IT’S BEEN 6 YEARS now and I’m no longer fresh off the boat from the Philippines. I’ve traded in “ehh, ano…” for “uhm, like…” I’ve stopped taking the hands of seniors to my forehead and touching my cheeks to the cheeks of strangers I meet. No hotdogs in my sweetened spaghetti, no tabo (a water dipper) in my bathroom, and no plastic wrap for my college textbooks. I’ve lost quite a few of my Filipino habits in the process of assimilating into the lifestyle of the everyday American.
I moved to San Francisco a few years after living in Los Angeles. I was new to American public transit and had to take the Caltrain every day. I employed all techniques taught to young, privileged girls like me in Manila to ward off the rapists, kidnappers, and thieves out and about. I’d wear earphones without an iPod and unwelcomingly opaque sunglasses. I’d always snag the seat next to a pleasant-looking lady or a fellow college student. At times, I’d even pretend to be on the phone when I felt a little unsafe while waiting by the tracks for a train.
One day, I forgot my earphones. A Caucasian man in his mid-30s asked for help with figuring out the train schedule. I remember my eyes widening, wondering why no one nearby was swooping in to save me. I thought back to Manila where there were separate trains for men and women for our public transit — this wouldn’t have happened if I was on the lady train, I thought.
Hesitantly, I answered his question out of fear that he would stab me if I ignored him. He chuckled in relief once I told him that he just had to run his finger down the timetable to know what time he’d arrive at his stop. I thought that would be it, then he went on to ask me where I was going. This is where he follows and kidnaps me, I thought. So I lied and said that I was actually getting off at the next stop and that I had to wait by the doors now.
He must have sensed my reservations. He proceeded to talk about how he was catching up with his wife and kids for a Giants game at AT&T Ball Park and how he couldn’t wait to have clam chowder bread bowls by the pier — and how I definitely needed to try those bread bowls! This must be what Americans call “small talk,” I thought to myself. I got off at my fake stop and he thanked me and told me to “Take care!”
Now, while I’m not inviting strangers I pick up off the street for brunch on a daily basis, I am at a point where upon observing a friendly-looking stranger wearing a cute pair of flats, I’ll ask her “Where’d you get those?” Bumping heads with someone in Books, Inc. while reaching for the same, obscure title will lead to a lengthy, intellectual discussion.
Overhearing tourists wondering which way the Asian Art Museum is, I’ll happily jump in to give directions, and even suggest a stroll through Yerba Buena Gardens on the way over. Though in Manila, you’ll be likely to get a smile back from a passerby, it’s not likely that you’ll string out a long conversation with someone just because you’re both wearing Giants jerseys, like in San Francisco.
When you’re an invited guest at a dinner party in Manila and you finish your first plate, it’s customary to play a little game of “Oh no, I can’t” and “Oh please, don’t be silly. Have some more!” with the host as she tries to serve you another helping. Even if you are hankering for more chicken adobo, you are somewhat expected to play along until the second or third time she insists.
This is a game that I’ve tried to play as a guest in American home, which doesn’t usually end up with an extra serving on my plate. Instead, I’d get a respectful “Okay, then!” and the host would move on to the next guest. My American host never realized that I was just playfully refusing. When I said that I was on a diet and therefore could not possibly have had another bite, I was actually waiting for her to tell me that I was already too skinny — so skinny that I needed more mashed potatoes to fill in my scrawny, little arms.
The game ends similarly when it comes to fighting over the bill. A wealthier friend would invite me out to lunch at fancy, Mediterranean place by her house and I would just assume that she’d know that we’d either split or she’d pay, seeing as she made more money. But I’d slip my card onto the bill and tell her that “I’ve got it!” just out of habit and much to my dismay…she’d let me pay. My Filipino friends would at least attempt to start a bit of lively banter over the bill, but Americans tend to thank you and take you up on what they assume is a sincere offer.
Filipinos value a sense of propriety, which ties into the Filipino term hiya, which is our embarrassment over being too outspoken or feeling like we’re imposing ourselves on others. If you want something, do something about it. No sense in beating around the bush, as they say.
Being a Filipina, I came to America thinking that people knew that I was being coy and that it was impolite to tell anyone what I want directly. When an American would, god forbid, express to me exactly what they wanted to do, I was taken aback every time. Learning to be straightforward was definitely a transition that I had to make living in the US.
A few years after moving to San Francisco, a friend of mine visited from Manila. I decided to take her sightseeing along Market Street. We planned to take the BART there, and so I showed her how to buy a ticket at the kiosk and we walked to the platform where we waited for our train. I compared the San Francisco BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to the MRT (Metro Manila Rapid Transit) which she and I used to ride back in Manila.
Our train to Pittsburg / Bay Point approached and started to stop, then I watched as my friend instinctively rushed over to stand directly in front of the door. There were plenty of doors opening up and there wasn’t much of a crowd to fight through. I suppose she didn’t notice that most people were standing by the sides so that commuters on the train could step off before we boarded. I tugged on her shirt and led her aside so that those commuters could do just that.
In Manila, it’s standard to fight your way through when commuting. With at least 12 million Filipinos concentrated in the urban metropolis of Metro Manila, it feels logical to fight for yourself in every situation. Understandably, when taking the MRT or even entering a mall, crowds can set you off into a kind of survival mode.
I cleared up the confusion for my dear Filipina friend, explaining that Americans generally line up and take turns. They don’t tend to worry about finding room on the train, because there is usually a spot to sit or stand without having to fight for it. It’s simple experiences like these that make me realize how far I have come from Manila.