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Watching My Son Grow Up in the Philippines

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“Dad, you know what’s wrong with the Philippines? The girls aren’t allowed to date until they’re 18! That’s just so not right!” One of my favorite sayings is “familiarity breeds contempt,” and now the bloom is somewhat off the rose of the Philippines in the eyes of my youngest son who’s lived here since late May. Now he’s seeing more and more of the things that could be better about life here. But I have to be careful to maintain his illusion that girls here won’t date before a certain age, because the longer he thinks he has to wait, the more likely I won’t have to try to save him from a shotgun wedding — and yes, they do call it exactly that here. My family here was surprised to hear that Americans call it the same thing.

As I type this, my driver is eating fried rice and the maid is lying down on the couch watching television — but I’m certainly not going to gripe because she gets up at five in the morning and works till ten at night. The driver is my brother-in-law and the maid is my wife’s cousin, and we pay them a whopping 20 bucks a week each. Not only are they happy to have a job, but we also provide a place for them to sleep and pay for their food and transportation and of course for any medical problems that arise. For a little bit of perspective, I’ve got a sister-in-law working at the Supreme Court who takes home about 15 dollars a week. So our driver and maid aren’t complaining, no, not at all.

So I asked my son if he wants to go back to Washington state yet, but he said no. He made the decision based on the fact that we’ll be returning here to live (finally!) this coming May. School here starts in June, so if I took him back stateside, he’d go to school there till we return here where he’d be beginning school right away anyway… which means he’d essentially be attending school straight from September 2009 till May 2012. He wasn’t thrilled with that prospect.

But he’s enjoying himself nonetheless. He knows some Pilipino now. Yesterday he went to a local store down the street and there were some other kids there. They asked him if he knew the Pilipino language and he replied “no.” He then heard one of the girls say in Pilipino, “He’s got a cute butt.” Yeah, he got a thrill out of that…

Last night we went to SM City North mall to convert the cell phone I bought stateside to where it will work here. The mall where we went is — in terms of gross leasable area — the second largest in the entire world. Yeah, it’s that big. The Mall of Asia, which is probably five more miles away as the crow flies, is number five on the list (it’s got its own indoor paintball arena, I’m told), and the Megamall (which is about halfway between us and the Mall of Asia) is number ten on the list. Three of the top ten largest malls in the world, all within a ten mile radius of my house here in Metro Manila. No one else – not even China – has more than one in the top ten.

On the top floor (the top two floors of their annex is solely devoted to cell phone and computer retailers and repair shops) we finally found a tech who could do what I needed. A few minutes later when he was done I told my son to come on, we’ve got to go… and he says, “Dad, you pulled me out of there too soon! The girl was telling me I’m cute!”  At least he stopped thinking about her when I steered us into the Krispy Kreme three floors down.

Well, yeah, he really is cute.  He looks good and he knows it.  What’s more, he’s a truly nice guy; I’ve never once seen him throw a temper tantrum even when he was little. Yesterday he won a pageant at his school (pageants here are for guys as well as girls). Add all this to the fact that he looks white (and therefore is considered well-to-do), and, well, this brings home the need for the Filipino tradition of chaperons for young couples on a date. Mention the prospect of a chaperon to teenagers in America, and any American parent reading this knows what their kids’ reaction would almost certainly be. But here, it’s tradition – a weakening tradition to be sure, but one that’s still enforceable. Got to keep my little boy from being roped into a shotgun wedding…

The Filipinos are big on “right conduct,” which involves not only manners before elders and the opposite sex, but also how to speak in such a way that no one is offended — this ‘little Johnny’ joke is mildly ribald and tongue-in-cheek (as it were), but aptly serves to illustrate one facet of what the Filipinos mean by right conduct. Yesterday my brother-in-law and I went to the U.S. embassy to check on the status of his immigrant visa application which was approved back in 1988 when he was put on the waiting list (still no word yet). While we were there I saw two sweaty, bald-headed white men – obviously a dad and his grown son – also waiting in line. I’m not that small – just under six feet tall and 240 on the scale – but the dad was slightly taller and much rounder than me – 300 pounds at least.

Beside the two men was a little Filipina who looked the same age of the son. She stood not even shoulder height to me and might’ve weighed 110 soaking wet. It was obvious that they were there to process a fiancee visa for her. I hoped for her sake that she was marrying the son, for at least he was much closer to her age, tall, somewhat handsome, and didn’t seem as aggressive as the dad… but no, she was marrying the dad.

I know this because while we were talking to the information officer – a Filipino like all the employees on the exterior of the embassy – he tromped up and angrily demanded to be let into the embassy. The officer told him that he cannot let him in yet, and the dad got even angrier and louder: “I’m an American and you cannot keep me out of MY embassy! I demand an interview for my wife!” I’d seen this type of conduct many times before by my fellow sailors who would speak derisively of non-whites in foreign countries – and these same sailors would never say anything bad about the Australians because they’re Just Like Us. Anyway, the Filipino officer was eventually able to calm the guy down and get him to wait off to one side. Later I approached the officer and in Pilipino apologized for the other American’s conduct. But the real victim is the Filipina, for if she is a mail-order bride as she seems to be, she has no conception of what awaits her. I feel deeply sorry for her – he’ll never bring her happiness. He – like too many of my fellow Americans – has no concept of right conduct.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s unreasonable to expect my fellow Americans to treat smaller, browner people with the same respect they’d expect for themselves. But it still ticks me off to see such utter disrespect, such blatant arrogance by those who hail from a country whose founding document reads that it is self-evident that all men are created equal.

