Ethnocentrism Can Be Funny

I heard a proverb this week that says something like, “if you want to know what living in the water is like, you don’t ask the fish.”  It’s impossible to avoid being ethnocentric at some level. It’s like asking fish what it’s like to live on dry land.

A few months ago we had four 20 somethings over for dinner, 2 Filipinos, 2 Americano.  The Filipinos were asking questions about school shootings in America.  They kept asking how does this happen.  The Americanos tried to explain, but the Filipinos continued to be perplexed and just baffled.   The questions went round and round until somehow, I don’t even remember how, it was revealed that we don’t typically have security guards and walls and fences blocking entrances to our campuses anywhere not manned by security guards.    It hadn’t even occurred to the Americans to mention it, and it had not even occurred to the Filipinos to ask, because to both sides their own country’s practice was so obvious one didn’t even think about it.  When they learned our schools largely do not have armed security at all entrances, they practically rolled their eyes and threw their hands in the air, exclaiming, “Well, no wonder!  WHY NOT?”

From there we went on to mention that American malls, shops, stores, and most other businesses outside of banks also do not have armed security guards at the entrance.  Have I mentioned that here?  There are restaurants we frequent with armed security at the entrance.  There is a convenience store within half a mile of my house with an armed security guard stationed just inside at the door and he may ask to inspect your backpack.  The armed security guards at the malls *will* inspect your backpack and purses and sometimes pat your back as you go in.  At the National Bookstore in a nearby mall there are armed security guards at the entrance just outside the mall, and armed security again at the entrance *inside* the mall, so if you want to browse a bookstore you may have to pass through two armed security checkpoints.

I had forgotten to mention that, and one of the Americanas was in the Philippines for the first time in her life and had only been here a few days.  She was still somewhat stunned about walking past armed security to buy a shirt.

And this is where it got kind of funny- the Filipinos, wide-eyed and equally stunned, both said, “No guards? No security? ,” and they shuddered, “I wouldn’t feel safe!”

The Americano had lived here previously and he kind of agreed.  The Americana said she felt more unsafe with armed security, it made her nervous and anxious and she thought most Americans would agree with her.  And both sides could kind of intellectually understand what the other was saying, but neither of them could imagine how the other could possibly feel safer, not in the least.


I had another discussion with a Filipina friend recently about the cost of living in America.  It’s really hard to explain just how high the COLA is in the U.S. compared to here, and how much differently one has to live.  Our government is wealthier, too, and our social services are much more generous, but we criminalize almost every single way Filipinos in the lower income levels would work to make some extra money. You can’t sell food out of your kitchen, you can’t sell flowers or crafts on a street corner without expensive licensing and permits, you can’t go give massages and perms in people’s home without the same, you can’t build a passenger apparatus wrap around onto your motorcycle and pick up passengers….

“What?” My young friend asked.  “WHY NOT?”

I shrugged.  I said I guessed the government decided those things were not safe.

“BUT YOU HAVE GUNS,” She said.


Third example, and this one is just purely funny. I met with a group of Filipina homeschooling Moms on the island of Cebu.  At dinner they found out I was the grandmother of 14 and they were astonished (yes this is also a humble brag)- I explained that we married at 20, but they still thought I did not look at all my age.

“Usually,” said one of my hostesses, “Westerners just look so much older than they are.”  The hilarious thing about this is that at precisely the same time, I was saying, “Usually Asians look so much younger than they are…”

Of course, neither is precisely true.  A 40 year old Asian generally looks younger than a 40 year old westerner, and vice versa.  But whether that is older or younger than a 40 year old ought to look is kind of dependent on where you live.

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  1. Frances
    Posted November 22, 2018 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    Are the armed security guards to fend off armed intruders?

    • Headmistress
      Posted November 24, 2018 at 1:55 am | Permalink

      I don’t know. They do prevent thieves and beggars, armed or not. I do feel safer with them around- not that I am afraid without them, but it’s a comfort. I suppose we can get used to anything.

      I don’t know if the presence of armed guards is true in the rest of the Philippines, but Davao City was once the murder capital of the country up until the 80s. It was rife with gangs and drug wars and gangs fighting for territory- it sounds something like Chicago during the Dillinger days. So the armed guards may be a remnant from back then.

      They are very kind and courteous with us, always, coming up and helping our daughter with stairs if she is struggling, holding the door for us (and other customers), offering to get us a cab.

      I have seen them shoo away beggars or peddlers, but I’ve never seen them be mean about it, just consistent.

      Theft is still a problem, but it’s not violent. Most Filipinos I know will not leave their house empty- it’s party of the responsibility of having hired helpers- to have somebody in the house when you’re not there. We’ve had people be unable to meet us at a coffee shop and tell us to come to their house because it would mean leaving the house empty if they left , or have been shocked to find out that we do leave an empty house (but we have a dog, and that makes a big difference).

  2. Lisa Beth W.
    Posted November 23, 2018 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    This is fascinating, as usual.
    To me, the fact that armed guards are deemed necessary would make me nervous about the society that makes them necessary, therefore making me feel less safe.

    • Headmistress
      Posted November 24, 2018 at 1:40 am | Permalink

      Yes, that’s what we tried to explain. But their perspective is that armed guards ensure that a safe society remains safe. I like them now, but it did take a bit of getting used to.

  3. Susan Humeston
    Posted November 25, 2018 at 12:19 am | Permalink

    Now THIS is real anthropology. Very fascinating! We do not realize how trained we are by our lifelong surroundings, and we must remember that for those outside our culture, this equally applies. I must say that in our country, the idea of “Caveat Emptor” is dead. We are not held responsible for what we purchase, but those who sell are responsible for what they sell. While that is not a terrible idea, making everyone have to acquire a government license in order to sell something is prohibitive. If we were in the Depression today, many of the methods that our own ancestors used to get an income are now illegal. Sell apples on the street? Not without a license, backed up by government searches into your abilities and history, and, of course, not without a price. Take boarders in? Serve lunches from your kitchen? All this was legal in the Depression and all were used to keep from starving. Also – we must not view those who are entering our county illegally as “just like us” in every way. Their cultures are different and perhaps their method of living life would not meld with what was once accepted as American and Constitutional. It seems in the idealism of the moment, no one thinks of this today.

  4. Posted November 25, 2018 at 3:22 am | Permalink

    They do the same in Israel, partly because of the threat of terrorism, partly to discourage/catch shoplifting, mostly so that someone is around whose job it is to notice if anyone who seems shifty shows up and to make said shifty-looking individuals know they are being watched.

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