Flying Under the Radar & Cultural Observations

Unwanted attention makes me shrivel like a fish in the desert. I’ll go to great lengths to avoid it. Sloppy dress is my number one anti-attention tactic. Anything to get rid of the unshakable western-glamour attached to my physical appearance and the $ sign that floats above me most places I go. I’ll even stretch my showering schedule from every second day to every third. Amazingly, even at my most disgusting, I am still greeted with, “Hello ma’am… you are so beautiful.”

Me, looking "very beautiful" as I set out for a morning run...

This morning was the perfect example. I donned my form fitting running gear, took one look in the mirror, and thought, “No way. No way am I hitting the streets of Baguio with my butt on display for a million pairs of eyes.” (Add to this that I’ve never seen anyone exercising in public here. I’ve seen charity runs advertised, but the athletes don’t seem to pound the pavement.) So I grabbed my wrinkly wraparound beach skirt and layered it over the top of my spandex. I looked totally ridiculous. Muslin skirt, geeky socks, running shoes, overdue for a shower… Filipina women have plenty of “western” fashion sense. I might have fit right in in Africa or something, but here my outfit was decidedly lame. However, I’d rather be stared at for looking stupid than be fawned over. But wouldn’t you know it — what does the first male who sees me say? (The security guard by the hotel desk — one I’ve never seen before.) “Ma’am, you are looking so beautiful today.” I laughed out loud. And told him thank you. And laughed out loud again. I can’t win!

My anti-male-adoration sentiments aren’t a new thing: I feel that way in the states, too. I love hanging out with gorgeous, made-up women, because it means I’m totally safe from unwanted approaches. While some women might feel rejected if dudes are focusing on their female companions, I just feel complete and total relief. This probably means something is wrong with me. Sometimes my anti-attention ploy carries unintended consequences. Occasionally I’ll find myself in the company of people whose opinions regarding my appearance are actually important to me. A wave of embarrassment will wash over me as I realize my face is greasy and I’m completely unkempt. But vale la pena! (The pain has value! – It’s worth it!)

"yes ma'am?!" said the vendor of live eels. When I asked if I could take a picture, he stirred them up for me!

Getting stared at — mostly by children and a few curious onlookers – is really no problem. I just grin back at them. However, anyone attached to anything for sale constantly greets me with, “Yes, ma’am?!” That phrase echoes around me everywhere I go, and anytime I pause to look at the smallest thing. I’m pretty sure at the grocery store I’m meant to have a personal shopper. There are young, uniformed women stationed on every aisle calling out, “Yes ma’am?!” to me as I shop. In Manila I saw some of these ladies carrying baskets, following around customers. Sorry. Not my thing.

Which brings me to another issue… servitude. In the U.S., independence is a core value that has shaped our nation. Most people, regardless of demographics, wouldn’t be caught dead with an assistant following them around a grocery store. It would be considered pathetic. What kind of loser has to go to the grocery store but can’t manage their own cart or basket? The complete opposite seems to be true here. It’s probably a major cultural taboo that I don’t demand the services of one of the shopping girls. If you read   Pat’s blog, you’ll find he’s had a similar experience — people practically pushing, shoving, and dropping everything to assure he has everything he needs. Case in point: at an internet cafe the other night, I took a big swig of water and choked. Hardcore. I basically had to spew a solid cup of water all over the floor as I hacked myself silly. You can imagine my horror when I went for the mop in the corner, and the cashier refused to let me clean up my own mess.


It was weird for me, hanging out with the Manila posse, to experience the societal structure of the Philippines. At almost every home I went to, “help” was bustling in the background. It was surreal for me to never partake in cleaning up the group’s mess. The “help” will get it. For a majority of Americans, having constant service from another human being would be embarrassing — something to hide because otherwise people will probably think you’re lazy, incapable… maybe even a little pathetic. (I was embarrassed to ask friends for references when I thought about hiring a housekeeper.   Hell, I’m even a bit embarrassed to admit in a public blog that I thought about hiring a housekeeper!)   In the Philippines, it seems it’s as standard and having lights in every room – definitely not something anyone is shy about.

Perhaps that the tenet of being responsible for your own impact isn’t universal here has something to do with the squalor of public spaces? It drives me totally crazy that there are virtually no public trash cans. What do you suppose happens to all the take-out containers, coffee cups, snack packaging, etc.? That’s right. Just throw it on the ground. It’s the “help’s” job to clean it up. AHHHH! Lazy! Stupid! Gross! This is a tough one for me to get over. As are the public toilets. Even at restaurants, movie theaters, etc., the toilets are horrendous. They reek, the floors are soaking wet, the rim is always covered in water/urine, and toilet paper is never provided.

A little geography lesson...

My Lonely Planet guidebook says, “Rich or poor, Filipino families protect their own, the public good be damned. This explains many things that observers cite as ‘wrong’ with the country. Filipinos routinely urinate on city pavements and pollute public spaces. The idea of working together for the common good is virtually non-existent at the national level.” While this sweeping generalization contains kernels of truth, I do have to stand up for all the local and national grassroots charity organizations that are working to effect change here and reshape pieces of the national consciousness. Good luck!

Some of the happiest people in the world?

Which brings me to a piece that no one is going to try and reshape anytime soon. Also according to my Lonely Planet, “Probably the first thing you’ll notice about the people of the Philippines is their calm demeanor. Filipinos greet adversity by shrugging their shoulders smiling,and moving on… with the idea in mind that all things shall pass and in the meantime life is to be lived.” I have definitely experienced and enjoyed this. People tend to meander down the sidewalks. When a group suddenly stops right in the middle of the path, blocking access for everyone around them, no one really seems to care. The collective hostility that I’ve observed in this situation in the U.S. is entirely absent. It’s as if everyone waiting just goes to a “happy place” until the offenders move on down the block.   (When I told my new friend about this difference today – she was aghast.   Why on earth would anyone get mad just because someone stopped in the way of everyone else?)

Which might explain another thing the guidebook says: “In a global survey, Filipinos came out as some of the happiest people on earth. In the 70 languages and dialects, there are no words for depression, anxiety, anguish, or even boredom.” I have definitely observed that people in general are quick to smile and easy to joke around with. I strike up conversations everywhere I go… probably due in part to the fact that most people speak English, but also because everyone is so open/happy/friendly.

The LP book goes on to say, “As Filipinos see it, they’re no happier than anyone else on earth. In fact, they tend to take a rather unfavorable view of themselves, especially when compared with the wealth of Americans, cultural history of Europeans, the industry of the Chinese, and the discipline of the Japanese.” A few Filipinos have told me that the “unfavorable view” part is true as well. I haven’t been around long enough or gotten close enough to any locals to put in my two cents on this one. But I’ve been told the prominence and consumption of imports is a testament to this “national insecurity.”

All in all, I am loving it here and loving learning about this culture, place, and the people! ♣


  • November 30, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    I’m loving your blog! It is so interesting, I am always delighted when the link pops up on my facebook feed. You lead a very interesting life.

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