It wasn’t their first time in the land of their ancestors, but it was their first visit as grownups, without the protective cultural shield their parents provided them during their previous trips.
Their visit this time was meticulously planned, a dream-come-true for both of them who were brought up Filipinos in a multi-ethnic neighborhood, steeped in the taste and smell Filipino food, lulled and scolded by the cadence of their parents’ dialects, thoroughly familiar with the culture of the homeland not just through their extended families and their constant gatherings, but also through the Philippine studies programs and the annual Filipino culture nights they proudly and actively participated in.
In other words, this visit to the Philippines for them wasn’t just immersion but homecoming. That they were American in orientation, in manner of dressing and in speech were just minor blips in their overall Filipino-ness.
Armed further with advice and admonitions from various sources – don’t travel alone, don’t go to certain places, always keep your purse close to your body, don’t be too aggressive, don’t forget to pray, don’t dress too scantily even in the hot summer weather – they were fully prepared to embrace the legendary fun that a balikbayan visit always brings forth. Or so they thought.
What no one prepared them for was that they were entering Filipino macho-land where the rules of conversation and social engagement are different. What in prim and politically correct America constitutes sexual harassment is just daily fare for the Pinoy, and woe be the victim who actually takes it seriously.
“People were staring at us at the airport, following our every move, and they would whisper among themselves. And then some guy actually came up and told us that he was falling in love!”
Not very conversant in Filipino and unable to discern whether the stares were borne of curiosity and the “proposal” a joke, the two ladies were dismayed at what they saw as uncouth behavior and frightened by the brashness of the approach. Weren’t they warned about kidnappers and pickpockets and the con men who were everywhere, ready to pounce on unsuspecting victims? Were they being cased for slaughter?
It didn’t end at the airport. In the following days, the two often felt offended by the ogling, the whistling, the loud remarks about how beautiful they were – behavior that a Filipina in the Philippines would take in stride and brush off with a cutting or joking statement, knowing that such boorish behavior is actually a Filipino macho’s way of revealing either shyness, insecurity or genuine appreciation of beauty (or all of the above).
It took a talking-to from their aunt for these two ladies to comprehend the cultural nuances at play in these situations. Don’t take them seriously, they were advised. Keep your distance but at the same time don’t show agitation and don’t be suplada (snobbish) because some of them might take that as a challenge and bug you even more. Most of the time these people are harmless and might really be, in their own ungraceful way, just trying to be friendly.
Reminds me of this Filipina in California whose Caucasian husband was massively perplexed, and somewhat offended, that she could actually laugh with the Filipino butcher at the neighborhood Asian store who would greet her with “gumanda na naman ang umaga ko ngayong nakita kita” (my morning has become more beautiful now that I’ve seen you). What he considered outright flirting, a Filipina familiar with the ways of Filipino men would take as an opening to get the best cut of meat plus a little extra for a kababayan (compatriot). Nothing else.
Such “offensive” behavior is not limited to men. My friend, Gabby, tells of his funny encounter with a female customs official at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. “Sir, hindi niyo yata kasama si Misis” (your wife doesn’t seem to be with you). Responding that he wasn’t married, the woman said, “Sir, American citizen naman kayo, pakasalan niyo na lang ako” (since you’re an American citizen, can you marry me). Being a true-blue Filipino male, Gabby responded with his own original retort which made everyone within hearing distance laugh heartily, and he breezed through customs without having to open his luggage for inspection.
I asked my daughter, who spent several months in the Philippines as an NGO volunteer, if she ever felt unsafe during the times she was traveling alone. She said that while she armed herself with her street smarts to ward off real creeps and boors, she also met a lot of caring people who went out of their way to assist and guide her when they found out she was alone.
But of course being a visitor in the Philippine solo (or even with traveling companions who are not familiar with the ways and wiles of Filipinos) can be tricky, even traumatic. Especially if one offends easily from casual remarks or who insist on believing that the rules of engagement in the US (or any other foreign country) should apply there.
As in any other place on earth, danger lurks in unexpected places but, with one’s sense of humor in full throttle, one can easily survive and enjoy the company of the happiest, most hospitable people on that side of the Pacific Ocean.
First published in Filipinas magazine, August 2007.