Thursday, March 06, 2014

The Town Centre's Fiesta, Part II
Contrasts in Pinoy behaviour: From Friendly Fiestas, to Stand-Offish Strangers

The Town Fiesta: February 8, 2007

Written in: Calgary, Alberta, CANADA
Composition: Recalling an event from 7 years ago, which happened in the Philippines
Previous Post: Of F.O.P.s, F.O.B.s, and Filipino Clubs

One of the most often repeated descriptions I hear all the time about the Philippines is that the people are friendly, they're always smiling, and are very welcoming to visitors. As it says in my Insight Guides, Philippines:
"Filipinos have a justifiable reputation as one of the most hospitable people in the world, especially in rural areas where traditional attitudes still survive. A foreign visitor lucky enough to have the name of a local resident is usually fed and shown around, if not offered a place to stay for free."1
Indeed, I experienced all of this during my stay in the Philippines, and in particular, during the Town Centre's Fiesta. In fact, there is no better illustration of Filipino friendliness, hospitality, and the warm smiling culture than the Town Fiesta, or any town fiesta for that matter.

However, I must say that I also experienced its exact opposite, ALL on the same day.

After having lunch at the household where Uncle Tito was a guest, I asked permission to venture out to Santa Maria's Parish Church. I went alone, even though Maika and Marie were with us. Like I said in another post, it's really hard to find someone to come with me who finds all the celebration a tad repetitive.

But for me, it's a very special occasion! Because the town centre's public square was all tasseled up, I thought I'd take a photo of it.

I even went inside to take a photo of the fresco on the Church's Dome.

Continued... is a modern piece of work, by the way. If it is a reproduction of an old dome painting that also used to be here, I do not know.

I do know that in my childhood, this church did not have this feature. 

Then I caught some devotees praying to a sacred image of their choice.
 These people chose the one on the main altar.
 This lone devotee seems to favour this glass encased image,
off to the side.

As I was about to exit the Church's main door, a lady with various religious objects, necklaces in particular, just suddenly put one of the more extravagant looking necklaces on me, as though it were a Lei and I was being welcomed in Hawaii.

Not knowing whether it was tradition, I just said, "Uhh... thanks?" and started walking away. 

It was then when she said, "I just need a donation my Son! God Bless you!"

Quickly realizing that I had just been - for all practical definitions - accosted, I took off the necklace, shoved it back at her and said something along the lines of, "I am NOT your son! I did not ask for this. This is a scam, and you can keep it!"

Then I went to capture some of the street vendors and whatever street food they have on offer.
 I can only identify puto cuchinta. The rest, I don't know.

Then, I saw some Philippine National Police - Special Action Force (PNP SAF) officers. I guess on armed urban patrol of sorts? To be honest, heavily armed Military and Police personelle are a fairly common sight in the Philippines that no one bats an eye to cops walking around with M16's, so I have learned not to be alarmed. If anything, I was interested in having a photo with them. They obliged and were quite eager to pose.

So I asked what a group of either young adults or students in their late teens to snap a photo of us. I spoke to them in Tagalog, as just another Pinoy.
To be honest, I was mostly interested in their M16A1 Rifles. (Elisco?)
Note the old style handguards, birdcage flash hider, and no brass deflector.

It's hard to describe what happened, but no one was eager to volunteer to take a simple photo. I was nice, the PNP SAF guys were eager, yet no one from the crowd wanted to step up. When one eventually did, she seemed ill-tempered.

Maybe she was just shy?


Unhelpful. Unfriendly. Stand-Offish. Maybe even hostile to strangers? The photo taker in particular was what I would describe in Tagalog as, masungit and suplada!

It was enough to make me wonder, "If Filipinos are so friendly, then what was up with that!?"

Make no mistake, this "Filipinos are friendly" claim is still true in my books, but to be honest, I now believe that a few conditions must be satisfied before Filipinos ever display this 'personality' of their culture.

To start with, you must be a visitor. You have to be known and recognized as someone who is just passing by, or at least a newcomer. Then, you have to be known to them. Doesn't have to be close relations or a direct acquaintance - it works just as well when you're just the friend of a friend, a relative of a relative, or an acquaintance of an acquaintance. Finally, there probably has to be a special occasion. Because what better time to display your hospitality than when the spotlight is on you to perform an act of kindness.

This is not as scathing as you think it is, so before you react emotionally, do know that I love the Philippines a great deal - that is after all, the whole point of this blog. But I am trying to understand it, because it sure confuses me so! So lets go through these "special conditions" that only seem to truly bring out this Filipino character.

There Has to be a Special Occasion:
On the one hand, this is obvious. Everyone puts on extra effort when it really counts. In terms of hospitality and friendliness, not one culture is exempt. Here in Calgary, Alberta, for instance, we have the Stampede, and everyone really gets in on the festive atmosphere.

But on the other hand, Filipinos really do pull out the stops during Fiesta time2. Those who can afford it will have the whole affair catered, but even those who couldn't afford such a service, will put together a feast that will rival those done professionally. It's been said that some Filipino households might even put themselves in debt just to throw a good party. Whatever the case, I can't help but compare the food often offered up to visitors.

