Cultural Gears

This is an unfinished, clunky, incomplete thought.It’s not that new, it’s just that living in a very foreign country has me thinking about it all over again. It’s hard to explain, precisely.

I think I have made clear, we really love it here in the Philippines. If our families were here, we’d stay. If we could figure out a way to *affordably* live here 6-9 months and live in the U.S. the other part of the year, we’d totally do that. It’s mainly the travel that is budget busting. Keeping an empty place to live in the US isn’t really feasable either.

The cultures are super different in many ways. I mainly talk about the things I like and prefer here, but it’s not because I hate my passport country, my home of origin (although I mainly do not remember living in the US until the end of second grade, when we moved back). There are a lot of things I think the U.S. does better, and there are many things I think the Philippines does better.

It’s kind of easy, common, typical, to hear somebody say something like this, ‘In the Philippines, the focus is on trying to get people a job, finding them employment. The U.S. focuses more on technological solutions and less on people.’
Examples- a pothole in the road, and one of the neighbors will pay a poorer neighbor or relative to come fill it rather than call the city to come take care of it. A problem on the schoolbus and the school will hire somebody to come be an adult monitor on the bus, and the U.S. school will install video cameras.

Or, the other way round, somebody might be frustrated by the short-term thinking of this culture as compared to the U.S. (not that we aren’t losing it there, but still, you have no idea if you haven’t lived it)- the local coffee shop ran out of a type of coffee, and the quickest fix was to put a strip of duct tape or coloured pack tip over that particular order on the electronic sign. None of the Americans who have seen it wonder what’s going to happen when they get the ingredients for that order in again and take the tape off. It’s going to leave a nasty mark, at best. I am not sure any of the Filipinos there have given it a moments’ thought. One of the ditches on the side of the road in another neighborhood filled with mud and had to be shoveled out- the ditches are built to handle rain water which comes down in biblical proportions and floods the streets if it doesn’t drain properly. The man hired to shovel it out in front of one house just shoveled it over to the high end of the ditch- pretty much exactly where, the next time it rains, it’s going to wash all the mud immediately back into the ditch. My American friend who observed it believes it’s job security. I am not convinced the ditch digger thought that far ahead. So many repairs we see are band=aid fixes, they will do for a few months, but then they are going to fall apart and will need to be done again- and so they will. Over and over. Filipino friends who find this trait frustrating told us of their neighbors, well to do people, who built a beautiful wooden house full of wooden furniture, but put off getting it termite treated for six months, and now everything is riddled with holes. Littering doesn’t even seem to be on the radar. Children who come to our door for candy are astonished that we care where they throw the wrappers. I see people from just about every class throwing trash on the ground, and it’s true that there are not really many places outside for one to put any trash- even where there are trashcans, they are probably full.

I love the service oriented culture here and wish I could important some of it to the U.S. There is no Filipino family, I have heard, too crowded to make room for a relative in need. And by the same token, the relative in need would feel obligated to help out the family hosting them by doing things for them- labour, washing, cooking, childcare. But I can’t see things working out the same way in the U.S. We aren’t talking immediate family, either, cousins, cousins’ kids, nieces, nephews. Family is so important, and so… collective. A friend of ours, a Filipino who speaks perfect English (he lived in the U.S. for a few years, and he is in the professional classes in some capacity, medicine, I think) was telling us about his siblings and what they do and where they live. He switched from first person to third person immediately’ “our oldest sister is …. and then our second sister, she lives…. and our youngest sister she went to…”

So, back and forth, there are things we prefer about Filipino culture and things we prefer about our own, and this is true for probably anybody who visits another country, and it’s hard not to wonder, ‘How could we import that practice and graft it into this culture?’

I am sure there are ways and means beyond my ken. But mostly, what I see when I think deeper is only more and more complications, because few customs exist in a cultural sterile room, disconnected and isolated and unattached. They are part of the warp and weft of the entire cultural package. Even the dysfunctional parts work as they do where they do because of other, more functional things. Remove one, swap it out for another, and you don’t know the ripple effect, the unseen consequences, the necessary structure you may be weakening.

The lack of punctuality in the Philippines bothers many westerners. I do not happen to be one because I have struggled with my own lack of punctuality all my life and here for the first time ever, nobody is giving me grief about it, nobody is staring at me and preaching a sermon on how lack of punctuality is theft, and people are very kind and easy going and accepting. There are many, many reasons why punctuality is less important here, I can hardly know much more than the surface. but one of them is that in a culture where so much relies on public transportation, bad roads, and unpredictable traffic patterns, you can’t really be strct about it. Another is probably that in a culture where people and relationships matter more than a dot on a clock, when a friend needs your help, you help, even if it makes you late to a wedding or to church. When you are in a hurry to go play a scheduled basketball game with your friends but the foreigner at your church needs a cab back from the wedding, and it’s in a resort area where cabs don’t come, you get on your motorcycle and ride two miles out to flag down a cab and instruct it to go pick up your foreign friend and then you wait on the corner and watch to be sure the cab comes back out with her (yep, true story, the 25 year old went to fetch the cab, and ten other people hung around waiting just in case I might be lonely or something might come up that I couldn’t handle on my own)

So I don’t know how one would go about incorporating a measure of punctuality into the culture without losing an equivalent measure of charming, supportive, friendly, helpful people oriented part of the culture. And I’d love to be able to graft some of the people oriented, make dow, easy going aspects of this culture back to the U.S. but I am not sure how one would do that without shifting some of the better aspects of work ethic and independence the U.S. has going for it.

This is all long and meandering and doesn’t really go anywhere (the very definition of meandering). It’s just something I remind myself of whenever I catch myself thinking “I wish they were more like that in the U.S./Philippines. Maybe that would be good. But maybe ‘this’, whatever practice it is, is deeply entertwined and inseparable from some other aspect of one culture or the other that perhaps I like much less.

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