Nuances of life  in the Philippines

Linda and I arrived in Manila in June 1987. The next day we were driven to the Philippine Refugee Processing Center, four hours away in the hills of Bataan. With our fellow new hire, Duane, we were taken directly to a staff training where we sat in groggy amazement as our Filipino colleagues acted out role plays. Mark was a water buffalo, two others portrayed a fire hydrant and a dog, a male dog. If you could have read our thought balloons, they might have said: “What are we doing here?”

Before we left, in December 1989, we had participated in many staff events. At one of them, I portrayed General Douglas MacArthur, marching around the room in a military hat and dark glasses and with a corncob pipe clenched in my teeth. Another memorable performance featured me as a baby in a large diaper. Our Filipino friends might have said, “You’ve come a long way, baby!”

Indeed we had. We had come to understand and participate in the Filipino exercise of team building, which means that you spend a lot of time with your colleagues, share food, have fun and be silly — as well as work hard — together. In a culture that values relationship so deeply, it is important to share many kinds of experiences, including some that Americans might dismiss as frivolous or find embarrassing. If called on to perform, you do, no matter whether you’re good at it, because this is a way of sharing yourself, including your own vulnerability. In time, we came to enjoy and value this side of life in the Philippines.

As supervisors, we had particular responsibilities, and as American supervisors we needed help, so those we worked with coached and modeled for us until we got it. A trip to the beach and a cookout with our team were part of the job description. That wasn’t so hard to get used to.

“Pasalubong” took a little more work. These are the gifts you are expected to share with your colleagues on return from a trip. The expectation is almost an obligation when you supervise others. The presents can be small, and indeed, when you’re shopping for 20 or 30 people, they probably need to be. Fortunately, Linda liked to shop, and so each time we went on a trip, we — really she — needed to keep this in mind and leave room in the luggage and our schedule to find something to bring back, often chocolates and small craft items. This felt onerous to me at first, but I came to see it as a way of saying to those we worked with, “I care about you and I remember you.” I have tried to keep this habit alive in my life here, too.

Pasalubong are one of the many strands of “utang na loob,” which I described two weeks ago as a network of mutual obligation and indebtedness that is central to daily life and the social fabric. Americans are also connected by mutual obligations, but our web is not so densely woven.

One example of the way relationship is built into everyday life shows up on public transport.

The jeepney is an icon of the Philippines, featured on postcards and posters.

Jeepneys carry about 20 passengers on two long benches running the length of the back. They were more colorful 20 years ago, but now rarely sport the horses on the hood so common in the 1980s — like any hood ornament, the horses are too easily stolen. The jeepney is still plenty colorful, though, as well as noisy and smelly and fun, if you’re in the right mood.

The driver is also conductor, taking fares and handing back change. The fare is passed forward from passenger to passenger — “Bayad po” means “paying, sir” — with information about how many and how far. The driver takes the money, makes change and passes it back from hand to hand until it reaches the person paying.

So the simple act of paying a fare becomes a community affair, an act of participation and of trust.

Another example comes at election time. Candidates are running for seats in local and national elections, and posters or “tarpaulins” appear on walls, public transport vehicles and stores, inviting your vote. Thousands of faces flash by as you drive along the highway — the faces of those running for election.

When did we stop showing the candidate’s photo in the U.S.? I remember campaign buttons from the Eisenhower and Kennedy years. They showed the politician’s face. But somewhere along the way since then, we’ve become impersonal in our campaigning, at least on the signs that sprout up along roadsides and on the buttons we wear.

Perhaps it’s the cost of printing a photo on a sign, and the choice to spend those advertising dollars on TV, where we’ll see the face of the candidate, or his/her opponent in a not so flattering light.

I read something else into this. Faces at eye level are far more personal than a name at knee level. The networks of personal relationships and obligations that connect Filipinos seem to require a picture rather than just a name.

It begs the question, why would I vote for someone who doesn’t show his or her face?

David Blair of Harrisville is the cofounder and former executive director of the Mariposa Museum & World Culture Center in Peterborough.

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