotted the Lola again, this time we were facing the same direction (she was apparently quite the slow commuter). I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself, which is actually kind of a joke here considering how tall, curly, white, and large I am, but regardless, I tried; and kept my gaze on the road ahead. It wasn’t until I was a few feet away from her that I realized she was urinating beneath her semi-hiked up skirt on the side of the road. She ignored me as well, and I walked the rest of the way to buy water.
I’d love to tell you that I maintained my cool, but I’m not a good liar, and I’m pretty sure my face lit up like a little kids in recognition after I realized what she was up (or down) to. In all these months that I’ve seen men urinating on the side of the road (I bet I could spot at least forty guys with their pants unzipped on the side of the road on my way to Manila), in almost two years, I have never EVER seen a woman urinating in public! I have to admit it brightened my day a little bit - Women’s equality right!? And it clarified that this, and the episode earlier, most likely goes under Category D – plain weird.
**Update! I asked my counterpart about the occurrence, and if there was a cultural connection between giving money and having bought rice. She said, no and that people also go around her residential area knocking on doors and begging. She doesn’t give out money because she doesn’t want a line outside her door, but she does tell them they can pick whatever vegetables they want from her little garden. ***
***(Long) Update #2! I met, in-person, the couple who contacted me via the internet almost a year and a half ago. They found me, after reading the article about how I’m an Auburn Alumni volunteer in the Philippines and how the only Auburn game I saw was the the National Championship game at the Ambassador’s Residence. I was so excited when Joe (If I remember right, Political Science class of ‘93), and his wife Mary Rose, befriended me on Facebook and told me they were planning a trip to the Philippines in May 2012, and asked me if would I like to meet up for a drink.
Aside from two friends I met through a mutual friend in college, who’d flown here to visit Ben and Molly, also Auburn Alumni, I knew this was the closest thing I’ll get to visitors. I came to learn about the Swart family over the next year-and-a-half thanks to our ‘Facebook’ friendship. I saw their lives through picture updates, and enjoyed learning about an absolutely beautiful family growing up healthy and happy in New York City. After my initial excitement, I let my anxiety catch up with me – I know the Auburn Family link is a strong connection, but after my sister Keela asked me why I ‘talked too slow,’ I couldn’t help but wonder if this couple, who lived in New York, would talk too fast, and in addition, think I was slow because of my new pace.
My fears were completely dissipated after quick and informal introductions and I realized they had familiar and long-lost (for me) southern accents. I feel I should mention that if you have even the slightest hint of an American accent that makes us best-friends; add on top of that a southern accent, and we’re friends for life. I sat at the table and relished a lingering feeling of being reunited with with long-lost family members. The food was really excellent, and I’m not just saying that because they paid for it – it was really good and fair priced. I think if I was so inclined to go on a date, it would be there. It was fancy, but not too fancy. In addition to each of us ordering an entree, we also had appetizers (this was the first hint that I was no longer in VolunteerWorld). I learned that Mary Rose had grown up in the southern part of Luzon before her and her family relocated to New York in the 80’s. And Joe talked about being raised in Albertville (Mary Rose even mentioned Boaz, which brought up memories of Outlet shopping with Granny. Later, I’d wished I had brought up Unclaimed Baggage to see if they would voice any recognition). We talked about growing up in the south and moving away from home, and how no matter where you are, it is always in your heart (if not your accent). They ordered a bottle of red wine and I couldn’t resist ordering a high gravity beer (the first time I’ve seen it on a menu). Had I not still been trying to make a good 1st impression, I would have squealed in delight and cried tears of joy over that beer. Man, it was nice. After TWO bottles of red wine and TWO desserts, we left the restaurant in full American mode (that is, in a private SUV).
We went to a ‘speak easy,’ without any signage, and where you knocked on an unmarked door with a view-slot in order to be let in. I heard two ladies loitering in the parking lot smoking cigarettes say the password was ‘chef,’ but I’m not wholly certain that we had to produce a password. Once inside, I went straight to the bathroom (a quickly-trained habit when you find yourself a patron of a nice place in Manila). There, I found by far the nicest toilet paper I have seen in about two years. I only pocketed a few extra squares because I didn’t want to jinx my good fortune, but as it turns out, my good fortune wasn’t over. Even though I tried to pay for my drink - one drink cost almost as much as my monthly housing rent…although I made it a point not to be overly vocal about how much things were costing in the genuine hopes that they might let me pay for my drinks, but Joe and Mary Rose would have nothing of it. I tried to explain that I had only agreed to ‘a drink’ which meant I was now responsible for my beverages, but it was to no avail and they maintained -insanely generously- that the night was their treat. They said I could keep the money instead of giving it to them, and spend it on the kids at my center. It actually would go quite far at my center, with one drink equaling about 100 servings of ‘dirty ice cream,’ which is to say that it’s sold from a street vendor. I plan to host an ice cream party, with thanks given to Joe and Mary Rose, hopefully before the summer is out.
We went to one other bar after leaving the speak easy, it was also nice, but I was already jaded by the incredible toilet paper and cozy conversation of the first. After a night of good company, good food, good drinks, and many, many thanks, I said a heartfelt goodbye to the newest members of my incredible Auburn Family.
(They brought an Auburn/New York T-shirt as Pasaloubong -a gift from where they came- and it is so AUsome!)