On to better topics! I made the mistake of inviting my family to a nice beach this coming Monday (a national holiday). I don’t know what I was thinking, because I’d first assumed that it would just be a few family members.  Problem is, I’d forgotten that if A is invited and B isn’t, B will be insulted and so will C, D, and E through Z. That’s why, instead of paying for taking five or six family members to the beach, now it’s 40. Yes, I’m paying for taking 40 family members to the beach. Call me Ali Baba. What’s funny is that these 40 are ONLY my wife’s siblings and their spouses and children and grandchildren. Only one cousin is invited (our maid). If I invited the cousins, well, then we’re talking three digits. Seriously.

Planning this adventure isn’t easy; we’ve all got two cars between us, so we’ll be renting two jeepneys (Google the image to see what I’m talking about) to take everyone else. I’m told they’ll cost about $40 a day each to rent for all day — but I’m assuming that doesn’t include gas. I’m also going to ask the sisters to make food so I don’t wind up paying two or three times for 15 McDonald’s Value Meals and 25 Happy Meals. Next time I’ll listen to my wife and not be so afraid to not invite the other family members. “Sabi ko sa’iyo!” she said. In English, that directly translates as “I told you so!”  I’m a husband, so I hear that every now and then.

The trip should be two or three hours, maybe more depending on traffic. In the past week I’ve finally come to understand what driving in Manila is all about. It’s a grand game of “me first!” You see, in and around Seattle, drivers tend to be polite — picture two or three drivers at a four-way stop, each politely inviting the other to go first — and I’m not kidding! Here in Manila, though, a polite driver will either wise up and get into the fight, or he’ll remain stationary till he dies of dehydration.

But the Filipino drivers aren’t aggressive drivers in a mean way, but in a way that reminds me of seduction. I’m not sure if anyone remembers this particular movie (I forget the name) where there’s a “no-touch game” where the woman tells the man that according to the rules of the game, they get as close as they can without touching… and then she advances, forcing him to retreat onto the bed. Filipino drivers are like that woman – they’ll get oh-so-close to the other vehicle as they wiggle their way to the front, and whoever runs out of maneuvering room without touching the other vehicle has to back down. Thankfully, due to the perpetual traffic jam that is Manila traffic, this all happens in high-definition slo-mo – really slo-mo!

Adding to the fun is watching my 15-year-old son learning to drive in Manila traffic. I’d already taught him how to drive in Washington, but this is a whole different animal. At least it’s almost all slow – thank goodness it’s almost all slow! That, and at least it’s not like the nine-day-long traffic jam in China. Word is that particular jam may continue for another three weeks.

Speaking of traffic, this morning I got a rude reminder of why the paint jobs on buildings don’t last long here. We were traveling along one of the main thoroughfares, and up ahead I saw what looked like a small cloud of dark smoke. It was exhaust from thousands of vehicles in desperate need of ring jobs. It wasn’t quite as thick as fog, but visibility was cut down to not more than 300 feet. This joins dengue and tuberculosis as the things which most alarm me about life in this megalopolis.

Should I then pull my son out of here? I think not. Our house in Washington is in a nice development with little crime, but in a surrounding two-mile radius (which has a low-density population) we’ve had four murders and a kidnapping in the past five years, not to mention the three times my son admitted to being offered drugs at the local high school this last year. Of course there’s drugs here in the Philippines, too, but not nearly to the same degree.  Why?  More than anything else, the twin factors of strong family bonds and a lack of disposable income.

One more lesson my son is learning is the difference between schools here and in America. Back in Washington he got Bs in English and did fairly well in other subjects, but in this past quarter he got a D in English, in a foreign country! Why? I knew the answer right away. The high school in Bremerton looks so nice, so modern – but they teach what I call lazy English, with no emphasis on the technical details of proper grammar and punctuation. Here in the Philippines they concentrate on those technical details. I knew this from reading hundreds of legal statements back in my Navy days. My son’s having what we in the military used to call a “character-building experience.” It’s not much fun right now, but he’ll laugh about it in years to come.

Make no mistake about it, there are major problems here: disease, pollution, corruption. But see also the benefits: learning about family, about right conduct, about real education. God willing, my son will grow into the good and honorable man that I see he can become, and have the bright and happy future that all good parents wish for their children. But it takes work and vigilance and heart — and most of all, guidance and mercy from God.

He’ll be home from school in a few minutes and I’ll have to go back into fun-killing party-pooper Dad mode, all the while hiding, suppressing my impulse to go blow a wad of cash to see that smile on his face. Problem is, he’s very smart (‘hecca smart’ in the teenager lexicon of the moment) and knows me too well. “Dad? Can we go for another Krispy Kreme?” I’ll say no and we won’t go… but he knows that I would love to take him there. He’s so good at pushing my buttons. Unfortunately, I can also see him emulating all too soon the ‘little Johnny’ joke I linked to earlier. “Danger, Will Robinson, danger!”

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About Glenn Contrarian

White. Male. Raised in the deepest of the Deep South. Retired Navy. Strong Christian. Proud Liberal. Thus, Contrarian!
  • so bittersweet…I applaud you for moving out of this spoiled brats land…and you son sounds like a real gentleman, Glenn.

    In your link, did people actually stay in their cars for nine days? I would have had trouble with ten minutes!

  • STM

    Yeah, nice one Glenn. Glad to see Oz get a mention too 🙂

    You are right, of course, generally about the right behaviour of most Filipinos. Reason: Catholicism and the importance the latin culture from whence it comes places on family ties.

    I wish my kids would just pull back a bit sometimes and think about their behaviour. They have everything here and don’t realise how lucky they are to live in a wealthy, developed country like Australia, but to hear them sometimes, you’d think they had nothing. Perhaps it’s just a Gen Y thing, but it is a worry and I know from acquaintances and friends in the US and the UK that they are experiencing identical problems with their kids.

    Also, the beach holiday. Is it that place north of Manila that Filipinos rave about, which also has surf??