Thursday, November 3, 2011

Acculterating Joe Am

It struck me today as I drove assertively through the wild traffic that characterizes our town during rush hour that I have changed. I am no longer tense about the traffic coming at me from all sides like wasps from a fallen hive. I am no longer angry at the idiots who cut in front of me; indeed, I have become expert at that, too, and I no longer see them as idiots. They are merely getting from A to B via the dance of the bumblebees . It no longer bothers me that tricycles and motorcads and jeepneys and buses stop smack dab in the middle of the highway with no signal whatsoever from their busted or non-existent lights. I just veer around them and force people out of my way, unless it is a truck coming at me, then I yield to the natural rule of power coming headlong at my little Honda Civic.

The Real Joe Am?

There is a sense to all this. A rhythm. And surprising graciousness amongst the pushiness as motorcycles edge to the very side of the road so I can squeeze between them and the tricycle I am passing. Or maybe it is not really graciousness. It is survival of the smallest when facing a bigger, faster vehicle. We all identify the power vehicles in the blink of an eye, and yield accordingly. That is one sign of being a real Filipino, ability to see who is in power in order to respond appropriately. Smugly or weasely.

Any way, with my now natural driving skills, I have officially completed another step in the process of acculturating Joe America.

I'll chalk that up as step five, following my completion of:

  • Step 1: Appreciating Filipino foods. No problem with that. It took me about a month and I was eating anything placed before me, from the tentacles of fresh calamari hoisted from the Bay that morning, to the more traditional pancit, humba, barbeque pork, chicken adobo, or chop suey  with pinarito saging for snacks. Rice morning, noon and night. Chooks to Go became the easy take-out meal. I'm eating healthier than I ever did in the US. Well, except for all that fat.

  • Step 2: Public transportation. For two years, we did not have a car, so I learned to get around like a native, cramming my 6' 4" into Jeepneys with 13 other people and a chicken and the day's shopping bags. I only cracked my skull getting in twice. Some rides are friendly. Some cold or wary. And busing, boy can I bus. From Zambales to Manila on the Air Con Victory Liner. Olongapo to San Felipe on the rattletrap blue bus where the conductor would pour water over the engine to cool that baby as it careened at 100 per over narrow bridges and past slower Victory Liners. Open windows are wonderful for letting air in and putting trash out. Once the husband and wife behind us got into a fist fight. And another time I counted 70 people crammed in a vehicle made for 35. Evening rides would usually have a tuba drunk or 10. Busing is ALWAYS entertaining.
The Real Joe Am?

  • Step 3: Enjoying the tuba table under the mango tree. Tuba is mellow and mild, with a wooziness that sneaks up on you like a storm in the night, no thunder. The chatter becomes liquefied and loosened and even language is no barrier to good fun. Indeed, the struggle to communicate is half the fun. It helps that I like my father-in-law, who sells tuba. He buys it in big barrels and parcels it out for the local sari sari stores.

  • Step 4: Appreciating cock fights. Now when you are poor, you cannot afford a race horse or fast car. You can't spend $20 for entry to the rodeo or $10 for a movie. But you can raise a chicken. And you can bet. And there is something about the life and death of it that injects just the right spice of serious business through the tuba-stoked haze that drifts over the crowd, enveloping it in raucous good fun. I have fun watching the people have fun. I never bet as all chickens look alike to me.

  • Step 5: Driving the wild ride, the dance of the bumblebees, the pinball on wheels, the death defying, herky jerky sprint from A to B. Its macho, man, to arrive alive.

Now there are some steps ahead I might struggle with, but it is my intent to persevere. I am tired of people looking at me as a tall rich white guy. I want to be appreciated as Filipino.

Here is my list of a few of my future achievements. They may not be accomplished in the order listed. But they will bring me to the day when I can brag, hey, I am as Filipino as the next guy.

  • Language. My 200 words of Visayan are a good start. Now many Filipinos can't even understand each other, even when they speak the same dialect, so I am not so different already. I do what everyone does, mix a little English with a little Visayan and a Tagalog word that fits and then laugh at the confusion that emerges. Just like a Filipino. I need to pick up more words is all.

The Real Joe Am?
  • Losing my Clock. After 30 years of corporate life living by the clock, I am obsessed with being on time. I don't fit in. I embarrass people by arriving on time, and therefore, early.  As with driving, there is a rhythm to time here, the lateness and inconvenience that always seems to work itself out with no harm done, because no one expects anything else. Efficiency is forgone in favor of laid back . This will be hard, but it should be easy. After all, I am RETIRED. I have no need to be anywhere at any time.

  • Fiesta Frenzy. This will take about two more years, when I estimate I will be totally deaf. We live one block from the gymnasium, which is the heart of the noise hereabouts. Concerts, school events, church events, basketball. All blasted at the top of the amplifier's lungs. Until three in the morning some nights. Fiesta week is loud, as if life's happiness can be found by adding a few more decibels. The only offset is the onset of deafness in my right ear. So I merely jam the good one into the pillow. I already enjoy the parades and the street dancers and even the endless march of civic staffers as they plod and sweat their dutiful three kilometers.  And the shopping is a blast, some really useful cheap shit. This year we gave P500 and got a fancy personalized banner.

  • Becoming Corrupt. I have more money than most in my neighborhood, but I think I don't use it properly. I give it away in bonuses to workers or gifts to friends and neighbors. Sponsoring the basketball team. Helping a neighbor with a medical emergency. But I don't ask anything in return. I figure my wife could be Barangay Captain if I played my cards better. Then Mayor. Etc. I have to think about this. It is a power society and I am way too generous. Filipinos interpret generosity as weakness. This will take some dedicated effort.

