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Even with the internet and the access to countless guides, blogs, and articles dedicated to travel, there are always going to be new things for travellers to encounter upon visiting foreign countries. These include cultural practices completely unfamiliar to them. The Philippines has quite a few, so here’s a guide to understanding these Filipino habits.
A scene that may seem rather peculiar to the foreign traveller is when Filipino children come up to their parents or grandparents upon arriving home or seeing them, and instead of greeting them with a hug or a kiss, they take the elder’s hand and places the back of it to their forehead. This gesture is known as pagmamano. It is an act of respect, usually done to someone either older or a person of the religious order (usually a priest). It is usually accompanied by saying ‘mano po’, mano meaning ‘hand’ in Spanish and po, a particle in Filipino speech used to express respect. This saying is used to ask for the elder’s hand, followed by a slight bow and the act of touching the hand to the forehead. People do this action as if to receive the elder’s blessing, to which they would normally reply, ‘God bless you’. Pagmamano is like the Filipino counterpart to Japan’s bowing and Spain’s double cheek kiss.
While many Filipinos have recognised this unfavourable stereotype and are making attempts to change it, the country is still quite known for running on what is known as ‘Filipino time’, which is essentially a euphemism for saying that Filipinos are always late. When Filipinos agree on a specific time, say for a meeting or an event, it is, more often than not, understood to actually mean around 15 minutes to half an hour after the agreed upon time. So don’t be surprised when Filipino gatherings almost always turn out to begin later than planned.
A Filipino quirk that many a time frustrates foreigners as much as it confuses them is when locals refuse to give an outright decline or negation. Filipinos, in general, don’t like confrontations, and many avoid saying ‘no’ at all costs. Instead, they’ll give the Tagalog equivalent to a ‘maybe’, an ‘alright, we’ll see’, or an ‘I’ll try.’ So should a Filipino be invited to a gathering, and he says ‘I’ll try,’ there’s a 50/50 chance he won’t make an appearance. Pay attention to the words they use and their tone of delivery – you’ll soon recognise what a Filipino ‘no’ sounds like.
The country’s transitional history under different foreign colonisers brought with it varying influences, including that of religion and belief systems. During pre-colonial times, the area of what is now known as the Philippine archipelago practised a form of animism. Archaeological research also found traces of Buddhism. Then, when the Spanish came, massive movements to convert Filipinos to Christianity took place, leaving the country to this day with a majority of its population Roman Catholic. And with many Filipinos possessing Chinese ancestry, they have adopted belief systems from that culture as well. This diversity is why the Philippines is so unique in its spiritual aspects. It’s a country with millions of devotees cramming the streets of Manila during the Feast of the Black Nazarene and with people actually flagellating and crucifying themselves during Holy Week Good Friday. However, it’s also a country with people who refuse to go directly home after a wake (for fear that the spirit follows them home) and forbid that the weddings of two immediate family members fall within the same year (in fear of bad luck).
Respect is essential in Filipino culture. There are even particles of speech in Tagalog, such as ‘po’ and ‘op’, that are used to express politeness when speaking to elders. In fact, these two words and their usage are taught to children from a very young age so that they may get used to it and grow up knowing how to speak with respect. This high regard for honour is also the reason that there are titles used to politely address other people. First names are almost exclusively used for your peers of around the same age. For older people, there are titles such as ate (older sister), kuya (older brother), tito (uncle), tita (aunt), lolo (grandfather), and lola (grandmother), all of which are used depending on the age of the person you’re addressing, regardless of whether or not they are actually related to you.
Usually, a very basic table set-up anywhere else in the world includes a knife and a fork. People will only see a spoon if there will be some soup and a teaspoon for desserts. In the Philippines, however, unless harder, larger cuts of meat are part of the meal, the knife is unnecessary, and a spoon takes its place. Filipinos use forks and spoons essentially because almost every meal always includes rice. The spoon is much more useful in carrying the rice and other food items, and the fork is used simply to push them onto the spoon.
Perhaps to say the Filipino day (and life) revolves around food would not be too big of an overstatement. This country is a largely food-loving one. With three huge meals a day, several snacks in between, and every event throughout the year celebrated with a feast—food is at the heart of everything Filipino; this is the main reason Filipinos are very fond of greeting with ‘Kumain ka na ba?’ (‘Have you eaten?’). They’ll invite you to join them for a meal or snack, or they’ll simply feed you, especially if it’s an elder asking you, (they really do take sheer joy in doing so). So if you come across a Filipino and he greets you with one of these instead of a ‘how’s it going?’, he isn’t being nosy about your eating habits; this is simply a very common way for Filipinos to greet one another.