Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Social Hierarchy, Menial Jobs, and Fastfood in the Philippines

6th of December 2006

Written in: Calgary, Alberta, CANADA
Composition: Recalling something from 7 years ago, no notes, unfortunately.
Previous Post: So, what happened in the last 7 years?

Before we begin, let me say that my recollection of what I am going to talk about here is based entirely on memory, unaided by notes from my travel 'diary'. Not to say that you mustn't trust the accuracy of what happened. If anything, I will say that this experience was confirmed many times over. It's just that, I'm not sure of where exactly it happened first - and that first occurrence kind of matters in the story, as you will see.
On the way back from Ilocos - probably - Uncle Luis Jr. (or Tito Boy), Paul, and I, stopped at a fastfood chain. It may have been Pangasinan, because I certainly made Paul (who was doing the driving) stop at Tarlac a little bit later so I could use bathroom facilities. We ate just to eat - not caring at the time to sample the culture of the countryside. For all my lauding of the Philippines' food diversity, sometimes we just need a reliable and guaranteed clean establishment, especially when traveling.

After I finished, I bussed my food tray, emptying my garbage in the nearest bin, and putting my tray on top.

Now, if you're North American - or from the part of the world where it is more egalitarian, there isn't an excess population, and fastfood is actually in the lowest rung of food establishments, where the staff don't get tips - this is nothing at all. As in: It is common practice; good manners; typical thing normal human beings with consideration for their fellow man do. Makes the staff's lives easier, right? Of course the staff do wipe down and clean up the tables, but it's just common courtesy, especially when it's super busy that sometimes people sit down one after the other and the workers don't have a chance to wipe down each and every table.

Apparently, this common courtesy, this prime example of good manners in what Pinoys would call "The West", is not practiced in the Philippines.*

I know because some lady customer who saw me buss my tray laughed at me when I did it. 

Though I did notice her, I was probably too sick to care or really pay attention that she was laughing at me.

I was only snapped back into the "present" after Tito Boy, being annoyed by this display of clueless


...display of clueless contempt by a stranger, remarked to her, "This guy is from abroad. It's what they do there. It's the polite thing to do."

He himself would know, he has been to Europe - The Netherlands and UK in particular (All over Europe, but I am only certain of those two).


Fast forward to today, and I cannot help but relate this experience to an article I only recently discovered.

James Fallows, in his 1987 article about the Post-Marcos Philippines "A Damaged Culture: A New Philippines?", remarks that:
"Outsiders feel they have understood something small but significant about Japan's success when they watch a bar man carefully wipe the condensation off a bottle of beer and twirl it on the table until the label faces the customer exactly. I felt I had a glimpse into the failures of the Philippines when I saw prosperous looking matrons buying cakes and donuts in a bakery, eating them in a department store, and dropping the box and wrappers around them as they shopped."
In a similar manner, I believe that this realization of Filipino fastfood customers' manners (or lack thereof), and my later observation of how dog owners out for a walk in the Philippine capitol would just let their dogs shit anywhere without picking up after them, provide a unique insight into a specific dysfunction of Philippine culture.

And I don't feel like I'm being unfair when I do this. People do it all the time when praising a culture, a new place, or fetishizing a people. They take one positive display, one heroic example, and then lionize it above all. Example: "Ah, this is the essence of this culture! This Bayanihan they practice! This Pakikisama they have" etc. etc. Similarly, I feel these observations are not one-time examples of bad manners, but rather prevalent practices pervading Philippine cultural norms.

So what does it say about Philippine culture?

Let's start with Cheap, underutilized labour, probably stemming from an excess population. Kind of self-explanatory: The idea that "there is always someone else who can do it" probably comes from the fact that there actually is someone else who can do it! Back in 2006, the Philippines was listed as having a population of around 90 million. It's up to over 100 million now by some assessments. If not, it'll get there very VERY soon.

Just imagine, 100 million people, a lot of them very young, a large number just teetering from the poverty line (statistically, the poor always have the largest families), and a vast majority severely undereducated. What futures do they have to look forward to besides menial jobs and the service sector?

If you look throughout the Philippine archipelago, anyone who can afford it will have a maid. If they can help it, very few will do their own laundry, home cooking, home cleaning, or anything to do with domestic chores. If they don't have a stay at home maid, then they will at least have a cleaning lady on call once the laundry piles up and the dust bunnies have gained sentience.

To be fair there are households here in Calgary (and the rest of Canada) who do hire "cleaning ladies", as well as hire live-in nannies, caregivers, au pair (hell, that's where a lot of Filipinos first find employment here in Canada). However, I have always thought that they tend to be from the higher income households. I happen to know households here with mid six figure per annum combined income (in Cdn dollars, just to be clear), who do everything on their own.

Households with working professionals in the Philippines on the other hand, will have a kasambahay, or live in maid, even if - by my assessment - they can get by without one. The kids don't tend to lift a finger... unfortunately.

Where lives are cheap, labour is even cheaper. 

 Which then brings me to the next point: Elitism: I can't help but try and put myself in the shoes of the person laughing at me bussing my own food tray - method acting, if you may. When I do this, I then cannot help but imagine that the person must have been thinking, "I am above bussing my own food tray. There is always someone else to do it. And that someone else, is lesser than me. Oh, look at that guy bussing his food tray! Hahahaha, he must've been a one time fast food worker - which is a job that deserves scorn and laughter. Hahaha!" Harsh, I know, but if you have other ideas, please, do let me know. Having lived in the egalitarian "West", I am right out of ideas why someone would dare laugh at this.