  • Swapping the Books for Mindless TV. I fear this is the one thing that will stop me from being a tried and true Filipino. I try to fool people by checking in on Showtime now and then or looking over the little lady's shoulder as she watches a tear-jerker in the evening. That way I can offer up a comment once in a while that makes me appear cool. But I'd go nuts if I watched those shows for longer than half an hour, or I'd get diabetes or maybe high blood from frustration. My brain just can't stand concentrating so hard on  . . . um . . . empty space. And our closet is too dark for reading there.

As I reflect on the whole of this, I guess I will never be a 100% Filipino. I suppose I need an index, like Transparency International on corruption. Measure how far I've gotten year to year.

Today, I'd say I am about 45% there.

I'll report next year to develop a trend line. Stay tuned . . .



  1. The corruption of Joe America, that should be the new title of your blog.

  2. Anon, hmmmmm, has a certain ring to it.

  3. Aha! Zambales is a great province, Joe. Great Mangoes!

    Anyway, I admit that you're even ahead of me in your learnings. I'm Pinoy and I still don't appreciate cockfights. Although I tried learning it before for a market study, I just couldn't get it.

    As for your "to-do" list, you can scrap the last two. If you're giving away money, just don't be an "uto-uto." At least try to look skeptical from time to time. =)


  4. Joe

    "Filipinos interpret generosity as weakness".
    I heard that before also. Often Kanos are considered nice but "stupid" for being generous. I was told that if a Filipino man has money like the average Kano there than he would not be as generous but arrogant and snobbish. It is in the culture to be "wise" like that.
    I had been in Cock fights in Negros and I was surprised how much fun it is. I really enjoyed the atmosphere and how Filipino man were having so much fun. I did not enjoy the fight itself though.

  5. Gosh, what a beautiful blog. The reason I hate Filipinos must be because I have not acculturized yet. If I have acclimatized like Joe I would be happy and see things as natural happenstance that need not changing.

    Joe is going with the flow while I'm trying to swim against the tide.

    Now I see where I have gone wrong. It takes practice and immersion living a Filipino life to love Filipinos after all.

    Joe got me thinking. This is the trick that I still have to learn. I wish I can live along with Filipinos and not changing them.

  6. What irks me the most are children sleeping on the sidewalks. Crying hungry babies. Pregnant women with half a dozen children in tow. Children wild-eyed at the mall peering into show windows that they cannot afford only in their dreams. NBI and police that cannot know how to investigate. Newspapers that has become a literary contest absent of content. News more on gossips than facts and so on and on and on ... and, oh, when tired young minimum-wage saleslady dotting on me like they are my slaves. It just breaks my heart. While the shop owners tool around in gleaming Europeans. Oh, my heart. I wish I can turn a blind eye and forget about them.

    Why is Philippines so naturally wrong. Goodness I live far away from the city up in the mountains away from it all where neighbours peek into the main gate of our community the coming and going hoping to get a glimpse of the "rich" how we look like. A Kardashian wave of hand from the car would bring smile to them and wave back with a smile.

  7. Attila, thank's for noting that about cock fights. It is the camaraderie that is fun, not the chickens killing one another. I don't care for that, either.

    Mariano, I need to acculturate for my own sanity, and will probably get 57% there and not much more. Much of the other 43% will be spent on getting some sanity in the rest of the crowd hereabouts.

    I also live in a hillside barangay. The kids at the bottom of the hill wave and smile when I wave back. I told my wife they love me for my personality. Well, until one waved and then cried clearly "pesos!" with her hand out. But no matter, somewhere in the smiles there is joy, so I still wave. When it's raining I honk.

    It's the kids for sure, who make or break the day. And heart, when one knows it should be better for them . . . but is not.

  8. What has brought about your changed attitude? Did you regularly visit the Philippines before your decision to live there? If so, how did you feel as a visitor compared with a resident? I ask because as a regularly visitor I am becoming increasingly impatient with some of the attitudes and the slow progress in so many areas. Maybe I would find it easier if I stopped hoping for change and just went with the flow.

  9. Surrender. Stop fighting. There is no such thing as Pinoy dysfunction. Change your perception, attitude, and reality. This is the way of the Tao Te Ching. There is no good or bad, no ugly or beautiful, hard or soft. There just IS.

  10. Greg, I visited the Philippines before moving here so understood many of the cultural differences, but not with the depth I do now. Try managing construction of a home, and you will bang against that culture head-on. Also, I had no idea how the accumulation of irritations would anger me; that some people would frustrate me to the point of wanting to pop them.

    I am of three parts on Filipino culture. One part of me, the writer, enjoys the differences. One part of me goes nuts (the real American in me, with American values like the Golden Rule), and one part of me says not to lay my values onto people who have a different heritage and circumstance than me. Number two was out of the room when I wrote this article. But he is engaged in a lot of the other writings.

    I would be hard-pressed to recommend to others that they retire here. Things are unlikely to change fast. What we call dysfunctions are set in cement here. I've had to up my blood pressure medicine dosage.

  11. Anon, If the Tao would kindly keep idiots from parking their vehicles in my driveway it would be easier to surrender. But I need to get to places.

  12. Thanks Jo. I like your way of having three perspectives. I'll give it a try.

  13. Sorry Anon. Forgot to acknowledge your suggestion. When it gets too much for me I'll make a conscious effort to switch to Mode 3 - non-judgemental.


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