In the rare North American parties where the focus of the gathering is food, what's on offer are usually easy to prepare. In the case of the Stampede, usually in the form of barbecue - "common" food, and dare I say, even a bit unsophisticated, though in a good way. In contrast, aside from the Lechon - which itself is a long and drawn out process anyway, even though it qualifies as a barbecue or spit roast - Filipino Fiestas showcase the best of Filipino Cuisine. The hardest and most complex of dishes are never absent, from Kare Kare, to Paella, to Embotido, Ginataan, and many other things I cannot now name but nonetheless do enjoy eating.

When it comes to spirits and libations, cases upon cases of beer will be offered, but more importantly, out will come the expensive Brandy, Whiskey, or other Hard Liquor being saved up just for this occasion.

Nowadays, paper plates - likely made in China - are the norm in Filipino Fiestas. But I distinctly remember back in my childhood that this is when the special "China" and cutlery come out. Yes, a family or household that uses unadorned plates for everyday use, will actually risk the expensive dinnerware just to please guests.

Of course the Fiesta is an extreme example, and it would be unfair to say that Pinoy friendliness and festiveness  only really come out during these special occasions. But the austerity with which some households live their daily lives and eat their daily meals really illustrate this stark contrast. I'm not alone in having observed this: I have heard a joke which goes like, "Pa tuyo tuyo ka lang sa araw araw, tapos maghahanda ka ng lechon sa pista!?" ["You are content to eat cheap dried fish on a daily basis, then you offer up something as extravagant as lechon for the fiesta?"]

In short, in Pinoy culture, it is very important to be seen as open, friendly, generous, to the point of perhaps being even a little extravagant during these special occasions.

"May bisita! Ilabas mo na ang lahat ng espesyal!" ["We have company! Bring out all the special things!"]

You have to be known to them:
I must make it clear that Filipino Fiestas are not as exclusive as I am making it out to be with the description, "you have to be known to them". Related to the criteria of "there has to be a special occasion", Fiesta provides a chance where you can tag along with anyone or with a group and you will be fine. Someone as distant as a friend, of a friend, of a friend, would still be welcome. In fact, if you really gatecrash and fake such an acquaintance or relation, I don't think you will be regarded as a nuisance - quite the opposite in fact! The idealized practice is that "everyone is welcome during a fiesta". Heck, that's why I was invited to a few households during the Town Center's Fiesta. My Uncle the Kapitan was the true invited guest, I was just tagging along. More than anything, the fact that few people gatecrash is a result of self-policing behaviour, a kind of honour system, if you will.

But the more I observed, asked around, and researched later on, the more likely it is that old friends, acquaintances, close and distant relatives from out of town will come visit. It's really a chance to reconnect with and reaffirm all sorts of friendly and familial connections, and for this, I admire the Fiesta spirit. It's not hard to imagine that in the olden times of before any form of long distance communication, Fiestas in rural Philippines would have served as annual reunions that do not require a direct invitation to attend.

Extended to the greater realm of Philippine society and culture, Family is everything - including the relationships some family members have made. Your family members' friends are also their friends. Your friend's friends are also their friend.

But be a total stranger, and you just might find Filipinos cold, perhaps even stand-offish in some respects. The picture-taking with the PNP SAF folks is not an isolated incident - I found out that in many situations where the average Canadian would be friendly and helpful to strangers, Filipinos were the exact opposite! Bottomline: I did not find it easy to make new friends in the Philippines as easily as I did and do here in Canada.

Perhaps I'm getting ahead of my story, but this even extends to dating, relationships, and romance where I have heard the Filipino style of dating described as such: In the "west", you go out on a date to get to know people; in the Philippines, going out with someone is often in the guise of a friendship, with people only officially calling it a 'date' after they have become 'a couple'. In fact, regardless of whether two people are undeniably attracted and romantically interested in each other, most first 'dates' are buried and disguised as a group outing at first.3

Apparently, they feel this is safer than what we here in the "west" would call as merely first dates and or blind dating.

I guess that does make a lot of sense... After all, the crime rate is very high over there. Regardless of whether it's overplayed or not, it's in everyone's mind to the point that everyday encounters are seen with a kind of suspicion: That guy who wants to ask you a question in public? Could be a distraction for pickpocketing. That attractive girl who wants to invite you to her place? Could be a setup for armed robbery or even extortion. That overly nice group of people you just met, but wish to include you in their outings?  Could be grifters.

In the Philippines, dangerous people are everywhere that everyone is just assumed as dangerous, unless proven otherwise. In so many ways, this coldness and even stand-offishness I observed, is a security measure - a defense mechanism - of sorts.

Going back to the young adults I asked to take my photo, Fiesta is a time when all the manlolokos, mangaganchos, and mandarayas [scammers, swindlers, and cheats] come out en masse. The more I think about it, the less I blame them for being wary of me.

You must be a visitor:
My Insight Guides: Philippines book did not lie. It is nice to be a visitor in the Philippines!