Of course, there are exceptions to all this, but it happened to me in the Philippines often enough that I can't help but feel that it deserves to be called out.

So now I wonder: If the simple act of bussing your own crap and picking up after your dog are not practiced over there, if these "common courtesies" in "The West" are not being absorbed in the Philippines - a place I consider to be so heavily Westernized, a place where so many of its workers work outside its borders, and a place where almost everyone knows someone who has emigrated abroad (like how my parents did) - then what are they absorbing from "The West"? For all the Americanization, the Westernization, all the cable TV, Internet, and imported ideas and goods they have over there, why don't these little touches, these amazing little ideas that make "Western Living"** so great, ever gain a foothold over there?

I mean, they've latched on to the idea of importing and breeding expensive dogs as a fashion accessory and walking them around the trendy parts of the capitol, but not the idea of having to pick up after them! Like I saw on Roxas Boulevard's Baywalk, a Bulldog on a leash took a shit right in the middle of the walkway, and the owner just left it there...

International fastfood chains like McDonald's thrive and are as ubiquitous as the common karinderya, but the idea of bussing your own crap, just like how McDonald's patrons do here in North America, is an idea so foreign, it is laughed at!

Expanding the idea: They're westernized enough to speak English, consume "western" products and entertainment, but not westernized enough to emulate the best of the Developed World's values? As I have written before, here in the egalitarian "West",  I am seen as an equal to everyone and anyone, no matter what race creed or sexual orientation. Yet, over there in the Philippines, whites get preferential treatment! It's not like the population has so little contact with whites that they're being mistaken for gods, unlike James Cook's experiences in Hawaii - in 1779!

These and many others are what sort of stated to get my nerves about the place. It was also what eventually helped me get over the "honeymoon period". I know the one example I have here occurred very early on during my travels - 6th of December! Exactly a week after I arrived in the country!

But the point is this: They kind of, sort of, somewhat have a cumulative effect. Later on, when I asked "How Come Starbucks thrives in the Philippines?", or saw for myself how dog owners don't pick up their dogs' SHIT, or observed all "The Little Things" (which back then, I framed positively), I took stock of all these and slowly realized how it became just a place like any other: how it has its positive and negative attributes; how it has its ups and downs, and how I might be able to make a difference...

Ambitious? YoubetyourlifeIam....

Next Post: The Useless kids of the Filipino Middle-to-Upper Class

Related Posts: A Weekend in Manila - A Manila Bay Sunset
                          White Privilege in the Philippines

*=At least it was this way in 2006. If there had been a wide ranging realignment of values since, then I don't know about it.

**= I know I keep putting West in quotation marks. Let's just say that it's a loaded term there and I won't fully explain why at this time. If this were a speech, I would probably put a special emphasis or intonation in it whenever I say it... So... just imagine I'm doing that in your mind's ear.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Blogger fray said...

The idea of not picking up your dog's poop, I agree, is rude. Much like dropping wrappers on the sidewalk, but we Filipinos do it anyway because "there's somebody else who'll clean it up"(shrug). Not the best attitude, to put it mildly. It makes my blood boil. But the issue of not cleaning up after your own fast food tray is not about manners. In the U.S., it would be akin to bringing your own emptied plate to a restaurant kitchen after eating. It just isn't done. You can, out of politeness, put your leftovers neatly on the tray so the cleaner finds it easier.

3:49 AM  
Blogger fray said...

Not cleaning up after your dog, I agree, is bad manners. Much like throwing food wrappers on the sidewalk, we Filipinos do it anyway because "somebody else will clean it up" (shrug). Makes my blood boil. Not cleaning up after your own fast food tray, however, is not a matter of manners. In the U.S., it would be akin to bringing your plate over to the restaurant kitchen after eating. It just isn't done. If you want to be polite, put your leftovers neatly on the tray so the cleaner finds it easier to clean up. Handing your food tray over after eating IS done, however, in some institutional settings like schools and (some) hospitals.

3:58 AM  
Blogger StrayDog said...

fray said:
"In the U.S., it would be akin to bringing your plate over to the restaurant kitchen after eating."

Well, that's exactly the point: The Fastfood establishment is definitely a borrowed "western" practice - North American to be more specific. The Filipino has taken to consuming it quite easily, yet has not adopted the whole culture surrounding it - which includes bussing your own tray and making everything as easy for the staff as possible. Rather, it has been Pinoy-i-fied with what I perceive to be an injection of elitism.

...or else why would I get laughed at? Because for however out of place I was, I don't think the action I did deserved scornful laughter.

11:59 AM  
Blogger fray said...

They don't tend to bus their own trays in Hongkong either, so make of that what you will? Asian societies are more elitist than North America, I agree.

8:58 AM  
Blogger fray said...

Hmmm, and frankly, I found it extremely odd to clear my own fast food table when I was first in North America. Forgot to do it loads of times and got dirty looks before I got used to it. The whole concept made me feel like I was back in a school or a hospital.

9:05 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home