Back in Manila after a summer abroad, I was recently thumbing through a guide book on moving to the Philippines – new arrivals needed some information I didn’t have the answer to – and as I wandered through the pages I quickly got distracted from the original query (a common occurrence to anyone who knows me), and found myself, instead, assessing the content for things I already knew or had grown accustomed to, after two years in the Philippines, and those things that I realized with surprise I had never known.
For example, after years in Asia, off and on, I am well aware that drinking tap water is a risky business, if you don’t want to spend your life in the bathroom. I also know that ‘bathroom’, ‘toilet’ or ‘loo’ will often draw blank expressions in the Philippines, and I must remember to ask for the CR or Comfort Room. (By the way, a tip for when you find yourself in a CR with a broken lock: kick off your sandal so it pokes out from under the door. It’s a good way to avoid someone barging in on you!)
I know, now, to laugh (wryly) when shop assistants suggest, despite my hard won weight loss, that they do have an XXXL in the back that should fit me, but it’s often better to avoid the aggravation by waiting until I am back in Australia to buy clothes, where I am merely a medium sized 12 instead of extra-enormous!
I am aware about the threat of Dengue, TB, typhoons, earthquakes and carpet burn from the Astroturf, but I still forget to keep an umbrella, a bottle of sanitizer and ‘Wet Ones’ in my bag.
I discovered when I first arrived that the roads around Ayala Triangle, the triangular park at the heart of Makati, were originally the three runways of the Manila airport, and my favourite little library there is in the basement of the original control tower. But I only recently found out that all the land that is now Makati CBD belonged to one family, as large swathes of London belong to the Duke of Westminster. And I am just realizing that Manila is a monopoly board, divided up between several wealthy-beyond-belief families that also lay claim to the city’s water works, the sewage system and the electricity company.
I have learned that Filipinos are flexible about time and the traffic is always a valid excuse, especially on pay days, rainy days, Fridays and rush hours! It can be frustrating if you are waiting outside in the heat, but it’s also something I am fairly familiar with after 25 years of Mediterranean in-laws. To add to the delays, I have only recently realized that my confusion over the location of several roads in Makati is due to the fact that sometimes they are renamed, but are often known by the old one as well! Thus, like a married American woman, you have streets with two names, the old and the new.
And it doesn’t take anyone long to notice that Filipinos are love to eat, work and to travel in packs, but I didn’t know that there is even a word for it: pakikisama. In practical terms this can mean a daily game of dodgems in the shopping mall, as my western habit of strutting briskly by myself is curbed by the Filipino habit of wandering at a snails pace, usually side-by-side-by-side!
I know the Filipinos love to smile and laugh aloud, and may even laugh at inappropriate moments to diffuse an awkward situation – but haven’t we all done that at some stage? I have grasped – slowly – the way Asians feel about losing face and the correct way to criticize without embarrassing anyone. The softly softly approach is actually far kinder than our own western directness. I have also noted the national respect for seniority of age, profession or social status – the use of titles, or at least a ‘Miss Alex’ or ‘po’, and I have had explained to me the ‘mano po’ when a youth, with head lowered, will take an adult’s hand and press it to his or her forehead.
I have checked out many of the tourist sites in Manila over the past two years, but I have only just discovered the American Cemetery that sits on 152 acres of a high plateau above Fort Bonifacio, with one of the most beautiful views Manila has to offer. In the process, I also just learned that It contains the largest number of Allied military graves of World War II, a total of 17,201, most of which commemorate soldiers who lost their lives in battles in New Guinea and the Philippines. The Tablets of the Missing, arranged in marble cloisters, contain a further 36,285 names. Sadly, these beautifully kept grounds are reserved for the dead and a handful of daily visitors. It is forbidden to ride bikes, play ball, walk dogs or jog, which seems a shame to me. I can’t help feeling that all those lost souls might appreciate the company.
I am also belatedly the importance of not just extra cash, but food to staff – as a daily food allowance, in a Christmas hamper, as a birthday gift, a returning-from-holidays present.. really, as a means of saying thank you, well done or congratulations for almost anything!
I have learned how to define a Travelling Spouse, a Trailing Spouse and a Third Culture Kid. And I have just ascertained that there are still a few markets left to explore…