Filipinos believe guests must be treated extra special. Be their guest and they want to show you a good time, they want to make you feel as comfortable as possible, and they want to leave you with nothing but good impressions of themselves, their culture, and their country. I feel like it's kind of the cultural equivalent of "putting on your Sunday best". If special occasions warrant special effort, then rare meetings with privileged guests warrant special treatment!

Not just in Fiestas, but in many other occasions where Uncle Tito had me tag along, knowing that I am dying to observe Pinoys and Filipino culture, was I introduced as "that guy from Canada". Whenever this happened, the transformation was always immediate and obvious! Suddenly, the eyes of the person I was introduced to would light up and all sorts of curious questions would get asked, "Where in Canada?" "When did you emigrate out of the Philippines?" "How long have you been here in the Philippines (for this visit)?" "How long will you be staying?" "Are you married?" "Would you like to meet (insert a female friend/relative of theirs who is also unmarried and around my age)?" "How do you like the food? the drinks?"  "If there's anything I can do for you, just let me know!"

More than that - and maybe I am once again getting ahead of my narration, but - being a visitor or tourist is also usually equated as being a safe bet on many fronts concerning different public scenarios, which, once again, you might just chalk up to White Privilege or "Westerner" Privilege. Likely, the equation in their head goes something like: "Canadian? Then he's not the common Filipino street criminal. Less likely to be a terrorist. I mean, why would he be up to no good, this far from his home? Chances are, he's a nice guy."

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Sometimes, it's worse in the Philippines to be a Filipino.

Sori ka na lang kung Pinoy ka

Now, notice a pattern?

You can definitely FEEL it for sure! The Filipino warmth, friendliness, and hospitality may not be apparent, but it's there, just underneath that 'security measure' of coldness and stand-offishness.

When I said that "Filipinos don't really seem all that friendly", I wasn't indicting the culture nor the people. I wasn't calling the assessment that Filipinos are warm and kind as false, nor am I saying that Filipino hospitality is a myth. Instead, what I'm really getting at is that, the laudable aspects of Filipino spirit and culture are under threat from what ails Philippine society nowadays.

Limited opportunity and resources are enough to make everyone live simply on a daily basis, but of course still willing to throw a feast or party if need be. The crime rate is high enough to put off anyone from being warm to someone they don't know, even to the point of being exclusionary to everyone else, selective, and dare I say, elitist and cold. As James Fallows puts it:
"...when observing Filipino friendships I thought often of the Mafia families portrayed in The Godfather: total devotion to those within the circle, total war on those outside. Because the boundaries of decent treatment are limited to the family or tribe, they exclude at least 90 percent of the people in the country."4
Yet at the same time, I feel that there is still a strong urge and desire to live up to these Filipino ideals that known 'safe' visitors are indeed welcome, showered with kindness and shown around as guests of honour.

And with this realization, I couldn't help but feel equal parts dismayed and hopeful.

Could all the good traits of "Filipino Culture" be mere idealized behaviour, instead of commonly practiced, everyday reality? Is it now simply consigned to history, forever lost to a past when you could trust your fellow human? Is the sharing Filipinos display, now only confined to special events because the days when we (or they) were all free from want are now long gone?

It is a depressing and unflattering thought, I know...

Yet, at the same time, the fact that there still exist these ideals - and that these ideals are still on display, even if only sparingly - means that all hope is not lost. If anything, the fact that Filipinos are able to uphold such ideals, such beliefs and practices, despite the odds stacked against them, is itself nothing short of heroic.

May pag-asa pa rin ang Pilipinas!         [There is still hope for the Philippines!]

We just need fix a few things here and there, is all. 

Next Post: The All-Encompassing Rant about what it was like to be NEW to Canada

FLickr Galleries: The Town Fiesta

Related Posts: The Town Center's Fiesta
                          White Privilege in the Philippines
Further Reading: Under My Invisible Umbrella, Laurel Fantauzzo, The Manila Review
                                Racism: Pinoy Style!, GRP Post


1 = Dorai, F., & Bell, B. (Eds.). (2005). Insight Guides: Philippines (p. 51). London, England: Insight Print Guides

2 = Jose Rizal's Noli me Tangere provides an account of how a Fiesta might have been held during the Spanish Colonial era.

3 = Of course, this Filipino practice is now changing, with the younger generations being especially sexually active and more casual, or at the very least "westernized", in their relationship practices. But my point remains: They still idealize the old and traditional ways. It's what they do - or what they themselves would say as "it's what WE do". While the other kind of dating, you know - dating here in the "west" - well... they might say, "that's what other cultures do".

4 = Fallows, J., (November 1987). A Damaged Culture: A New Philippines?. The Atlantic. Retrieved From:

* "West", "Westerner", "Westernized" = These are all loaded terms in the Philippines. I can't quite put my finger on it as to how Filipinos regard it... besides the obvious usage of describing us "westerners". So, I've usually resorted to just putting it in quotes, because everytime I hear its inflection, I feel like it should be up in quotes.

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